IDSA COMMENT

Analysing the failed Coup in Bangladesh

January 23, 2012

The news of a coup attempt by ‘fanatic’ mid-level officers instigated and supported by some Bangladeshi expatriates and retired Army officials that was foiled by the Bangladesh Army did not come as a major surprise. There have been whispers about such a conspiracy in Dhaka’s power corridors for quite some time. The fear that such a possibility cannot be completely ruled out re-emerged after the 2009 mutiny by the Bangladesh Rifles, in which 59 Army officers were killed. There were indications that the BDR mutiny might have been instigated by Islamists who feared reprisals from the secular forces that had come to power in the December 2008 general elections. The Awami League government’s reluctance to allow an immediate Army operation against the mutineers was touted as a major source of anger among many army officers. Even though there were three inquiry commissions into the 2009 incident, the reason and motivations behind that mutiny have not been established in any conclusive manner.

There are reports that some officers involved in the recent plot were linked to the urban radical Islamist group -- the Hizb ut-Tahrir (HuT) -- which was banned by the Bangladesh government in 2009. HuT has been active in Bangladesh since 2001 and had been campaigning against the Awami League. Its activists were seen distributing pamphlets in various mosques during the military-backed caretaker regime. In spite of the crackdown on them during that period, they had remained active. It needs to be emphasised that like the Jamaat, the Hizbut Tahrir has strong links with Bangladeshi expatriates in the UK, who subscribe to its views. The HuT Bangladesh website reads “O Army Officers! Remove Hasina, the killer of your brothers and establish the Khilafah to save yourselves and the Ummah from subjugation to US-India” (http://www.khilafat.org/index.php).

After assuming office in January 2009, Hasina has taken steps to deal with Islamic radicals. Regular raids, arrests of radicals and seizure of arms and ammunition have paralysed the Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) and other terrorist groups. The war crime trial for the purpose of which five Jamaat-i-Islami leaders and two BNP leaders were arrested is also in progress. Coupled with these efforts to address the rise of radicalism, the Bangladesh Supreme court declared the 5th and 8th amendments to the country’s Constitution as illegal and termed military coups as unconstitutional, thus facilitating the Awami League’s objective of restoring the 1972 constitution. The government, keeping in mind the present political reality, has restored the four foundational principles of liberation and Article 12 which dealt with secularism, while retaining Article 2 (b) pertaining to Islam as the state religion. It also retained the article that allowed religious political parties to operate on a non-communal basis.

All this has angered many Islamists who feel that their electoral base will shrink if Hasina continues in power. The Islamists hope that the Army will come to their rescue as they have openly supported military rule in the past.

The Army has always been politically divided along party lines, although traditionally its sympathies have been with the BNP. Nevertheless, in the past, the tussle between officers who fought for the liberation and those who did not has led to as many as 19 coup attempts; the previous unsuccessful attempt came in 1996 and was led by General Abu Saleh Mohammad Nasim, a freedom fighter.

Interestingly, the latest arrests of Army officials plotting a coup was made public against the backdrop of Begum Zia, Chairperson of the BNP, alleging at a rally held in Chittagong on January 9 that the government had a role in the disappearance of Army officers and is engaged in confining and torturing them. While Khaleda’s statement was publicly refuted by the Inter Service Public Relation (ISPR), the Army admitted that it was indeed trying some officers for dereliction of duty as per its rules. Perhaps, the Army felt compelled to admit to the coup attempt after various media reports revealed the arrest of some Army officials.

According to the ISPR statement, the coup was unearthed in December 2011 when some middle level officers numbering around 16, whom the Army termed as ‘religious fanatics’, were attempting to recruit sympathizers for carrying out a coup. Some of these officers who were approached informed senior Army officials about it.

At the centre of the controversy is a Lieutenant Colonel who has been arrested and a Major who is absconding. According to media reports, the Facebook profile of the main conspirator, Major Zia, noted that “Army is soon going to bring change”. This has to be seen against the backdrop of fears raised by certain quarters in Bangladesh that some cadres of religious parties recruited into the Army during the BNP-led coalition government rule may act as supporters in such a coup.

The coup attempt was not just aimed at derailing democracy but at stopping the ongoing war crimes trial. The BNP, which initially supported the trial, has come out openly against it. It has questioned the objectives of the trial and has been pressing the government to stop it. Initially, some Muslim countries had tried to dissuade Bangladesh from opening the cases in this regard. However, in the face of popular demand to try the people involved in war crimes, the government refused to buckle under such pressure from foreign countries.

To bring about any political change in the country which is currently ruled by a party that has overwhelming majority, it was imperative for the Islamists to enlist the support of the Army. But the fact remains that the Army itself is struggling to wriggle out of its historical legacy of military coups and the resulting stigma. The latest coup attempt by radicals within the army indicates the penetration of Islamists and more specifically that of the Hizb ut-Tahrir whose main support base is among the educated youth, who are highly motivated and belong to affluent families in urban areas. The coup attempt is also an indication of the nature as well as future direction of radicalism whose fulcrum lies in the relatively more affluent urban space rather than in the impoverished madrassas that are generally believed to be a source of fundamentalism in Bangladesh.