January 29, 2007Foreign Affairs

Re coup

Bangladesh’s military authorities must be compelled to announce and stick to a roadmap to democracy

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

Its latest coup—yes, it was a coup—was not only bloodless. It was packaged as the latest development in a political-constitutional crisis that has gripped Bangladesh for over a year now. While the collapse of governance as a result of the battle of the Begums made the people receptive to suggestions of an apolitical, technocratic rule, Bangladeshis have tasted far too much of democracy to accept a descended from heaven type of military dictator. Unfortunately, they have gotten the dictatorship they deserve. Not a Musharraf-like, single handed saviour of the nation. Not even a Thai-style military coup, which required palace intrigue and a public appearance by an uniformed army chief on national television. Bangladesh’s coup was an insidious back room operation that could almost be missed for a civilian establishment stepping back from the brink after a political epiphany.

There is no doubt that the armed forces were responsible for President Iajuddin Ahmed’s change of heart and the installation of a technocratic caretaker government. (As an aside, India is now flanked by two bankers-turned-heads of government, neither of who are masters of their own fate). Exactly how this came about is unknown. Some accounts suggest that the military leadership confronted Iajuddin with an political ultimatum. Others are more sensational, involving some generals moving without complete authorisation of their chief. The risk of losing lucrative UN peacekeeping assignments influenced the army leadership and rank and file in the process.

The role of the caretaker government is to ensure the conduct of free and fair elections. To this end, it does have an uphill struggle—it has to depoliticise the bureaucracy and the judiciary, a new voter’s list has to be compiled, and political stability has to be restored before polling begins. It could take a year or more—during which it have to take on all the tasks of governance. Technocratic or not, rule by an unelected panel that relies on the military for support is neither democratic nor indeed, good for democracy. Furthermore, it remains a question—both philosophical and practical—whether the military-backed caretaker government can depoliticise the military itself.

Quiet arm twisting by the UN using peacekeeping as leverage and by donor nations using aid is positive only up to the extent it does not undermine democracy and popular will. Whatever may be the potential rewards a government of technocrats can deliver, the people of Bangladesh should guard against the seduction of benevolent dictatorship. As they are aware, benevolence can weaken as the dictatorship strengthens. One of the first actions of the caretaker government, ominously, was to place restrictions on the media and political activity. And it might be stalling on holding early elections.

On relations with India, the caretaker government is unlikely to be able to act against ULFA and other terrorists that have found sustenance in Bangladesh. But it must forcefully press its case. Further, it must work with the main political formations to ensure that Bangladesh returns to democratic governance sooner rather than later. To that end, India must work with the Awami League and the Bangladesh National Party to compel the caretaker government to publish and stick to a roadmap to raucous politics as usual.

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