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Bangladesh - GOVERNMENT

Bangladesh - Government and Politics

THE QUEST FOR REPRESENTATIVE government has been an important feature of the history of Bangladesh. The independence struggle of the eastern Bengali peoples against the British, partition from India in 1947, and secession from Pakistan in 1971 set the stage for the people of Bangladesh to create a democratic political system. The Constitution, as it was initially promulgated in 1972, embodied the democratic yearnings of the long struggle for independence and guaranteed human rights and political freedoms within a system of checks and balances similar to those existing in the British and United States governments. But later events ended these hopes. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (Mujib), hero of the 1971 war of independence, amended the Constitution and assumed dictatorial powers. His successors, most of whom were military men who seized power during various times of trouble, also ruled through autocratic means. As a result, successive regimes established single-party systems representing military interests, with the leader wielding almost absolute power.

Yet the struggle for democracy was still alive in Bangladesh as of the late 1980s. The single-party system of the 1970s and 1980s was unable to satisfy the varied political movements and interest groups of the nation. Opposition parties--although they represented conflicting views and were as unwilling as the ruling regime to share power--remained a vital force that commanded the loyalties of a large proportion of the population.

Socialist and communist parties, centrist parties representing the policies of defunct regimes, and conservative Islamic parties-- each with a completely different vision of the path that Bangladesh should follow but united in their opposition to the rule of President Hussain Muhammad Ershad--all vied for power in the late 1980s. Their refusal to participate in parliamentary politics under Ershad, who had seized power in 1982, relegated the opposition to illegal activities and demonstrations on campuses and in the streets that periodically brought economic life to a standstill in urban areas. The ineffectiveness and confrontational position of the opposition only strengthened the regime's hold over Parliament and the civil service and allowed the military to continue its strong autocratic rule.

Remarkably, the policies of Bangladesh's autocratic military rulers have been characterized by a commitment to democratic ideals and an adherence to the Constitution. Ershad seized power in the name of the Constitution, and he sought to legitimize his position by claiming that he brought stability to the country in order to guarantee democratic freedom. One of Ershad's most significant moves toward democracy was the establishment of a system of local elections that allowed voters to choose members of local representative councils. In the short term, this democratic reform allowed local elites to control government patronage, and it also made them docile supporters of the regime. Nevertheless, by the late 1980s the local councils had become training grounds for new political leaders and forums for democratic competition throughout the nation.

Bangladesh has pursued a neutralist policy in international relations in a continuing effort to secure economic aid from every possible foreign source. Bangladesh in 1988 was one of the few countries in the world on good terms with both the United States and the Soviet Union and their allies and with China, the Islamic world, and most Third World nations. Bangladesh has played an active role in the United Nations (UN), the Nonaligned Movement, and other international groupings, and it was the driving force behind the establishment of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, which offered promise for economic cooperation. Bangladesh was neutral, but it was forceful on a number of international issues. The Cambodian, Palestinian, and South African issues have elicited strong stands from Dhaka, and complicated bilateral problems with India have invoked intense displays of hostility and national pride among Bangladeshis in the years since independence.


<>Council of Ministers
<>Civil Service
<>Local Administration
Achieving Stability, 1982-83
<>Emerging Opposition, 1983-86
<>Relaxation of Martial Law, 1986-87
<>More Opposition Pressure
Local Elites
<>The National Party
<>Party Politics
<>Awami League
<>Bangladesh National Party
<>Leftist Parties
<>Islamic Parties
<>Workers and Students
<>Women in Politics



The Constitution of Bangladesh has formed the basis for the nation's political organization since it was adopted on November 4, 1972. Many abrupt political changes have caused suspension of the Constitution and have led to amendments in almost every section, including the total revision of some major provisions. It is notable, however, that every regime that came to power since 1972 has couched major administrative changes in terms of the Constitution and has attempted to legitimize changes by legally amending this basic document.

According to the Constitution, the state has a positive role to play in reorganizing society in order to create a free and equal citizenry and provide for the welfare of all. The government is required to ensure food, shelter, clothing, medical care, education, work, and social security for the people. The government must also build socialism by implementing programs to "remove social and economic inequality" and "ensure the equitable distribution of wealth among citizens." These far-reaching goals represented the viewpoints of many members of the 1972 Constituent Assembly and the early Awami League (People's League) government, who were deeply influenced by socialist ideology. Another sector of public opinion, however, has always viewed private property and private enterprise as the heart of social and economic development. This viewpoint is also part of the constitutional principles of state policy, which equally recognize state, cooperative, and private forms of ownership. The Constitution thus mandates a high degree of state involvement in the establishment of socialism, although it explicitly preserves a private property system. In practice, the Constitution has supported a wide range of government policies, ranging from those of the nationalized, interventionist state of Mujib's time to the increasing deregulation and reliance on market forces under presidents Ziaur Rahman (Zia) and Ershad.

The framers of the Constitution, after emerging from a period of intense repression under Pakistan, took great pains to outline the fundamental rights of citizens even before describing the government's structure. According to the section on fundamental rights, all men and women are equal before the law, without discrimination based on religion, race, caste, sex, or place of birth. The Constitution also guarantees the right to assemble, hold public meetings, and form unions. Freedom of speech and of the press are ensured. Persons who have been arrested must be informed of the charges made against them, and they must be brought before a magistrate within twenty-four hours. The Constitution, however, adds that these guarantees are subject to "any reasonable restrictions imposed by law," leaving open the possibility of an administrative decision to revoke fundamental rights. Furthermore, there is a provision for "preventive detention" of up to six months. Those being held under preventive detention do not have the right to know the charges made against them, nor to appear before a magistrate, and a legal advisory board may extend this form of detention after seeing the detainee. The Constitution does not define the circumstances or the level of authority necessary for the revocation of constitutional guarantees or for the enforcement of preventive detention. During the many occasions of civil disorder or public protest that have marked Bangladeshi political life, the incumbent administration has often found it useful to suspend rights or jail opponents without trial in accordance with the Constitution.

The Islamic religion was the driving force behind the creation of Pakistan, and it has remained an important component of Bangladeshi ideology. The Constitution as originally framed in 1972 explicitly described the government of Bangladesh as "secular," but in 1977 an executive proclamation made three changes in wording that did away with this legacy. The proclamation deleted "secular" and inserted a phrase stating that a fundamental state principle is "absolute trust and faith in the Almighty Allah." The phrase bismillah ar rahman ar rahim (in the name of Allah, the beneficent, the merciful) was inserted before the preamble of the Constitution. Another clause states that the government should "preserve and strengthen fraternal relations among Muslim countries based on Islamic solidarity." These changes in terminology reflected an overt state policy aimed at strengthening Islamic culture and religious institutions as central symbols of nationalism and at reinforcing international ties with other Islamic nations, including wealthy Arab oil-producing countries. Domestically, state support for Islam, including recognition of Islam as the state religion in the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution in June 1988, has not led to official persecution of other religions. Despite agitation by Jamaat e Islami (Congregation of Islam) and other conservative parties, there was no official implementation of sharia (Islamic law) as of mid-1988.

The Constitution is patterned closely on the British and United States models inasmuch as it includes provisions for independent legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government. When it first came into effect, the Constitution established a Britishstyle executive, with a prime minister appointed from a parliamentary majority as the effective authority under a titular president. In 1975 the Fourth Amendment implemented "Mujibism" (named for Mujib), mandating a single national party and giving the president effective authority, subject to the advice of a prime minister. The later governments of Zia and Ershad preserved the powers of the presidency and strengthened the office of the chief executive through amendments and their personal control of the highest office in the land. Because of this concentration of power in individual leaders, the Bangladeshi Constitution gives much greater authority to the executive branch than does the United States Constitution. In fact, the legislature and the courts have few constitutional avenues for checking presidential power, while the executive has many tools for dominating the other branches of the government.

Bangladesh - Legislature

The legislative branch of the government is a unicameral Parliament, or Jatiyo Sangsad (House of the People), which makes the laws for the nation. Members of Parliament, who must be at least twenty-five years old, are directly elected from territorial constituencies. Parliament sits for a maximum of five years, must meet at least twice a year, and must meet less than thirty days after election results are declared. The president calls Parliament into session. The assembly elects a speaker and a deputy speaker, who chair parliamentary activities. Parliament also appoints a standing committee, a special committee, a secretariat, and an ombudsman.

Parliament debates and votes on legislative bills. Decisions are decided by a majority vote of the 300 members, with the presiding officer abstaining from voting except to break a tie. A quorum is sixty members. If Parliament passes a nonmoney bill, it goes to the president; if he disapproves of the bill, he may return it to Parliament within fifteen days for renewed debate. If Parliament again passes the bill, it becomes law. If the president does not return a bill to Parliament within fifteen days, it automatically becomes law. All money bills require a presidential recommendation before they can be introduced for debate in Parliament. Parliament has the ability to reject the national budget or to delay implementation. It is therefore in the best interests of the executive as well as the entire nation that budgets submitted to Parliament should be designed to please the majority of its members. The legislature is thus a potentially powerful force for enacting laws over the objections of the president or for blocking presidential financial initiatives. In practice, however, because most members of Parliament have been affiliated with the president's party, the legislature has typically served the interests of the president.

The Bangladeshi and British parliaments have accommodated political parties in a similar manner. After elections, a single political party or a coalition of parties must form a government-- that is, they must form a block of votes within Parliament that guarantees the passage of bills they may introduce. Once a parliamentary majority is formed, the president chooses the majority leader as prime minister and appoints other members of the majority as cabinet ministers. Parliament can function for a full five-year term if a single party or coalition can continue to guarantee a majority. If, however, opposition members attract enough votes to block a bill, the president can dissolve Parliament and call for new elections. In order to prevent widespread bribing of members, or the constant defection of members from one party to another, the Constitution declares that party members who abstain, vote against their party, or absent themselves lose their seats immediately. In practice, whenever Parliament has been in session, a single party affiliated with the president has been able to command a solid majority.

Bangladesh - Presidency

The president, who must be at least thirty-five years old, is directly elected by all voters for a five-year term, and according to the provisions of the Sixth Amendment (1981) he may be reelected. He is commander in chief of the armed forces, oversees the conduct of all foreign affairs, appoints the vice president for a five-year term, and has the power to convene and dissolve Parliament. The president also chooses cabinet ministers, who run the government bureaucracy; heads a secretariat that devises money bills for introduction into Parliament; and appoints the members of the Elections Commission, who supervise all aspects of elections. In addition, the president appoints, without the need for parliamentary approval, Supreme Court justices and lower court judges. Parliament, in turn, can only impeach the president with a two-thirds vote and can only remove the president from office because of malfeasance or illness with a vote of three-fourths of its members.

The president has a number of extraordinary constitutional means of wielding power and influence. In the case of a constitutionally defined "grave emergency" threatening "the security or economic life of Bangladesh," the president may issue a proclamation of emergency, which eliminates all restrictions on state power and the protection of fundamental rights. A state of emergency may last 120 days, or longer with Parliament's approval. If the president determines that "immediate action" is necessary, he may promulgate any ordinance he wants, as long as it is laid before Parliament for approval at its next session--that is, if it has not already been repealed. Added to the considerable power of being able to place persons in preventive detention, these are a potent array of powers controlled directly, and without means for external control, by the president. The Fifth Amendment (1979) allows the president to amend the Constitution, without action by Parliament, by conducting a general referendum allowing a majority of citizens to approve an amendment. Constitutional amendments approved by Parliament must be passed by a two-thirds majority.

