Wednesday, August 24, 2011

BANGLADESH: After The Massacre

"Bangladesh had its massacre," said a senior Western diplomat in Dacca, the capital, last week. "It still awaits its coup." The bloody upheaval that ended the government, and the life, of Sheik Mujibur Rahman two weeks ago (TIME, Aug. 25) was the work of about a dozen young officers (most of them majors). According to the same diplomat, "They are too powerful to be arrested but not powerful enough to run the country."

 His point was that the young officers were strong enough to fend off challenges from their superiors in the army but that in order to form a government, they had been obliged to turn to a respected member of Mujib's Cabinet, Commerce Minister Khondakar Mushtaque Ahmed, to serve as their front man. By week's end, the officers were reported to have retired to a behind-the-scenes role, leaving Khondakar in charge—and the country in a state of confusion.

Though all foreign correspondents have been expelled from the country, a few more details about the men who engineered the coup began to emerge. Several had been dismissed from the army for anti-Indian prejudice and were believed to be more militantly Moslem than Mujib's secular regime. Like many other officers, they were fearful of the growing power of Mujib's special security force, the 25,000-man Rakkhi Bahini. They may have been alarmed by reports that Mujib was planning to put the armed forces under control of the ruling Awami League party. They were also displeased by Mujib's increasingly authoritarian tactics, the rising corruption within his government and his inability to cope with the crushing problems of Bangladesh, a destitute and overcrowded country the size of Wisconsin that has a population of 75 million.
When they struck, the officers had only about 200 soldiers behind them, but they moved with deadly speed. The focus of their predawn attack was the cream-colored mansion of Sheik Mujib. Everyone inside was killed, including Mujib, his wife and several other members of his family; overall, perhaps 100 died during the takeover. At the end of last week the capital appeared calm under martial law. About a dozen M-47 tanks, their gun muzzles covered, were posted at main intersections, and soldiers leaned against the machines as pedestrians walked by. More ominous than the tanks, however, was the sense of uncertainty that seemed to pervade the new regime.

Yards of Fabric. Even the name of the country was in dispute. On the morning of the coup, Radio Bangladesh had declared that the nation would no longer be known as the "People's Republic" but as the "Islamic Republic" of Bangladesh. That would have been a significant change as far as its powerful neighbors, Hindu India and Moslem Pakistan, were concerned. Ever since Bangladesh broke away from Pakistan in 1971 and became independent, it has been at odds with the Islamabad regime and closely aligned with India and the Soviet Union. Pakistan's Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was so delighted by the change in Bangladesh that he hastened to recognize the new government and urged all Arab and Third World countries to do likewise. In addition, he offered Bangladesh 50,000 tons of grain and 15 million yards of fabric.

Last week, however, the new government of Bangladesh let it be known that the country would continue to be called the "People's Republic" after all. The reason for the quick about-face may have been the displeasure of India's Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Having gone to war in 1971 on behalf of Bangladesh in its struggle against Pakistan, India would be unlikely to tolerate any strong new relationship between the two countries that were formerly known as West and East Pakistan.

Apparently, the officers who overthrew Mujib timed their coup for Aug. 15, the anniversary of Indian independence. They figured that the New Delhi government would be preoccupied that day—"a sort of Yom Kippur War situation," as a Western diplomat put it. The coup was over so quickly that New Delhi had no time to respond militarily. Later, however, when New Delhi warned that it could not "remain unaffected by these political developments in a neighboring country," the new rulers of Bangladesh appealed to India for "friendship and cooperation."

Most Western diplomats believe that Bangladesh's troubles are far from over. Khondakar is not yet a strong enough figure to rule the country effectively, and fighting could break out among the various military groups at any time. More ominous still is the possibility that if fighting should break out, Indira Gandhi might be tempted to send her army across the border, as she did so successfully in December 1971.