Photo: Those accused of taking part in the mutiny will face a range of charges, including conspiracy to kill officers and civilians, using weapons and explosives and trying to hide bodies.
EVEN AS the corpses of 56 army officers—victims of a mutiny on February 25th and 26th by Bangladesh’s paramilitary border force—were being retrieved from a mass grave and sewers in Dhaka, the conspiracy histories were being written.
Rabid nationalists, on the fringe of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), blamed India for the uprising, which occurred at the huge headquarters of the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) force, then flared at paramilitary camps around the country. Some also accused the ruling Awami League party of plotting it, to rid the 45,000-strong Rifles of the army officers who lead them, and create a private political army. Others blamed some faction within the regular army, which has bred over a dozen coup attempts in Bangladesh’s short history. Indian newspapers, just for a change, pointed the finger at Pakistan. After all, the League’s two-month-old government, led by Sheikh Hasina Wajed, wants better relations with India.
But in the absence, so far, of any evidence for these theories, another, almost-equally bizarre, explanation seems possible: that the mutiny, which claimed 74 people in all, including two army wives, was a scarcely planned act of madness by some hot-tempered men with guns.
The shooting began during, or shortly after, a meeting of several thousand BDR soldiers with their top brass. At the meeting, the paramilitaries voiced old grievances about their low pay and inferior status, as compared with the pampered army’s. A posse of BDR men carrying automatic rifles interrupted it. Most, or all, of the dead officers were killed within an hour or two. But the mutineers—and their startled comrades, a much bigger group—held out for another 30 hours, while government emissaries urged them to surrender. Sheikh Hasina promised them an amnesty. Yet the BDR gave up their weapons only when the army sent in the tanks and Sheikh Hasina threatened to use them.
She has emerged from this crisis with her reputation enhanced. Having recently ended two years of rule by army-backed technocrats, during which she was jailed on corruption charges, Sheikh Hasina has reason to fear the generals. Yet she co-operated with them during the mutiny. When army officers began to rage at the killing of their comrades, especially as the bodies were disinterred amid excited casualty reports, she announced that there would be no amnesty for the killers, including five alleged ringleaders arrested this week.
But hopes that the crisis might lead to better relations between the mutually-loathing main parties have already been dashed. Having quietly supported the government while the bullets were flying, the BNP reverted to oppositional type this week, calling for the resignation of the home minister. Indeed, when Sheikh Hasina warned of more mutinous trouble on March 3rd—“The game is still on and the conspirators are not taking a break”—it might have been her political opponents she had in mind. #
First published in The Economist, March 5, 2009