Vol. 5 Num 1106 Wed. July 11, 2007  
Front Page

Army chief feels need for constitution review
Says an elected govt, parliament should do so for effective governance

Army chief Gen Moeen U Ahmed yesterday said the constitution should be reviewed through a "constitution commission" for preparing new laws and mechanisms to ensure accountability and effective governance.

Moeen hinted that an elected government may undertake the constitution review after elections are held by the end of 2008 when a constitution commission might be formed to prepare "relevant new laws" and ensure "horizontal accountability."

He said two years is not enough to "heal the rot of the past 35 years" and as such the next elected government must continue the reforms currently being undertaken by the caretaker government.

"Citizens of Bangladesh are seriously thinking that we need to review our constitution as per the requirements of the day," said Moeen in answer to a question from the audience at a seminar titled "Democratic accountability and way to curb corruption".

Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies (BIPSS) and the American Centre organised the seminar at Hotel Radisson.

Presenting his keynote speech to an audience he termed "citizens of hope", the army chief attacked the past political governments saying Bangladesh has never had "real democracy" in the last 35 years.

"...Democracy is certainly not having only elected government and depriving its people," he said.

Moeen also noted that NGOs need to be more tightly regulated. The NGOs have no accountability, he said adding that he believes they spend 40 percent of their budget on themselves rather than the organisation and its beneficiaries.

He said the army is not intervening in government decisions but working to execute them. The media would "finish off" the army if they eyed power, he explained.

Asked if the elections would be possible by December 2008, he said, "Wait till December 2008 and see." He said the EU troika also asked him the same question when they visited the country recently.

The army chief defended the caretaker government advisers who have made contradictory statements or changed their minds overnight, saying they are only humans and not politicians adept at handling tough questions.

"They may not be able to give answers to questions the way a politician would, but they correct their mistakes," he said.

Enumerating government priorities, Moeen said reducing the prices of essentials tops the agenda, followed by mitigating power crisis and initiating administrative reforms.

He strongly endorsed promulgation of the Right to Information Act, a whistleblowers act and a code of conduct for guiding civil servants and ministers.

Citing the example of parliamentary committees for constitution review, he said the committees have largely been ineffective in the past 15 years as they have no real authority and the government has the power to accept or reject their suggestions.

"We have to have the constitution up to date so these committees have a lot of authority to act on the decisions they make," Moeen said, adding that a review is in urgent need as it has never been done since the constitution was framed 35 years ago.

He gave the example of India, which has reviewed its constitution eight times.

Moeen included formation of a "constitution commission" in his list of areas they are working on to ensure better governance. The government is currently working on the commission and need to continue working on it "to prepare all new laws relevant to evolving an effective governance system to meet the challenges", he said.

These laws along with institutional reforms would need longer than two years but the process has already started, he said.

He said Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman detected the country's gradual slide into corruption even then when he questioned stealing of relief materials but no one has taken any action.

He described the achievements of the Anti-Corruption Commission since January 11 as "great" and commended the performance of other reconstituted public bodies such as the National Board of Revenue and the Public Service Commission.

On democracy in Bangladesh, he said, "While we believe in the representative democracy as an indispensable condition for stability, peace and development of our country, the current process is irreversible and contributes to the process.

"The change of January 11 was therefore inevitable, unavoidable and formed part of 'reinvention' of the nation. The people accepted it, and the international community has seen its logic and provided us with full support," Moeen observed.

He said he had no other choice to bring the country back from the "brink" of "impending uncertainties and violence".

Answering another question from the audience, Moeen said, "The Bangladesh Army did not get involved in this mess because this is not our job." But the military provides suggestions if asked by the government, he said.

Asked why the army's public relations are not stronger, the army chief said the army has to limit its public announcements because people have already started to ask, "What is their intention?"

He said, "There are people who smell a rat everywhere...We are still surviving because we have not given directions. Had we done, we would have been in power. But then all the guns would have been pointed at us and we would have been finished."

Moeen said, "Let me assure you, the military is not getting involved in any of the national matters. The decision is being made by the government. However, once they take their decision we try our level best to see that the decisions are executed."

He said it is time a commission similar to the Enam Commission formed under former president HM Ershad be formed to review the bureaucracy in order to identify problems that prevent quick resolution of administrative matters.

On NGOs, Moeen said, "Even projects undertaken by NGOs are apparently not free from corruption...They make beautiful papers, circulate them and then take care of themselves."

Asked to comment on former prime minister and Awami League chief Sheikh Hasina's allegation that military intelligence is gleaning confessions from political leaders under duress, Moeen said it is not true.

"If the reforms are coming from within the political parties themselves, why are they diverting from internal matters to other organisations? Why aren't they looking at themselves?" Moeen said.

"It is unfortunate that Bangladesh became the most corrupt country in the world five times," he said, adding that both the major political parties criticised the Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) rather than seeking to resolve the problems.

Eric Uslaner, visiting professor from University of Maryland, also presented a paper at the seminar chaired by BIPSS President Major General (retd) Muniruzzaman.

Moeen U Ahmed