Sunday, September 11, 2011

Bangladesh: Revolving Door

The military moves in

For months the question in Bangladesh was not if, but when, the military would seize power again. Ever since he was elected last November, President Abdus Sattar, 76, a former justice of the supreme court, had resisted demands by the military for power in his government. Last week, in a predawn coup, Lieut. General Hossain Mohammed Ershad, 52, army chief of staff, ousted Sattar and in stalled himself as strongman. "I have no political ambition," the general asserted in a radio and television broadcast announcing the takeover. "My whole and sole aim is to re-establish democracy."

Perhaps, but in the meantime he made clear that Bangladesh will first come under military rule. He proclaimed martial law, suspended the constitution and dissolved parliament. All political activity was banned, and special martial-law courts were set up, empowered to hand down stiff sentences for a wide range of offenses from corruption to criticism of the new regime. By week's end more than 200 government officials and opposition politicians had been arrested. They face possible death sentences if convicted on charges of corruption or other "antistate crimes."

The sequence of events has become sadly familiar. Heavily populated (92 million) and desperately poor (per capita in come: $90 a year), the country has en joyed little political stability in the decade since it broke away from Pakistan after a savage civil war. Its first and longest period of democratic rule ended abruptly when Sheik Mujibur Rahman, who led the independence movement and subsequently became the country's first elected Prime Minister, was assassinated in 1975. In a trio of coups, Lieut. General Mohammed Ziaur Rahman emerged as strongman, only to be assassinated by junior officers last May. Sattar, who was then Vice President, became acting President and led the country into elections.

Sattar had been the generals' hand-picked candidate. But after the election, Sattar resisted the military's attempts to have an active role in government. In February he was forced by the generals to dissolve his Cabinet and name ministers more acceptable to the army. On the day before the takeover, Sattar again angered Ershad by swearing in a civilian as Vice President—a defiant move that led Ershad to seize power himself. "Sattar is an honorable man," the general said, "but he couldn't supply the leadership."