| Caption: Hasina after being turned away at a London airport, 22 April.
The subterfuge is over. It has now become clear that Bangladesh is under the control of an autocratic military regime. After three months of pretending that it had little to do with the new interim government, set up in early January, the Bangladesh Army’s role in derailing an already shaky democratic process is now obvious. In early April, the Chief of Army Staff, Lieutenant-General Moeen U Ahmed, gave a speech on the need to design a new political system, his assertions eerily similar to the arguments for ‘Guided Democracy’ that Southasians have heard repeatedly from past dictators. There has been a clampdown on political activity and protests, with many leaders of both the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party arrested on grounds of corruption. Meanwhile, promises to hold elections ‘as soon as possible’ seem on their way to being conveniently forgotten.
The most recent move was the concerted attempt to push Begum Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina Wajed into exile. These mutually antagonistic leaders, alternately presiding over the Dhaka durbar for the past 15 years, have certainly not been models of democratic governance. Both engaged in intense political bickering, looted from state coffers, encouraged a culture of street-lumpenism, and constricted the institutional development of Bangladesh’s democracy. But the one lesson that we have learned from the royal takeovers in Nepal, the military coups in Pakistan, and even the state of emergency in India, is that neat technocratic solutions, backed by the military baton, are almost always unstable – besides being inherently illiberal.
What is happening in Bangladesh follows a familiar script – in countries where democracy has not taken deep roots, the record of corrupt and irresponsible parties leads to public disillusionment with the system itself, and provides the opportunity for conservative rightwing elements to step in. There is initial euphoria among Bangladesh’s urban middle class, which is pleased to see the fear-induced efficiency in some government offices, as well as the protest-free streets. There is a rhetorical commitment to democracy, accompanied with pledges that the current situation is merely a temporary arrangement. But once they take over, military regimes do not withdraw voluntarily; often, a significantly messier campaign is needed to oust them.
Bangladeshis should know this better than most. They have lived under military rule, both before and after the War of Liberation in 1971. They have also watched the consequences of such regimes in Pakistan for six decades. Against this backdrop, it was surprising to see even liberal dailies and civil society in Dhaka welcome the army’s move in January. Only now are they waking up to the fact that this is not a temporary interlude that will teach the two parties to behave better; rather, it is the long haul of dictatorial rule that seems to be in the cards. The government’s decisions to send Khaleda Zia to Saudi Arabia, and prevent Sheikh Hasina from returning to Bangladesh from overseas, will have a disastrous long-term impact on democratic evolution in Bangladesh. The space for legitimate political protest and mechanisms to communicate grievances will shrink, further strengthening extremists.
The Bangladesh Army seems to have been inspired by General Pervez Musharraf in its use of the political tactic of exiling popular leaders. The brass has also learned to make the right noises in front of the international community. We have thus seen the swift execution of six ‘Islamic fundamentalists’ – as a sop to the Americans – as well as promises to create a more liberal investment atmosphere, which is music to Indian ears. While the agitation to send the generals back to the barracks will have to come from Bangladeshis themselves, international actors must not repeat the mistake they have made in innumerable past situations to prop up an autocracy. They must correct their pre-conceived disdain for political parties, which led the Western embassies to get behind the January putsch. The king’s disastrous rule in Nepal and Gen Musharraf’s current troubles in Pakistan should be enough proof that these arrangements are not sustainable. The focus, however, will be on domestic political players, who have an opportunity to shake the state structure and push the military back – as well as to create a more responsible and institutionalised form of democracy. The next people’s movement of Southasia we would wager will be in Bangladesh.