Bangladesh Collapses To Thunderous Applause


Military on the streets of Bangladesh


First, let me make the statement that will ensure that I am persona non grata in Bangladesh:

"The latest in a long line of despots, General Moeen U Ahmed, has now taken effective control of Bangladesh. By doing so, this latest South Asian megalomaniac has substituted his judgment for the judgment of the people. He says he does not believe in "elective democracy". He has struck the death knell to an experiment in democracy that began over 35 years ago. The military, which had taken power once before in 1975, had been unceremoniously chased back into the barracks in 1991. But, now, with tacit American and Western support they have overthrown the world’s fifth largest democracy, however imperfect it was. The "elite" of Bangladesh, the leeches that have fed off the millions of impoverished people of the land that I love, have welcomed this military takedown of a secular Muslim majority nation. The leader of the "war on terror" never raised an eyebrow as real terror entered through the front door in Bangladesh."

There you have it. I suspect I will not visit Bangladesh any time soon after the above statement – almost certainly not until the military is chased back into the barracks and democracy returns there.

My opinion, I fear, is a minority opinion in Bangladesh, at least among the "elite" (or "civil society" as they are called in Bangladesh) who run the country’s economy. It is unclear what the majority of the people, those living in poverty think – no one has ever bothered to ask them. For background on how this slow-motion military coup in Bangladesh was orchestrated, read my posts from January here and here. At the time, when the army started its crackdown on "corruption", I wrote the following:

A State of Emergency has been declared in Bangladesh. Bangladesh has, by a quirk in its Constitution, been legally transformed into a dictatorship. A democracy of 125 million people is now at the mercy of a handful of unelected rulers and the military.

Bangladesh has given up a lot of essential liberty for a little bit of temporary security – it remains to be seen whether it deserves or will get either.

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…

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.

Today the New York Times published an editorial highlighting the crisis in Bangladesh:

Promoting democracy, especially in Islamic countries, is supposed to be a major goal of President Bush’s foreign policy. But his administration has raised little protest as Bangladesh — until January the world’s fifth most populous democracy — has been transformed into its second most populous military dictatorship.

Washington is being dangerously shortsighted. Democracy can be messy, and in Bangladesh it was extraordinarily so. But military rule offers no answers to the grievances that fuel Islamic radicalism, as can be seen from nearby Pakistan (the world’s most populous military dictatorship). By stifling authentically popular mainstream parties and their leaders, military regimes often magnify the political influence of religious extremists.

This year’s democratic eclipse in Bangladesh did not follow the classic script for a military coup. A civilian caretaker has been nominally in charge since January, after troubled national elections were indefinitely postponed. Meanwhile, the generals consolidated power behind the scenes and began harassing and jailing many of the country’s top civilian political leaders.

Last week, Sheik Hasina Wazed — who served as prime minister from 1996 through 2001 — and top leaders of her 14-party alliance were charged with murder in connection with violent pre-election protests. Her longtime rival, Khaleda Zia, who both preceded and followed her in office, is now under virtual house arrest. More than 150 other senior politicians have been detained on corruption charges and the timetable for new elections keeps receding. [Emphasis added by me.]

The New York Times makes a singularly important point: that military regimes magnify the political influence of religious extremists. I would go a step further. I would say that military regimes in Islamic countries in fact collude with, and enable, religious extremists to consolidate power. Military regimes and Islamists are natural allies – they both are undemocratic and believe in rule by force. There is plenty of evidence that such collusion is not only a theoretical possibility, but has in fact been the case in recent history. It was after all, the military dictator Zia-ul-Haq, who, in 1979, instituted Sharia law in Pakistan. In Bangladesh, after the military takeover in 1975, the secular country was briefly called the "Islamic Republic of Bangladesh". It was the military in Bangladesh that allowed exiled Islamists to return to Bangladesh in 1978. Since then, the Islamists have steadily grown in strength and have worked to undermine the secular democracy in Bangladesh.

General Moeen Ahmed declared in a speech on April 2nd that he did not want "elective democracy" in Bangladesh, instead:

Bangladesh will have to construct its own brand of democracy recognizing its social, historical and cultural conditions with religion being one of several components of its national identity.

