Coup attempt in Bangladesh

VIEW: BY—Dr Rashid Ahmad Khan

The row between the Awami League and Bangladesh Nationalist Party not only hits the economy of the country, it also represents a serious challenge to democracy in Bangladesh

The Bangladeshi military is reported to have recently unearthed and quashed an attempt by a group of serving and retired army officers to overthrow the Awami League-led coalition government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed. Disclosing this, army spokesman Brigadier-General Masud Razzaq said that some “religiously fanatic” Islamists in league with Bangladeshi expatriates were involved in the plot.

Bangladesh has a long history of military coups and counter-coups. The founder of Bangladesh and father of the nation, Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, was killed along with most of his family members in a military coup on August 15, 1975. This coup was carried out by a group of middle-ranking army officers led by Major Faruq. The coup officers were, however, ousted on November 3 in a counter-coup carried out by Brigadier Khaled Mosharraf. But only four days later, Mosharraf was killed in another military coup, followed by a period of perilous uncertainty and instability till General Ziaur Rahman assumed power in 1977. During his five-year rule, Zia survived as many as 21 coup attempts but could not survive the 22nd carried out by one of his commanders, Major-General Manzur posted at Chittagong in May 1981. General Zia, who had gone to Chittagong to sort out some dispute involving his party men, was killed but Major-General Manzur could not capture power as he was confronted by army chief General Hussain Muhammad Ershad. Manzur surrendered and was executed. General Ershad himself staged a military coup in March 1982, declared himself as Chief Martial Law Administrator (CMLA) and created his own political party, the Jatiya Party, which remained the ruling party till 1990, when a pro-democracy movement launched by all political parties of the country forced him to step down.

Even after the restoration of democracy in 1990, Bangladesh has continued to be rocked by political instability and uncertainty because of bitter bickering between the two mainstream and rival political parties — the Awami League (AL) led by Hasina Wajed, daughter of slain leader Sheikh Mujibur Rehman and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) led by Khalida Zia, the widow of late General Ziaur Rahman. The AL supports secularism and liberalism in the country and is generally known to have pro-India inclinations. The BNP enjoys the support of rightist and anti-India elements. Bangladeshi politics has greatly been coloured by the clashing policy lines of these two political parties. During the last about two decades, these two parties have alternately shared power through parliamentary elections with continuous hostility towards each other marked by almost daily sit-ins, strikes, demonstrations and rallies. The row between the AL and BNP not only hits the economy of the country, it also represents a serious challenge to democracy in Bangladesh, raising the fears about military intervention or making inroads in the security establishment by the religious extremists.

There are a number of Islamic militant groups in Bangladesh among which Harkatul-Jehad-al-Islami Bangladesh (Huji-B), Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB), Hizbul Touhid, Islami Samaj, Hizb-ut-Tahrir are prominent. These groups demonstrated their power on August 17, 2005 by carrying out 453 coordinated bomb blasts in 63 districts of the country. The deep polarisation among the political forces has provided these groups space to extend their networks, even penetrate the security forces.

Observers are of the view that the militant elements have already penetrated deep into the ranks of the Bangladeshi armed forces and this recent aborted military coup bears a clear testimony to this fact. The army sources have disclosed that the 16 army officers arrested for involvement in the planned coup are known to have extremist religious views. According to reports, the intelligence agencies have identified at least 11 senior and mid-level officers, including a Major-General, a Brigadier-General, two Lieutenant-Colonels and a number of Majors with extreme religious views. The army sources disclosing the planned coup accused some of the arrested officers of displaying ‘unruly’ behaviour and inciting the other offices to join them in a conspiracy against the government through the use of mobile phones and the internet. The extremist outfit Hizb-ut-Tahrir was also known to be in close contact with these officers.

In the past, ambitious generals or adventurous mid-level officers have been carrying out coups against the governments. This is the first time that the army has reported a coup attempt and moved to thwart it. The government of Prime Minister Hasina Wajed, who took over early in 2009, has welcomed the army action against the suspected officers, terming it as evidence of the army’s full backing for the secular policies of the AL-led coalition government. But the attempted coup has invited serious concerns by the liberal and democratic circles in Bangladesh, who view this development as symptomatic of a creeping influence of extremism in the armed forces of Bangladesh. “It is a matter of concern that religious extremism has made inroads into the armed forces,” wrote The Daily Star of Dhaka.

However, independent sources attribute this phenomenon to social unrest in the sharply polarised polity of Bangladesh. Professor Muzaffar, a renowned economist of the country, says the attempt at the overthrow of the government is the result of unrest in society; while Dr Imtiaz Ahmad, Professor of International Relations Dhaka University, is of the opinion that political polarisation has created room for a third force to meddle in politics. “This third force will have a role in politics until political polarisation ends,” he says. It is also claimed that the government-initiated trials of some members of the armed forces for committing war crimes during the liberation war are also a source of unrest in the armed forces, where the so-called pro-Pakistan lobby is still strong and opposed to the secular and pro-India policies of the AL-led government.

But the good news is that all the political parties, including the BNP and the JSD, have condemned the attempted coup and pledged to defend democracy in Bangladesh.

The writer is a professor of International Relations at Sargodha University. He can be reached at

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