As Dhaka—the squalid capital of impoverished Bangladesh—simmered under a state of emergency last week, an excited and jostling mob stopped a car at a railway crossing. Realizing that its occupant was a foreign reporter, the mob crowded around the vehicle, shouting curses. But its anger was not aimed at the reporter. Its target was the country’s embattled president, 57-year-old former general Hossain Mohammad Ershad. “We want to hang Ershad,” they yelled in open defiance of the draconian emergency regulations that Ershad had imposed on Nov. 27. And as they milled around the car, riot police moved away, clearly unwilling to act and heightening the impression that Ershad’s five-year-old rule was in grave trouble.
The end of Ershad’s presidency, should it come, threatens to be bloody. Two previous presidents in the 16-year history of Bangladesh—created after the violent breakup of East and West Pakistan in December, 1971—were assassinated while in office. The first, Sheik Mujib Rahman, was killed in a coup in 1975; the second, Gen. Zia Rahman was killed in a 1981 coup. Ershad—
who seized power 10 months after Zia’s death—claimed to have restored democracy last year after winning an election with 83 per cent of the vote. But he now faces growing unrest, and the opposition is led by Mujib’s daughter, Hasina Wajed, and Zia’s widow, Khaleda Zia.
They allege that he rigged the 1986 election and that he has failed to address the country’s massive economic problems. They also say that he has permitted widespread kickbacks in the government and private sectors, and that he himself stole millions from foreign aid contributions. Early last
month Zia and Wajed called for a series of general strikes and demonstrations to back their demands for his resignation. In response, as much as 80 per cent of the country’s commerce and industry shut down, costing the economy losses estimated by the government at $65 million a day. It was to stop that drain and preserve his own position that Ershad, a former army chief of staff, suspended civil rights at the end of November, placing Zia and Wajed under house arrest and muzzling the news media.
For Bangladesh’s 107 million citizens—with an average annual income of about $200—the crisis is just another in a series of misfortunes stretching back to the Moslem nation’s birth in an upheaval that left an estimated three million dead and the economy in ruins. Since
0 then, a succession of floods and ? calamitous monsoons have ravis aged the low-lying swampy
1 country. Four out of five Bengalis live in grinding poverty. Only one in five can read. Half—in a predominantly agricultural country—own no land. And the official unemployment rate is a catastrophic 34 per cent. Of $1.5 billion in foreign aid, Bangladesh receives $200 million from Ottawa, the third largest amount after the United States and Japan.
Still, Ershad can point to some modest economic successes. After a series of famines in the 1970s, Bangladesh has come close to growing enough food to feed itself. The beggars who once dogged foreign visitors have largely disappeared from the streets of Dhaka, and even Ershad’s critics concede that his administration dealt well with floods in August. Said Ershad when he announced the state of emergency last month: “Why should I resign? There were natural calamities and no one starved. There was no political killing.”
At the same time, the opposition to Ershad— although widespread— is deeply divided and seems to offer no alternative solutions to the nation’s poverty. Indeed, the two women who lead the largest opposition parties hold opposing views of the country’s problems. Wajed’s Awami League, created in the 1960s by Sheik Mujib, maintains its pronounced tilt toward India and the So-
viet Union, while Zia’s Bangladesh National Party (BNP) is pro-Western and centre-right. Further straining the unity of the anti-Ershad forces is the wide diversity of the 19 smaller opposition parties, ranging from the pro-Chinese United People’s Party to the Islamic fundamentalism of the Jamat-I-Islami.
But Ershad lacks charisma and has been unable to attract a personal following. Jatiya Dal, the party that he created in 1983 to support his seizure of power, won the majority in a reconstituted parliament in May, 1986. But the election was boycotted by the BNP, and widespread irregularities in the voting cast doubt on the results. Similar boycotts and charges of vote rigging raised doubts about the October, 1986, presidential election. And Ershad also provoked resentment among rural Bengalis by reducing farm subsidies and in the business class by giving additional powers to elected local councils.
The past year has also produced personal embarrassments for the president-most notably a damaging London Observer report of a dispute between Ershad and a woman who claimed he had deserted her after a secret marriage. During the shortlived marriage, she claimed, he confided that he had stolen millions of dollars in foreign aid money. Still, Ershad has so far retained the loyalty of one vital element of Bengali society: the military. Despite the current unrest, the 81,000-member army remained obediently in barracks. And the 38,000strong paramilitary Bangladesh Rifles—although seemingly unenthusiastic—remained sufficiently loyal to enforce Ershad’s state of emergency, opening fire on demonstrators in some cities.
But police loyalty is clearly strained. When officers arrived at Dhaka’s Purbani Hotel to place Zia under house arrest, they allowed the opposition leader to address reporters and supporters from the door of the police van. As one police inspector told Maclean's last week: “We police want somebody else. But for now we do our duty.”
Ershad himself seemed eager to appear conciliatory. Four days after his clampdown, he ordered the release of nine jailed opposition leaders—although not Zia and Wajed—and offered elections before the end of his five-year mandate. But the freed politicians spurned the offer, calling instead for a fresh wave of general strikes this week. In the face of more promised unrest, Ershad’s hold on power appears tenuous.
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