Bangladesh was formed as a secular state in direct response to the oppression of a country that wanted to rule on the basis of religious national identity, namely Islamic rule. The General wants to now reinstitute that "religious national identity" that led to the persecution of millions of Hindus and the slaughter of 3 million Bengalis. It should not be surprising to anyone that the General’s words echo those of the 1975 coup leaders in Bangladesh – a slide into Islamist rule is a characteristic of these military megalomaniacs.

Many will argue, in reading the preceding, that this military takeover is different from the previous one of 1975 – that the situation on the ground (the rampant corruption) was so bad that this step, though undemocratic, was essential to restore faith in governance. That is the "historical necessity" argument. It is a favorite one of military dictators, it was employed by Zia-ul-Haq in Pakistan and by the 1975 coup leaders of Bangladesh (click here to read the August 16 1975 editorial from the Bangladesh Observer claiming the coup was a "historical necessity" ). It is an argument often used by megalomaniacs who want to substitute their judgment for the judgment of the people.

Others may still argue that this military regime, as announced by the figurehead civilian front man, in Bangladesh has promised elections in 18 months. To them, I say, the promise of elections is a standard item from the military coup playbook. To wit, read the promise of elections from a similar speech given by the military backed figurehead civilian president of Bangladesh on October 3, 1975 – that pledge resulted in the military relinquishing power 16 years later.

Finally, it is my contention that the current corruption of the political culture in Bangladesh is in large part a legacy of the military takeover of Bangladesh in 1975. A military takeover, far from "fixing" a democracy, corrupts it further. It does so by setting a precedent that the rule of law can be subverted in service of the "national interest". This license to ignore the rule of law is the essential ingredient of any form of government corruption. When the military decides to "fix" things, it corrupts the system further. It sets a precedent that laws can and should be ignored when there is a "historical necessity". That is an invitation, not only to corruption, but to autocratic and dictatorial rule.

So, while "civil society" in Bangladesh cheers this military takeover, and while President Bush is busy ignoring a real threat to stability in the 8th most populous country in the world, democracy and human rights collapse in the world’s 5th most populous democracy.

UPDATE (4/15/2007 11:00 PM):

Cross posts:


This entry was posted in Bangladesh, Foreign Policy, Human Rights, Society. Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to Bangladesh Collapses To Thunderous Applause

  1. ZaFa says:

    Well said Mash. Couldn’t have agreed more.=d>

    When someone said couple of weeks ago that the governance in Bangladesh had never been better (than the one by the current CG) I said, yes, they have taken some extremely necessary measures (even though very controversial), however, what I can’t shake off is that people had similar feeling of comfort in 1975 (hoping democracy would be restored by the patriotic general), and again in 1982 (thinking Martial Law was needed to stabilize govt and the Lt Gen could do that, not anticipating the general would rule as a tyrant for next eight years).[-(

    I hear the civil society is increasingly being sidelined. Even Dr Yunus is not getting the kind of attention he got three months ago.

  2. Mash says:

    Zafa, thanks. I hope you clicked on the links I provided to the Bangladesh Observer articles from 1975 (they are part of the haul I dug up on my last trip to the Library of Congress).

    Incidentally, I cross posted this on Daily Kos. I did not think it would get a wide audience but I was pleasantly surprised to find the diary on the recommended list. There are a number of interesting and insightful comments there:

  3. Robbie says:

    I’m floored by this, Mash. I really am.

  4. Mash says:

    Robbie, this has always been the danger. I have written at length about the last coup in 1975 and the murderer who still lurks in the US. Now, he can breathe a little easier, I suppose.

    Its not too late to get the military back into the barracks. But it will require serious American pressure. The West, specifically the UN, controls a good chunk of the Bangladeshi military’s income. The BD military makes a lot of money from UN peacekeeping efforts. If those funds are put under threat, a lot of leverage can be applied.

    Of course a loud bark from the State Department and a threat to cut off aid might also send the military running to the barracks.

  5. Rivkeleh says:

    Wow. Just wow.

