The Fall of President Ershad











On 4 December 1990, two months after the opposition began a new campaign to obtain "truly" free elections and force President Hossain Mohammad Ershad to resign, the latter was compelled to give up power. Shortly after his resignation, he was arrested and charged with offences including gold-trafficking and the embezzlement of public funds (La Presse 13 Dec. 1990, D19). President Ershad led the country for eight years following a coup on 24 March 1982. For several years, opposition representatives organized demonstrations and demanded Ershad's removal from the presidency. But divisions between opposition parties, the sometimes brutal repression during demonstrations and against dissidents and the army's apparent unity behind the President had so far kept the Ershad regime in place. The events of fall 1990 were to mark a turning point with the "street victory" over the former general who, throughout his reign, tried to give his administration a civilian image. A transitional government headed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Shahabuddin Ahmed, declared a state of emergency, restored civil liberties, and is now responsible for organizing legislative elections on 27 February 1991 (Le Monde 7 Dec. 1990, 5; La Presse 6 Dec. 1990, B7; Times of India 24 Dec. 1990, 7).


Over the years, the opposition consistently refused to recognize the legitimacy of the Ershad regime and denounced it as autocratic and corrupt. Seldom, however, has the opposition struggle in recent years shown as much unity as during the events of October and November 1990. Demonstrators' determined confrontation with security forces destabilized the regime to the point that the President was forced to resign.

Demonstrations to overthrow President Ershad began on 10 October (Libération 11 Oct. 1990). The protest movement grew stronger, and by mid-November strikes paralysed the country (The Xinhua News Agency 10 Nov. 1990). Despite the closing of the universities and the main schools on 17 October (Libération 18 Oct. 1990), the student movement emerged as the driving force of protest, forcing the traditionally divided opposition parties to maintain a united front against Ershad (Le Monde 7 Dec. 1990, 5). On 27 November, the President declared a state of emergency following clashes which left three dead and 50 injured on the preceding days (Le Soleil 28 Nov. 1990, B15). According to observers, never had martial law been so little respected (The New York Times 9 Dec. 1990, A4). During the week that followed the declaration of a state of emergency, authorities reported that six more people had died in further clashes. The opposition, however, reported 50 to 100 dead and 3,000 injured (The New York Times 4 Dec. 1990, A6; 6 Dec. 1990, A6; Le Monde 6 Dec. 1990, 8).

On 3 December, President Ershad stated that he was ready to make concessions. However, the "peace plan" he proposed was rejected by the opposition (The New York Times 4 Dec. 1990, A6). On 4 December, 100,000 people marched in the streets of Dhaka demanding the President's immediate resignation (Le Devoir 5 Dec. 1990, A7). The anti-Ershad movement had gained such importance among the country's educated classes that many teachers, journalists, doctors and public servants resigned or went on strike. Six hundred officers of the merchant marine even declared a work stoppage for the duration of martial law (The Associated Press 1 Dec. 1990).

The incongruous coalition on which Ershad's government rested had partly crumbled away. The President was less influential within his own party, the Jayita Dal, which was riddled with internal struggles and discontent among its partisans. Ershad had in fact announced in June 1990 that several "ineffective" members of Parliament would not run again for the Party in the next elections (Far Eastern Economic Review 21 June 1990, 20). Moreover, in view of the apparent failure of repression as a response to opposition demands, there were rumours of growing dissent within the army (The New York Times 9 Dec. 1990, A4). The military's refusal to comply with the order to fire on demonstrators precipitated the President's fall (Le Monde 5 Dec. 1990, 4; Far Eastern Economic Review 27 Dec. 1990, 15).


The protest movement, led by both students and opposition parties, was essentially an urban phenomenon. Peasants in the countryside, preoccupied with their own day-to-day survival, were little inclined to take part in the political struggle between the government and the opposition (The Gazette 13 Dec. 1990b, A17). It was mainly in the cities of Dhaka, Chittagong and Sylhet that the anti-Ershad movement crystallized. In addition to the confrontations between government opponents and security forces, political and student factions supporting the Ershad regime also engaged in violence (Reuters 27 Nov. 1990). According to Amnesty International, extralegal executions probably took place (Amnesty International, ASA 13/WU 02/90).

