Is Bangladesh's military scaling back its political profile?

  • Murat Sofuoglu
  • 4 Dec 2018

Weeks before crucial elections, senior military officers voice uncharacteristic support for the governing Awami League despite a history of tense relations.

More than 150 military officers from generals to captains have voiced their support to the Awami leader and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina before the upcoming general elections on December 30. Photo Credit: Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha ( )

A bunch of retired military officers, from top generals to captains, in Bangladesh have declared their support for the governing Awami League and its leader Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in an unusual fashion before general elections on December 30.  

Since its independence from Pakistan in 1971 with the help of its archenemy India, Bangladesh has faced several military interventions. Hasina’s father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who was the founder of both the Awami League, officially known as the Bangladesh Awami League, and the country, was also killed in a military coup in 1975. 

“It’s interesting for one reason — that historically Awami leaders are not very popular with the military. The Awami League and the military have historically not been together,” Salil Tripathi, an expert on Bangladesh politics, told TRT World 

“If you look at the mutiny that took place in 1975 when Mujibur Rahman was overthrown, the military overthrew him,” Tripathi, who authored The Colonel Who Would Not Repent, an account of Bangladesh's liberation war and its aftermath, said. 

Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the opposition, historically has good relations with the army, Tripathi said. The BNP was founded by Ziaur Rahman, a former senior army general, who became the country’s president following the 1975 military coup against Mujibur Rahman. 

But this Bangladeshi political cliche, that the Awami League’s base is civil society and the BNP is backed by the army, is about to change in the crucial upcoming elections, Tripathi said. 

Before the previous elections, a Bangladeshi armed policeman stands guard in front of a mural of Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her father and founder of the nation Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in Dhaka, Bangladesh on January 8, 2014.(AP Archive)

“The Awami League wants to give a message to the people of Bangladesh: ‘Ok, we are a civilian party, but we have a military backing,’” he said, referring to the recent show of support from former military officers. 

The military also wants to send a message to Bangladeshis; that they are supporting the civilian leadership, Tripathi added. 

Shifting alliances

But the military’s show of confidence in the Awami League is not the only uncommon feature of the December elections. Across the aisle, the BNP has gained an unlikely civilian ally — 82-year-old lawyer Kamal Hossain, who is known as the father of the constitution. Hossain was one of Mujibur Rahman’s closest friends. 

The BNP is currently led by Khaleda Zia, the wife of Ziaur Rahman, who was also assassinated — like Mujibur Rahman — during an unsuccessful military coup in 1981. Zia has been in jail over corruption charges since February and has been disqualified from participating in the elections.

As the polls draw closer, the two political dynasties led by two powerful women have been locked in fierce competition to claim the country’s leadership. 

“Anything could happen. It’s very hard to tell,” Tripathi said. Both parties have boycotted elections in the past over accusations of wrongdoing, but this time both will be in the running, Tripathi said. 

The BNP might also develop alliances with unlikely partners like Jamaat-i Islami — which is also accused of having ties to the army — despite the army and Awami League’s burgeoning relationship, Tripathi said. 

Former Bangladesh prime minister and BNP leader Khaleda Zia at Dhaka court in Dhaka on September 3, 2007. Authorities had jailed Zia in a corruption case involving container terminal contracts. A decade later, Zia was jailed again, in February, over other corruption charges.(AP Archive)

“I think the elections will be very interesting to watch. I think a lot of people in Bangladesh are tired of both parties” and could seek a third option, he observed. 

Since the early 1990s, when the country returned to democratic governance after nearly a decade of military dictatorship, both political dynasties have taken turns ruling the country. 

Mujibur Rahman and Ziaur Rahman, the founding leaders of the Awami and the BNP, long enjoyed popular support from Bangladeshis. 

A non-political military?

The recent show of support for the Awami League might also signal that the Bangladeshi army might be scaling back visible political power after damaging military coups left a legacy of bloodshed and economic weakness. 

While the military still has “power and experience to intervene,” Bangladeshi politicians have found a clever way to limit its influence over state issues by sending a significant part of the country’s troops overseas for UN missions, Tripathi explained. 

Bangladesh is one of the biggest contributors to international peacekeeping operations.   

“By sending troops abroad, you have two advantages: one is you can charge a lot of money to the UN. And you can also make your military occupied elsewhere, not at home,” Tripathi said. 

Because the Bangladeshi military is happy that it is making money through UN missions and maintaining a prestigious status, it is less likely that the army will interfere in politics, he said. 

“One of the reasons for military interventions anywhere in the world is either for power or making money. I think they have the power that they want. And they are able to make money [through these peacekeeping operations].”