A Silent Coup


Army on the streets of Bangladesh


As Bangladesh comes to grips with the State of Emergency that it is now under, I continue to be concerned about the coup that has taken place. Now there is talk in Bangladesh of this unelected government staying in power for six months or perhaps a year. In the mean time, they will fix the ills of the country – at least that is the promise.

Bangladeshis are heatedly debating the benefits or the need for democracy. There is a lively discussion taking place at Drishtipat about whether Bangladesh is better off under military rule. As most of you know, I fall into the pro-democracy camp.

The Economist weighs in today about the coup that no one seems to want to talk about:

WHEN Iajuddin Ahmed, Bangladesh’s president, declared an army-backed state of emergency on January 11th and cancelled the election due on January 22nd, neither he nor the foreign governments quietly cheering him on used the word “coup”. Yet that is what it looks like. The army, in the tradition of “guardian coups” from Fiji to Thailand, has stepped in with the usual list of apparently noble goals. The interim government it is backing will enable credible elections, clean up the country’s extremely politicised civil service, fight corruption, fix the country’s power crisis and keep food prices in check—and then return to the barracks.

The president stood down as head of the caretaker government that had been supposed to oversee the elections. He was replaced by Fakhruddin Ahmed, a former central-bank governor and World Bank official. The technocratic administration he heads has so far sent the right signals. A drive against corruption—in which Bangladesh regularly nears the top of world league tables—is under way. The national-security chief, the top civil servant in the power ministry and the attorney-general have all been ousted. A start has been made in separating the judiciary from the executive.


But restoring democracy remains a tall order. The political system has collapsed. The army insisted the president step in before the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which headed a coalition government for the past five years, could rig the election and secure itself another term.

Although the state of emergency has supporters even among some liberal democrats, it is a high-stakes gamble. Authoritarian rule is unlikely to appeal for long, however fed up voters are with the two big parties and their mutually-loathing leaders. The main beneficiary from the failure of mainstream politics is an extremist Islamist fringe.

It remains to be seen whether democracy will return to Bangladesh any time soon. The Caretaker Government has already started to go well beyond its constitutional mandate. It currently has public support because the people are looking for solutions to the rampant corruption that has plagued the country. However, unelected governments have a logic of their own – and fairly quickly such governments’ perception of the public good becomes skewed.

Already a crackdown on "criminals and other disruptive elements" has started:

Bangladesh police used emergency powers to arrest nearly 2,000 people, as the president on Thursday swore in the final members of the council that will organize elections he delayed to quell violent protests.

Police announced they arrested some 1,968 people in raids across the country since Wednesday — part of a nationwide crackdown that officials say is targeting criminals and other disruptive elements that could affect the elections.

Security forces have detained more than 6,000 people since the state of emergency was declared on Jan. 11, according to a police statement.

I wonder how long before the definition of "disruptive elements" is broadened. Forgive me if I am wary of crackdowns by the military – I still recall the Pakistani army’s crackdown on "miscreants" on March 25, 1971.

History will teach us nothing.


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4 Responses to A Silent Coup

  1. Naser says:

    Ah.. I had waited so long for a scene like this 🙂 I was too little when the first dictator came into power during the last years of the 80s. Since then I\’ve seen so much, experienced such putrid filth belonging to this country that this scene had to fulfil the last piece of my lore-puzzle. Have you seen the feature film \

  2. Mash, I know absolutely nothing about Bangladesh, either its history or its current situation. But, reading your many posts on the subject, I feel its something I really ought to know about.

    Can you provide a link to a good, overall summary of what has gone on there? ‘Twould be much appreciated.:)

  3. Mash says:

    Jamie, here are some articles from the NYT and the BBC about he current crisis:
    2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

    You can also check out The Daily Star, a Bangladeshi english language paper and Drishtipat, a Bangladeshi group blog that has been tracking the events.

  4. Cheers for the links – I’ll start reading up on them right away!

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