Why military coup unlikely in Bangladesh

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.

bangladeshThe 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.

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.

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.

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, a move that diminished prospects for future military maneuvers into politics.

Today, internal dynamics of Bangladesh’s armed forces are immensely different 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 no incentive for lower-level officers to support a coup.

When it comes to taking over government, Bangladesh’s military routinely consults the United States in advance. Washington has opposed military coup in Bangladesh, at least since President Ziaur Rahman’s killing in 1981. After Zia was gunned down by his fellow military officers, America warned Gen. H.M. Ershad against imposing martial law. When the army chief sent Zia’s successor, President Abdus Sattar, packing home one year later, Washington grudgingly accepted it realizing it could not reverse Ershad’s power grab.

But when Gen. Nooruddin Khan sought blessings to topple Khaleda Zia in 2004, Ambassador Harry Thomas sternly told him that Washington “would not under any circumstances support a coup against” the government. He also warned that the United States would “ensure that any military action against Prime Minister Zia would result in sanctions against the successor government.”

With changes in global power balance, America’s voice in Bangladesh is feeble now. India enjoys the upper hand now. Hasina held elections last year excluding Khaleda after she got green signal from New Delhi ignoring America’s advice. 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.

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 been under fierce criticism at home for failing to assert its regional dominance. Stung by such attacks, the government has assumed an assertive role in Bangladesh affairs. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is hell-bent upon asserting India’s regional primacy. New Delhi, which fears China’s inroads into Bangladesh, now single-mindedly pursues its interests, even if it means defying Washington.

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.

By B. Z. Khasru

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.”


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