  6. Sheehub En-Four says:

    I am quite apalled that the people of bangladesh including the NRBs are not aware that more than 150,000 people have been arrested by this present military backed government. What is more aggravating is that none of the arrested is an ex-military officer! What are the odds of all the extremely well to do retired military officers are clean as a whistle ?

  7. exodus says:

    it is shocking to see a post like this. I LIVED in bangladesh and have seen the corruption that people have to go through each and every day. In the 4 months since the takeover by the new regime things have improved in a degree beyond dreams. People are happy because there is less corruption and they know they dont have to bribe in every place they go to. What use is democracy with so much corruption? It makes no difference whatsoever to have a corrupted democracy where the ruling party is using all the aids for their own good instead of bringing it to the people… I think you are completely misled. I would recommend you go and live with the common people in bangladesh and see for yourself what difference in quality of life has been brought, maybe then you will understand why 140 million people are supporting the ‘autocratic’ government.

  8. Mash says:

    Sheehub, no one seems to care that 150,000 are behind bars without charge in Bangladesh since this coup took place. The people who don’t seem to care are the same people who were outraged when the US held one Bangladeshi in Guantanamo Bay without charge. Apparently being accused of “corruption” entitles you to no due process and indefinite jail time, while being accused of being a terrorist means you should get all due process.

    The hypocrisy is apparently not obvious to them.

  9. Mash says:

    exodus, I am sorry that you are “shocked”. Please don\’t try the “common people” argument with me – I am not entirely convinced that you know what the “common people” are going through. Did you take a survey of every village in Bangladesh, or did you only take a survey of your friends in Gulshan, Banani and Baridhara (for those who are not familiar, these are the “elite” neighborhoods of Dhaka).

     I am not sure how old you are or whether you remember, but the last time there was a military dictatorship in Bangladesh, the military dictator had stolen so much money in Bangladesh that he had become one of the richest men in Asia (please refer to the Far Eastern Economic Review article on Hussain Muhammad Ershad\’s wealth from the 1980s). The military sucked the country dry back then. The very leaders who are primarily accused of corruption now are the wife and son of Ziaur Rahman, military dictator of Bangladesh from 1975 to 1981. How do you think these two got so important and corrupt? Bangladesh is still paying for the politicization of the military from that period. I\’ve seen captains, majors and colonels, not to mention more senior officers, who haven\’t the slightest idea of how to run the country grow fat from their stolen money and think themselves accountable to no one.

    You may claim this time is different than the last because the people “love” this new military rule. But only a fool would think that supporting an unaccountable government and expecting it to not engage in wholesale corruption is a good bet. It was a bed bet last time, its a bad bet now. Finally, if you think removing a government only will solve the corruption problem in Bangladesh, then you are naive. Corruption in Bangladesh is systemic. It involves the business elite all the way down to the common man who thinks its optional to pay taxes. If you want to throw people in jail without charge for “corruption”, I suggest you throw every person in Bangladesh who doesn\’t pay their taxes or who has ever bribed someone in jail – you may find the only people left are the children and the very poor.

  10. Z says:

    The collective amnesia afflicting blogs like this or DP is remarkable. Then again, it does not surprise me given that the majority of such bloggers dwell in suburban comfort in the West. It’s that much easier to write paeans to abstract ideals like “democracy” when one is sitting in some cosy living room abroad. When your daily life isn’t soiled by the political muck, it’s much easier to hanker after noble ideals for a remote land 10,000 miles away. Apart from the casting of votes in elections every 5 years, Bangladeshi “democracy” has been a farce serving no one but the politicians and their business cronies. To ask for the same unfunny joke again for a country that was brought to its knees a mere 4 months ago by the violent selfishness of its politicians strikes me as the height of idealistic idiocy.

    I have just a single question for Mash:
    What realistic political options were left open to Bangladesh on January 10? (emphasis on the word realistic.) Where was the country headed on that day? Non-glib answers only, please.

