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State of Shock

The aftermath of the uprising by the Bangladesh Rifles in the last week of February poses a major challenge to the two-month old Awami League government of Sheikh Hasina. The government acquitted itself creditably in the crisis, but the civilian government's relationship with the army (which lost dozens of officers in the mutiny) remains tense. A failure to get to the root of the uprising could leave the door open to the forces that wanted to destabilise the newly elected government to strike again.

LETTER FROM SOUTH ASIA

decision to negotiate a surrender of theState of Shock mutineers rather than order a storming of the headquarters compound, and no real clarity yet as to who might have been behind Zafar Sobhan the incident and what their motives might

The aftermath of the uprising by the Bangladesh Rifles in the last week of February poses a major challenge to the two-month old Awami League government of Sheikh Hasina. The government acquitted itself creditably in the crisis, but the civilian government’s relationship with the army (which lost dozens of officers in the mutiny) remains tense. A failure to get to the root of the uprising could leave the door open to the forces that wanted to destabilise the newly elected government to strike again.

Zafar Sobhan (zsobhan@hotmail.com) is op-ed editor, The Daily Star, Dhaka.

L
ess than two months into its tenure in office, the new Awami League government in Bangladesh has been rocked to the core by the 36-hour mutiny and siege at the headquarters of Bangladesh Rifles (BDR), the nation’s border s ecurity force, in the heart of the c apital Dhaka, which had left at least 74 persons, including 51 BDR commanding officers, slaughtered. The scale of the tragedy and the fury that the carnage has ignited, both in the military as well as among the general population, dwarfs any other consideration of the new government, which has moved rapidly onto a crisis footing, and there can be little doubt that the future of the government now depends on how skilfully Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina handles this most volatile and dangerous of crisis. Her new government could not have faced a stiffer test, and if it comes through this baptism of fire, it will be an impressive testament to the prime minister’s statesmanship. But, although the prime minister has thus far acquitted herself admirably, earning widespread (though, notably, not unanimous) praise for her steely resolve and steadiness of nerve, it is still too early to tell whether she and her government will be able to successfully weather the storm.

Simmering Tensions

For the country as a whole, it is as much the unexpectedness of the mutiny as the b rutality of the mutineers that has made people anxious as to what the immediate future holds. What has shocked the country is the mutilation of many of the dead and the gruesome manner in which their bodies were deposited in mass graves or dumped in sewers to avoid detection. Together with arson and looting of officers’ houses, there are also unconfirmed reports of rape of officers’ family members, with at least one wife, that of the BDR commanding officer, confirmed killed.

With many within the army still incandescent with rage over the prime minister’s

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have been, the situation remains explosive and fraught with tension and uncertainty.

No one, certainly not the nation’s intelligence agencies, had even the slightest inkling that such a rebellion was brewing, and the country is now faced with the unenviable task of asking itself some hard questions as to how much we know and how much we do not but ought to about the tensions simmering beneath the surface, both in the general population and in the paramilitary units and armed forces, and what this bodes for the future.

Zero Hour

The mutiny began in the early hours of 25 February, with sounds of gunfire heard coming from the BDR headquarters in the heart of Dhaka, where some 5,000 BDR troops were present together with approximately 100 officers (seconded from the army to command the border security force), following a durbar, or gathering of troops the previous night. The mutineers who took command of the BDR headquarters initially raised demands related to their pay and conditions of service, but the extent of the carnage that has been uncovered in the aftermath of their surrender appears to cast doubt over claims that the mutiny was triggered by mere grievances over perks and privileges.

After over 24 hours of intense negotiation and the offer of a general amnesty, followed by a direct appeal by the prime minister to the rebels to lay down their arms, troops were readied to storm the BDR headquarters, prompting the mutineers to finally surrender early in the evening of 26 February.

An audio tape of extracts from the prime minister’s stormy closed door session last week with senior army officers that was leaked to the press reveals the extent of the anger within certain sections of the forces, who argued that if the prime minister had sent in troops to storm the compound at once that many of the k illings and atrocities could have been averted.

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Economic & Political Weekly

LETTER FROM SOUTH ASIA

The prime minister, however, both from the evidence of the audio tape as well as from first-hand accounts of those who were present at the closed door session, handled the situation well, and the leadership that she has shown and continues to show during this crisis is one of the few positives that can be taken away from the current situation.