The increase in executive power has been the most important trend in the development of the Bangladeshi Constitution. This increase has developed because, in practice, even the very large scope of presidential authority has proved insufficient to protect civilian governments from military coups or to provide military leaders with sufficient legitimacy to preserve their power. Thus Mujib established a constitutional dictatorship, and both Zia and Ershad ruled for extended periods as chief martial law administrators in order to consolidate their hold over the country and to safeguard their influence by increasing their executive powers. Through the extended periods when Parliament was suspended, proclamations of the president or the chief martial law administrator amended the Constitution, not only to strengthen the office of the president but also to legitimize presidential acts.

Bangladesh - Council of Ministers

The president administers the country through the Council of Ministers--the cabinet--which is headed by the prime minister, a presidential appointee. Up to one-fifth of the members of the cabinet may be persons from outside Parliament, allowing experts to participate in the administration of the country, and the president may attract influential politicians to his party by offering them prestigious ministerial posts. The number of ministers in the cabinet has therefore varied over time, according to presidential political strategies. There were nineteen ministers in the 1982 cabinet of President Abdul Fazal Muhammad Ahsanuddin Chowdhury, but by mid-1988 Ershad had increased the number to twenty-eight. Variations in the number of ministries do not signify the creation or cancelation of government programs but simply the reclassification of government services. For example, in 1982 finance and planning programs were administered by a single ministry with two divisions, but in 1988 a separate ministry was created for each. In addition to changes in the status of various governmental divisions, discontinuities have occurred when the president has periodically dismissed ministers or moved them to different ministries. In the midst of this flux, administrative continuity is provided by the secretariats of the various ministries and regions, staffed by senior members of the Bangladesh Civil Service. Ministerial secretaries have often wielded a great deal of power because they are experienced and have numerous personal contacts in their fields, whereas ministers are typically professional politicians who hold office only for a short time.

Bangladesh - Judiciary

The government operates courts in the regions, districts, and subdistricts that make up the local administrative system. The judges in these courts are appointed by the president through the Ministry of Law and Justice or the Ministry of Home Affairs. Most cases heard by the court system originate at the district level, although the newer subdistrict courts experienced an increased caseload in the late 1980s. Upon appeal, cases may go up to the Supreme Court, but litigation may be very slow; in 1987 there were 29 Supreme Court judges dealing with 21,600 pending cases. The Supreme Court, as of June 1988, had permanent benches--called the High Court Division-- in Dhaka, Comilla, Rangpur, Barisal, Sylhet, Chittagong, and Jessore. It hears appeals from district courts and may also judge original cases. The Appellate Division of the Supreme Court in Dhaka reviews appeals of judgment by the High Court Division. The judges of both divisions are appointed by the president.

At the grass-roots level, the judicial system begins with village courts. An aggreived party may make an official petition, which requires a fee, to the chairman of the union council (the administrative division above the village), who may call a session of the village court with himself as chairman and two other judges nominated by each of the parties to the dispute. The parties may question the impartiality of the chairman and have him replaced. The majority of cases end at the village court level, which is inexpensive and which hands down judgments that reflect local opinion and power alignments. There are occasions, however, when the union council chairman may reject an official petition to constitute a village court or when one party desires a higher opinion. In these cases, the dispute goes to a government court at the subdistrict level. Cases may wind their way up from district courts to permanent benches of the High Court Division. Once cases leave the village courts, they become expensive affairs that may last for years, and few citizens have the financial resources to fund a lengthy court battle.

Rapid political changes in independent Bangladesh have compromised the court system. The Constitution originally stated that the president could remove members of the Supreme Court only if two-thirds of Parliament approved, but the Proclamation (Amendment) Order of 1977 included a clause that eliminated the need for parliamentary involvement. The clause set up the Supreme Judicial Council, consisting of the chief justice and the next two senior judges. The council may determine that a judge is not "capable of properly performing the functions of his office" or is "guilty of gross misconduct." On their advice, the president may remove any judge. In addition, executive action has completely eliminated judicial authority for long periods. For example, under martial law regulations enacted in 1982, the Supreme Court lost jurisdiction over the protection of fundamental rights, and all courts operated under provisions of law promulgated by the chief martial law administrator; special and summary martial law courts handed down judgments that were not subject to review by the Supreme Court or any other court. Furthermore, the Fifth Amendment and the Seventh Amendment placed martial law proclamations and judgments outside the review of the court system. In these ways, the courts have been forced to serve the interests of the ruling regime, rather than standing as an independent branch of government.

Bangladesh - Civil Service

The implementation of government policies and projects is the duty of the Bangladesh Civil Service, a corps of trained administrators who form the nation's most influential group of civilians. The importance of the bureaucracy dates back to the colonial period, when the Indian Civil Service provided an elite, educated, and dedicated body of professional administrators. After the partition of India in 1947, when almost all administrative organs had to be created afresh, both East Pakistan and West Pakistan heavily relied on the managerial expertise of professional managers from the old Indian Civil Service. When Bangladesh became independent in 1971, the members of the civil service who joined the new nation brought with them the heritage of the colonial system. This heritage included administrative competence, which proved invaluable in running a young Bangladesh, and an expectation by the elite of benefits and power.

In mid-1988 the civil service was composed of twenty-eight separate services. There were twenty grades, with promotion to higher grades based on merit and seniority, dependent on annual confidential reports filed by the individuals' supervisors. Recruitment to the civil service occurred through open competition within a quota system. Forty percent of all new positions were allotted on the basis of merit; 30 percent were reserved for former freedom fighters (Mukti Bahini), and 20 percent were allotted to women. The quotas were distributed among districts on the basis of population. Eligibility depended on an entrance examination, which included English, Bangla, and mathematics sections, plus a personal interview. The Public Services Commission, as mandated by the Constitution, conducted the examinations for the civil service. The recruitment system attempted to eliminate the entrenched power of the old elites and to decrease the bias that favored candidates from wealthy, urban families. Although in the late 1980s it appeared that the new rules for recruitment and promotion might widen the backgrounds of civil service personnel and their supervisors, the older, senior members of the service continued to dominate the administration.

Since independence, membership in the civil service has been one of the most desirable careers in the country. For senior civil servants, benefits included government housing at a standard rate of 7.5 percent of base salary, transportation, medical care, and a pension. Equally important were the prestige and influence that accompanied an administrative career. For example, there was great power in directing a division of a ministerial secretariat in Dhaka, or one of its attached departments, subordinate offices, or autonomous bodies. Positions in the countryside were less popular, but the long tradition of bureaucratic elitism and subservience to government officials made the local administrator of the civil service an influential person in the community. In the late 1980s, the centralization of power and influence within the civil service remained one of the prime targets of administrative changes designed to decentralize politics and economic development throughout Bangladesh.

Bangladesh - Local Administration

During the early British period, when modified versions of Mughal (1526-1858) and earlier administrations were adopted, the closest the government came to the rural society was the zamindar, an administrator with concurrent judicial functions, who ensured revenue flows from the localities to the central government and handled a wide variety of official business. Government from the top down was the general rule for the Indian Civil Service and later the Pakistani and early Bangladeshi civil services. After 1971 the government of Bangladesh saw the benefits of involving more people in democratic decision-making and development programs, but the progress of reform was slow. In 1959 General Mohammad Ayub Khan's government inaugurated a "basic democracies" program designed to involve villagers in development programs, with direct elections to union councils and indirect elections to bodies serving larger administrative units. Mujib's government held elections for union councils, but the coup of 1975 prevented their effective functioning. In 1980 Zia's government announced the Self-Sufficient Village Government Plan, but this project ended when Zia was assassinated in 1981. In 1982 Ershad appointed the Committee for Administrative Reorganization/Reforms, which led to the establishment of the National Implementation Committee for Administrative Reorganization. These bodies built a comprehensive plan for administrative decentralization based on the subdistrict.

Bangladesh is divided into four main territorial divisions. In the late 1980s, the four divisions were divided into twenty-one regions, and the regions were subdivided into sixty-four districts (zilas). Below the district level, there were further urban and rural subdivisions. Urban areas include four municipal corporations (Dhaka, Chittagong, Rajshahi, and Khulna, each of which included several municipalities), eightyseven municipalities (pourashavas) and thirty townships (thanas). The four divisions had the same name as the four municipal corporations. The countryside had 460 subdistricts upazilas, which were further divided into 4,401 unions (the rough equivalent of an urban ward); these, in turn, contained 60,315 mouzas (groups of two or more villages--about 20 percent of the total) and single villages (about 80 percent of the total). A further subdivision, equivalent to the rural mouza, was the mahalla, which was found in urban areas. Each mouza or mahalla, the size of which was determined by census data-gathering techniques, contained about 250 households. An average village in the late 1980s contained 1,300 to 1,400 people. An average union contained about 15 villages and a population of about 20,000, and an average subdistrict had 8 to 10 unions with about 200,000 people.

Throughout its history, one of the main challenges to the Bangladeshi government has been finding ways to involve people in democratic politics at every administrative level.

According to the decentralization plan in effect in mid-1988, each rural mouza had its own council (parishad) of elected representatives chosen by local voters (persons aged eighteen and over). At the next administrative level, the chairmen of the union councils were directly elected by voters within their jurisdictions. The remaining members of the union council were chosen by the mouza councils, with each member of the union council representing three or four villages. The chairmen of the union councils formed the voting membership of the council at the subdistrict level, along with three appointed women and another appointed member, usually a former freedom fighter. The chairman of the subdistrict council was directly elected by subdistrict voters. Thus the people had a direct electoral role at the village level, and they had a voice in choosing influential chairmen at the union and subdistrict levels. In the late 1980s, plans called for the expansion of representation at the district level, and the controversial District Council (Zila Parishad) Bill of 1987 was the first step in this direction. By mid-1988, however, these plans had not been implemented; the region and division levels remained administrative units of the civil service and had no political significance.

Local participatory politics met the civil service in the subdistrict council. In the late 1980s, the chief government official in charge of local projects and development efforts was the subdistrict project management (upazila nirbahi) officer, who directed a staff of about 250 technical and administrative officers. Nirbahi officers were part of the staff appointed by central authorities in Dhaka, and they received their pay, benefits, and promotion from the civil service. Their direct supervisors, however, were the subdistrict council chairmen. The subdistrict councils, through their chairmen, were expected to make plans for public works and development projects within their own territories, spend allocated government funds, and direct the development activities of nirbahi officers and their staff. Nirbahi officers and other subdistrict technical personnel were allowed to participate in subdistrict council meetings, but only as nonvoting members. Civil service members, heirs of a long tradition of elite government, took orders from subdistrict council chairmen because the latter wrote the annual evaluations of nirbahi officers which served as the basis for promotion within the civil service. In this way, elected representatives of the people at the local level exercised direct control over civil servants and government projects in their own area.