    P.S. I also like the cute trope of saying that only the Gulshan-Banani Daily-Star-reading elite wants the CTG and that no one knows what the majority of people want simply because no one has asked them. This trope immediately invalidates anectodal evidence that is available to a wide number of people, and gives a fake patina of popularity to the old political system. I’m sorry Mash but that just don’t wash. I haven’t surveyed them either, but I find it hard to believe that the lower classes were any more delighted with BNP/AL than they were with the CTG. If migration patterns are akin to voting with one’s feet, then the last years of “democratic rule” provide ample proof of its popularity. Both 2005 and 2006 set new records for Bangladeshis leaving the country to find work and a better life abroad.

  11. Mash says:

    Z, I was waiting for a live one. Now I see that I’ve caught one! \:d/

    You said:

    The collective amnesia afflicting blogs like this or DP is remarkable. Then again, it does not surprise me given that the majority of such bloggers dwell in suburban comfort in the West. It’s that much easier to write paeans to abstract ideals like “democracy” when one is sitting in some cosy living room abroad.

    So, how is the “suburban comfort” for you? Especially given that you posted your comment from the United Kingdom. Your thirst for dictatorships and military rule probably is not very “British”.

    Let me start by answering your question, posed to me with such apparent zest:

    “On January 10th 2007, the “impasse” was a manufactured one. The ruling party tried, what it tried in 1996, to try to hold on to power by attempting to push through a questionable election. They used the president to try to push through their agenda. The obvious thing to do would have been to give way to a true caretaker government with advisers acceptable to both the ruling party and the opposition, as the constitution calls for. After that, there was ample foreign attention on the elections to have once again held a credible vote.

    Since you seem to suggest I have some amnesia, I will point back to 1996, when even after holding fraudulent elections, the BNP was forced to hold a credible election where the opposition, the Awami League, won and came to power. Since then, in 2001, Bangladesh held another credible and fair election, and power peacefully changed hands.

    So, there is plenty of precedence for this. Both times, the army stayed in the barracks where they belong. If I were a cynic, and I guess I am here, I would bet a good amount of money that the political “impasse” this time was manufactured to grease the arrival of the army. Not much else explains the actions of the president pre-January 11th.”

    Now, you say that “daily life” was soiled by “political muck”. Ooooh, I feel sorry for you, you make it sound like Bangladesh is Iraq. Inspite of the political bickering and the corruption since 1991, Bangladesh has grown by leaps and bounds. However, it is also true that the rich have gotten richer and the very poor have not seen much in the way of development. That inequity is not a result of democracy – it is a result of the “elite” classes in Bangladesh, as well as other Third World countries, who do not think the rules apply to them, and feel free to steal at will and exploit the masses. Those “elite” classes include the military – an institution that has proven itself the most efficient stealing machine in Bangladesh. So puhleeeeze don’t give me this crock about “fixing” democracy by calling in the military. There is no evidence that has any chance of succeeding other than enriching the military at the expense of the previous political leaders.

    Your support of military rule is quaint. There are over 150,000 in jail being held without charge. Torture and death in custody seem to be the norm. People are being rounded up to settle poltical and personal scores with no regard for the rule of law. The military is clearing the decks to complete the takeover and any chance at resistance.

    The press is suppressed. Political activity has been banned. Freedom of expression is dead. Due process and fundamental rights guaranteed by the constitution have been suspended. Yet, you seem to think that is an improvement. I fail to see how this is an improvement.

    Apparently, you seem to think, the cure for the “political muck” is giving up all your rights and loss of due process. I think I am on firm ground and quite comfortable arguing against your position.

    Finally, you say:

    I haven’t surveyed them either, but I find it hard to believe that the lower classes were any more delighted with BNP/AL than they were with the CTG.

    Of course you haven’t and that’s the point. Without any freedom of expression under the current military rule, you cannot get a proper answer to public attitude. Spare me the “anecdotal” evidence. The fact that you refer to the vast majority of Bangladeshis as “the lower classes” amply demonstrates the arrogance of your position. It is this arrogance that has led the army chief to stage his coup – the notion that you can substitute your judgment for the judgment of all Bangladeshis is the very reason why the army, and its defenders like you, seem to have no problem with the current turn of events.

