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Pakistan and Bangladesh: Haunted by their Histories

By Syed Badrul Ahsan

Jan 27 2012

The disclosure by the Bangladesh army of a coup attempt by mid-ranking and retired military officers has left the country in a state of disbelief. The disbelief stems not so much from the thought that such a conspiracy had been in the works, but that such moves should be made at all, two decades after the restoration of democracy. Bangladesh’s history, after it liberated itself from Pakistan in 1971, has not been a particularly pleasant one as far as the role of the military in politics is concerned. Contrary to popular expectations of a substantive democratic order underpinning the country’s politics following its emergence as an independent state, governance in Bangladesh has largely, and for a good number of years, revolved around the question of the military’s role in the work of government. The country has gone through major upheavals, almost always when the army decided to shoot down democratic politics.

But that phase, where the army exercised profound, and therefore, unquestioned, loyalty as the source of power in Bangladesh, drew to an end in February 1991 when free and fair general elections made it possible for the country to go back to government by the consent of the governed. In these past twenty years, since the country’s last military ruler left the scene, democracy has kept the social engine going. To be sure, it has been a flawed democracy, with cabinet government dwindling into a personalised, prime minister-led, administration. Even so, little thought was given to the possibility of the soldiers striking again. If Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founder of Bangladesh, could be assassinated by soldiers, if mutinous soldiers could cause the murder of the four figures who led the country to freedom, of Major General Ziaur Rahman and of Major General Khaled Musharraf, it follows that fears will keep rising about future attempts to overthrow governments by force. The discovery of the plot hatched by right-wing military officers, reportedly supported by non-resident Bangladeshis, to remove Sheikh Hasina’s government, is being seen as a vindication of such fears.

There is little question that the Awami League-led government finds itself in difficult circumstances, especially in light of the trial of the war criminals of 1971. The trials have spurred the supporters of the Jamaat-e-Islami, whose leaders have for the past four decades been accused of assisting the Pakistan army in the genocide of Bengalis, into action, to have the process halted. Intriguingly, former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, who heads the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, has already demanded that the war crimes trials be halted on the ground that loopholes in the working of the International Crimes Tribunal have, in her party’s view, been raising questions. Khaleda Zia’s position has not gone down well with large sections of the population, which have seen in her statement a move to prevent justice from being done on an issue that ought to have been resolved years ago. The BNP chief undermined herself a little more when, a couple of days before the coup plot came to light, she accused the government of being behind what she called a disappearance of army officers in mysterious circumstances. That statement now looks to have been ill-advised.

If reports of a coup attempt have set Bangladeshis thinking about the future of their democracy, the clear power struggle involving the government, the judiciary and the army has led to renewed fears of political instability in Pakistan. The parallels with Bangladesh are eerie, for a good number of reasons. In these past many weeks, rumours of a coup in Pakistan or at least pressure on the part of the country’s influential army on President Asif Ali Zardari to quit over a so-called Memogate scandal have been rife. And into the scene stepped the Supreme Court, chastising Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani over his failure to reopen old corruption cases against the president. In Bangladesh, despite the large measure of relief expressed by citizens when the war crimes trials got under way, there had been the suspicion that the government could come under assault. Leaflets disseminating inflammatory material relating to “abductions” of military officers and their “interrogation in Hindi” at secret locations, together with a repetition of the propaganda by former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia at a public rally in Chittagong, were clear pointers to mischief being afoot.

For now, conditions in Bangladesh are relatively calm and even the opposition BNP, founded by the country’s first military ruler Ziaur Rahman, has been scrambling to reiterate its adherence to democratic principles. In Pakistan, the army and the courts, despite having significantly weakened the Zardari-Gilani administration, have appeared to take a step back from the brink. That does not, however, imply that democracy is safe in Pakistan. With suspicion growing that the military establishment has been behind the sudden surge in the popularity of cricketer-turned politician Imran Khan, the feeling persists that politics in Pakistan will remain in a vulnerable state for quite a while. Besides, Islamabad’s difficult relations with the United States, coupled with its unending battle against Islamist extremists, continue to cause haemorrhage in the country’s body politic.

Bangladesh and Pakistan, having emerged as a single Muslim state in 1947 through the partition of India, went their separate ways after a bloody war of Bengali liberation in 1971. At some later point, though, it became hard for one to distinguish the politics of the two nations one from the other. Both countries have gone through long periods of military rule, with democratic politics getting stymied in the process. Both have resumed their slow march to democracy at certain periods of time. Both have wallowed in chaotic politics and continue to do so.

And yet, if the events of the past few days are any guide, both need to be on guard against any new attempt by soldiers to foist themselves on the state as new, familiar rulers. If indeed such a tragedy comes to pass, it will be a sad throwback to the darkness of the past.

The writer is executive editor, ‘The Daily Star’, Dhaka

Source: The Daily Star, Bangladesh