In the late 1980s, the administrative apparatus at the urban level was comprised of a governing council with an elected chairman, elected commissioners (no more than 10 percent of whom were women), and several ex officio members. A mayor and deputy mayors were elected from among the council members.

The decentralization scheme implemented under Ershad's government was the most ambitious attempt in the history of Bangladesh to bring responsible government to the local level. The system officially began with elections in 1983 for four-year terms to union councils and with elections in 1984 for three-year terms to subdistrict councils. However, there were major problems with this scheme of decentralized administration. First, the electoral system tended to represent only the wealthiest and most influential members of society. These persons made decisions that strengthened their own patronage networks and influence at the local level; the poorest strata in society had little direct voice in elected committees. Second, the subdistrict councils were designed to create and implement development activities in their areas, but they were typically slow to draft five-year plans or carry through broad-based development efforts. Most of their projects emphasized construction or public works, (e.g., school buildings or irrigation canals, and they sometimes neglected the personnel and training components necessary for social involvement. Third, civil service members have long lacked respect for local politicians, looking to their own advancement from their supervisors in Dhaka. They have often been slow to cooperate with elected members of local committees. For example, although the subdistrict council chairman was responsible for writing the nirbahi officer's annual evaluation, the officer was expected to submit the evaluation form to the subdistrict council chairman, and in many cases these forms did not appear, thus preventing the chairmen from exercising control. Finally, the entire system of decentralized politics was viewed by opposition politicians as a patronage network designed to attract local elites to the party of the regime in power. Observers tended to conclude that instead of furthering decentralized democracy, the system only strengthened the national party controlled from Dhaka.


Achieving Stability, 1982-83

On March 24, 1982, the army chief of staff, Lieutenant General Hussain Muhammad Ershad, seized control of the government in a military coup. He proclaimed martial law, made himself chief martial law administrator, and dismantled the structures of democratic government that the administration of the late president Zia had carefully built during the previous five years. Ershad suspended the Constitution, disbanded Parliament, prohibited all political activities, and deprived the president, vice president, and cabinet ministers of their offices. Three days after the coup, Supreme Court justice Abdul Fazal Muhammad Ahsanuddin Chowdhury became interim president. Ershad became chief minister of a new cabinet, and by December 1983 he had officially taken over the presidency. He declared that he expected a return to democratic rule in about two years. In fact, martial law lasted until November 1986.

Ershad cited as reasons for his coup the growing corruption and inefficiency of the civilian government dominated by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. After the assassination of President Zia as part of a local military rebellion in Chittagong in May 1981, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party fell into conflicting factions that could not be controlled by Zia's successor, President Abdus Sattar. Without Zia at the helm, the powerful leaders of the military distrusted Sattar's civilian government. Thus, because the major political forces in the country could not cooperate with each other, there was no resistance to Ershad's takeover. After establishing control of the country, he had three main priorities for bringing political chaos to an end and for governing Bangladesh. His goals were to act against corruption and reorganize the administrative apparatus in order to implement overdue reforms, stand as a strong centralizing force while keeping his civilian opponents at bay, and placate the military so as to prevent further coup attempts. Through mid-1988 Ershad proved remarkably capable at accomplishing these goals, and he had become the longest ruling political leader in the history of independent Bangladesh.

During his tenure as chief martial law administrator, Ershad divided the country into five martial law zones, each headed by a handpicked senior army officer. Twenty-four special and summary martial law courts directly involved the military in local administration. Although the civilian court system continued to function, violations of martial law ordinances were handled by these extraconstitutional martial law tribunals, where active-duty military officers met in secret sessions to try cases ranging from violations of press censorship to vaguely defined "antisocial activities." Those convicted of political crimes had no right of appeal, and defendants were tried in absentia. Martial law deprived the Supreme Court of its jurisdiction over the protection of fundamental rights, and criticism of martial law was punishable by up to seven years' imprisonment.

Ershad moved forcibly to end corruption and reorganize the government. Several hundred politicians, including six former cabinet ministers, were jailed on charges of corruption. Ershad announced that one of his highest priorities was a reorganization of the government in order to decentralize decision making and development projects. In order to outline procedures for this decentralization project, he appointed the Committee for Administrative Reorganization/Reforms, which instituted sweeping changes in local administration. The Land Reforms Ordinance of 1984 granted important rights to tenants for the first time in the history of Bangladesh, and a new plan for the divestment of government industries promised to move the country away from socialism. Ershad built on Zia's earlier platform of advocating an increased role for Islam in the culture and politics of Bangladesh.

Bangladesh - Emerging Opposition, 1983-86

Ershad had a clear political stage for about a year after the coup because of his severe repression of opposition parties and because of intense factional fighting within all major political groupings. By early 1983, however, a pattern of confrontation politics had emerged. This pattern dominated the public life of Bangladesh until the late 1980s. Paradoxically, the government's Islamic policies provided a common cause for the first large anti-Ershad demonstrations. A proposed education program was designed to introduce English and Arabic as compulsory subjects in primary and secondary schools. This touched sensitive nationalist nerves, especially among university students, who saw it as a threat to the Bangla language. Several of Ershad's speeches favoring a stronger Islamic movement provoked riots on university campuses, which escalated into battles between students and police on February 14 and 15, 1983. Although the government imposed a curfew and closed the universities, the student movement stirred the opposition into more unified coalitions.

Dozens of political parties existed in Bangladesh during the 1980s, but the two major opposition parties to Ershad's rule were the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. The Awami League, which originated in 1949 and emerged preeminent at the beginning of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's era, gradually united around the leadership of Sheikh Hasina Wajed, Mujib's eldest daughter. A fifteen-party alliance led by the Awami League began to act in unison during 1983. The leadership of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party fell to Begum Khaleda Zia, the widow of President Zia, and the party became the center of a seven-party alliance distinct from the one led by the Awami League. The two major alliances distrusted each other intensely, but they formed the heart of a larger thirty-two-party front, comprising socialist, communist, and Islamic groups, called the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy. This movement adopted a five-point program demanding an end to martial law, restoration of fundamental rights, parliamentary elections, release of political prisoners, and the trial of persons responsible for police brutality in the February student protests. The opposition alliances successfully engineered two general strikes in November 1983, the second resulting in widespread violence and hundreds of casualties among demonstrators and security personnel.

Political events for the next several years revolved around attempts by the Ershad government to move from a military dictatorship to a civilian government with the cooperation of the political opposition. Ershad's program called for local elections at the union and subdistrict levels, followed by presidential and parliamentary elections, while a national party supporting the government would integrate all political groups in the same way the Bangladesh Nationalist Party had functioned during Zia's regime. Ershad relaxed the ban on political activities in January 1984 and repeatedly called for dialogue with opposition parties, but the major opposition alliances adamantly refused to cooperate while martial law remained in effect. The government held elections for union and municipal councils between December 1983 and February 1984, but repeated public demonstrations by opposition parties forced the cancellation of subdistrict and parliamentary elections. A rising crescendo of violence and civil disobedience led Ershad to reimpose harsh martial law restrictions in March 1985 and to put under house arrest Hasina, Khaleda Zia, and other opposition leaders. The government-sponsored party, Jana Dal (People's Party), had been formed in November 1983, but it had little chance to become organized before the new ban on political activity went into effect.

In 1985 the government went ahead with a "civilianization" program without the participation of the opposition parties. With martial law being fully enforced, a referendum was held on March 21, asking voters: "Do you support the policies of President Ershad, and do you want him to continue to run this administration until a civilian government is formed through elections?" The official count of "yes" votes amounted to 32,539,264, while "no" votes totaled 1,290,217. The opposition had organized a general strike on referendum day and subsequently claimed that the results were fraudulent. In May the government conducted subdistrict council elections. Run on a nonparty, nationwide basis, the elections featured 2,300 candidates competing for 458 seats as council chairmen. Keen local contests occurred amid widespread violence and claims of fraud by the opposition. After these elections, the government released Hasina, Khaleda Zia, and the other opposition leaders from house arrest, and on October 1 it canceled the ban on indoor meetings and rallies of political parties. Meanwhile, the pro-government Jana Dal became the leading component of the new Jatiyo Party (National Party), which featured members who had played prominent roles in Ershad's cabinet. By late 1985, the stage had been set for parliamentary elections. Despite constant opposition party pressure, Ershad's regime had used its control over the government and the military to maneuver the country toward civilian rule.

Bangladesh - Relaxation of Martial Law, 1986-87

In March 1986, Ershad removed military commanders from key civil posts and abolished martial law offices and more than 150 military courts in an attempt to ease martial law restrictions. Because these moves satisfied some of the demands of the opposition, an eight-party alliance comprising the Awami League and some smaller parties agreed to participate in parliamentary elections. However, the seven-party alliance led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party boycotted the May 1986 elections, and according to the opposition parties the elections were marred by extensive fraud, including overt support for Jatiyo Party candidates by Ershad and other government officials, theft of ballot boxes, and beatings of opposition party workers. Official figures claimed the turnout at the polls was between 45 and 50 percent of the electorate, but other observers estimated that only 10 to 30 percent participated. The elections gave the Jatiyo Party an absolute majority of 153 seats in Parliament; its close ally, the Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal (National Socialist Party), took 7 seats. The Awami League gained seventy-six seats, the Jamaat e Islami took ten seats, and a number of smaller parties and independents won a total of fifty-four seats. All thirty seats reserved for women went to supporters of the Jatiyo Party, giving Ershad's supporters a comfortable majority.

With Parliament under his control, Ershad proceeded with plans for a presidential election. He resigned as army chief of staff in August 1986 but remained chief martial law administrator and commander in chief of the armed forces. He officially joined the Jatiyo Party in September, was elected its chairman, and became the party's candidate for president. The opposition parties did everything in their power to block these moves, claiming that the trappings of a democratic process were a sham while martial law was in effect. Awami League members of Parliament refused to attend its opening session, and in July Parliament adjourned for an indefinite period. Leftist parties and the alliances led by the Awami League, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, and Jamaat e Islami boycotted the elections and organized widespread demonstrations, leading to the jailing of many opposition leaders and the house arrest of Hasina and Khaleda Zia. Yet the opposition's tactics did not prevent the successful completion of the presidential election in October. Ershad easily defeated 11 other candidates, officially obtaining 22 million votes (84 percent) of the electorate. Opposition parties again claimed that the election results were fraudulent, and they asserted that only 3 percent of the electorate had cast ballots.

Firmly in control of a civilian government as well as the military establishment, Ershad took steps to legitimize his rule of the previous four years. He summoned Parliament into session on November 10, 1986, to consider a seventh amendment to the Constitution, which would ratify his assumption of power in 1982 and all subsequent actions of his martial law administration. The opposition again took to the streets in protest. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party, Jamaat e Islami, and a leftist five-party alliance led a general strike on November 10. The Awami League, demanding the lifting of martial law, boycotted Parliament and instead held a "parallel parliament" on the stairs of Parliament House. Inside, the 223 representatives present for the session voted unanimously in favor of the Seventh Amendment, and hours later Ershad announced in a national address the withdrawal of martial law and the full restoration of the Constitution. Prime Minister Mizanur Rahman Chowdhury proclaimed these events a "glorious chapter," but Hasina described them as a "black chapter" in Bangladesh's history.