    And don’t throw in the “migration pattern” meme. As Bangladeshis have become more skilled or more mobile, like Indians in the 1990s, they have sought employment abroad. That has led to a huge boon in foreign exchange for Bangladesh as the money earned has been sent back home. That has been a tremendous driver of the Bangladeshi economy.

    If India is any guide, that outward migration may reverse itself as Bangladeshis return home and invest in the country, bringing back with them the skills, wealth, and expertise they have gained abroad. This is how most developing nations have developed, and I don’t see any reason to doubt that Bangladesh won’t follow that model.

    Enough of a response for ya? :d

  12. Z says:

    You choose your delusion, bud. Don\’t expect others to play along. The fragrant spring breeze of the northeast has evidently gotten through to you.

  13. Mash says:

    Z, I expected a hearty defense of military rule from you after your first salvo. I must say, I am disappointed in your response.

    I don’t expect you to play along. Your opinion is yours to keep. That’s the beauty of freedom of expression – something you seem to think the Bangladeshis are not worthy of.

    I do love the irony of your notion of democracy as “abstract” as you sit in the United Kingdon reaping its very benefits. Hypocrisy is never in short supply coming from the defenders of “elitism” from Bangladesh. It must be nice to advocate the military overthrow of duly elected governments from the comfort of the your British home. Bud.

    Sniff….I love the smell of democracy in the morning! **==

  14. exodus says:

    so I take it Mash you have already done the survey from people not living in Gulshan/banani/etc?

    I ask you to name a village in bangladesh, ANY village, then pick a person, ANY person, I will personally go with you there, and we can conduct an interview of the person to know what his/her life was like before and what its like now.

    Please dont give me this, I was born IN Bangladesh, lived there, grew up there, I have thousands of families and friends all across the country, and no I wasnt brought up in Gulshan/Banani. My father is from there, my mother is from there, my grandparents are from there, and so are the great and great great grandparents. I am sorry but what do you have that gives you the ability to know so much about the ‘common’ persons life in a country 10000 miles away? How long have you lived there? Who do you know there who doesnt live in Gulshan/Banani? What do you know about the everyday problems people face? Did you have anyone in your family/friends raped or murdered in Bangladesh? Did you or anyone you know personally try getting a phone line in Bangladesh (outside the Gulshan/Banani)? Do you or anyone you know personally know why people sleeps in the streets? Did you or anyone you know personally ever get caught by police? Did you or anyone you know personally go to prison in Bangladesh? Have you ever worked a job that pays $10 a month? Have you ever tried to get medical treatment without knowing anyone in the hospital or anyone influential or heaps of money? By the level of authority you control in your writings I suppose you know about all this much better then I do with the democracy you enjoy the smell of. Fair enough then. I have nothing more to say in that case.

  15. Mash says:

    exodus, spare me the tirade. YOU are the one who declared how people are “happy” and said I should go live with the “common people”. So, I asked you if you had taken a poll of the common people. Clearly you have not – yet, you declare they are “happy”. Project much?

    About taking the pulse of the common people, here’s what I would say. The two main political parties, Awami League and BNP were both elected in 1991, 1996, and 2001 by a majority of the votes. Together BNP and Awami League command the votes of over 80% of the voting public in Bangladesh. I think that statistic speaks for itself. All your assertions that the people want this military government do not hold any water against the reality of democratic elections and the support the people gave these two political parties.

    Now, you may think the people are stupid because they don’t “get” it like an educated man like you. You are entitled to your opinion just like everyone else – but do not substitute your judgment for all the people. Thats just egotistical and arrogant.

    As for things being better, here’s some news for you:

    -Food prices are up:

    -Over a 150,000 people are locked up behind bars. Here is just one documented tale of torture and murder under this military “crackdown”:

    -THIS IS WHAT the military is doing to homeless people. This is what you mean when you say things are getting better?:

    I won’t even mention all the other things wrong with this military coup. The above was just a small sampling.

    To complete the response to your tirade sans facts, let me start here. You say:

    I ask you to name a village in bangladesh, ANY village, then pick a person, ANY person, I will personally go with you there, and we can conduct an interview of the person to know what his/her life was like before and what its like now.

