Bangladesh 'coup' gets wide support

Times Staff Writer

For a nation steeped in political crisis, life seems remarkably calm out on the sun-dappled streets.

Women haggle in the market. Shopkeepers trade the daily dish while smoking cigarettes and spitting jets of betel juice. Traffic moves at a crawl, when it moves at all, which is business as usual on the clogged roads of this densely packed capital.

But the apparent normality masks a sobering reality: namely, that democracy in Bangladesh lies battered and broken -- and the military has stepped in to fix it.

Since Jan. 11, this country of 147 million people has been under an official state of emergency. Controversial elections scheduled for last month have been suspended indefinitely. A caretaker government backed by the army now rules the land, dedicated, or so its civilian leaders say, to cleaning up Bangladesh's corrupt, thuggish political system so a free and fair poll can take place. Mass arrests have landed thousands of Bangladeshis in jail.

It has all the signs of a coup d'etat. Yet that is a term no one here is willing to use out loud, because the newly installed government, at least for the moment, enjoys broad support at home and abroad.

The widespread approval stems from the grim calculation that the alternative would have been far worse: a rigged election followed by a bloodbath.

In the weeks before the planned poll, political agitation by the two main parties triggered paralyzing strikes and violence in which at least 45 people were killed. Analysts warned that Bangladesh, home to one of the world's largest Muslim populations, risked collapse, with Islamic radicals ready to step in.

Now, the country is savoring a reprieve from the chaos.

"There seems to be a sense of relief," said Owen Lippert, director of the Dhaka office of the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute. "A state [of affairs] that was generating strikes ... and some deaths -- people certainly don't miss that."

The welcome return to stability, however, has somewhat obscured the basic question of when, or whether, democratic rule will be restored in a nation that has experienced more than its share of military meddling -- 21 coups or attempted coups in its 36 years of existence.

Headed by a widely respected former central bank governor, Fakhruddin Ahmed, the new interim government has declined to fix a date for the postponed election. Instead, it has unveiled an ambitious package of political and other reforms that call into question just how long it intends to stay in power.

To pave the way for a new poll, Ahmed promised to introduce voter identification cards, depoliticize the election commission and purge voter rolls, which international election observers say are swollen with 12 million duplicate names. These measures have won domestic and international praise.

But Ahmed also vowed to root out corruption, alleviate Bangladesh's chronic electricity woes and keep a lid on rising prices -- problems that will require months, if not years, to solve.

The incumbent Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the opposition Awami League, bitter rivals that rarely agree, have called for an election within three to four months. Suggestions that the poll may be put off until the end of 2007, or even into 2008, have rung alarm bells.

So have the mass arrests. Bangladesh's fearsome Rapid Action Battalion, a joint force of police and soldiers, has rounded up an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 people, a campaign that has netted, not without some public support, many political operatives and local bosses from the two main parties.

Early Sunday, Bangladeshi security forces arrested more than a dozen senior politicians and former government ministers, wire reports said.

Reports of at least 19 deaths in custody have sparked protests from local and international human rights groups.

"Our people want this caretaker government to hold an election," said Sheik Hasina Wajed, leader of the Awami League and prime minister from 1996 to 2001. "An unelected government cannot run for long."

Perhaps not, but it is also doubtful that ordinary Bangladeshis are in any hurry for a return to politics as usual.

Many are angry about the corruption and naked power plays entrenched in Bangladeshi politics, and about the lack of improvement in their lives. The economy has grown at a moderate pace in recent years, much of it from clothing factories that supply companies such as Gap Inc., but half the population still languishes below the poverty line.

Even the Nobel Prize awarded to microcredit pioneer Muhammad Yunus, which prompted a huge national celebration here in his homeland, served to highlight the failure of the state in providing economic opportunities for its people.

In October, a survey in the Daily Star newspaper found that a majority of voters had grown disenchanted as a result of what the paper described as "inter-party bickering, unbridled corruption, total lack of governance and signs of dynastic politics."

Many blame Bangladesh's ills on the two women who have traded power since direct military rule ended in 1991: Wajed, of the Awami League, and Khaleda Zia, head of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, or BNP, who served as prime minister from 1991 to 1996 and from 2001 until last fall, when she stepped down in advance of the planned election.

Both women inherited their positions from assassinated former leaders.

Wajed's father, the founder of Bangladesh, and most of her family were killed during a military coup in 1975, a massacre Wajed accuses Zia's husband of having helped plot. Zia's husband, a general-turned-president, was in turn assassinated in 1981 during an attempted coup.

The enmity between the two women is legendary, and their venomous rivalry looms large over politics here.

In an interview, Wajed denied harboring animus toward her archrival. But she went on to accuse Zia and her cronies of condoning the killing of Awami League supporters, the rape of young women and a 2004 attempt on Wajed's life.

"After seeing all these atrocities, then I don't feel like meeting those people who are the root cause of the suffering," Wajed said.

"It's nothing personal."

Zia declined requests for an interview.

The fierce battle between their followers forced Bangladesh to a screeching halt in the months before the scheduled election.

The Awami League, alleging widespread electoral irregularities by the BNP, mounted nationwide strikes that crippled the economy. Foreign monitors withdrew their blessing from the poll, in effect concurring that the BNP had stacked the election.

Diplomats and analysts say the military, still the ultimate arbiter of power in Bangladesh, decided to step in to end the turmoil. The army has historical ties to the BNP, but the United Nations warned military leaders that if they took sides, the army's lucrative role in U.N. peacekeeping operations could be threatened.

So far, the army's intervention has been fairly low-key and behind the scenes. No tanks rolled in to the capital. There are few soldiers on the streets. The new government's members are civilians, and no senior military figure has put himself forward as the savior of the country.

Bangladeshis seem prepared to give the military-backed government a chance. Even the mass arrests do not faze them; many privately voice support for the roundup of perceived troublemakers. Criticism of the detentions from foreign governments has been mild.

That worries Farhad Mazhar, an advisor to the human rights group Odhikar, which has spoken out against the arrests and deaths in custody.

Mazhar cautioned the government against dragging its feet on the election and called on the international community to keep the pressure on the caretaker administration.

"Fair enough, there is a crisis, but the question is how we're going to deal with it," Mazhar said. "We should not give more than six months to this government. That should be said very clearly, with one voice. Six months is enough."

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henry.chu@latimes.com

For The Record Los Angeles Times Wednesday February 14, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction Bangladesh arrests: An article in Tuesday's Section A on the political crisis in Bangladesh referred to senior politicians and former government ministers being arrested Sunday. The arrests were made Feb. 4.
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