In early 1987, it appeared that Ershad had outmaneuvered his opponents and made the transition to a civilian leadership. The opposition was in disarray. By the time Awami League had decided to participate in Parliament in 1986, its coalition had shrunk from fifteen to eight parties. As a result, it had lost any opportunities it might have had for immediate cooperation with the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and other parties, and it forfeited its claims to moral leadership in the fight against Ershad's regime. The rift between the Awami League and other opposition parties widened during the first half of 1987. For example, the newspapers were full of reports of the insults exchanged between Hasina and other opposition leaders. Ershad took advantage of the situation by convening Parliament in June to consider measures to consolidate his regime further. The most controversial measure was the District Council (Zila Parishad) Bill. This act expanded representative government by allowing elected representatives (members of Parliament and chairmen of subdistrict and municipality councils) to sit on district councils, but it also made provision for members of the military to participate as nonvoting members. The opposition viewed this move as an attempt to install the armed forces in the administration of the country on a permanent basis, thus favoring Ershad and his military supporters. The furor raised by the District Council (Zila Parishad) Bill grew into a storm that reunited the opposition and seriously destabilized Ershad's government from mid-1987 to mid-1988.

Bangladesh - More Opposition Pressure

Opposition alliances began public protests against the District Council Amendment Bill in June 1987. The five-party alliance implemented a half-day general strike in Dhaka on June 23. A week later, another half-day general strike supported by the parliamentary opposition paralyzed most cities and towns. Nevertheless, on July 12, 1987, the Jatiyo Party majority in Parliament passed the bill. Two days of strikes and public demonstrations followed. Ershad, responding to opposition pressure, sent the bill back to Parliament for "reconsideration." The opposition, realizing that its disunity would allow Ershad to strengthen his hold over the country, intensified its street demonstrations, and its leaders made moves toward greater cooperation against the government. The opposition parties called for Ershad's immediate resignation and new elections under a caretaker government. On July 24, the longest general strike in Bangladesh's history, a 54-hour campaign led by the Workers-Employees United Council (Sramik Karmachari Oikkiya Parishad), ended after 11 people were killed and 700 injured in street violence between demonstrators and security forces. In October the Workers-Employees United Council led another lengthy strike. The strike lasted for forty-eight hours and ended on October 21.

By the fall of 1987, political events had come to a head. Extensive flooding from heavy monsoon season rains led to widespread misery in the countryside and intense criticism of the government's relief efforts. Hasina and Khaleda Zia met on October 28, signaling a new phase of cooperation between the two leading opposition coalitions. A liaison committee of the eight-, seven-, and five-party alliances was formed to coordinate the moves of the opposition. The "final showdown," known as the Siege of Dhaka, occurred between November 10 and 12, when the opposition parties brought thousands of supporters into the streets. The government was well prepared for the confrontation, arresting Hasina, Khaleda Zia, and other leaders and sending thousands of security personnel into urban areas to control demonstrations.

Extensive security measures prevented a complete breakdown of public order, and after a week Dhaka was again under control. However, continuing agitation prevented a return to normal life throughout the country, leading Ershad to declare a state of emergency, with familiar restrictions on civil rights, on November 27. The opposition's tactics had shaken the government, but street violence and civil disobedience proved unable to dislodge Ershad's regime.

On December 6, 1987, Ershad dissolved Parliament, which had not met since July. According to the Constitution, he was required to arrange for new elections within ninety days. Also scheduled for early 1988 were elections for union councils and for municipal officials in Dhaka, Chittagong, Khulna, and Rajshahi. These elections were occasions for further public agitation by the political opposition. In early January, five smaller parties joined the opposition coalition, which then implemented a two-day general strike on January 20 and 21. Another general strike occurred on February 6, coinciding with the last date for filing nominations for the municipal elections. On February 13 and 14, following the union council elections, the opposition held another general strike. None of these actions prevented the government from implementing its election plans, but they kept the nation in a state of constant protest; the opposition may have hoped that Ershad's supporters in the military would eventually view him as a political liability and force him to resign.

The elections for union councils on February 10, 1988, were particularly hard fought, and they became a major security problem for the government. There were 115,000 candidates vying for 44,000 positions at 20,000 polling stations throughout the country. Widespread violence marred the elections. The official count listed 85 dead and about 500 injured, although opposition figures claimed 150 had been killed and up to 8,000 had been wounded in street battles between demonstrators and security forces. Election violence forced re-voting at 5,500 polling centers in early April, bringing another round of violence that left 4 dead and 100 more injured.

After the union council elections, the government deployed numerous police and paramilitary personnel and army troops for the parliamentary elections held on March 3, 1988. Schools were closed March 1-5, and a public holiday was declared during the two days before the elections. The Awami League's eight-party coalition, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party's seven-party coalition, the leftist five-party coalition, and Jamaat e Islami led a general opposition boycott. There were 1,168 candidates competing for the 300 seats. The Jatiyo Party won 251 seats, and the Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal, a close ally of the Jatiyo Party in the preceding Parliament, won 21 seats. Other small parties and independents took only 27 seats. The opposition again claimed a very small voter turnout in these elections--about 1 percent--while the government claimed a 50 percent turnout.

Ershad's style of democracy--which did not include the participation of the opposition--had weathered a long political storm. On April 12, 1988, he lifted the state of emergency, and Parliament duly convened on April 25 amid another general strike. Ershad took the occasion of his opening speech to Parliament to advocate Islam as the state religion. This call grew from Ershad's long-term commitment to Islam as an integral part of state ideology, but it also brought his party's position closer to that of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, Jamaat e Islami, and smaller fundamentalist parties. Again Ershad appeared to be making overtures for a reconciliation with part of the opposition. On June 7, 1988, Parliament, dominated by the Jatiyo Party, passed the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, making Islam the state religion and setting up six permanent high court benches outside Dhaka. The parliamentary opposition voted against the measure, and a general strike paralyzed Dhaka.

After six years in power, Ershad could look back on a series of major personal achievements. He had reconciled differences in the armed forces and prevented further military coups, efficiently managed international diplomacy and aid programs, and guided the country through a period of modest economic growth. He served as chief executive of Bangladesh for a longer period than any leader since independence and, in doing so, brought a sense of stability to the nation. However, Ershad had also kept opposition politicians from sharing power, and although he engineered the change from direct military rule to a civilian government, he made no progress in reconciling the political opposition to his regime. Despite the trappings of a democratic system, the government remained a structure for one-man rule, with a packed Parliament, a handpicked judicial system, and questionable election practices. The opposition conducted its politics in the streets and refused to grant any legitimacy to Ershad. Stability depended on Ershad's personal survival and his ability to keep street politics under control.


Local Elites

For the vast majority of Bangladeshis, politics revolves around the institutions of the village or the union of neighboring villages. Traditionally, the main base for political influence in rural areas has been landownership. During the British colonial period, zamindars controlled huge estates as if they were their personal kingdoms. With the abolition of zamindar tenure in 1950, a new local elite of rich Muslim peasants developed. The members of the new elite owned far less land than the zamindars had once possessed, but they were able to feed their families well, sell surplus produce, send their children to school, and form new links with the bureaucracy of East Pakistan and later Bangladesh. Amid the large majority of poor and generally illiterate peasants, well-to-do farmers formed a new rural leadership that dominated local affairs.

Village society is often divided into a number of factions that follow the lines of kinship. At the center of each faction is a family that owns more land than most of the other villagers. In the colonial and Pakistani periods, local leaders were old men, but the trend since independence is for younger men to head factions as well. The heart of the local elder's authority is his control over land and the ability to provide land or employment to poorer villagers, who are often his kin. Land control may be an ancient prerogative, stretching back to the zamindars, or it may be the result of gradual purchases since independence. A village may have only one faction, but typically there will be several factions within the village, each competing for influence over villagers and struggling for resources from local administrative and development offices.

The leaders of local factions exercise their influence in village courts and as managers of village affairs with other administrative units. The traditional means for resolving local disputes is through the village court, which comprises leaders of village factions and other members of union councils. Throughout Bangladesh, village courts address the vast majority of disputes, but it is rare for the courts to decide in favor of a poor peasant over a rich peasant, or for the weaker faction over the stronger. The relative security of village leaders makes it possible for some of their children to attend secondary schools, or even colleges or universities; some factions also base much of their authority on their knowledge of sharia. Education is much esteemed in Bangladesh, and degrees are tickets to highly prized government positions or to urban jobs that give the involved families a cosmopolitan outlook. These contacts outside the village include necessary links with bureaucratic institutions that ultimately bring economic aid and patronage jobs to the village. In these ways, the factional leadership of the village provides vital links to the development process, while retaining its traditional position at the top of village society.

Local leaders who control land, people, and education also tend to control the disbursement of rural credit and development funds through their positions in union and subdistrict government. Studies of the leadership of union council members have demonstrated this dominance of local elites over rural political and economic life. Among the chairmen of union councils in 1984, over 60 percent owned more than 3 hectares of land, with an average of almost 8 hectares. Sixty percent were primarily engaged in agriculture, 30 percent were businessmen, and 75 percent had a marketable surplus each year. Eighty percent had incomes greater than TK40,000 per year, and 50 percent had incomes greater than Tk100,000. Almost all union council leaders took part in village courts as judges, and most were heavily involved in the support of local mosques and madrasa (religious school attached to a mosque) committees. For victorious campaigns for union council chairmanships, winners spent an average of more than Tk1 million in 1978; most of them mobilized at least 25 people for their campaigns, and 20 percent mobilized between 200 and 2,000 supporters. In 1978 only 7 percent of the chairmen of union councils had college degrees, but the percentage of graduates had increased to 50 percent by 1984.

Political elites were more varied in urban environments. The metropolitan areas of Dhaka, Chittagong, Khulna, and Rajshahi had large numbers of conflicting constituencies and political machines linked to national parties. In smaller cities and towns serving as district and subdistrict administrative centers, some leaders emerged directly from the local social system, whereas others became politically established as a result of their professional activities. Members of the government bureaucracy and the military, for example, form an important part of a district town's leadership, but they typically have roots, and connections to land, in other parts of the country. Members of the permanent local elite, such as businessmen, union leaders, lawyers, or religious figures, are more concerned with strictly local issues and have strong support from family networks stretching into the nearby countryside. One of the outstanding characteristics of the urban leadership is its relatively short history. In the late 1980s, it was clear that many had emerged from middle-class or rich peasant backgrounds since 1947 or, in many cases, since 1971. Most retained close links with their rural relatives, either locally or elsewhere. Urban elites included professional politicians of national parties, and the entire social group that made up the urban leadership--military, professional, administrative, religious, and business personnel--interacted in a hotbed of national politics.

