Turmoil on the Ganges


President H. M. Ershad is the first ruler in the 19-year history of Bangladesh who was not overthrown by the generals. He is one. He was overthrown by civilians, who organized, put together a coalition of 22 parties, boycotted, struck, demonstrated by the hundreds of thousands and shouted. Mostly they shouted, "Ershad must go!" What other policy the opposition may have, it must soon make clear, for he promises to be gone.

Bangladeshis celebrated General Ershad's announcement of resignation with spontaneous outbreaks of dance, music and drama. Also looting, arson and murder. Chief Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed, named by the opposition as its candidate for president, said his "only priority is to bring normalcy back after so much of violence associated with the movement."

The downfall of the strong man who has ruled since 1982 is a victory for the three-year campaign led by Sheik Hasina and Khaleda Zia who are, respectively, daughter and widow of former presidents assassinated in office. Despite the crescendo of violence in the past seven weeks, with up to 100 killed, Bangladesh carried this drama out without the mass murders or tanks rolling that might have been expected. And although General Ershad's election to legitimize his rule in 1986 was fraudulent and his regime was denounced as corrupt, illegal and autocratic, this was not a country where dissidents disappeared.

Bangladesh's 110 million people constitute officially the fifth poorest nation in the world. An Islamic republic consisting of the delta of the Ganges River sacred upstream to Hindus in India, it is beset by floods and monsoon, yet remarkably resilient in agriculture and industry.

Although it wrenched independence from Pakistan for cause, its own governments have not served it well. Their relatively benign human rights record reflects dependence on the sensitivities of foreign aid donors such as the United States and Britain. The most that can be said now with assurance is that if General Ershad keeps his word and the army stays in barracks, the 100 or so political parties have been given a clean slate and fresh opportunity to sort things out.

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