Despite ongoing rumblings in certain Western circles — and a faint echo inside Bangladesh — of possible military intervention to end the country’s current political unrest, the armed forces are highly unlikely enter the fray unless and until the civilian administration crumbles and frightened people start fleeing into neighboring India in droves.
More than 100 people have been killed and the economy has been bruised as a result of her (Khaleda Zia) agitation…
If such an eventuality indeed unfolds, although it appears to be improbable at this moment, New Delhi will ask 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 in 1971 when Pakistan’s military scorched Bangladesh and ten million Bengalis took 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 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. More than 100 people have been killed and the economy has been bruised as a result of her agitation, 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 military is fuming over “speculative and false” stories in the foreign and domestic news media hinting at a possible army takeover of government to stop the country’s descend into anarchy. The generals have taken the matter so seriously that they recently ventured to make their position crystal clear in a press statement: The army “is totally respectful to the country’s constitution and laws.”
The issue came to limelight again this week 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 officers in an attempt to find a solution.
The nation, who has already had enough of dysfunctional politicians, has no appetite for misguided military rulers.
Army mindful of failures
The military has found itself mired in bloody upheavals since the nation’s birth 44 years ago. Bangladesh has recorded 19 successful and failed mutinies since its creation. 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, who 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, a fiasco that irreparably damaged the military’s image as an institution. 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 and sought to undermine. 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.
…the internal dynamics of Bangladesh’s armed forces is immensely different today from what it was years ago. Military involvement in politics benefits the top brass.
Furthermore, the internal dynamics of Bangladesh’s armed forces is immensely different today from what it was 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 jobs in UN peace-keeping missions overseas. There is simply no incentive for lower-level officers to support a military coup that would put top generals into power and cut off their road to riches. 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-man-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 asked the U.S. envoy in 2004 to support a coup against Khaleda Zia, Ambassador Harry Thomas told the general 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. 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 her mind. America also pressed her hard to leave Muhammad Yunus alone, whom she ousted from Grameen Bank three years ago. Hasina intends to politically finish them both. She believes Khaleda’s husband killed her father, and Yunus, a 2006 Noble prize winner, conspired with the United States and the World Bank to float corruption charges against her government and family.
New Delhi, which fears China’s inroads into Bangladesh, now single-mindedly pursues its interests…
Hasina enjoys India’s backing
To be sure, India 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 was unable to do so. New Delhi worked hard to bring Hasina back to power in 2008 India has made it clear that it strongly supports the prime minister. It favors Hasina because of her Awami League party’s non-religious 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 halt 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.
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 for the military, including $1 billion to buy arms from Russia. As a result, the military’s loyalty is no longer one-sided; it’s now a more professional force than ever.