Bangladesh - The National Party

One of the most salient characteristics of Bangladeshi politics has been the drive toward the concentration of power in a single party headed by a strong executive. This process began in 1975 when the Awami League, even with a huge mandate from the people, proved incapable of governing the country, prompting Mujib to form a monolithic national party, the Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League (Bangladesh Peasants, Workers, and People's League). After Zia consolidated his military dictatorship, he formed his own Bangladesh Nationalist Party, which took control of Parliament and attracted opportunistic politicians from the opposition to a strong, centrist platform. Ershad's regime followed Zia's model, with martial law succeeded by the formation of a centrist party-- the Jatiyo Party--and the orchestration of a civilian government supporting a strong executive. Each time a new national party came to power, it banished the opposition into illegal status or manipulated the administrative machinery for its own advantage, driving the opposition into the streets. Parliamentary elections mirrored this process. The Awami League, which was dominant in the early 1970s, progressively moved to the periphery of the electoral process in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, despite continuing support for its programs from large segments of the population. The same fate was in store for the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, which thrived while Zia lived but was reduced to boycotting the electoral process after 1981. The Jatiyo Party, created by Ershad and his colleagues, became stronger over time as it attracted increasing numbers of politicians. This process continued into the late 1980s because the strong executive, who controlled the country's administration, media, and security forces, was able to keep opposition parties off balance with a "carrot and stick" strategy.

The party in power periodically offered attractive government posts to opposition leaders in return for political loyalty or neutrality. During the presidencies of Zia and Ershad, the number of cabinet positions steadily expanded, as potentially influential politicians received rewards for cooperating with the party in power. Before elections, or at about the time of major parliamentary votes, newspapers have carried stories about entire labor unions or blocs of opposition workers who joined the president's party. Reverse currents were observed in the mid-1980s, as individual leaders fell from favor and lost their cabinet posts or else left the national party to form their own political factions, but the overall trend was toward a steady increase in the membership and influence of the dominant party.

Ershad, following the example of Zia's Self-Sufficient Village Government Plan, used administrative decentralization to allocate resources to the grass-roots level, bypassing the local opposition party apparatus and providing a strong incentive for leaders at the village level to support his party. This strategy isolated the opposition parties in urban areas, while the national party disbursed patronage in rural areas. The local elites were opportunistic, changing their affiliations in order to obtain the largest amount of aid for their constituencies. A study of union council chairmen after the 1984 elections revealed that 38 percent had changed party affiliations within the previous 10 years; 53 percent supported the Jana Dal, which had been in existence for 12 months, while only 19 percent supported the Awami League and 8 percent backed the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. In the 1985 subdistrict elections, after the Jana Dal had existed for 2 years, 207 of 460 chairmen supported Ershad's party, and the Jana Dal exercised political control over 44 percent of the nation's districts. This was notable progress for a party with a program essentially the same as that of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (the party in total control only five years earlier), which controlled only 34 (7.4 percent) of the subdistrict chairmanships. The Awami League, which had dominated the nation 10 years earlier, controlled only 53 (11.5 percent) of the chairmanships.

Military support has been a crucial component of the success of the national party. In the 1970s, observers were unwilling to predict the actions of the military because it was torn by internal divisions between freedom fighters and returnees from West Pakistan, political groups of the far left and the right, and factional infighting among leftist factions. Zia moved to stabilize the military through a purge of unreliable personnel, more than 1,100 of whom were executed, and through steady progress in professionalizing the services, incorporating elements from both freedom fighters and returnees. The strong trend under Zia and Ershad away from the Awami League and the Soviet Union decreased communist and Maoist influences, which had been very strong during the 1970s. By the 1980s, it appeared that military officers were the most interested in adequate financial support for the armed forces and limitation of civilian political turmoil. The slow expansion of the military and the opportunity for military leaders to gain administrative positions under Ershad convinced potential military rivals that he represented their interests. Ershad at first followed up on his promises to include the military in civil administration through legislative means, but when he later backed away from the District Council Bill, there were no major stirrings within the military. A more difficult challenge was the Siege of Dhaka in late 1987, with massive street violence, but again the military did not act. Apparently, Ershad and his Jatiyo Party were able to keep political disorder within bounds acceptable to the military leadership.

Bangladesh - Party Politics

The government estimated in 1988 that there were 102 different political parties in Bangladesh. The majority of these parties were based solely in urban areas and had tiny constituencies. Many of them were formed by small cliques of like-minded intellectuals or by political leaders who, with their small followings, had broken away from larger political groups. There was a steady turnover in the composition of the smaller fringe groups, which nevertheless continued to organize periodic demonstrations and issue press releases. Amid the welter of conflicting groups, there were five main political forces in the country that had long histories or some claim to support from wide constituencies. At the center in 1988 was the pro-government Jatiyo Party. Opposing it were two centrist parties, the Awami League, led by Mujib's daughter, Hasina, and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, led by Khaleda Zia. To the left were the pro-Soviet Bangladesh Communist Party, factions of the Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal, and other socialist groups advocating revolutionary change. To the right was a group of parties, including Jamaat e Islami and the Muslim League, that called for an increased role for Islam in public life. All of the minor political parties in Bangladesh clustered around the policies and the activities of these five main political forces.

Bangladesh - Awami League

The Awami League, which was consistently split during the Zia regime, underwent further turmoil in the aftermath of Ershad's March 1982 coup before achieving a new level of unity. In the 1982-83 period, there were two main groups within the Awami League, one headed by Hasina as president and another headed by Abdur Razzak as secretary general. In October 1983, Abdur Razzak left the party to form the Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League. This group was modeled on the national party of the same name that briefly held power before Mujib's death in 1975. Hasina proved to be a formidable politician and retained absolute control over the Awami League through the 1980s, becoming the major leader of the political opposition in Bangladesh. For several years, the Awami League headed a fifteen-party alliance, but its decision to participate in the 1986 parliamentary elections alienated some leftist parties. This development left the Awami League at the head of an eight-party alliance whose membership was in a state of flux but at one point included the Bangladesh Communist Party, the Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League, the Gana Azadi League (two factions), the National Awami Party, the Samajbadi Dal (Socialist Party), and the Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal (Sultan Raja Faction).

The Awami League traces its descent from the party of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and in the late 1980s it continued to advocate many of the socialist policies of the early 1970s. The Awami League condemned the denationalization and militarization of Bangladesh that occurred after 1976, and it leaned toward a pro-Soviet stance. These policies often made it the target of opponents, even those within the alliance, who, in linking its policies to a pro-Indian program, easily attacked it with nationalist rhetoric. The Awami League has been the most outspoken of the opposition parties against the role of the military in government, and in the late 1980s it was doubtful whether military leaders would allow it to achieve a large degree of political influence without a direct military response. Nevertheless, despite the opposition of the Ershad regime and the military, the Awami League has remained one of the few parties with a substantial following throughout the country and with action wings in rural areas. In 1988 its student wing was the Bangladesh Chhatro League (Bangladesh Students League), and its workers' front was the Jatiyo Sramik League (National Workers' League).

Bangladesh - Bangladesh National Party

The Bangladesh Nationalist Party received a heavy blow as a result of Ershad's March 1982 coup. From a position of control under Zia, it was thrown into the political wilderness, with many of its leaders prosecuted for corruption. During the 1982-83 period, the party was divided into two groups, one headed by Abdus Sattar, the deposed president, with Khaleda Zia as senior vice chairman, and the other headed by former Minister of Information Shamsul Huda Chowdhury. The latter group quickly disappeared, and the dominant faction found a popular leader in Khaleda Zia. She became party chairman and was reelected unopposed in 1986. Throughout the 1980s, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party led a seven-party alliance that consistently refused to recognize the Ershad regime. The price it paid for this stance was an inability to participate in the government. In fact, the policies advocated by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party differed little from those of the Jatiyo Party once it was in power, for both groups were descended from the military rule of Zia's time. Although the Bangladesh Nationalist Party generally ranked behind the Awami League in terms of public support, it had a presence in the countryside through its peasants' wing, the Jatiyobadi Krishak Dal (Nationalist Peasants Party), formed in October 1987. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party also backed a student wing called the Jatiyobadi Chhatro Dal (Nationalist Students Party) and a workers' front called the Jatiyobadi Sramik Dal (Nationalist Workers Party).

Bangladesh - Leftist Parties

The political left in Bangladesh, represented by a number of socialist and communist parties, has remained numerically small and divided by internal dissension. Yet the left has always been a potent force. The economic difficulties facing workers and peasants and the persistent alienation of the intellectual community have provided fertile ground for the growth of radical politics, and such problems always hold out the potential of massive civil unrest. The socialist policies of the Awami League during the early 1970s brought the small Bangladesh Communist Party, with its pro-Soviet tendencies, very close to attaining political power. More radical groups advocating total revolution based on the Maoist model were major elements behind the growing chaos that brought Mujib down. Under martial law regimes, revolutionary organizational activities became very difficult, and the decline of Maoist ideology in China left Bangladeshi revolutionaries without major ideological support from abroad. During the 1980s, leftist parties were forced into supporting roles within alliances with the major opposition parties, although some created their own coalitions centered primarily on urban bases.

The Bangladesh Communist Party continued a generally pro-Soviet policy in the late 1980s, and it was part of the eight-party alliance headed by the Awami League. The Bangladesh Communist Party operated a student wing called the Chhatro Union (Students Union) and a workers' front called the Trade Union Centre.

A more significant socialist party in the late 1980s was the Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal (National Socialist Party). This party began operating in 1972 after the defection of radical elements from the Awami League. It organized an armed opposition to Mujib's regime in the mid-1970s and became very influential among the military during the late 1970s. The party also had some success in parliamentary elections and became important in labor unions through its action wing, the Jatiyo Sramik Jote (National Workers Alliance). By the 1980s, however, it had split into a number of factions with different strategies. The policies of one wing, headed by A.S.M. Abdur Rab, were almost indistinguishable from those of the Jatiyo Party. It cooperated with Ershad's government, praised his martial law rule, supported the move to include the armed forces in district councils and the denationalization bill of June 1987, and participated in the parliaments elected in 1986 and 1988. Another faction, led by Shajahar Siraj, was the Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal (Siraj), which participated in the 1986 Parliament but consistently voted against the government, calling for "unity of left democratic forces." Still another faction, the Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal (Inu), headed by Hasan Huq Inu, refused to cooperate with the government and became part of a highly visible five-party alliance along with the Sramik Krishak Samajbadi Dal, (Workers and Peasants Socialist Party); the Bangladesh Samajtantrik Dal (Bangladesh Socialist Party), which comprised two factions; and the Workers Party. The Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal (Inu) operated a radical student front called the Jatiyo Chhatro Samaj (National Students Society). In short, this inability of the various leftist factions and parties to form a consensus ensured that they would be kept out of power.

Bangladesh - Islamic Parties

At the other end of the political spectrum were a number of political organizations that based their platforms on Islamic issues. The group with the oldest tradition was the Muslim League (established in 1906 as the All-India Muslim League), which had been the main force behind the creation of Pakistan in 1947. Because it favored continued union with Pakistan, the Muslim League was almost eliminated from the political stage during and after the independence struggle. It began to stage a comeback during the 1980s and gathered four seats in the 1986 Parliament. The Muslim League supported complete denationalization and opposed the retention of a 51-percent share of public industries by the government. Its policies closely resembled those that led to the formation of Pakistan. Among other things, the party accused the government of a subservient foreign policy toward India, especially in the matter of water disputes, and it repeatedly called for Islamic rule in Bangladesh.

