The Army Comes to the Rescue

The Karwan Bazar slum

Bangladesh’s 2007 election season has featured an unexpected—and unlikely—pair of stars: the army and Nobel Peace Prize-winner Mohammad Yunus. In February, Yunus, the microcredit guru and acclaimed “banker to the poor,” announced that he was entering the political fray by promising to “build Bangladesh as we dreamt.” And the army, which took control of the country 11 days before the parliamentary elections originally scheduled for Jan. 22, has embarked on a merciless anti-corruption campaign. It has arrested thousands of allegedly crooked politicians and sent the rest into hiding. To arrange an interview in Dhaka these days can be trying; dodging arrest, many politicians have changed phone numbers and no longer sleep at home. The only politico putting himself about is Yunus.

Kamal Hossain, like millions of others around the country, is ecstatic. A well-dressed man in his early 70s, with a deep, throaty voice, Hossain sounded triumphant and giddy during our recent meeting. “People are shocked, because suddenly the law has returned to Bangladesh,” he said. He thinks that if Yunus can leverage his public stature and stay committed to clean, principled politics, he could “fuel a real democratic movement.” Thirty-five years ago, Hossain played a critical role in the movement to form Bangladesh, acting first as legal adviser to “father of the nation” Sheik Mujibur Rahman and later writing the 1972 constitution. But 30 years later, he found his nation’s prospects growing grim. Yunus’ candidacy, Hossain says, is proof that, “God exists for Bangladesh.”

But is serious change truly under way? And can the army take credit?

Bangladesh is a Muslim-majority country of roughly 145 million people whose army has a history of meddling in politics. In 1975, a handful of army officers assassinated Mujib, as Mujibur Rahman was affectionately known, and his family. That touched off a rapid series of coups and countercoups. Gen. Ziaur Rahman, who ruled from 1975 through 1981, survived 22 coup attempts before finally being assassinated. Five separate military regimes ruled from the time of Mujib’s murder until December 1990, when massive street demonstrations forced Gen. Mohammad Ershad, who had seized power in a 1982 coup, to step down and hand power to a civilian government.

During the three elections since 1991, the army remained in its barracks. Many considered Bangladesh a model for other burgeoning Muslim democracies. Its parliamentary system placed real power in the hands of an elected prime minister, who appoints a president whose powers are limited. The United States Institute of Peace published a report in May 2005 that compared Bangladesh to Turkey and added that it “exemplifies the coexistence of Islam and democracy.” But regular elections and a functioning democracy are not the same. During this period of civilian rule, the heads of the two main political parties, Sheik Hasina of the Awami League and Khaleda Zia of the Bangladeshi Nationalist Party, fought out one of the world’s nastiest personal rivalries. They competed with each other in everything, including the amount of money they could plunder from the state. Transparency International, the corruption watchdog, ranked Bangladesh as the most corrupt nation in the world five out of the last six years. Meanwhile, the World Bank estimates that the average person makes $470 a year.

Throughout the 1990s and the first seven years of this decade, the army sat back and watched. It had secured a sweet peacekeeping mandate with the United Nations, whereby its soldiers serve one-year postings in places like the Congo, Sierra Leone, and East Timor. In return, the annual salaries of the soldiers increased five- or six-fold. The army didn’t want to see their lucrative agreement with the Unites Nations jeopardized as a result of any reckless adventurism, i.e., a coup. But growing tensions and violence throughout the country in late 2006 pushed the generals’ patience to the limit.

The trouble started in October 2006, when the outgoing BNP government handed power to a caretaker administration full of BNP sympathizers. In protest, the AL orchestrated demonstrations, strikes, and blockades, during which 40 people died and hundreds were injured. As the elections neared, the frequency and intensity of the street battles intensified. On Jan. 3, the AL announced that it was boycotting the polls. This prompted the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute, two election-monitoring organizations, to cancel their programs, since polls without one of the two major parties could never be considered free or fair. As street violence increased, the United Nations hinted to the army that its inability to keep peace in Bangladesh was threatening its peacekeeping mandate overseas.

I arrived on Jan. 13, two days after President Iajuddin Ahmed declared the state of emergency. No one really knew what to think. Had the army staged a coup? Was martial law coming next? On my first night in Dhaka, I met a young couple at an upscale cafe near the center of town. They hadn’t left their house for the previous two weeks, guarding against the off-chance that they would be caught someplace where protesters might be chucking bricks at the police. They were thrilled about the state of emergency. The roads were safe, and they could get their cappuccinos again. Already, rumors were circulating about Yunus taking a political role, perhaps as president or chief adviser to the caretaker government. When I asked the cappuccino couple what they thought, the woman nodded her head approvingly and said, “This country could use some new people.” By the time I left a month later, Yunus had officially announced the formation of his party, Nagorik Shakti, or Citizen’s Power. He talked about saving the country and rescuing the poor. I knew that the cafe crowd and the elite loved him, but what about the poor?

“I spilled blood for this country because I believed that the poor would live freely, but we are still being harassed,” said Mohammad Abdul

Mohammad Abdul is a 77-year-old slum dweller with a long white beard, stained at the tips like the mustache of a two-pack-a-day-smoker. On the day we met, he wore a green, crocheted prayer cap and a button on his left breast pocket to commemorate his service as a freedom fighter in the 1971 war, when Bangladesh, formerly known as East Pakistan, seceded from Pakistan and fought a gruesome nine-month war that left roughly 3 million people dead. He stood in front of his home—a tin shack suspended by a few knobby-kneed bamboo poles above stagnant water, rotting celery stalks, and shimmering pieces of plastic chip bags—and explained that he was about to be evicted.

As part of the its anti-corruption and anti-lawlessness campaign, the army was working in conjunction with police units and detachments of the elite anti-crime force known as Rapid Action Battalion to demolish numerous settlements that were deemed to be illegally encroaching on government property. Three days before my visit, RAB was in the Karwan Bazar slum to give Abdul a three-day notice to quit. “I spilled blood for this country because I believed that the poor would live freely, but we are still being harassed,” he told me, exposing a mouthful of teeth the size of dominoes, the result of an aggressively receding gum line.

I expected him to continue berating the joint forces for their plans to demolish his home. But in fact, he was sanguine. He granted that he had no place to go and would probably wind up “roaming the streets,” but he didn’t blame the army. They are doing the right thing, he said. “These crooks must be arrested.”

It wasn’t until I brought up Yunus that he became animated. When I asked Abdul if he would consider supporting Yunus in the next election, he sucked on his huge choppers and pretended to swat at invisible flies. Microcredit is one thing, he explained, but running for prime minister is quite another. “Yunus was fine before winning the peace prize,” he said. He stuck to what he knew best. “But he doesn’t know what he is talking about when it comes to politics. He is just talking.”