For decades, warring Bangladeshi politicians have been able to rely on a safety valve when the pressure rises and an explosion of violence threatens the country’s stability. The solution takes the form of a neutral interim government, explicitly or implicitly backed by the armed forces, to oversee the next general election.
Today, however, the safety valve in the south Asian nation of 160 million is broken just when it is needed the most. The incumbent Awami League government of Sheikh Hasina rejected an interim administration to run the election of January 2014 and then, after its inevitable victory at the polls, proceeded to co-opt the armed forces with money, land, construction contracts and other privileges.
“Zia’s strategy is to bring in the army,” says one leading Bangladeshi analyst who asks not to be named for fear of reprisals. “You ratchet up the level of violence to the extent that the army feels compelled to restore order.
“Hasina, understanding that . . . is giving [the military], all sorts of toys — buying them MiGs or submarines and allocating cantonments [residential areas]. She is creating an appetite [within] the army that future governments will find very hard to feed. Nothing they are asking for is being denied.”
Bangladesh is buying subsidised weapons from China and Russia and its annual defence budget has doubled in the past six years to more than $2bn, although official defence spending remains a fairly modest 1.4 per cent of gross domestic product.
The government says the 260,000-strong army has no interest staging a coup d’état and benefits from being the largest contributor to UN peacekeeping forces around the world. “This is something the army wouldn’t like to tarnish,” says HT Imam, a minister and one of Ms Hasina’s advisers.
They [the government] have outsmarted the BNP. They have taken complete control of the military, not by using power but by sharing the money– Bangladeshi observer
However, Ms Hasina’s opponents accuses her government of “state terrorism” against domestic opponents, and have urged the UN to exclude tainted members of the security forces from peacekeeping operations.
Mahbubur Rahman, an opposition BNP leader and a former army chief, defends the army’s professionalism and says it would nowadays intervene in politics only out of patriotism and if national security was threatened.
But he also agrees that the Hasina government is providing financial and other inducements to keep the armed forces on its side, not least through a generous policy of promotions for senior officers. When he was army chief there was only one lieutenant-general — himself — whereas now there are six, he says.
“This government has really expanded the army, by manpower, firepower, and equipment. There are a lot of welfare projects for the army,” he says. “The pay is better.”
Like some of the BNP’s leaders, independent analysts have concluded that Ms Hasina has outwitted Ms Zia — at least for the time being — partly by co-opting every branch of the security forces from the main military intelligence agency to the Rapid Action Battalion, an elite anti-crime and anti-terror unit accused of atrocities against the opposition.
“Effectively this is a military-backed Hasina government,” says one Bangladeshi observer in Dhaka, the capital, noting recent grants of land for military housing and road contracts for a military-owned infrastructure company. The military even has its own bank, Trust Bank.
“They [the government] have outsmarted the BNP. They have taken complete control of the military, not by using power but by sharing the money.”
The risks are obvious, according to another expert on Bangladeshi politics. “The military is getting used to these augmented privileges. This is absolutely dangerous for the sustaining of democracy in this country.”