Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Ershad's Predicament

The Independent, September 7th., 2010
M. Serajul Islam

The decision by the High Court that the seventh amendment to the Constitution is invalid has landed former President HM Ershad literally in thick soup. He is blowing hot and cold ever since the Court’s verdict, more to assure himself than anyone else. Meanwhile the demand for his punishment is also gathering strength
There is no doubt that the Court’s decision on military rule as unconstitutional and therefore illegal has hit a strong chord in the psyche of the people of Bangladesh. Therefore the demand for his trial is also a popular one. However, the Court has now passed on the matter to the Parliament to determine the next course of action; on what to do with President Ershad and what new laws and punishment to enact so that in future men in uniform would not dare to usurp political power. President Ershad’s strength in believing that nothing is going to happen to him evolves partly from the fact that he is an ally of the Awami League and a partner of the AL led coalition government.

Before moving ahead to try Ershad, it would be useful to take a look at history around the time Ershad made his successful bid to usurp power. In particular, it is necessary to take a look at Ershad’s career before recommending any punishment for him. In the tumultuous politics of the 1970s, Ershad was a very small pawn when the Generals who fought in the war of liberation were holding the helm of both the military and the civilian administration after the changes of August 15th, 1975. Ershad made his journey up the ladder of power in the military establishment as a compromise candidate in the politics that the army played those days. Those who promoted him thought that he was innocuous and that even in a miracle; he was not likely to make a bid for political power.

Upon the assassination of President Zia over which Khaleda Zia has cast doubt about Ershad’s involvement, Ershad received support from a wide range of politicians and senior civil bureaucrats who urged him to declare martial law and capture power. These politicians and civil bureaucrats supported him because they believed that with him in power, they would be able to have the strings of power with them. In fact, it may not be entirely incorrect to state that President Ershad staged a military coup to takeover political power where the encouragement for the takeover did not come entirely from the military but also from the civilians. The only twist in the tale was the fact that Ershad was smarter than the politicians and bureaucrats who thought he would be a puppet in their hands. In fact to give the devil his due, Ershad outsmarted all who supported him and soon, almost all political parties and civilian groups were eating out of his hands.

In his nearly one decade long military rule, Ershad had managed in winning over almost everybody except the people and Khaleda Zia who challenged his rule for the entire 1980s to punish him for the death of her husband through the establishment of democratic rule. The people of Bangladesh have a problem with military rule embedded deep in their psyche and when the AL joined with the movement for restoration of democracy, they came out to back them spontaneously. The result was Ershad’s downfall in the same manner as all military dictators in history had to eventually bow to the will of the people.

President Ershad was a weak military General but a very shrewd man. He saw enough support for him and his military rule among the politicians and the bureaucrats and exploited both to his advantage and ruled with all powers firmly in his hands. For those who these days have suddenly awaken to the virtues of democratic government and the unacceptable nature of military rule as an antithesis to the spirit of the liberation of Bangladesh , let them be reminded that no politician or political party or for that matter civil bureaucrats and civilian groups were threatened or coerced to support his rule. They all did voluntarily. Of course, they received privileges in many shapes and forms; land, money, promotion, etc that helped Ershad earn their loyalty. Even today as many are giving statements to the media in loud voices let them also be reminded that they did not challenge either the 5th or the 7th amendments in the Court. Both amendments came about accidentally by cases filed by people who had no desire to challenge the military rule.

Not too long ago, when General Moin decided to follow the path of his military predecessors, he too received a lot of help from politicians and civil society groups. In fact, he was so emboldened by such support that he wanted to give the country his vision of democracy by attempting to form a political party. Many leaders of both the mainstream parties stepped into his trap that has practically ended their careers in their respective parties. The eras of military leaders such as Zia, Ershad and Moin should not leave anyone in doubt that in our history, politicians and civilian groups have for their selfish reasons given the military the support they needed to , first, come to power and , second, to retain political power.

It is good to see the public reaction on the 5th and 7th amendments in the context of military rule. There seems to be a consensus, that military rule is an anathema to the spirit of our liberation. Unfortunately, future tryst with military rule can be ruled out not by trying and punishing General Ershad or by writing into the Constitution that such attempts would be treason and hence punishable by death. The only way to ensure that Bangladesh will never again have the misfortune of coming under military rule is for the political parties to give up their confrontational politics and come together on a bipartisan basis on a minimum agenda of economic development and issues of national interest. If the parties fight and bring Bangladesh to the edge of becoming a failed state, who then is going to stop military intervention or for that matter, foreign intervention?

Punishing Ershad alone will not serve much purpose in banishing military rule unless the political parties; politicians and civil bureaucrats who actively helped him to rule are also exposed and tried. Further, to banish military rule, it would also be necessary to make an example of the military’s intervention and high-handedness under the last caretaker Government. All said, it seems that President Ershad is right; that he cannot be punished because it would open a Pandora’s Box where many politicians and civilians are hiding. Bringing out those faces would embarrass those who are expected to try him.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt and can be reached on email serajul7@gmail.com

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