[This article was published at Daily Times of Pakistan on January 1, 2007. We need to look back at the impact of the military take over in Bangladesh in the light of our past experience.]
Bangladesh’s sleeping Frankenstein
Dr Ayesha Siddiqa
Allowing the military to interfere in politics and play the role of a socio-political arbiter by bringing it in to control the streets is a risky approach
Recently, the Bangladeshi military was called out into the streets to control the pre-election political mayhem. The country’s political elite see this as a benign use of the armed forces in support of civilian authorities, which might not necessarily whet the military’s appetite for greater power and authority. The Bangladeshis proudly flaunt their national experience of pushing the ‘men on horseback’ back into the barracks. However, the recent deployment of the troops to control violence prior to the elections in January is part of a flawed strategy which will surely strengthen the armed forces versus the civilian players and the civil society at large.
The present-day Bangladeshi political analysts tend to take the military’s formal withdrawal from politics as a fixed variable in the country’s politics. The ‘argumentative’ Bengalis, it is believed, are far too strong to encourage the army to take over politics. A similar belief exists in relation to the influence of the religious right in the country. Bangladeshi society is far too liberal to allow the Jamaat-i-Islami and other religious parties to take over the society.
The military had originally taken over power in 1975 after the assassination of Sheikh Mujeeb-ur-Rehman. The army leadership, which was unhappy with Mujeeb’s policies and fearful that he might actually be trying to replace the standing army with a people’s army, was happy to get rid of him. The concept of a national army was discussed at the Formation Commander’s Conference held at the Bangladesh Forces Headquarters on January 02, 1972, in which the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces discussed the Prime Minister’s directions to the Army GHQ to form a national militia. The idea was to have a people’s army as a 2nd line of defence to support a small standing military. The plans, however, were never implemented, mainly because, as claimed by Maj. General (retd) Shafeeullah, Mujeeb tended to leave defence issues to the military. Moreover, the founding father was too busy consolidating his power, which he took for granted, to take the military too seriously.
The military, which took over power in 1975, was ridden with internal divisions, mainly between the freedom fighters and the repatriated personnel. Out of the 55,000 personnel, 28,000 were repatriated from Pakistan (including 1100 officers). These personnel had not gone through the experience of the liberation war and had a different mindset from the freedom fighters who were part of the Mukti Bahni.
General Zia-ur-Rehman, who took over in 1975, had nothing in common with the leftist party Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal (JSD), which was more popular amongst the freedom fighters and one of the key players behind the political turbulence surrounding Mujeeb’s violent death. However, JSD was not necessarily behind the founding father’s assassination. Mujeeb’s death allowed the officer cadre, most of which was trained in West Pakistan, to consolidate power. The prominent Bangladeshi political analyst Talukder Maniruzzaman was of the view that the repatriated officers in particular were looking for an officer such as Zia-ur-Rehman who could take over the army and the country and thwart the efforts of the JSD — a party which was unhappy with Sheikh Mujeeb’s rule and his controversial policies such as using military force against the Naxilites.
The military takeover transformed the armed forces into a serious political player and further changed the course of the country’s politics. Zia-ur-Rehman used fascist tactics such as flirting with the religious right to gain greater popularity. This was the period during which the Jamaat-i-Islami was brought back into Bangladeshi politics.
Zia-ur-Rehman was assassinated in 1981 and replaced by General Ershad, who ruled Bangladesh until 1990. Ershad is responsible for giving a corporate character to the military through encouraging its political and financial autonomy. Measures such as the building of the military’s welfare foundation, the Sena Kalyan Sangstha, and encouraging its profit-making ventures were meant to bolster the armed forces financial autonomy. The foundation was a legacy of the Fauji Foundation from the days of united Pakistan.
The ‘argumentative’ Bengalis, however, pushed the military back in 1990. Ershad was forced to resign after a popular political uprising. Since then, the Bangladeshi military appears to be firmly under the control of the civilian governments. The three branches of the armed forces, army, navy and air force, and the intelligence agencies are controlled by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), which is currently the central controlling nerve of the armed forces, and comprises of a Principal Staff Officer (of the rank of a Major General) and the Armed Forces Division (AFD) representing the three services of the military. Besides the PSO and the AFD, the PMO also controls the National Security Intelligence (NSI), which is the primary intelligence organisation of the state. The other intelligence establishment, the Directorate-General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI) is controlled by the Ministry of Defence (MoD). Since the prime minister is also the defence minister, the office-bearer by default comes under the PMO.
After 1996, successive prime ministers have also strengthened their control over the military through keeping the MoD weak and boosting the power of the PMO instead. The MoD is confined to mundane routine affairs such vas pay and pension, retirement, and other budgetary issues. Moreover, it is responsible for related departments such as the Survey of Bangladesh, Military Electricity Supply (MES) and the Meteorological Department.
This administrative arrangement gives Bangladeshi analysts their confidence regarding the military’s impotence to take over the reigns of the government again. However, the fact is that the political class entered into an informal and unwritten arrangement with the armed forces whereby the military agreed to push back into the barracks in return for the protection of its fundamental corporate interests. Therefore, over the years, successive political governments have not reduced the defence budget, have upheld the primacy of the threat from India, periodically acquired major weapon systems to ‘keep the boys happy’, and allowed the armed forces to pursue their money-making and profit-making activities.
Although both the Awami League (AL) and Bangladesh Nationalist Party governments have kept the defence budget sustained at higher level, the main source of the Bangladeshi military’s income is UN peace-keeping missions. According to one estimate, about 40,000 troops have served on the UN peace-keeping mission duties and there are about 11,000 troops serving on such missions at a given time. Furthermore, the armed forces’ welfare foundation is now in the hotel business, with stakes in the Raddison Hotel in Dhaka. Besides, the Sena Kalyan Sangstha runs a flour mill, an ice cream factory, a hosiery mill, a fabric manufacturing factory, a textile factory, a CNG project, bread and confectionary factory, an electricity products manufacturing unit, a television manufacturing plant, and has stakes in real estate.
The military’s presence in business is increasing gradually and seems to have undergone growth as a result of the flow of capital due to the UN peace-keeping missions. Part of the earnings from the UN peace-keeping missions are diverted towards the projects of the welfare foundation.
Some observers believe that as long as the military gets its extra funds from the UN peace-keeping missions, the institution will not be tempted to look inside the country for additional resources. No one in Bangladesh seems to consider the impact of allowing the military to penetrate the corporate sector. Not much thought is given to what will happen if the earnings from the UN dry up.
The financial autonomy goes hand in hand with the growing social significance of the armed forces. Even the seemingly ideologically more progressive parties such as the AL have allowed the military both direct and indirect penetration in politics and the economy. The direct infiltration pertains to giving the military control of certain institutions such as the Khulna Shipyard the Machine Tool Factory in the name of greater discipline and efficiency. The indirect penetration takes the form of greater number of retired military personnel joining political parties and running for parliamentary elections and being absorbed into the private sector. Such measures bolster the military’s overall influence. According to a Bangladeshi security and political analyst, Abdul Rob Khan, both political parties try to placate the armed forces through giving it and its retired members a greater role institutionally.
Against this backdrop, allowing the military to interfere in politics and play the role of a socio-political arbiter by bringing it in to control the streets is a risky approach. While the military might not opt to take over power again, it would certainly gain greater strength in negotiating a better power arrangement vis-à-vis the civilian players. Giving a military the policing role, in any case, is always risky. A combination of increased policing and economic role becomes a lethal combination.
The author is an Islamabad-based independent defence analyst. She is also an author of a book on Pakistan’s arms procurement decision-making, and on the military’s economic interests.