    I am always looking for a free flight to Bangladesh. Buy me a ticket and let’s go! :d

    Finally, the fact that you, sitting infront of your computer in ENGLAND, want to have a pissing contest with me about who has more Bangladeshi bonafides is pathetic at best. You weren’t the ONLY person born in Bangladesh. I think your long list of questions don’t amount to a hill of beans. Everyone who has ever lived in Bangladesh, including me, can answer yes to all your questions. Answering yes to all the questions still does not give one any special position to argue that a military dictatorship is better for Bangladesh than an elected government. If that is your position, and it seems quite clear that it is, then you are willing to trade the freedom of every man, woman and child in Bangladesh for a military dictatorship that YOU BELIEVE is the right thing. Why not let the people decide? What is wrong with that? Not only is it the right thing to do, but it is the RIGHT of the people to decide.

  16. dude says:

    sitting in front of computer in dhaka, but not actually in banani, gulshan or baridhara, and not being native born bangladeshi, it makes no diff. in what i have to say if it is based on some sort of reality that everyone can agree on.

    VAST majority of native born bd’s who seemingly are experts on everything, i have encountered here, were ALL wrong about whether the military was going to step in or not.

    funnily, they are often wrong about most of what they talk about because there is this prevailing attitude of they are knowledgeable about things they have no professional training, tenure, or hands on experience with.

    i say this having grown up in the diplomatic corps where people were right about 50% of the time about the outcomes of world events, about the same as anybody off of the street taking a guess.

    why all the personal attacks and who knows more!!?? sheesh..!!

  17. Mash says:

    dude, sigh :-s

    Apparently my posts on the subject rub some people the wrong way. :d

    It has something to do with the air in Washington allegedly. I guess I shouldn’t have suggested that Bangladeshis may actually be smart enough to decide what is good for them. I am apparently in the minority amongst the “civil society” – I am told by many Bangladeshis, who are otherwise intelligent, that Bangladeshis deserve to be ruled by a dictator because they are not capable of thinking or deciding for themselves. I happen not to share that view – so sue me.<):)

  18. dude says:

    seriously, if you spend any reasonable amount of time here, more than 6 months let’s say, you too may come to the conclusion bd’s are not fit for democracy, just yet.

    they do not deserve to be ruled by a dictator, BUT, they sure as hell shouldn’t be given back the wheel, just yet.

    the amount of entreprising and highly business minded professionals here is astounding. there is no logical reason why bangladesh, based on the human resources available, should not be developing at a much faster rate, both economically, and in civil society.

    they are not.

    the ruling class is certainly smart enough to make themselves the ruling class, and stay there. the rest of the country is not smart enough to change the status quo.

  19. Mash says:

    dude, I know you’ve shared this sentiment before:

    seriously, if you spend any reasonable amount of time here, more than 6 months let’s say, you too may come to the conclusion bd’s are not fit for democracy, just yet.

    they do not deserve to be ruled by a dictator, BUT, they sure as hell shouldn’t be given back the wheel, just yet.

    Having lived a significant time there, including 1975,Zia and Ershad, I have never shared the above sentiment. It is not a point I can argue with much success against those that do not believe it. But I take it as axiomatic that Bangladeshi people, all of them, are quite capable of deciding what is good for them.

    You also say:

    the amount of entreprising and highly business minded professionals here is astounding. there is no logical reason why bangladesh, based on the human resources available, should not be developing at a much faster rate, both economically, and in civil society.

    they are not.

    the ruling class is certainly smart enough to make themselves the ruling class, and stay there. the rest of the country is not smart enough to change the status quo.

    You know, ALMOST ALL my friends, and acquaintances, who are the rich or SUPER RICH in Bangladesh are certainly very smart. But they have two significant flaws that debilitate the country. ONE is that they DON’T PAY taxes on the money they earn. TWO is that they DON’T feel the need to return the huge sums of money that they borrow from banks. The two things that they don’t do is the bedrock of CORRUPTION. The bribes comes next.

    And incidentally, those you consider “smart” ARE the status quo.

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