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Chapter 5. National Security


Bangladesh's ground, navy, and air forces

BORN FROM THE CHAOS of civil war, steeped in a praetorian tradition of military supremacy over the civilian political process, and racked by internal dissension, the armed forces created by Bangladesh were not disciplined during the first years after independence. By the mid-1980s, however, the armed forces had evolved into a more cohesive and professional organization. The military--particularly the army--continued to play a critical role in guiding or controlling the political process in Bangladesh.

Since formally declaring independence from Pakistan in April 1971, Bangladesh has not experienced an orderly transfer of power. Every Bangladeshi ruler initially assumed power in the aftermath of extraordinary and often bloody events, such as civil war, a military coup, or the assassination of his predecessor. Without exception, every national election staged between 1973 and 1988 was intended to legitimize the rule of a nonelected leader already in power. During the same fifteen years, there were four successful military coups, in addition to a string of jawan (soldier) uprisings, assassination plots, and abortive rebellions. As of mid1988 , Bangladeshi military authorities had been in power, either directly or as guarantor of a nominally civilian regime, for over two-thirds of the country's independent existence.

Army involvement in politics during this time followed four distinct patterns. The first pattern--characterized by the military's subordination to an elected civilian government--is that which prevailed between 1971 and 1975 when the Awami League (People's League) was in power. During this formative stage, Awami League leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (Mujib), a civilian, kept a tight rein on his military commanders, some of whom were suspected of political disloyalty. After declaring a national emergency in December 1974, however, Mujib assumed dictatorial powers. Mujib's inability to address the military's grievances, limit corruption, and restore law and order in the country triggered Bangladesh's first military coup in August 1975. With Mujib's assassination and the eclipse of the Awami League, civilian control over the military was effectively ended.

A second pattern of army involvement in politics is the classic martial law dictatorship led by a junta or a military strongman. Regimes of this type included a short-lived "revolutionary" government headed by power-seeking army officers November 3-7, 1975, and periods of authoritarian rule under Ziaur Rahman (Zia), from April 1977 to June 1978 and under Hussain Muhammad Ershad from March 1982 to May 1986.

The third pattern is a transitional regime in which power is nominally held by a civilian figurehead who depends on army backing for political survival. Regimes of this type have been headed by Khondakar Mushtaque Ahmed from August 15 to November 3, 1975; Abu Sadat Muhammad Sayem from November 7, 1975, to April 1977; and the legally constituted civilian government of Abdus Sattar from May 1981 to March 1982.

A fourth type of political arrangement is a quasi-military regime headed by a military strongman who retired from the army while still in power, assembled a personal political party, and engineered his own election as a civilian president. There have been two such regimes in Bangladesh: Zia's Bangladesh Nationalist Party government between June 1978 and May 1981 and Ershad's Jatiyo Party (National Party) government, elected to a parliamentary majority in May 1986, confirmed with Ershad's election as president in October 1986, and reaffirmed in parliamentary power in March 1988. Although each of these governments won resounding electoral mandates against a weak and divided opposition, most observers of the Bangladeshi political scene agreed that the armed forces remained the real guarantors of the government's power.

Civilian control over the military has always been weak under elected civilian governments and nonexistent under martial law regimes. Since the early 1970s, the armed forces have distrusted civilian politicians and sought to prevent their "meddling" in the military's vital interests, such as resource allocations, pay and benefits, and promotions.

Data as of September 1988

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