Bangladesh: military coup that took nobody by surprise

For months, Bangladeshis have been speculating about when, not if, the military would move to set aside the government whose election it backed just over four months ago.

Now the speculation is over. Bangladesh's frail and ailing democracy ended March 24 with a military takeover led by Army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. H.M. Ershad.

General Ershad had long been pressing for a formal military role in the governing of Bangladesh, publicly warning it was necessary to break the cycle of coups and military violence that have plagued the impoverished country during its short and bloody 10 years of independence.

President Abdus Sattar, the military's hand-picked candidate in the mid-November presidential election, had been moving slowly and reluctantly to accommodate the military's demands. But neither the pace nor the scale of his concessions suited officers impatient with a political system they scorned as corrupt and bumbling.

Bangladeshis showed their own concerns about the Sattar government by reacting with panic to an impending -- and relatively small-scale -- food shortage in February. Worried citizens went on a binge of panic buying and hoarding of rice, the local staple, a reaction cited by political analysts as a sign of the public's lack of confidence that Sattar's administration could cope with the situation.

Announcing the takeover on government radio, Ershad said the proclamation of martial law, the suspension of the Constitution, and the dissolution of Parliament were necessary ''to save the nation from crisis.''

''This government has completely failed. The people expect the Army to come to their aid,'' he said.

Sattar spoke briefly before Ershad went on the air, saying the situation had deteriorated and that ''in the interest of the Bangladesh people, military rule has become necessary.''

''I fully support the loyal armed forces' effort to help the nation,'' said Sattar, a former election commissioner and supreme court justice in undivided Pakistan who is known as a constitutional scholar. It was not clear whether his statement was voluntary or whether he was under house arrest.

Sattar succeeded President Ziaur Rahman, the charismatic soldier-turned-statesman who came to power after a series of military coups in 1975 and died in a hail of bullets fired by Army mutineers on May 30, 1981.

In a smooth, constitutional transfer of power that astonished most observers, Zia's appointed vice-president, Sattar, became acting president with the full backing of the military. In the ensuing election campaign the military clearly favored Sattar over his Awami League opponent - and hinted broadly that they would take to the streets should the opposition win. The Army's backing was undoubtedly an element in Sattar's sweeping majority, but his professed role as Zia's torchbearer was the key to his gaining office in his own right.

But at his first press conference as president-elect, Sattar tossed a public challenge to his military backers. During the campaign Ershad demanded military participation in government. Now Sattar said ''no,'' maintaining that an army's only legitimate role in a democracy was to defend national borders.

Political campaign debts led Sattar to name a Cabinet of more than 40 ministers -- including men the military opposed as corrupt. As the administration floundered, Ershad stepped up the pressure with a rambling statement to the press in which he argued for a ''special role'' for the military.

Sattar seated the three Bangladesh service chiefs on a new national security council. In February, at the height of the food crisis, he dramatically pruned his Cabinet and denounced his ministers for corruption and ineptitude.

But paring the Cabinet and rooting out corrupt officials were goals he had proclaimed during the campaign. Some analysts believed the military pressure gave him a rationale to do the job. The result: a mutual accommodation that suited both the barracks and the presidential palace.

Formerly the eastern wing of Pakistan, Bangladesh won its independence in a 1971 civil war. Its 90 million people are among the world's poorest. The country cannot feed itself and relies heavily on foreign aid to keep going.

By seizing power the military acquires responsibility for tackling Bangladesh's severe economic problems. Ershad says they can handle them better than the politicians. Whatever the result, another long period of political instability lies ahead for Bangladesh.

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