Her address to the nation carried on live television on the afternoon of 26 February hit all the right notes, and it was both her sincerity and resolution of purpose that played the key role in resolving the crisis. When she told the mutineers that she would ensure that they were treated fairly, coming from her, it meant something to them. It was this, as much as the threat of an army offensive that had been readied as a contingency plan if the rebels did not surrender, that persuaded them to lay down their arms and bring the siege to a close.

Aftermath

At present, the public mood is one of relief that the crisis is over and that the army has not taken matters into its own hands and seems to be playing a subordinate role to the government in this matter, as per its constitutional mandate. But if discontent as to the government’s handling of the crisis takes hold, then this could alter the nature of the carefully negotiated relationship between the army and the government.

The army-backed caretaker government that had run Bangladesh since 11 January 2007 surprised sceptics by voluntarily relinquishing power and holding widely acclaimed elections last December, and now the army has again distinguished itself with its restraint in the face of the extreme provocation of the BDR massacre, with both the prime minister and the army chief resisting intense pressure to order a military solution to the siege. Indeed, the fact that at all times during the crisis that the army has acted under the authority of the civilian government and not taken matters into its own hands is, one hopes, yet another sign of its growing maturity and sense of constitutional fidelity.

However, there can be no question that the prime minister’s biggest challenge now will be to ensure that the understandable and considerable anger that exists

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
march 14, 2009

within sections of the armed forces is kept in check and poses no renewed threat to the authority of her fledgling democratic government.

Investigations

Investigations are underway, with the prime minister revealing on the floor of the parliament that she had approached the US and UK governments as well as the UN for assistance. The stakes could not be higher. With anger mounting, the government’s future may well hinge on how quickly those responsible for the massacre are brought to book.

Investigators are so far remaining tightlipped about the evidence gathered, understandable given the explosiveness of the situation, and are determined to get to the bottom of the matter. Flawed investigations and shoddy prosecutorial practices seriously tarnished the caretaker government’s anti-corruption drive, and investigators do not want to make the same mistake here. The investigators claim to have uncovered some 450 mutineers and 12 ringleaders who were active in the rebellion, and that a number of the ones so identified are in custody.

As of now, it would be irresponsible to speculate as to who was behind the mutiny and what the motives of the mutineers and their sponsors (if indeed there were any of note) might have been. However, the even greater threat is that the entire incident gets swept down the memory hole, and, as is often the case in Bangladesh, we never get to the bottom of what happened. The end result of our failure to bring to book those who have been responsible for death and destruction is that they invariably surface at some later point in time and try their luck again.

This time, with the army baying for blood, it is likely that the prime minister will have little option but to leave no stone unturned in her quest for justice and answers. Anything less than a full-blooded investigation that yields results all the way to the top of the plot’s chain of command will be unacceptable to the army and could threaten the carefully calibrated balance between the power of the civilian government and the army.

The prime minister has other tangible

incentives to get to the bottom of things.

While it might be premature to speculate

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as to who were the masterminds, it is surely safe to say that their intent was to destabilise the government and rupture the carefully negotiated relationship between it and the army. With the prime minister having taken office vowing to clean things up and to spare no effort in targeting those who are involved in antistate activities or have connections to radicalism and militancy, these elements have everything to lose from the successful prosecution of this agenda, and everything to gain from destabilising the government and bringing it into crisis.

If the prime minister does not move against them now, then it is a safe bet that this will not be their last attempt to destabilise her government. It is instructive at this juncture to contemplate for a moment what might have happened had the prime minister acceded to the demands for a military solution to the crisis and the army had gone in, guns blazing.

Such an assault would almost certainly have led to greater carnage, and, given the fact that the BDR headquarters sits at the heart of the capital, fighting is likely to have encompassed the surrounding residential neighbourhoods, leading to unimaginable panic and bloodshed. Unaware of the extent of the atrocities committed by the BDR jawans, many in the surrounding localities have admitted helping them flee, and had the situation descended into a firefight between army and BDR in the front yards and back alleys of Dhaka city, there is no doubt that civilians would have entered the fray on either side.

Now imagine what the impact would have been on the 42 BDR camps around the country when they heard news that the army had stormed the BDR headquarters compound and were involved in a firefight with the BDR troops.

The truth is that the country has narrowly averted what could have been an extraordinarily bloody and dangerous catastrophe.

The situation remains fraught with risk and tension, and how the prime minister handles the next six months, specially the investigations and her relationship with the military, will determine whether Bangladesh will come out of this latest crisis without too much damage. Right now, it is simply too early to tell.

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