A more important Islamic party during the 1980s was Jamaat e Islami. This party was temporarily banned in the 1970s because of its opposition to independence, but it returned in the 1980s as the premier Islamic party among the opposition. Jamaat e Islami called for a theocracy, not Western-style democracy, but it simultaneously advocated the resignation of Ershad and the restoration of democracy. The party drew much of its strength from dedicated bands of madrasa students and graduates. As of 1988, its unofficial but militant student front was the Islami Chhatro Shibir (Islamic Students Camp). It also had a workers' front called the Sramik Kalyan Federation (Workers Welfare Federation).

Besides the Muslim League and Jamaat e Islami, there were a number of small parties, possessing little influence, that were oriented toward a poorly defined Islamic state and an anti-Indian foreign policy. For example, the Bangladesh Khilafat Andolan (Bangldesh Caliphate Movement) wanted to launch a "holy war" (jihad) to establish Islamic rule in Bangladesh and called for a government based on the Quran and Sunna. In 1986 another one of these parties, the Islamic United Front, demanded scrapping the 1972 Indo-Bangladeshi Treaty of Cooperation, Friendship, and Peace.

Bangladesh - Alliances

The disruptive nature of the Bangladeshi political process was the result of a lack of consensus as to national direction even among the major political forces. In the late 1980s, for example, the Awami League viewed the Bangladesh Nationalist Party as a military-based faction that climbed to power over the bodies of Mujib and his family. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party saw Ershad's regime as the usurper of Zia's legacy, and both the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the Jatiyo Party feared a return to socialism and the anti-military stance of the Awami League. Meanwhile, the radical left and the Islamic-oriented right held diametrically opposed views of social organization. Observers believed that any one of these groups, if it were established in power, would do everything it could to eliminate its rivals.

Control of the political process and its resources is a life-and-death proposition for vast numbers of poor people in the urban slums and villages of Bangladesh, and in many cases crucial political decisions, such as local elections or major parliamentary votes, precipitate massive violence. In the midst of this struggle for existence, politicians of all persuasions publicly advocate democratic freedoms but exhibit authoritarian viewpoints and high levels of distrust for their colleagues. Within their own parties, leaders such as Hasina and Khaleda Zia have often behaved in a manner as dictatorial as that for which they have criticized Ershad. In addition, factional divisions have been a constant feature of party life, as political opponents excluded from decision making have "headed to the streets" with their followers. The call for a restoration of democracy, echoed by all groups out of power, therefore has seemed to be a call for a political opening through which one of the opposition parties could seize power. Unhappiness with this state of near-anarchy has kept the military in power and attracted many middle-of-the-road politicians to a strong executive that could control political competition.

Bangladesh - Workers and Students

The most important political organ among Bangladeshi workers in the late 1980s was the Workers-Employees United Council (Sramik Karmachari Oikkiya Parishad), an organization of sixteen workers' federations composed of two factions that represented almost the entire labor front. When the Workers-Employees United Council decided to act, it could paralyze urban areas throughout the country. In May 1984, the government avoided a major confrontation by agreeing to several points set forth by the council, including a call for no further privatization of industry or banks, freedom of labor union activities, and a 30-percent raise in the minimum wage. When the government later reneged on some of these points, a council-led general strike occurred in November 1984, which led to government repression. Further strikes in 1987 were coordinated with anti-Ershad opposition parties. The council developed a platform calling for restrictions on the import of luxury goods, land reform, and government support for handicraft industries.

The universities have also been a major proving ground for political parties since the student protests that led to the war of independence. Beginning with major riots in 1983, universities during the Ershad regime were the site of repeated antigovernment demonstrations and government repression. The Central Students Action Committee, a coalition of student political groups, coordinated a number of political actions in support of the opposition's demands, which culminated in a series of general strikes in 1987. During the Siege of Dhaka, from November 10 to 12, the government closed the University of Dhaka, and it shut down all education institutions in the country later in the month during continuing unrest. Because the major parties--including the Jatiyo Party and its Jatiyo Chhatro Samaj--had student wings, there were often violent confrontations on college and university campuses between rival party members. Gun battles broke out in June 1987 between the supporters of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party's Chhatro Dal (Students Party) and the Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal (Inu)'s Students League over control of dormitories. Periodic closings of universities after demonstrations or political riots often kept institutions shut down for a good part of the year during the late 1980s.

Bangladesh - Women in Politics

Women participated extensively in anti-British agitations during the 1930s and 1940s and were an active force during the independence struggle. Since 1972 the Constitution and the legal system have guaranteed equal rights for women to participate in all aspects of public life. The prominence of the well-known opposition party leaders Hasina and Khaleda Zia at first sight indicated a national openness to women's political power. Both, however, were exceptional in Bangladeshi politics. They originally owed their positions to family connections and only later skillfully built their own followings and platforms. Women candidates for political office were a rarity in the 1970s and 1980s, and female participation was labeled anti-Islamic by conservative men throughout the country. Secular provisions in Bangladeshi laws safeguarded the equality of women while "protecting" them and assuming their dependence.

Women running for office have had little success. In the 1979 parliamentary elections, for example, only 17 women were among 2,125 candidates for 300 seats; none of the women won, and only 3 polled over 15 percent of the vote. At the union council level, the 1973 elections returned only one woman chairman, and the 1977 and 1984 elections each returned only four female chairmen. The leaders running the country, recognizing that women suffer disabilities when competing for office against men, reserved thirty seats for women in Parliament. The profiles of the women occupying these seats exemplied the subordinate positions of women in Bangladesh, even those occupying public offices. In the 1979 Parliament, fifteen women members were formerly housewives, and twenty-seven had no prior legislative experience. A study of women nominated to union councils revealed that 60 percent were less than 30 years of age, only 8 percent were over 40 years of age, and only 4 percent had college degrees.

Prior to the 1988 parliamentary elections, the provision for reserved seats for women had been allowed to lapse. The result was that women were left practically without representation at the national level, although there were other forums for political involvement at the local level. In mid-1988 three women sat on union and subdistrict councils. Municipal councils also included women, but the law precluded women from exceeding 10 percent of council membership. Some women's groups, such as the Jatiyo Mohila Sangstha (National Organization for Women), have held major conferences to discuss women's problems and mobilization strategies. Although these women's organizations were the province of middle-class women, they served as training grounds, as did local councils, for a new generation of politically active women.

Bangladesh - THE MEDIA

One of the most effective means for the ruling political party to control the nation was through manipulation of the news media. In the 1980s, the government's National Broadcasting Authority monopolized telecommunications within the country. Thus the party that controlled the government effectively decided the content of the country's broadcasts. Until the early 1980s, the government also ran a number of daily and weekly newspapers. Such newspapers printed the ruling party's version of the news. As part of Ershad's policy of divesting government-owned properties, however, these official sources of propaganda were removed from government control, thus ending a legacy left over from the Mujib period. Each major political party in the late 1980s had one or more newspapers that supported it, and each used its own newspapers to publish its official views.

Bengali society has the longest tradition of freedom of the press in South Asia, and its dozens of weekly and daily newspapers, press associations, and publishers guarantee that almost any opinion finds expression. Ruling regimes have countered this independence by exercising press censorship. Repression of the media has varied from banning certain publications for extended periods of time to officially pressuring publishers to regulate the content of news articles. For example, the English-language Bangladesh Observer was banned for three months in 1987, and the weekly Banglar Bani (Bengal's Message) was banned through much of 1987 and 1988. The weekly Joyjatra (Victory March) was banned in February 1988 for publishing "objectionable comments" referring to the possibility of Ershad's resignation. In 1988 the government closed the Dainik Khabor (Daily News) for ten weeks under the Special Powers Act of 1974 because the newspaper had released an article with a map making Bangladesh look like part of India, thus inflicting "injury to the independence and sovereignty of the country." In addition, the operations of the British Broadcasting Corporation were banned under the Special Powers Act from December 14, 1987, to May 2, 1988, and one of its correspondents was jailed for allegedly having manufactured "continuing hostile and tendentious propaganda."

Bangladeshi journalists are unionized, and they sometimes strike back at government censorship. During the 1988 parliamentary elections, journalists staged a walkout to protest attempts by the government's Press Information Department to restrict news and photographic coverage of election violence and opposition demonstrations. The continuing struggle between the press and the government regularly kept at least six newspapers on the list of banned publications in the late 1980s.

With a 29-percent literacy rate, newspapers and journals are not widely read in Bangladesh. For example, despite the publication of 62 daily newspapers, only 22 percent of all urban households in 1982 reported regularly reading them; a dismal 2.5 percent was reported for rural areas.

Both Radio Bangladesh and Bangladesh Television were established in 1971, and both came under state control in 1972. In 1984 they merged to form the National Broadcasting Authority. In 1988 the twelve home service stations and twelve FM stations of Radio Bangladesh offered a total of eighty-five hours of daily programming. Radio Bangladesh also transmitted to Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Western Europe via its shortwave station at Dhaka. Seven and one-half hours of daily programming were broadcast in six languages: Bangla, English, Arabic, Hindi, Urdu, and Nepali. The television service operated two channels, with eight and one-half hours of daily programming, relayed by twelve stations for reception throughout the country. However, outside Dhaka the number of television sets was very small, and television was not yet a significant medium when compared with radio, press, and word-of-mouth communications. Statistics from the early 1980s indicated that about 29 percent of the country's urban households had radios, and only 6.7 percent had television sets. In the countryside, broadcast communications were even less available: 13 percent of all rural households had radios, and only 0.2 percent had televisions.


The foreign policy of Bangladesh is tied closely to the realities of its economic condition. Since independence the country has required a great deal of foreign assistance in the effort to keep its people fed and to build, for the first time, a modern society. Under these circumstances, it has been important for successive regimes to seek good relations with all nations and to attract economic aid from every possible source. Bangladesh has therefore cultivated good relations with both the United States and the Soviet Union, and their respective allies, but it has remained unaligned with either superpower. In an attempt to stimulate regional development plans, Bangladesh has been instrumental in organizing regional economic cooperation in South Asia. It has also been active in international organizations, especially in those dedicated to solving the economic problems of the poorer countries of the world.

Despite its poverty and small military capability, Bangladesh has not hesitated to defend its sovereignty and to take strong stands on many international issues. Any hint that India might try to intimidate Bangladesh or encroach on its territorial rights has quickly elicited a powerful, nationalistic response from all levels of society. Furthermore, Bangladesh has annoyed both superpowers by standing against them on various major issues, and relations with both the United States and the Soviet Union have gone through difficult periods. A major component of Bangladesh's self-assertiveness has been evident in its efforts to focus on its Islamic heritage and its quest for fraternity with the worldwide Muslim congregation. The friendly relations it has enjoyed with Islamic nations have led to the receipt of economic aid from wealthy Arab countries.

