VIEW: Fighting for the soul of Bangladesh —Dr Ayesha Siddiqa
In their eagerness not to be compared to Pakistan, the Bangladeshis have failed to notice that they are slowly creeping towards a situation subtly comparable to Pakistan and that if they are not careful, the military would soon begin to play a decisive role in the country’s politics
Talk to an average Bangladeshi about civil-military relations and they will tell you that their country is not like Pakistan and that they will never allow the military to take control of politics.
Unfortunately, in their eagerness not to be compared to Pakistan, the Bangladeshis have failed to notice that they are slowly creeping towards a situation subtly comparable to Pakistan and that if they are not careful the military would soon begin to play a decisive role in the country’s politics. They must also realise that the elite of any country might be as myopic as that of any other country and may push the country to political disaster.
Bangladesh started its transition to democracy in 1991 when public protests put an end to the rule of General Ershad who had taken over after the assassination of his predecessor General Zia-ur-Rehman. Since then, the army has not returned to politics. Bangaldeshi political historians always forget the botched coup attempt of 1996 when Generals Naseem and Hilal Murshad conspired to take over. Had the military been fully professional then, which means tightly organised as a hierarchy, it would have managed to take control of the government. The fact that the conspiring generals did not have good communication channels with the battalion guarding Dhaka and could not convince some generals to move from strategic positions saved the country. So, in 1996, there were elements in the army who had the ambition to gain power.
However, the civilian rulers entered into an informal partnership with the military according to which the government would ensure the military’s interest in return for the latter staying out of politics. This arrangement could be managed because the armed forces were not completely professional. The legacy of the Bangladeshi military is a mix of freedom fighters and officers repatriated from the United Pakistan armed forces. The friction between the two schools of thought did not allow for the kind of consolidation of perception and interests which would result in building up of a praetorian military. The officer cadre was further enticed into submission through the opportunities gained from participating in the UN peace keeping missions. Apart from the defence budget, the military depends on the UN to obtain resources for the gratification of its personnel.
Some of the UN money was later re-invested in exploring other possibilities for economic expansion by the armed forces. The Bangladeshi military has used some of this money as venture capital and established stakes in business and industry which is also a carry forward from the pre-1971 Fauji Foundation.
Since the past ten years, there have been three developments in Bangladesh which have had an impact on its politics.
First, the military has consolidated its corporate ethos and culture which means that the organisation is building cohesion within itself which it lacked earlier. Along with this, the military has also become more conscious of its interests, which includes personal stakes of the officer cadre. For a military which was basically meant to provide security against external threat to Bangladesh, the bulk has now become engaged in the UN peacekeeping missions. Whether peace-keeping missions are the core task of a professional military is a moot point.
Second, a gap has emerged between the people and the political leadership. The politicians have become more intensely authoritarian and myopic in their thinking. Such a transformation is not new but dates back to the times soon after the country was born. However, the predatory instinct of the politicians has intensified resulting in policies which would destabilise the country.
Third, there is the development of an equally predatory middle class which is willing to use the military as a secondary partner to change the current political arrangement. Since the Bangladeshi political system is patronage-based, the common man is not able to look beyond Sheikh Hasina and Khalida Zia. The problem of the educated middle class, on the other hand, is that while it is not willing to ‘soil their hands’ in the ‘dirty game of politics,’ they would like to take power away from these two female leaders. Resultantly, the educated middle class is quite happy to use the military and unfair political means to change the domestic scene.
For instance, while making a speech in Canberra the Bangladeshi advisor on foreign affairs claimed that the caretaker setup in the country denoted the rule of ‘Baudhulouk’. This term means educated and more capable; it was traditionally used by the Calcutta elite to refer to themselves. The underlying message of the gentleman, which more or less represents the perception of the educated middle class, is that there are new groups which are ready to replace the old leadership. Since mass politics is too dirty a game, these new power aspirants will use unfair means and the military to negotiate power. These people would rather have military help them with some rigging than let Sheikh Hasina and Begum Khalida Zia return to power.
Surely, the two ladies must share their part of the blame for letting things come to this point. The misuse of power and ill-conceived policies rarely bring fruit. For example, the BNP strategically encouraged the Jama’at and other religious extremist factions to their own advantage. Interestingly, Khalida Zia was not the only beneficiary of cultivating religious extremism. The military benefited both directly and indirectly. A more rightist society is bound to be more nationalistic in a narrow sense.
However, the problem is that using the military is never a good option. This is not an organisation which can be trusted to remain a junior partner once the civilian policymakers and stakeholders begin to use it to gain power.
Pakistan’s example is a case in point. The 1958 coup by the civil bureaucracy was not meant to bring in the military. But once General Ayub decided to take over power, there was nothing which could stop him. Sadly, we are still unable to check the military from gaining power.
Any Bangladeshi might argue that their armed forces and society are different. They will not let the military rule for long nor will the army try to come into power directly. There are two points which are worth making.
First, the army does not necessarily have to come directly into power. The organisation could become influential while remaining in the back seat and yet constantly destabilise politics.
Second, the Bangladeshi ruling elite is no different from any other, especially when we look at the manner in which it has sought to use authoritarianism and military force to its own advantage. They, like any other short-sighted and predatory elite, have completely forgotten that people are not to be taken for a ride. Too much tempering with the masses, the propensity to use extra-constitutional methods for transfer of power, and inability to deliver services to the public leads to a certain disenchantment amongst the common people. The people no longer take active interest in politics nor do they offer their lives to stand up for right against wrong; in any case, after a while, they are unable to tell the difference.
The Bangladeshi state and society at this point is very close to getting on the track of Pakistan’s politics. Its elite and middle class must evaluate the advantage of using short-term versus long-term perspective to life and politics.
Ayesha Siddiqa is the author of Military Inc, Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org