Repressive measures undertaken during demonstrations were often brutal. To disperse the crowds, security forces used clubs, tear gas and sometimes fired on demonstrators (Libération 11 Oct. 1990; 30 Nov. 1990, 22). Bulletins also report that several thousand opponents of the regime were arrested in October and November. According to the opposition, there were over 5,000 arrests (The New York Times 4 Dec. 1990, A6). No information is currently available regarding the length of detentions; the common practice in Bangladesh, however, is to detain opponents for a few days before releasing them (Andreassen et al. 1988, 171-75). As for conditions of detention, they are notoriously bad in Bangladesh, and the Ershad regime was known to torture political prisoners frequently (Amnesty International 1989, 176- 77). The student movement became radical following the death of one of its activists in the west of the country. Jahidul Islam, arrested on 16 October, died three days later at the Rajshahi hospital centre as a result of head wounds (FBIS-NES-90-204 22 Oct. 1990, 46-47).

The people most often harassed and arrested were student leaders, members of All Party Students Unity, and those from the middle ranks of opposition parties (Le Monde 7 Dec. 1990, 5). The Special Powers Act (SPA) was invoked on 29 October 1990 to legitimize residential searches of some political opposition organizations and led to the imprisonment of many opponents. Among those arrested was the Secretary-General of the Awami National Party. Several opposition and student leaders apparently went into hiding at that time (FBIS-NES-90-210 30 Oct. 1990, 54). A fresh series of arrests followed the imposition of martial law on 27 November. The leaders of the two main opposition bodies, Sheikh Hasina (Awami League) and Begum Zia (Bangladesh Nationalist Party) were placed under house arrest (Le Soleil 28 Nov. 1990, B15).

Ershad's "resignation" ended the fighting in the streets. To pacify students and some opposition party factions, on 12 December the transitional government headed by Vice President Ahmed arrested Ershad and his Minister of the Interior. At least ten key figures close to the former President were wanted by the new authorities (The Gazette 12 Dec. 1990, A7). The former Vice-President of Bangladesh, Moudud Ahmed, who had gone into hiding, was questioned and placed under house arrest on 20 December (Le Devoir 21 Dec. 1990, 6). A report indicates that the interim government undertook a purge of heads of financial enterprises and local or national administrations who had been implicated in the Ershad government (The Gazette 13 Dec. 1990a, A17). Apart from lifting the state of emergency, the interim government did not alter the other main legislation of the Ershad regime, which included The Special Powers Act.

4.           EXIT AND RETURN

According to the U.S. Department of State Country Reports 1989, citizens of Bangladesh have generally been able to leave the country without difficulty, subject to currency controls (Country Reports 1989 1990, 1353). According to the same source, few people have been harassed upon returning to the country; there was only one case in which an opponent was arrested as he got off the plane, and subsequently detained (Ibid.). No information is available about any special constraints which may have been imposed during the events of fall 1990.

The new interim government, consisting of components acceptable to the opposition parties, took steps to prevent the country's former leaders from leaving. The new authorities confiscated the passports of the former President Ershad, his ministers and their families (FBIS-NES-90-240 13 Dec. 1990, 38). On the other hand, some opponents of the Ershad regime could be tempted to return to Bangladesh in order to take advantage of the present political liberalization. For example, Abdul Kader Siddiqui, a liberation fighter who was in voluntary exile in India for 15 years, returned to Bangladesh a few days after Ershad resigned (FBIS-NES-90-242 17 Dec. 1990, 42). Kader Siddiqui was however arrested on 17 January 1991 under the Special Powers Act. According to a report in the London newspaper The Independent, Siddiqui's return heightened tension between certain political parties and the armed forces (The Independent 18 Jan. 1991).