Bangladesh - South and Southeast Asia


Relations between Bangladesh and India have often been difficult. There was considerable hostility on both sides of the border when East Pakistan was established in 1947 in the midst of intense communal struggles among various ethnic groups. As part of Pakistan, East Pakistan was at war with India in 1947 and 1948 and again in 1965. During the 1971 war of independence, Bangladeshi freedom fighters were aided by India, but the country's distrust of its giant neighbor reemerged as soon as the fighting ended. In general, a considerable body of Bangladeshi public opinion has viewed India as a bully, throwing its weight around and threatening the sovereignty of its smaller neighbors. The fact that the two nations are so closely intertwined--with 2,400 kilometers of border, common river systems, and numerous transborder cultural or economic contacts--has provided numerous opportunities for bilateral disputes that often reinforce Bangladeshi fears. Conversely, the fact that the two countries are so closely interconnected has sometimes forced them to come to terms with each other, and as of mid-1988 bilateral problems had not escalated into a major armed conflict. Indeed, relations between Bangladesh and India have been diplomatically proper, with a trend toward increasing cordiality and cooperation over time.

Mujib's government, which lasted from 1971 to 1975, owed a large debt to India for aid to Bangladesh during its independence struggle, and relations were initially positive. In March 1972, the Indo-Bangladeshi Treaty of Cooperation, Friendship, and Peace pledged each nation to consultations if either were attacked. This was an important safeguard for the new nation, but critics have pointed out that the treaty does not specify the external threats to either nation, suggesting the possibility that India could use the treaty as an excuse for intervention in Bangladesh. The series of coups that replaced Mujib's government brought bilateral relations to their lowest level and led many Bangladeshis to fear Indian intervention. The Indian government, then controlled by Indira Gandhi's Indian National Congress, looked with misgivings on the anti-Indian and anti-Soviet stance of the new military regimes. For several years, pro-Mujib guerrilla forces operating along the Indian border reportedly received covert support from Indian sources. In 1977, however, Gandhi's government fell, the new Janata Party leadership took a more accommodating stance toward Bangladesh, and Zia's government stabilized. Indian forces cooperated with the Bangladesh military in disarming Bangladeshi rebels in the summer of 1977, and a number of bilateral agreements were signed shortly thereafter. When Gandhi again became prime minister in 1979, she continued a policy of accommodation with Zia's regime. Subsequently, she recognized Ershad's government, and she met with Ershad in October 1982. After Gandhi's assassination in 1984, her son and successor as prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, encouraged cooperative agreements with Bangladesh and enjoyed a good relationship with Ershad.

Events during the 1980s suggested the prospect of a new era in Indo-Bangladeshi relations. In 1981 both countries drew up the Memorandum of Understanding on Technical Cooperation. In 1982 the first meeting of the Joint Economic Commission was held, and in 1987 the bilateral Cultural and Exchange Programme was renewed for two years. A bilateral trade pact was extended from 1986 until October 1989. In addition, an inland trade and transit protocol, allowing Indian vessels to pass through Bangladesh, exemplified a maturing cooperative relationship, necessitated by Bangladesh's geographical position. The original protocol was signed in November 1972, renewed in 1984, and extended in 1986 on a quarterly basis. The agreement was later renegotiated and, according to its provisions, stayed effective until October 1989. India agreed to pay transit charges and port fees, while Bangladesh agreed to maintain its own waterways. The ability of both governments to compromise on economic issues boded well for the possibility of future bilateral agreements.

Despite considerable progress in expanding contacts between the two countries, a number of serious issues concerning river waters and borders continued to stir up anti-Indian emotions in Bangladesh during the late 1980s. These issues involved national honor and sovereignty--strongly charged topics in both nations--and progress toward resolving them was extremely slow. Every delay in resolving bilateral problems provided fuel for a steady stream of anti-Indian editorials in the Bangladeshi press and for statements by political parties of all persuasions condemning Indian foreign policy. The most difficult long-term bilateral problems revolved around water disputes. These problems surfaced during the 1950s and 1960s, when the major Indian port of Calcutta on the Hooghli River experienced siltation problems. The Indian government decided that the solution was to divert the Ganges River water into the Hooghli River during the dry season, from January to June, in order to flush out the accumulating silt. By 1974 the Indians had built a major barrage, or dam, across the Ganges at Farakka, near the Bangladeshi border. Before the Farakka Barrage went into operation, the Bangladeshi government repeatedly expressed concern that the diversion would adversely affect water resources along the course of the Ganges through Bangladesh. After the Farakka Barrage began operating in 1975, dry-season water levels dropped precipitously in western Bangladesh, and studies showed that salinized water from the Indian Ocean was creeping inland. In 1976, despite Indian opposition, Bangladesh managed to place the dispute on the agenda of the UN General Assembly; this strategy resulted in a consensus statement in which both parties agreed to resolve the issue according to international law.

A bilateral agreement signed in 1977 set up a schedule for sharing the dry-season flow of water controlled by the Farakka Barrage, and it arranged for continuing consultations by the Joint Rivers Commission. The mandate of the commission was to monitor the water availability and needs of the two countries and to study proposals for a more comprehensive plan for water control in Bangladesh and northeast India. A Bangladeshi proposal concentrated on the enormous potential of untapped rivers in Nepal; dams there, it was argued, could provide adequate hydroelectric power well into the twenty-first century and regulate water levels throughout northeastern India and Bangladesh. The Indian proposal concentrated on controlling the wild Brahmaputra River and called for a major canal to divert water from the Brahmaputra to the Ganges, west of the Farakka Barrage; this, the Indians claimed, would help to regulate water levels throughout Bangladesh. India was slow to involve Nepal in what it viewed as a bilateral issue, while Bangladesh refused to agree to the construction of a large canal that would obliterate valuable land and dislocate hundreds of thousands of people. In the absence of an agreement on a comprehensive plan, the two nations were forced to renew previous agreements on the flow of the Ganges at Farakka for periods of six months or two years at a time. In 1986, however, Indian negotiators invited Nepali officials to tripartite planning conferences, opening up the possibility of a future agreement.

Water-sharing disputes have arisen with regard to other rivers as well. India has constructed and operated on the Tista River a barrage similar to the one on the Ganges. India and Bangladesh drew up interim agreements on the sharing of Tista River waters beginning in July 1983. These agreements were renewed in 1985 and 1987, without a final allocation of waters to either party.

In 1974 the borders between India and Bangladesh were settled in a treaty that became the Third Amendment to the Bangladesh Constitution. Since that time, questions over small pieces of territory not covered by the 1974 treaty--such as silt-formed islands (chars) that have emerged in frontier waters and Bangladeshi enclaves accessible only from India--have grown into minor military confrontations.

In the late 1980s, the unauthorized movement of people across Indo-Bangladeshi borders continued to cause tensions. In 1979 two days of communal rioting in the Indian state of West Bengal forced 20,000 Indian Muslims to flee into Kushtia District in Bangladesh. Although they were later repatriated, the incident rekindled transborder communal hatreds. During the 1980s, attempts by Bangladesh military and paramilitary forces to pacify tribal groups in the Chittagong Hills forced thousands of Chakmas to flee into Indian territory. Bangladesh accused India of sheltering tribal guerrilla forces and preventing the voluntary return of the Chakmas. India, in turn, accused Bangladesh of harboring guerrilla bands of the Tripura National Volunteers, a secessionist organization fighting for independence from India. A more significant long-term movement of people across the Indo-Bangladeshi border has involved thousands of Bangladeshis who have illegally moved to neighboring Indian states in search of land and employment. By 1982 the steady influx of Bangla speakers sparked a major ethnic backlash in the Indian state of Assam, leading to the slaughter of thousands of non-Assamese. In order to placate Assamese public opinion, the governments of Indira and Rajiv Gandhi promised to stem illegal immigration, and in order to do so India constructed barbed-wire fencing along the Indo-Bangladeshi border in the area. The fence was seen as an outrage among the Bangladeshi public, and the government of Bangladesh has made repeated protests to the Indian government over the matter.

Bangladesh - Pakistan

Pakistan was hostile to Bangladesh in the early 1970s, but by 1974 it was apparent that the new nation would stand on its own, and in February Pakistan recognized Bangladesh. Diplomatic relations were established in January 1976, followed by the reestablishment of communications and transportation links later in the year. As Bangladesh subsequently adopted a cooler stance toward India, began to move closer to China and the West, and stressed its Islamic cultural heritage, its interests became increasingly similar to those of Pakistan.

Throughout the 1980s, Bangladesh consistently supported Pakistan's policy of opposing Soviet actions in Afghanistan. In 1983 Pakistan's foreign minister signaled the end of an era of animosity when he visited Bangladesh's National Martyrs' Monument at Savar, near Dhaka, which commemorates those killed by Pakistan's armed forces during the war of independence. Pakistan's president Mohammad Zia ul Haq later presented Ershad with the country's highest civil award during the Bangladeshi president's visit to Islamabad in 1986.

After the establishment of diplomatic ties, Bangladesh and Pakistan entered into a wide variety of bilateral agreements. A 1979 cultural agreement arranged for the exchange of teachers, scholars, musicians, folklore troupes, art works, films, and books. Joint economic, commercial, and technical pacts signed after 1978 provided for the exchange of major exports of both countries: jute and tea from Bangladesh, and cotton and cloth from Pakistan.

Two major areas of disagreement remained between Bangladesh and Pakistan as of mid-1988, and both stemmed from the dislocations resulting from the independence struggle. The first issue concerned the finances of united Pakistan. After the war, Bangladesh claimed that it deserved a share of the US$4 billion worth of preindependence exchange, bank credit, and movable assets protected in West Pakistan during the war. In a 1975 agreement, Bangladesh accepted half of Pakistan's pre-1971 external debt, but assetsharing issues remained unresolved. The second issue concerned the emigration of large numbers of people, mostly Biharis (non-Bengali Muslims), to Pakistan. After the war, the International Red Cross registered nearly 540,000 people who wanted to emigrate to Pakistan. By 1982 about 127,000 had been repatriated, leaving about 250,000 people still demanding repatriation. Thousands of people who desired to emigrate lived in poor conditions in so-called "Pakistani Relief Camps," where they received monthly food allotments. In 1985 there was some progress in this area when Zia ul Haq agreed to accept the "stranded Pakistanis." In 1986 Pakistan arranged for their immigration as soon as Ribatat al Alam al Islami (Union of the Islamic World), a voluntary organization based in Saudi Arabia, could mobilize sufficient funds.

Bangladesh - China and Other Asian Nations

China firmly supported Pakistan during Bangladesh's war of independence, and for several years thereafter it remained, along with Pakistan, hostile to the new state. In the years immediately following independence, Bangladesh was close to India and the Soviet Union--two foes of China--and as a result it was grouped with them by Beijing as an enemy state. In 1972, for example, a Chinese veto blocked Bangladesh's entry into the UN, but by the mid-1970s China and Bangladesh had developed proper relations. When Pakistan formally recognized Bangladesh in 1974, the Chinese were able to move closer to Bangladesh without antagonizing their ally. After Mujib's death in 1975, when Bangladesh distanced itself from India and the Soviets, it left the camp of China's adversaries. A preliminary agreement to establish relations in late 1975 led to an exchange of diplomatic missions in 1976. The trend in China toward a more open foreign policy during the 1970s also paralleled the Bangladeshi move toward neutralism under Zia, who visited Beijing in 1977.

