By B. Z. Khasru*
There have been rumblings lately in certain Western circles — and a faint echo inside Bangladesh — that the military of the South Asian country could take over power to end a two-month long political unrest that has killed more than 100 people and bruised its thriving economy.
The unsettling history of the nation of 165 million Bengalis, which came into existence 44 years ago through a bloody civil war and has seen 19 military coups and assassination of two presidents since its birth, gives fodder to such speculation.
But given the current regional power equation and the Bengali army’s internal dynamics, the armed forces are highly unlikely to enter the fray unless and until the civilian administration crumbles and frightened people start fleeing into neighboring India in droves.
If such an eventuality indeed unfolds, although at this moment it seems improbable, New Delhi will command Bangladesh’s military to move to halt the chaos and control mass migration. The giant neighbor will be especially alarmed if the catastrophe resembles the exodus witnessed during the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971 after Pakistan’s military scorched what was then East Pakistan, forcing ten million Bengalis to take shelter in India.
Unless the situation gets to that extreme, Bangladesh’s army will turn a blind eye to the battle of two power-hungry and stubborn begums — Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, who leads the main opposition group, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party.
Khaleda, who was prime minister twice, started the current round of protests in January to force the government to resign and hold new parliamentary polls, saying last year’s elections were fraud. But the prime minister has vowed not to budge. Foreign diplomats in Bangladesh have been holding talks with politicians and business leaders in search of a solution to the mess.
The generals are fuming over “speculative and false” stories in foreign and domestic news media hinting at a possible army takeover of government to stop the nation from descending into anarchy. The military marched quickly to quash the rumor and made its position crystal clear in a recent press statement: The army “is totally respectful to the country’s constitution and laws.” Armed rebellion against the government is high treason.
The military issue came to limelight again in late February when the government arrested a well-known former student leader, Mahmudur Rahman Manna, who now leads a fringe opposition group, on sedition charges. He reportedly told a fellow opposition politician over the phone that he intended to discuss the crisis with top military generals in an attempt to find a solution.
Army mindful of failures
The military has found itself mired in bloody upheavals since the nation’s bloody birth in 1971. The army remembers very well its miserable failure with the most recent experiment in politics from 2007 to 2009. During the period, army-generals-turned-king-makers unsuccessfully sought to banish the battling ladies from politics. They intended to force the begums into exile to eradicate what is dubbed in Bangladesh as dynastic rule.
Hasina joined politics after her father President Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s assassination in Bangladesh’s first military coup in 1975. Khaleda jumped into the ring following her husband President Ziaur Rahman’s killing in a failed putsch in 1981. Neither was previously active in politics; they were housewives. Both are grooming their sons as heir apparent.
In 2007, 17 years after military ruler Gen. H.M. Ershad’s debacle, a bankrupt political process had given the army a chance to take political power and become the savior of democracy. Bangladesh then seemed ready to accept the army’s interference in politics so long as military influence was neither too overt nor overbearing.
This time around such an environment is nonexistent. The nation, which has already had enough of dysfunctional politicians, has no appetite for misguided military rulers.
By all accounts, the army’s stint was marked by dismal failures. In the end, the military leaders had to find a face-saving way for a retreat, surrendering their ambitious-but-fallacious plans at the feet of the very politicians they despised. This retreat by the armed forces has created an unexpected positive outcome for the
nation’s political process by diminishing prospects for future military maneuvers into politics.
Furthermore, the internal dynamics of Bangladesh’s armed forces are immensely different today from years ago. Military involvement in politics benefits the top brass. Mid-level officers and enlisted men, on the contrary, reap profits when they get lucrative UN peacekeeping jobs overseas. There is simply no incentive for lower-level officers to support a military coup. Citing this factor, retired Major General Mahabbat Jan Chowdhury, former head of the military intelligence unit, once told U.S. diplomats in Bangladesh that the military would do nothing to risk its participation in peacekeeping missions.
U.S. opposes military coup
When it comes to taking over the government, Bangladesh’s military routinely consults the United States in advance. Washington has consistently opposed military coup in Bangladesh, at least since President Zia’s killing in 1981. After the popular military-strongman-turned-politician was gunned down by his fellow military
officers, America warned then army chief Ershad against imposing martial law. When the general sent Zia’s successor, President Abdus Sattar, packing home one year later, Washington grudgingly accepted the military takeover realizing there was nothing America could to reverse Ershad’s power grab.