Oral and written sources do not contradict the interim government's apparent openness to opponents of the Ershad regime. Indeed, the Ahmed government announced in mid-January that 3,683 people imprisoned under the Ershad regime would be released (The New York Times 16 Jan. 1991). The liberalization seems to extend to the return of opponents of the Ershad regime. As the case of Siddiqui shows, many opponents of the Ershad regime could enter Bangladesh without being troubled by the new authorities. If, however, they became actively involved in domestic political struggles, they could be the target of rival political groups or police action to contain political violence. According to the Human Rights Committee for Justice and Peace, a Catholic organization in Dhaka, only those found guilty of criminal offences are liable to be targeted when they return to Bangladesh (Human Rights Committee 18 Feb. 1991). It is possible, however, that under the Ershad regime criminal charges were laid against political opponents. Amnesty International remains concerned about the possible treatment of certain people who were falsely charged (Amnesty International 19 Feb. 1991), and is also concerned that the government may detain those who have expressed their opinions peacefully (Amnesty International, ASA 13/WU 02/91).


At present, little is known about the direction Bangladesh will take in the months to come. The end of the Ershad regime, the lifting of emergency measures and the formation of an interim government responsible for organizing a democratic election have improved the political climate. But the army is still the umpire in the political arena. According to Laurent Zecchini of Le Monde, the opposition, in its struggle against the Ershad government in recent weeks, has avoided criticizing the military too severely. It has focused mainly on the corruption and autocracy of the Ershad regime (Le Monde 6 Dec. 1990, 8). Both the arrest of the former President and some of those close to him as well as the announcement that a special court would be set up to try Ershad for corruption suggest that, although the military establishment is divided on the issue, the latter has agreed to "sacrifice" Ershad so as to restore public order (Far Eastern Economic Review 27 Dec. 1990). Following the example of Pakistan in 1988, the military now seems resigned to holding a national election, initially scheduled for 2 March but now brought forward to 27 February (Times of India 24 Dec. 1990, 7). Internal struggle between the country's main political groups (the coalition of eight parties grouped around the Awami League, the seven political formations led by the BNP and the five parties allied with the Jammat-e-Islami) is so intense, however, that some fear it may lead to the return of the military.

Similiar to past campaigns in Bangladesh, the current election campaign is marked by acts of violence. Clashes between political groups injured over 200 people in the first month of the election campaign. Student groups are heavily involved in the confrontations (Times of India 7 Jan. 1991; FBIS-NES-90-247 24 Dec. 1990, 42). Some partisans of former President Ershad are still armed and not reconciled to his fall. Religious tensions in India between Hindus and Muslims may have repercussions in Bangladesh at any moment. The clashes over the Ayodhya mosque in India affected Bangladesh: on 31 October and 1 November 1990, Muslims burned 11 Hindu temples in Dhaka and Chittagong. President Ershad sent in the army to help the police contain inter-religious violence (La Presse 2 Nov. 1990, A12).

Despite Ershad's departure, the social and political situation in Bangladesh remains as disturbing as before. While political rights and freedoms have been revived since 6 December, the enormous difficulties weighing on the country and the divisions within the parties will long remain causes of political instability and violence.



10 October: Anti-government demonstrations begin.

17 October: The government closes schools and universities indefinitely.

27 October: The country is paralysed by a national strike lasting a few hours.

31 October - 1 November: Muslims and Hindus clash in Dhaka and Chittagong.

10 November: Another general strike paralyses the country.

20-21 November: The opposition organizes a 48-hour national strike.

27 November: President Ershad declares a state of emergency.

3 December: Ershad promises to resign before new elections are held.

4 December: Ershad tenders his resignation when the opposition rejects his "peace plan."

5 December:The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Shahabuddin Ahmed, is appointed Vice-President of the country and given a mandate to form a transitional government.

9 December: Ershad reaffirms his intention to run in the next elections.

12 December:Ershad is arrested and there is talk of creating a special court to try the former President.

14 December:Vice-President Ahmed announces that legislative elections will be held on 27 February 1991.


Amnesty International. 19 February 1991. Telephone Interview with Representative, Toronto.

Amnesty International. (ASA 13/WU 02/91). 5 February 1991. "Bangladesh: Amnesty International Calls for Reforms to Protect Human Rights."

