Behind Bangladesh’s Failed Coup Plot: A History of Violence

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The Bangladeshi army spokesman, Brigadier General Muhammad Masud Razzaq, talks to journalists in the capital, Dhaka, on Jan. 19, 2012, announcing the army had foiled a coup attempt to unseat Prime Minister Sheik Hasina's government

The Bangladeshi military announced Jan. 19 it had foiled a coup plot to unseat the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Sheik Hasina. An army spokesman pinned the “heinous conspiracy” on mid-ranking officers “with extreme religious views” and a network of shadowy interests overseas. Details remain sketchy, but at least two retired military officers have been arrested, over a dozen others have been implicated in the plot, while one prominent officer has gone fugitive. Another supposed conspirator is allegedly in Hong Kong. It’s likely the military’s investigation will yield details of more culprits and suspects in the coming days.

(READ: Forty Years On, Bangladesh Looks to Its Bloody Past to Redeem Its Future.)

Bangladesh is no stranger to military meddling, having endured three coups and numerous army mutinies in its 40 years of independence, as well as long spells of military rule. The Hasina government came into power in 2009 following a two-year interruption of the country’s tumultuous (some would say dysfunctional) democracy by a caretaker military regime. The year before, I met the country’s then army chief, General Moeen Uddin Ahmed, and wrote a somewhat wary piece of his role in shepherding Bangladesh’s politics along. Soft-spoken and humble, he decried the kleptocratic habits of both Hasina’s Awami League (AL) and the rival Bangladesh National Party (BNP). Still, South Asia — and in particular, the two countries that used to comprise West and East Pakistan — has a long history of military men thinking they know what’s best for their people. I wrote then:

Shying away from democratic commitments, Moeen is far more eager to talk about building effective leadership in Bangladesh and educating its vast, illiterate masses — as he himself puts it — “so that they don’t keep on cutting off their own feet.” Such a tone is fitting for a man who styles himself the redeemer of his country. “You can judge the people of a nation by the type of leaders they select,” he concludes. Most Bangladeshis are wondering when they’ll really get that chance.

Yet, they did get that chance and Moeen’s military presided over an election that international observers hailed as free and fair. True to his word, he had already quietly stepped down from his post even before Hasina and her colleagues were sworn into office. The Bangladesh military as an institution and much of its top brass seems more firmly committed to constitutional politics than, say, their better-known counterparts in Pakistan. With the emphatic electoral success of the Awami League — a secular, center-left party that once was the standard bearer of Bangladesh’s freedom struggle — it was hoped the country had finally turned the corner on a legacy of discord and bloodshed.

The latest news does not turn the historical page back to a grimmer chapter. But it ought to raise concern. Just months after Hasina came to power, a mutiny by border-security soldiers in an encampment in Dhaka led to over 70 officers being killed. Some 800 military personnel still face trial for their involvement in the uprising, and the crisis frayed ties between the civilian administration and elements of the military establishment.

Moreover, during the Hasina government’s three years of rule, the bickering and enmity between her party and the more Islamist-friendly BNP — one of the most heated, zero-sum rivalries in world politics — remains as it always was. Opposition figures and critics accuse the government of suppressing dissent and unfairly clamping down on Islamists, long at odds with the AL. A landmark war-crimes tribunal investigating the atrocities that accompanied Bangladesh’s 1971 struggle against West Pakistani occupation rounded up a number of Hasina’s chief foes in the country’s most visible Islamist party, the Jamaat-e-Islami.

Not surprisingly, some reports now implicate the global jihadist group Hizb ut-Tahrir in the coup plot, a sign perhaps of not only the knives hovering behind the government’s back, but also a convenient bat with which Hasina and her allies can beat down more religious opponents. AL officials hailed the military’s apprehension of the conspirators as a victory for the entire country. Says Syed Ashraful Islam, AL general secretary:

Those involved in the plot will be identified and brought to justice. They will not have a place in Bangladesh. We might have differences in opinions, but there is no difference in opinions in the case of democracy. So it is the duty of all to protect the democratic system. It is not the government alone, but all are responsible to protect the democracy as there is no future of Bangladesh without it.

As the investigation continues — and (our understanding of) the plot thickens — we’ll get a better sense of what sort of challenge the conspirators truly posed for the country’s democracy. For many Bangladeshis, not least the current Prime Minister, memories of earlier putsches are all too fresh. In 1975, mutinying soldiers burst into the house of Hasina’s father — then Bangladesh’s first ever Prime Minister — Sheik Mujibur Rahman and gunned him and other family members down in the thin dawn light. Tourists can still visit the residence, inspect the bullet holes in the walls and see the ochre stain preserved beneath a pane of glass marking where Rahman died. It’s a legacy that, sadly for Bangladesh, exists far beyond a sentimental museum.