Their ‘abstinence’ is all the more laudable because Bangladesh has a history of generals capturing power and milking the land as dictators until an assassin or popular revolt cuts short their tyrannical reign.
In contrast, the military is today backing the caretaker civilian government headed by former World Bank bureaucrat Fakhruddin Ahmed as it should under the law of the land. But there is no denying that the armed forces could have easily taken over the government from the interim authority on January 11 itself. Thankfully there was no repeat of the 1970s and 1980s; the reins of power are not in the hands of army chief Lt Gen. Moeen U Ahmed but in the other Ahmed’s.
The army chief is not in the public eye; he is rarely seen or heard. And judging by the defence force’s admirable conduct so far, soldiers now visible everywhere in the country as they go about the task of helping the caretaker governmet clean up the mess created by destructive politics, will quietly return to their spartan barracks when an elected government takes over before the end of 2008.
Not surprisingly, there is a lot of appreciation in Bangladesh for the army’s supporting role. True the army raided and arrested the corrupt elite ranging from politicians of all hues to businessmen and newspaper owners. But the trials are not being conducted under martial law: they are within the civilian criminal justice system and the cases are being tried by proper judges. So there is no justifiable criticism, only appreciation.
Another onerous task awaiting the army is to strip political parties of their powerful and violent student wings, which would go on the rampage at the drop of a hat in the politically volatile country of 140 million people.
Bangladesh has indeed changed a lot since 1975 when the then General Ziaur Rahman grabbed power taking a leaf out of Pakistan’s book. Those who live by the gun are often destined to fall prey to bullets. Rahman was gunned down in 1981 clearing the decks for yet another General —Husain Mohammad Ershad. Ershad and his consorts ruled for nine years until the Awami League Party and Bangladesh Nationalist Party, led by Sheikh Hasina Wajed and Begum Khaleda Zia respectively, showed him the door.
Taking advantage of the constitutionally-sanctioned presidential form of government in vogue those days, Rahman and Ershad became self-proclaimed presidents giving some legitimacy to their military rule. But the constitution was amended in 1991 ushering in parliamentary democracy and the Westminster-style prime ministerial form of government.
It was easy for a military dictator to manipulate the old constitution to become ‘president’. But if a general were to take over now, he would have to resort to an extremely complicated and time-consuming exercise to bring back the presidential form of government to legitimise military rule.
Moreover, two institutions have grown enormously since Ershad’s exit —the judiciary and a free Press. Both would fight any military take-over tooth and nail. And the generals know that too well.
I think the US Dollar, despite depreciating, also has a big sobering influence on colonels and brigadiers. If the Bangladesh armed forces overthrow the caretaker government, United Nations would not hesitate to raid their wallets by barring them from peace-keeping mission abroad. UN assignments, whether in Congo or Lebanon, are paid for in greenbacks. As the Bangladeshi army earns a mind-boggling fee from peace-keeping missions, it would think not twice but a hundred times before doing anything which might affect its regular dollar income!
Last but not least, Fakhruddin is no push-over. He is calling the shots and wants the world to know who is running the show. When an Indian journalist reported erroneously that Lt Gen. Moeen U Ahmed was present during Fakhruddin’s meetings with External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee in Dhaka recently, the interim authority promptly sent a rejoinder to the newspaper reiterating that the army chief was not there. And the daily apologised for its lapse.S N M Abdi is a distinguished Indian journalist and commentator. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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