REPORTING FROM NEW DELHI -- The Bangladeshi army said Thursday it recently foiled a coup against the government of Prime Minister Sheik Hasina Wajed planned by religious extremists within the military.
Brig. Gen. Masud Razzaq told reporters the “whole-hearted efforts of army soldiers” had frustrated the attempt by those in active service to seize power.
“A band of fanatic officers had been trying to oust the politically established government,” he added. “Their attempt has been foiled.”
Razzaq declined to comment on the details of the plot, other than to say that as many as 16 hard-line Islamist mid-level officers were involved, including two retired military personnel, and that at least two were detained while others remained under surveillance. A court of inquiry was reportedly convened Dec. 28.
It wasn’t immediately clear why news of the coup was delayed, when it was foiled or exactly who was involved.
Bangladesh is no stranger to military-led rule, having lived under army control for the 15 years until 1990. Wajed assumed power from a military-backed caretaker government in 2009.
Golam Hossain, a professor of government at Jahangirnagar University in the capital, Dhaka, who lives less than a mile from the city’s main military base, said the streets were quiet late Thursday.
Citing sources close to the military, Hossain put the number of those arrested at between four and six, including a Bangladeshi who had lived abroad, with several others being watched carefully.
“Critics of the government say this is an attempt by the government to make a plan against its critics in the military, that it’s a government-made plot,” he said. “It’s difficult to know the exact situation now.”
Wajed has enacted a series of reforms since taking power that have made some Bangladeshis unhappy. She has cracked down on religious extremism, prosecuted alleged war criminals, improved relations with India and rewrote the constitution, introducing more secular policies.
“She’s done a decent job ,” said Anand Kumar, associate fellow at Delhi’s Institute for Defense Studies and Analysis. “For radicals, it’s not to their liking.”
Others expressed doubt that religious extremism was the driving force behind the alleged coup, adding that the more likely problem was unhappiness within the military over a 2009 crackdown. Shortly after Wajed assumed power that year, paramilitary forces staged a revolt that left more than 70 people dead, including 51 army officers, before it was crushed.
“Since then, some of the young military officers were not happy about the handling by the current regime,” said Ataur Rahman, a political science professor at the University of Dhaka. “There are potential seeds of dissent.”
Rumors have been circulating for about three weeks of some sort of problem within the military, Dhaka residents said. Wajed'’s popularity has also taken a hit as economic growth has slowed -- it’s forecast to come in at about 6% this year compared with the government’s 7% target -- in line with the global slowdown, even as inflation remains high. Politics in the country also remain deeply divided.
“Let’s see how things play out,” Rahman said. “This may be the beginning of something. If the military can’t handle it properly, it may turn more difficult in coming days.”
-- Mark Magnier
Photo: Brig. Gen. Masud Razzaq, right, speaks during a news conference in Dhaka on Thursday as Lt. Col. Sajjad Siddique looks on. Credit: Zia Islam / Associated Press