Bangladesh Military’s Political Retreat: Sheikh Hasina’s War on Yunus and U.S.

11.17.14

Bangladesh Military’s Political Retreat: Sheikh Hasina’s War on Yunus and U.S.

11.17.14
Andy MettlerAndy Mettler

When seemingly unending political street-battles gripped Bangladesh in late 2006, the United Nations pushed the country’s military in a circuitous way to take over the administration, brazenly violating its own charter that bars the world institution from interfering in any member state’s internal affairs. The UN coerced the reluctant Bangalee generals by threatening them with the loss of their participation in international peacekeeping jobs, which are highly prized by Bangladesh’s armed forces. On 11 January 2007, the military grudgingly agreed to rule the country from behind the scenes and created a facade of a civilian administration with an ailing president and a rubber-stamp council of advisers, who acted as cabinet ministers. This unprecedented political posture was dubbed as “one-eleven” in Bangladesh, mimicking “nine-eleven” in the United States.

Pulling strings from behind, the generals in collusion with some “halftelactuals,” or the so-called intellectuals-cum-civil-society thinkers, drew up a misguided agenda; they hatched a plan to send into exile the “two ladies,” the two former prime ministers who lead the country’s two main political parties. In essence, the army sought to send Sheikh Hasina, daughter of the nation’s founding president, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and Khaleda Zia, widow of another assassinated president, General Ziaur Rahman, into political oblivion. This experiment, which came to be known in popular parlance in Bangladesh as the “minus two” theory, was an apparent attempt to rid the nation of 165 million people of its dysfunctional dynastic rule.

As part of the plan, the military and the civil-society clique also envisioned manufacturing a third major political force, popularly ridiculed as the “king’s party.” Military intelligence operatives put their machinery into battle-ready mode to recruit the willing and coerce the unwilling politicians from existing political parties to join the proposed organization; some of those who sought to resist the pressure were put under the gun to sign up with the king’s party or face corruption charges and long imprisonment.

Bangladesh Military’s Political Retreat

The generals initially invited 2006 Nobel Peace Prize winner professor Mohammad Yunus to run the military-backed regime, but the U.S.-trained economist-turned-microfinance-pioneer declined to swallow the bait. He realized the peril of assuming state power with the help of the khakis. But he eventually succumbed to the temptation and decided to throw his prestige into the messy ring of Bangalee politics, committing the gravest blunder of his life yet. In his game plan, the Nobel laureate counted on his eighty-five million soldiers of Grameen Bank to serve as vanguards of his political revolution and crown him with victory. By doing so, he grossly miscalculated the intrinsic power of the politicians who are backed by indoctrinated, die-hard cadres and well-established political machinery.

Within months after One Eleven, General Moeen Ahmed, the army chief who at first was less than thrilled to get involved in the running of the civilian administration, developed a nose for the sweet smell of power and made pubic his desire to bless the nation as president.

But the two iron-willed ladies trounced the generals with their political guns and proved the resilience of popular politics, a favorite pastime in Bangalee homes. Sheikh Hasina, current prime minister and president of the Awami League, especially made a brave move by returning home in 2007 from a trip to the United States, ignoring warnings that she would face military trial on corruption charges. Emboldened by Hasina’s dramatic return, Khaleda Zia, who leads the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, refused to leave Bangladesh for exile as planned earlier under a deal with the military, putting the generals in disarray. The United States strongly opposed the military’s attempt to sideline the two main political parties, fearing such an action could create a political vacuum and give the theocratic Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami party an opportunity to capture power.

By all accounts, the army’s two-year stint was marked by dismal failures, a fiasco that irreparably damaged the military’s image as an institution to which the Bangalees looked upon as a savior in times of trouble. In the end, the military leaders had to find a face-saving way for a retreat, surrendering their ambitious plans at the feet of the very politicians they despised and sought to undermine.

Politicians Assert Control

To put it in a different light, this retreat by the armed forces has created an unexpected positive outcome for the nation’s political process by diminishing prospects for future military maneuvers into politics. Bangladesh, which has witnessed dozens of armed mutinies resulting in assassinations of presidents and generals since its bloody birth through a nine-month civil war against Pakistan in 1971, may finally look forward to an era in which rulers will be able to focus on ruling the country, rather than worry about getting assassinated.

But an ominous sign unfolded after Hasina returned to power in 2009 with an overwhelming majority in parliament: She declared war on Yunus and his backer, the United States.

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