By the 1980s, the domestic and foreign policies of China and Bangladesh had become somewhat similar. The governing parties of both countries opposed ultra-left and ultra-right political systems, while at the same time opposing "bourgeois" economics. Each country called for an international dialogue on debt problems between the developed and developing nations, and each expressed concern over Soviet policies in Afghanistan and Cambodia. By the mid-1980s, China had become the staunchest international friend of Bangladesh, cementing the relationship with numerous trade and cultural agreements, construction projects, and military transfers. In addition, Ershad was warmly received during his visit to Beijing in July 1987.

Friendly political relations with Japan and the Republic of Korea (South Korea) accompanied steadily increasing economic ties with both nations. Bilateral trade and joint economic projects with South Korea increased during the late 1980s. Japan was a prominent source of economic aid as early as 1973, when Mujib traveled to Tokyo to conclude arrangements for a substantial loan and to discuss trade issues. By 1980 Japan had become the largest aid donor to Bangladesh. After the devastating floods of 1988, Japan was a major relief contributor, providing an emergency contribution for food assistance of US$13 million.

Bangladesh - The Islamic World

In the immediate aftermath of the war of independence, the Muslim nations of the world mourned the blow to the sundered Pakistan, an avowedly Islamic state. For several years thereafter, Pakistan threatened to cut off diplomatic relations with nations that recognized Bangladesh, thus discouraging other Muslim states from helping the new nation. Mujib's socialist policies were not in tune with the viewpoints of most Muslim states, especially the conservative Arab states of the Middle East. Malaysia and Indonesia recognized Bangladesh in 1972, and after Pakistan did so in 1974, other Muslim countries eventually granted recognition and provided aid. The growing role of Islam in Bangladesh, symbolized by the adoption in 1988 of a constitutional amendment recognizing it as the state religion, indicated a major effort to widen ties with the Islamic world.

Bilateral ties between Bangladesh and the oil-rich Arab states were becoming increasingly important in the mid- and late 1980s. These ties had both economic and political components. The Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia, had become a growing source of development funds (mostly loans) since 1975, with much of the aid channeled into Islamic education and culture. The Saudis donated money for the construction of an Islamic university, mosques, and other religious centers, and Bangladesh exported labor to several Middle Eastern countries.

Politically, Bangladesh supported the international policies of the Islamic nations of the Middle East. For example, Bangladesh strongly condemned Israeli policies and favored the creation of a Palestinian state. It supported the Palestine Liberation Organization under the leadership of Yasir Arafat, whose visit to Bangladesh in 1987 elicited a warm welcome from Ershad and other major government figures, as well as favorable press coverage. In 1987 the government reported that 8,000 Bangladeshi youths had volunteered to fight for the Palestine Liberation Organization. The government of Bangladesh, however, had made no official moves to send arms or personnel to Palestine as of mid-1988.

Bangladesh has expanded its ties with the worldwide Islamic community through the Organization of the Islamic Conference, a group of forty-five Muslim countries and eleven other nations with Muslim minorities. Bangladesh became a member of the conference in February 1974 and thereafter played a prominent role in setting up economic programs. The sixth annual meeting of the Islamic Development Bank and the Islamic Finance Ministers' Conference were held in Dhaka in 1985. In addition, Ershad attended the 1987 meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference in Kuwait, where nineteen Bangladeshi economic initiatives were accepted as joint ventures. Bangladesh was also part of a three-member committee trying to mediate an end to the Iran-Iraq War, and Ershad made several trips to the Middle East in an attempt to achieve peace.

Bangladesh - The Superpowers

Soviet Union

Relations with the Soviet Union were cordial in the years immediately following independence. The Soviet Union supported Indian actions in aiding the war of independence, and after the war the Soviet Navy sent a floating workshop to Bangladesh for clearing Pakistani mines from the Chittagong and Chalna harbors. Mujib visited Moscow in 1972, and high-level officials from both countries made numerous reciprocal visits until 1975. The Soviets supported the socialist programs of the Mujib government and its close ties with India. Early Soviet aid was limited, however. During the first four months of its existence, Bangladesh received economic aid worth US$142 million from India, but only US$6 million from the Soviet Union.

After the 1975 coup, relations with the Soviet Union rapidly cooled. The military regimes of Zia and Ershad deemphasized socialist policies and encouraged closer ties with the United States, Arab states, Pakistan, and China--all of which were politically distant from the Soviet Union. Bangladesh condemned Soviet support for Vietnam's occupation of Cambodia and Soviet military actions in Afghanistan. A low point in Bangladeshi-Soviet relations came after the expulsion of nine Soviet diplomats from Dhaka in December 1983 and January 1984. Moscow, in turn, refused to accept the new Bangladeshi ambassador and canceled a Bangladeshi trade mission visit to Moscow.

Bangladeshi-Soviet relations rapidly improved in 1984 and regained a level of cordiality in the mid- and late 1980s. In 1985 the Soviet Cultural Centre reopened in Dhaka. In 1986 a Soviet special envoy visited Dhaka, and later the Bangladeshi foreign minister visited Moscow. Although Soviet aid to Bangladesh was still small compared with assistance from Japan, the United States, or even China, by 1987 Bangladesh had entered into sixteen different economic accords with the Soviet Union. Soviet assistance has concentrated on the energy sector, especially several power plants at Ghorasal, near Dhaka.

Bangladesh - United States

The United States and Pakistan were allies when Bangladesh became independent in 1971. The Pakistan Army used United Statessupplied military equipment, and the movement of the United States Seventh Fleet into the Bay of Bengal during the war signaled support for Pakistan. Because Pakistan was closely tied to the economic policies of the United States and its allies, the Awami League saw a link between the economic collapse of East Pakistan and United States policies. Under these circumstances, the United States had a negative image in independent Bangladesh. After April 1972, when the United States formally recognized Bangladesh, relations remained cool, and there were frequent public anti-American demonstrations, including the burning of the United States Information Service library in Rajshahi in December 1972.

After Mujib's asassination, the government of Khondakar Mushtaque Ahmed was closely tied to the United States, and there was increased cordiality during the Zia and Ershad administrations, as denationalization widened the economic linkages between the two nations. Bangladesh's positions on some international issues, including the China-Vietnam border war of 1978, Cambodia, and Afghanistan, came to resemble those of the United States. In 1979 Bangladesh signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, clearing the way for United States help in setting up a nuclear research reactor near Dhaka. During the 1980s, a new level of cooperation began, signaled by the visits to Washington of Zia in 1980 and Ershad in 1983.

By the late 1980s, the United States had become one of the closest international friends of Bangladesh, a major international donor, and a partner in 133 different accords. United States agencies operated a wide variety of development projects in Bangladesh, including programs to increase agricultural production, create new employment opportunities, and reduce population growth. Only disagreements on Bangladeshi garment exports to the United States clouded bilateral relations.

Bangladesh - Western Europe, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand

Bangladesh has cultivated close ties with West European nations, which have been major sources of economic aid. Britain continued to be its most important friend in Western Europe. Britain has supported a number of transportation and communication projects, educational exchange programs, and the activities of several British voluntary aid organizations. Two examples of the close state of Bangladeshi-British relations were the 1983 visit to Bangladesh by Queen Elizabeth II and Britain's speedy pledge of US$750,000 in emergency assistance after the 1988 floods. After Britain, the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) and Italy were Bangladesh's most important trading partners in Western Europe. Canada, Australia, and <"http://worldfacts.us/New-Zealand.htm"> New Zealand also provided economic aid and engaged in educational exchange programs with Bangladesh.

Bangladesh - International Organizations

After Pakistan and China entered into friendlier relations with Bangladesh in 1974, the way was open for its admission into the UN in September of that year. In 1978 Bangladesh was elected to a twoyear term on the Security Council, and during this period it took strong stands, reiterated on many occasions, concerning Vietnam's involvement in Cambodia, Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, Israeli policies in the Middle East, the Iran-Iraq War, and apartheid in South Africa. Bangladesh was elected as a member of the Security Council's Human Rights Commission in 1985 and as president of the forty-first session of the UN General Assembly (1986-87). In 1987 Ershad received the UN Population Award on behalf of his government.

Before its formal admission into the UN, Bangladesh had been admitted to all of its specialized agencies, and after formally joining the world body, it adopted a high profile in these agencies. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has operated projects in Bangladesh since 1975, in areas ranging from irrigation to rubber production to mangrove afforestation. Bangladesh became a member of the forty-nine-member FAO Council in 1977, served on the FAO's Finance Committee from 1975 to 1979, and has participated in a number of FAO commissions. It was elected vice chairman of the FAO in November 1987. Representatives of Bangladesh also have participated in various specialized UN conferences. Bangladesh joined the Commonwealth of Nations in 1972--a move that prompted Pakistan to withdraw from the organization--and has remained prominent at its meetings ever since. Along with other South Asian members of the Commonwealth, Bangladesh has used its meetings to push for sanctions against apartheid and South African's occupation of Namibia, and it has even offered military training facilities to anti-South African guerrillas.

Keenly aware of his nation's economic problems and observing the benefits of regional economic cooperation in Western Europe, Zia began to seek opportunities for multilateral development among the nations of South Asia in 1977. In 1981 the foreign secretaries of the seven nations of South Asia met in Sri Lanka to set up the basic framework of a regional development organization that was formally founded in New Delhi in August 1983. With continuous effort by Bangladeshi diplomats, these preliminary steps culminated in December 1986 in the first summit conference of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), which was convened in Dhaka. The choice of this site was in recognition of Bangladesh's crucial role in forming the SAARC. Subsequent summits in Bangalore, India, in 1986 and in Kathmandu, Nepal, in 1987 established the SAARC as a functioning international body.

The agenda of the SAARC specifically removes bilateral issues and political programs from the organization's debates, confining committee and summit discussions to areas where member nations may find common ground for achieving mutual economic benefit. However, no large-scale economic projects had emerged from SAARC discussions as of mid-1988. Because many of the most difficult economic problems in South Asia involve long-standing political differences at the bilateral level (for example, Bangladesh's Ganges water dispute with India), the SAARC has not been an effective mechanism for solving problems. Nevertheless, through the mid- and late 1980s, the SAARC's summits have provided its members with a forum in which to exchange ideas and positions and discuss bilateral issues.

Bangladesh's presence in the Nonaligned Movement has provided it with an international reputation as a voice of moderation and compromise. Bangladesh's prime minister, Mizanur Rahman Chowdhury, was elected vice chairman of the Nonaligned Movement summit held in Havana in 1986. This international reputation served Bangladesh well in courting the goodwill of potentially hostile neighbors and attracting economic aid from donor countries with diverse political systems. Although the Ershad regime was politically repugnant to many opposition leaders and was looked at critically by some foreign governments, the regime had brought a new sense of stability to Bangladesh as it made a tenuous transition to civilian rule in the late 1980s.

CITATION: Federal Research Division of the
Library of Congress. The Country Studies Series. Published 1988-1999.

Please note: This text comes from the Country Studies Program, formerly the Army Area Handbook Program. The Country Studies Series presents a description and analysis of the historical setting and the social, economic, political, and national security systems and institutions of countries throughout the world.

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