The Financial Express

Coups d'etat: The familiar tales we remember

Myanmar army armoured vehicles drive in a street after the military seized power in a coup in Mandalay, Myanmar, February 3. 	—Reuters Myanmar army armoured vehicles drive in a street after the military seized power in a coup in Mandalay, Myanmar, February 3. —Reuters

The Myanmar envoy to the United Nations, Kyaw Moe Tun, has publicly denounced the coup d'etat in his country and has asked the global body and its member-states to take action against the military leaders who have deposed the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi. That was a courageous move, given that in coup-prone nations, it is rare for a diplomat, indeed for a civil servant, to come forth with a severe condemnation of an unlawful seizure of power by soldiers and other extra-constitutional elements. The envoy has, predictably, been dismissed by the usurpers.

One is not quite sure if the Myanmar envoy's move will inspire other diplomats from his country in following suit. One is not sure either if all these protests that have been going on against the coup in Myanmar's major cities will compel General Min Aung Hlaing and his fellow officers to retreat from the ugly step they have taken. Eighteen protesters were shot by police and soldiers on Sunday; and the detained Suu Kyi has virtually faced a kangaroo court to respond to charges of misdemeanor and malfeasance lodged against her by the regime. The signs are not good. One is reminded of the 1962 coup against the elected government of Prime Minister U Nu as also the crackdown on the democracy movement in 1988. And, of course, the subverting of the elections of 1990 and Suu Kyi's long spell in detention are part of the story.

The circumstances in Myanmar are for us, here in Bangladesh, reminders of the past in our own history. Back in March 1971, when the Pakistan army cracked down on the Bengali movement for democracy in Pakistan and launched its genocide through a murder of academics and university students, Justice Abu Sayeed Chowdhury gave us hope that we would eventually emerge free of the gathering darkness. He was Vice Chancellor of Dhaka University and at the time was representing Pakistan at a human rights conference in Geneva. When news of the massacre in Dhaka reached him, he did not have any second thoughts about what he needed to do. He repudiated the Yahya Khan regime, indeed repudiated Pakistan and travelled to London, where he became the leading overseas voice of Bengali resistance to the military. And there is too the inspirational tale of K.M. Shehabuddin and Amjadul Haq, Bengali diplomats posted at the Pakistan high commission in Delhi, who renounced their ties with Pakistan (and they did it even before the Mujibnagar government-in-exile was formed) and declared their allegiance to Bangladesh.

The current struggle of the people of Myanmar is therefore understandable. Bangladesh's people have known in the course of their modern history of what it means for democracy or democratic aspirations to be upended by men intent on commandeering the state by means patently foul. The latest coup in Myanmar was imposed on 01 February this year, the very day on which the country's new national assembly -- elected in November last year and with Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy obtaining a huge majority -- was scheduled to meet. It was a reminder of the peremptory manner, on 1 March 1971, in which General Yahya Khan ordered a sudden postponement of the new Pakistan national assembly that had been scheduled to meet two days later in Dhaka. That postponement, made without any consultations with Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the majority leader, was to lead to grievous ramifications for Pakistan.

There are quite a few other instances of how democracy or plans for democracy have periodically been subverted in Pakistan and Bangladesh. The coup launched by General Hussein Muhammad Ershad, Bangladesh's army chief of staff, in March 1982 against the elected government of President Abdus Sattar remains a blot on the nation's history. And now place that coup beside the conspiracy indulged in by General Mohammad Ziaul Haq, chief of staff of the Pakistan army, in 1977. Moments after the embattled government of Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto reached a deal with the political opposition on fresh elections --- the opposition had alleged widespread rigging in the elections held in March of the year --- late on the night of 4 July, Zia went into action in the early hours of 5 July. That was the end of the democratic experiment, however tenuous, in Pakistan. Zia's legacy has not quite been erased, if the continued role of the army and its powerful Inter Services Intelligence in dominating and undermining politics is any guide.

Democracy in our part of the world has been a disturbing story of brigands barging in and putting a swift end to the growth of institutions in a country. Back in October 1958, as the people of Pakistan waited expectantly for the first general elections to take place in the country --- and February 1959 was the time in focus --- President Iskandar Mirza and General Mohammad Ayub Khan clamped martial law on the country. The damage was done. The coup put politicians out of circulation and brought into the scene a new class of rulers known as the civil-military bureaucratic complex. The 1958 coup would in time pave the path to disaster for Pakistan. History remains proof.

The parallels --- in Myanmar, Bangladesh and Pakistan --- are not to be overlooked. Coups have stunted the growth of political pluralism in all three countries. It has not been a happy story.


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