Like Pakistan, Bangladesh has had a surplus of army generals who think that they are better suited to run the country than the civilians voted in to do the job and frequently act on that impulse. In its 40 years since independence, Bangladesh has suffered through three army coups and many mutinies. Most recently, a military caretaker government ruled the country for two years before Sheikh Hasina came into power as prime minister. What makes the recent coup attempt — revealed by the army leadership last week — so different is that the plotters were mid-level army officers, inspired by religious zeal and not top generals lusting after power. What is ominous about this coup attempt is the religious motivations that reportedly fuelled it. In recent years, Bangladesh has been plagued by extremism and groups like Hizbut Tahrir have gained a following. These groups are strongly and violently opposed to the secular government of Sheikh Hasina.
But the tussle in Bangladesh is not as simple as a secularists-versus-conservatives battle. The military will always be a wild card for reasons that might sound familiar to Pakistanis. The generals hold the view that Hasina’s party, the Awami League and the main opposition party, the Bangladesh National Party, are both hopelessly corrupt and frequently use that as an excuse for their meddling. Some 800 soldiers are still awaiting trial for their role in an earlier mutiny, which has led to tension between the civilians and the anti-democracy military establishment. The Awami League has also made many enemies by targeting mainstream Islamic parties like the Jamaat-e-Islami. But this new alliance between the religious parties and elements within the army may be the most toxic possible combination. Fuelled by their sense of mission and armed to the teeth, their rise can spell nothing but trouble for Bangladesh. One coup attempt may have been averted but more are likely in the future. Democracy in Bangladesh, it seems, has so many enemies that it is hanging by a thread.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 24th, 2012.
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