THE MUTINY by Bangladesh's border security forces in the capital Dhaka has brought back the spectre of violence that has marked the country's recent political history.
That the army had to be called out to quell the uprising just weeks after December's election is an important reminder that the country's political situation remains complex and fragile despite the restoration of democratic rule.
Analysts had warned prior to the elections that any unrest could distract the poll winners from implementing much-needed economic reforms and discourage prospective investment.
They also voiced concern about the military's role once an elected government took charge.
The assumption at that time was that the army would remain behind the scenes for a while to see if the new government could tackle endemic corruption and avoid violence.
Now that violence on such a dramatic scale has erupted in the centre of Dhaka, the generals may feel compelled to attempt a more overt role.
However, conflicts elsewhere in the world are likely to persuade the Bangladeshi army to leave governance at home to the politicians.
The incentive it has for doing so is that minimum local involvement means maximum flexibility to serve in various overseas UN peacekeeping missions.
Those missions, in which Bangladesh often has the largest contingent, generate compensatory payments to the country as well as salaries for the participating soldiers and officers salaries far above what they earn at home.
This very disparity could be a factor behind the current mutiny.
The Bangladesh Rifles (BDR), whose primary duty is border security, by the very nature of its job does not often get to share the UN bounty. It also does not have any officers of its own. Commissioned officers from the army do that job.
According to local media, BDR troops are demanding better wages, more food subsidies and additional holidays.
Major-General Shakil Ahmed, the BDR chief, has previously refused to listen to his troops' demands.
"It seems to be a mutiny of BDR troops" against their regular army officers, an armed forces spokesman said.
Coups and instability
The mainly Muslim but secular country of 144 million, formerly known as East Pakistan, has a history of instability, coups and countercoups since winning independence from Pakistan in 1971.
It experienced credible democracy for a while. But faced with serious economic and social crises, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the country's founder president, assumed authoritarian powers.
After years of rule by army generals in and out of uniform, Sheikh Hasina, Mujibur Rahman's daughter, and Khaleda Zia, the widow of Ziaur Rahman, another slain president, alternated as prime ministers over a 15-year period that ended in late 2006.
Those times were marked by chaos, boycotts of parliament by losing parties, lack of compromise, bad faith and mudslinging, and deadly violence inflicted by and on political partisans.
"Regardless of who wins the election, the next government and the opposition parties will face the challenges of making parliament work and contending with an army that wants a greater say in politics," the International Crisis Group, which tracks conflicts worldwide, had warned in December.
While the sense of déjà vu may bring back prophesies of doom, it is still too early for the army to overtly exercise its influence.
The money involved in terms of much-needed foreign aid for the country and the UN peacekeeping earnings will discourage the military from taking on a more central role at least for now. #
First published in Al Jazeera TV online, February 27, 2009