Even by the standards of an impoverished nation, born in bloodshed a decade ago and scarred by coups and mutinies, the scale of the executions was stunning. Last week 12 officers in the Bangladesh armed forces were hanged for their alleged participation in last May’s murder of President Ziaur Rahman. Within hours, an angry mob was setting fire to government buses and cars in the capital of Dacca, violently underlining the dilemmas that the country faces as it heads toward a Nov. 15 presidential election.
Democracy in the Asian nation has
balanced on a knife-edge since Zia’s death in the abortive coup in the port city of Chittagong. And a caretaker administration’s efforts at stabilization have been undermined by doubts about the condemned officers’ guilt. Tried by a secret court martial, they were denied family visits and defence counsel of their choice. Not only that, the so-called mastermind of the coup attempt, Maj.Gen. Mohammad Abul Manzur—who was killed following his surrender—is regarded by some influential Bangladeshis as having been a scapegoat for real villains in Dacca. The fact that Manzur had fallen out of Zia’s favor is not disputed—the president had earlier dismissed him from his command at Chittagong. But reliable sources say he was asleep at the time of the assassination. When he was awakened later by the mutineers and asked to take over, Manzur phoned senior officials in Dacca to establish his innocence. But when he tried to surrender, he was taken away and shot.
After last week’s executions, the
respected Indian newspaper The Statesman caught the mood of growing skepticism in Bangladesh. “Those who might have contradicted the government’s version have all been eliminated,” it declared. “The suspicion will remain that their liquidation was dictated by the maxim that dead men tell no tales.”
Still, the political parties opposing Zia’s Bangladesh National Party (BNP) in the presidential stakes have not been silenced. Indeed they have made several tactical gains. Initially, the government scheduled the election for mid-September—a suspicious choice of timing because monsoons regularly submerge about half the country during that period. In response, the opposition, headed by the Awami League, threatened a boycott unless the date was changed to mid-November and the emergency imposed after Zia’s murder lifted. The government quickly gave in and 85 candidates have now filed nomination papers. By polling day, however, the contest is expected to have become a headon fight between the Awami League and the BNP. The league’s nominee is former foreign minister Kamal Hossain, who enjoys the backing of Hasina Wazed, the influential daughter of the country’s first prime minister, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who was murdered along with many of his family in a 1975 army coup.
The likely winner, however, is Acting President Abdus Sattar of the BNP. A former judge, Sattar, 75, initially declined the nomination claiming ill health. But factional fighting within his party persuaded him to reverse his decision, and, come Nov. 15, a large sympathy vote for his murdered BNP predecessor is expected to land Sattar, however reluctantly, back in the president’s office.
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