But when Gen. Nooruddin Khan sought blessings to topple Khaleda Zia in 2004, Ambassador Harry Thomas told him point blank that Washington “would not under any circumstances support a coup against the Bangladesh” government. Not only that, he warned that the United States would “ensure that any military action against Prime Minister Zia would result in sanctions against the successor government.”
Khan, a former army chief and minister in Sheikh Hasina’s previous administration, told Thomas that Bangladesh’s only way out of dynastic rule was to draft a new constitution based on the presidential system that would prevent Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina from holding office.
With changes in global power balance, America’s voice in Bangladesh is feeble now. Today, India enjoys the upper hand. Hasina ignored Washington’s advice and held parliamentary elections last year excluding Khaleda after the prime minister got green signal from New Delhi. Washington’s diplomatic onslaught to push her to include Khaleda into the political process has poisoned Hasina’s mind. Hasina is suspicious of U.S. intentions. She believes the United States was involved in her father’s killing and that Washington intends to send her too into political oblivion.
Washington had pressed her hard to leave Muhammad Yunus alone, whom she ousted from Grameen Bank three years ago against America’s wishes. Hasina aims to finish both Khaleda and Yunus, politically speaking. She suspects Khaleda’s husband was involved in the coup in which her father was killed, and Yunus, a 2006 Nobel prize winner, conspired with the United States and the World Bank to float corruption charges against her government and family. The bank suspended a $1.2 billion loan to build a vital bridge in Bangladesh after allegations surfaced that Hasina’s former communications minister, Abul Hossain, and her sister, Sheikh Rehana, took bribes to hire a Canadian company to work on the project.
Hasina enjoys India’s backing
To be sure, India — like the United States — will do business with any government that comes to power in Bangladesh. New Delhi offered financial support to both Hasina and Khaleda during 2001 elections. RAW, India’s spy agency, funded Tariq Rahman, who pledged to deliver his mother — Khaleda Zia — on gas exports and water-sharing differences, but failed to do so. New Delhi worked hard to bring Hasina back to power in 2008. India has made it abundantly clear that it strongly supports the prime minister. It favors Hasina because of her Awami League party’s nonreligious political philosophy and her government’s India-friendly posture.
India has been under fierce criticism at home for failing to assert its regional dominance and abdicating its rightful destiny in favor of the United States. Stung by such attacks, the government has assumed an assertive role in Bangladesh affairs. New Delhi, which fears China’s inroads into Bangladesh, now single-mindedly pursues
its interests, even if it means defying Washington. India’s support for Hasina’s decision to hold elections last year illustrates the point. When it comes to military interests, India is likely to be even more forceful going forward as far as Bangladesh is concerned, especially with Narendra Modi in power in New Delhi, who is hell-bent upon asserting India’s regional primacy.
To this end, India is seeking to forge stronger ties with Bangladesh’s army to cringe any diplomatic or military gains by Beijing. China was Bangladesh’s biggest arms supplier between 2009 and 2013, accounting for 82 percent of Dhaka’s defense imports, according a 2014 report by the Stockholm International Peace Research
Institute. New Delhi also wants to keep U.S. role in Bangladesh to its strategic advantage. India’s military consequently closely watches domestic scenes in Bangladesh. It would coordinate its moves with Bangladesh’s army to contain any likely spillover that might engulf both countries. Bangladesh abuts seven restive states in northeastern India, where New Delhi fears China can foment trouble.
Unlike in 2001, when 16 Indian soldiers were killed inside Bangladesh, an event that many Indians fumed was orchestrated by the then chief of the Bangladesh border guards in an attempt to sink Indo-Bangla relations — and thus boost Khaleda Zia’s chance of election victory — the Bangladesh army today finds in Hasina a very generous patron. She has spent huge sums of money for the military, including $1 billion to buy arms from Russia. As a result, the army’s loyalty is no longer one-sided; Bangladesh’s military is now a more professional force than ever.
*B. Z. Khasru, is editor of The Capital Express in New York and author of “Myths and Facts Bangladesh Liberation War” and “The Bangladesh Military Coup and the CIA Link.” He is working on a new book, “The King’s Men, One Eleven, Minus Two, Secrets Behind Sheikh Hasina’s War on Yunus and America.”