Amnesty International. (ASA 13/WU 02/90). 7 December 1990. "Bangladesh: Hundreds Detained Following State of Emergency."

Amnesty International. 1989. Rapport 1989. Paris : Éditions d'Amnesty International.

Andreassen, Bard-Anders and Eide. 1988. Human Rights in Developing Countries, 1987-88. Copenhagen: Akademisk Forlag.

The Associated Press. 1 December 1990. "Seven Killed in Bangladesh as Opposition Calls General Strike."

Le Devoir [Montréal]. 21 December 1990. "Arrestation."

Le Devoir [Montréal]. 5 December 1990. "Ershad démissionne."

Far Eastern Economic Review [Hong Kong]. 27 December 1990. Kulkarny, V.G. "Armed Neutrality."

Far Eastern Economic Review [Hong Kong]. 21 June 1990. Kamaluddin, S. "Early Warning."

FBIS-NES-90-247. 24 December 1990. "AFP Reports Student Activists Killed" in AFP [Hong Kong], 24 December 1990.

FBIS-NES-90-242. 17 December 1990. "Return of Exiled Politician Reported" in Dhaka Domestic Service, 14 December 1990.

FBIS-NES-90-240. 13 December 1990. "Ershad's Arrest, Passport Seizure Reported" in Dhaka Overseas Services, 12 December 1990.

FBIS-NES-90-210. 30 October 1990. " Opposition Arrests" in AFP [Hong Kong], 29 October 1990.

FBIS-NES-90-204. 22 October 1990. "Student Activist Dies in Police Custody" in AFP [Hong Kong], 20 October 1990.

The Gazette [Montréal]. 13 December 1990a. "Bangladeshi Authorities Arrest Former President."

The Gazette [Montréal]. 13 December 1990b. Coll, Steve. "Poor Untouched by Ershad's Fall."

The Gazette [Montréal]. 12 December 1990. "Bangladeshi Police Ordered to Arrest President."

Human Rights Committee for Justice and Peace. 18 February 1991. Telephone Interview with Representative, Dhaka.

The Independent [London]. 18 January 1991. "Hero of Bangladeshi War is Under Arrest."

Libération [Paris]. 30 November 1990. "Les Bangladais défient la loi martiale."

Libération [Paris]. 18 October 1990. "Bangladesh : universités."

Libération [Paris]. 11 October 1990. "Répression sanglante à Dacca."

Le Monde [Paris]. 12 December 1990. "L'unité du mouvement populaire a fait long feu."

Le Monde [Paris]. 7 December 1990. "Le président Ershad a renoncé au pouvoir."

Le Monde [Paris]. 6 December 1990. "Le président Ershad a annoncé sa démission."

Le Monde [Paris]. 5 December 1990. Zecchini, Laurent. "Le président Ershad annonce une série de concessions."

The New York Times. 16 January 1991. "New Government in Bangladesh Frees 151."

The New York Times. 9 December 1990. Crossette, Barbara. "Revolution Brings Bangladesh Hope."

The New York Times. 6 December 1990. "Bangladesh Picks an Interim Leader."

The New York Times. 4 December 1990. "Bangladesh Chief Offers Concession to Opposition."

La Presse [Montréal]. 13 December 1990. "Arrestation de l'ancien président Ershad."

La Presse [Montréal]. 6 December 1990. "Shahabuddin Ahmed, nommé vice-président du Bangladesh."

La Presse [Montréal]. 2 November 1990. "La violence religieuse continue ses ravages en Inde : 32 morts hier."

Reuters. 27 November 1990. "Bangladesh Opposition Leader Warns of Civil War."

Le Soleil [Québec]. 28 November 1990. "C'est l'état d'urgence au Bangladesh."

Times of India [New Delhi]. 7 January 1991. "Fifty Hurt in Clashes in Bangladesh."

Times of India [New Delhi]. 24 December 1990. "12 Hurt in Dhaka Varsity Blaze."

The Xinhua News Agency. 10 November 1990. "Opposition Parties Stage General Strike in Bangladesh."

U.S. Department of State. 1990. Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1989. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office.

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