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ZAFAR SOBHAN
DATELINE DHAKA

Zafar Sobhan is editor of the Dhaka Tribune, a daily newspaper.

We had to destroy village in order to save it

For both AL and BNP, burning Bangladesh to the ground is an acceptable cost of winning the war.

en Tre is a city in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, made famous by the statement of an unnamed US Army officer to AP correspondent Peter Arnett in the aftermath of the crippling aerial assault it suffered at the hands of the US Air Force during the Vietnam War: It became necessary to destroy the town to save it. The quote has since been distorted in the popular imagination and become immortalised in the more familiar form used as the title of this piece, but, either way, it still stands as a classic statement of the folly of war and as a monument to the depths to which human idiocy can sink when we are blinded by our belief that we are in the right and the other side is in the wrong.

The misfortune that Bangladesh suffers is that both our main political parties, Awami League (AL) and Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) appear to subscribe to this point of view. They are both more than willing to destroy this country in order to save it, and both believe that that is a small price to pay to be rid of the other.

Let us start with the BNP. While it is possible that isolated terrorist attacks are false flag operations conducted by ruling party men, it strains credulity to believe that the BNP and its allies are not behind the bulk of such atrocities. The tenor of their rhetoric and logic of their movement suggest that making the country burn is their entire strategy. How else do they plan to bring the government to the negotiating table — or to create such havoc that the army has to step in — other than forcing them to do so by making the country unlivable? For the BNP, the hundreds of lives lost since the last few months of 2013, the thousands who have been maimed and disfigured for life, the potentially irreversible damage being done to the economy and to our image as a nation in the outside world — all of this is acceptable collateral damage in the wider war to rid the country of this AL government. Which brings us to the AL.

But what has brought the BNP to this sorry pass? Why has this once proud political party, which has ruled Bangladesh on three different occasions, morphed into an insurgency, focused on the single goal of driving the AL from power? It is because that is what the AL wants. It is the AL that has squeezed the life out of the BNP and extinguished all political space in which it can operate. It is the AL that held sham elections on 5 January 2014 and it is the AL that is dedicated to wiping BNP off the face of the earth.

If the BNP is reacting like a trapped animal backed into a corner, it is worth recalling who it was who put them there. Now, the government may say that nothing can justify terrorism and that nothing can excuse what the BNP is doing, and they would be right. But the AL cannot wash their hands completely of culpability for what BNP has become. They knew very well that scrapping the caretaker government and holding one-sided elections and driving the BNP underground by denying it any political space and killing or incarcerating its leaders would lead to this.

But isn't that precisely what the AL wants to happen? Anything the BNP does to make itself look bad is part of the AL game-plan. The whole point is for the BNP to discredit itself, or the way the AL sees it — to show its true face.

Every time the BNP burns a bus or kills innocent civilians, it justifies harsher measures in response and strengthens the government's hand. The steps taken by the government to counter the insurgency are right in line with how the AL wishes to rule this country — as an all-powerful one-party state with no opposition worth the name and no room for dissent.

For both sides, burning the country to the ground is an acceptable cost of winning this war, and if the country has turned into a nightmare of burning buses and charred bodies, the Bangladeshi public knows very well whom to blame.

The one question neither side is asking is the one that might occur to them only when it is all over and one of them is left standing amidst the ruins of our once beautiful Bangladesh, but which occurs to the rest of us all the time: Was it worth destroying this village in order to save it?

 
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