Saturday, March 07, 2009

Bangladesh: Return of the Razakars?

Photo REUTERS/Andrew Biraj: Bangladesh army storms the para-military border forces headquarters in capital Dhaka after deadline to surrender


IN A decision reminiscent of her late assassinated father President Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh Prime Minister Shiekh Hasina came out to inform the nation on February 27 that the mutiny by junior officers of the Bangladesh rifles (BDR) on the morning of February 25 at the force’s headquarters was a premeditated conspiracy. She warned that the powers behind this conspiracy were not going to sit by quietly.

There were three attempts on Sk. Hasina’s life by Islamic terrorists, especially the Harkat-ul-Jihad Al-Islamic (HUJI) Commander Mufti Hannan, now under trial for murder and attempted murder. Hannan’s confessions implicated senior BNP ministers and members of Parliament including ministers Altaf Hossain Choudhury and Ruhul Quddus Talukdar Dulu. In the last attack in April 2004 in Dhaka, Sk. Hasina was left with a permanent injury. From behind the scenes, the Jamaat-e-Islami (JEI) have been instrumental is raising these Islamic terrorists through various means including establishing funding links with NGOs involved with Osama bin Laden and his network.

After the BDR revolt, the threat perception to Sk. Hasina’s life has become acute. Have the anti-liberation forces declared open season on a Bangladesh that triumphed over these forces in the December 2008 election and moved the country back to the secular, liberal and democratic values under the Awami League government?

Sk. Hasina may have had a providential escape. On February 24, she was at the BDR headquarters in Dhaka’s Peelkhana area to address the raising day of the force. In her speech she spoke about her government’s commitment to development, asked the BDR to stop smuggling in the interest of the economy, and emphasized that no one would be allowed to use Bangladesh’s soil as a “spring board” for terrorism against any other country. She also underscored that she wanted to have friendly relations with neighbours.

The points made by the Prime Minister were sharp and specific, true to Awami League’s election manifesto, and articulated by Sk. Hasina and her ministers elsewhere in the recent past. Although in her speech at the BDR headquarters she did not mention her decision to hold trial of the 1971 war criminals, and the killers of her father and senior Awami leaguers in 1975, this point had already been widely made.

Around two weeks back, Pakistan’s Special Envoy Pervez Ispahani came to Dhaka and tried to persuade Sk. Hasina and Foreign Minister Dr. Dipu Moni that this was not the right time to try war criminals and the past may as well be buried. He did not succeed in his mission. Ispahani also met opposition leaders including BNP Chairperson and former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, and some JEI leaders.

It would seem to defy logic why the Pakistani government would send a Special Envoy at this time to intercede in a highly emotional issue of the Bangladeshis. The Pakistani civilian government headed by President Asif Ali Zardari is too busy trying to work on more occupying and highly important issues of terrorism, Afghanistan, the US pressures and the Mumbai terrorist attack among other challenges. Given Zardari’s political interests and proclivities, he could be hardly bothered about what is happening in Bangladesh at the moment. The only influential group in Pakistan which has an enduring interest in Bangladesh is the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the Pak army.

For the large majority of the Bangladeshi people including those among the post 1971 and 1975 generations, the carnage of the liberation war is still a raw wound. Around 3 million Bengalis were killed and around three hundred thousand women raped by the Pakistani army and their Bangladeshi collaborators. A closure to this tragedy demands appropriate punishment to those Bangladeshi war criminals who are still around – people like former Amir of the JEI Golam Azam, current Amir of JEI Matiur Rahman Nizami, Secretary General of the JEI Ali Ahsan Mujahid, Khaleda Zia’s advisors Salauddin Quader Choudhury and Harris Choudhury and a host of others.

Not very well publicized is the fact that a list of war criminals prepared by the Sector Commanders Forum (a group of freedom fighter officers) has the name of twelve Pakistani army senior officers directly involved in the 1971 killing and rape of civilians. That would explain the Pakistani Special Envoy’s visit to Dhaka. This has apparently rattled the ISI. Conviction of the war criminals and the assassins of Sk. Mujibur Rahman could raise an anti-Pakistani wave in Bangladesh and severely impact the ISI’s allies the BNP and the JEI. Cleansing of the Bangladesh Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI), the ISI alter-ego and facilitator, already set in motion by Sk. Hasina with the assistance of Gen. Moeen would seriously impact the Pakistani army’s prestige and open up human rights issues. Kampuchea’s (Cambodia’s) war criminals are being tried and sentenced even today. Even Nazi Germany’s perpetrators of the holocaust have been tracked down and dealt with. Serbian war criminals like Radovan Karadic are being accounted for. Therefore, there is every justification to bring to a conclusion the trial of the 1971 war criminals and the August 15, 1975 assassins and conspirators of Sk. Mujibur Rahman and his family, and top Awami League leaders in jail in November, the same year.

Once these cases start unravelling, they are unlikely to stop there. Trial of Mujibur Rahman killers will render the assassination of a head of State an act of treason. Questions would be asked about who were responsible to send these killers -army officers on foreign assignments. Who instigated the 1976 mutiny assassinating army Chief Khaled Musharraf? Late President Ziaur-Rahman’s name will figure in these acts boldly along with that of his associates. Attempted coup against Gen. Moeen on January 7, 2007, by the NSI Chief Maj.Gen. Rezakul Haider may also come up for review. All these if only Sk. Hasina and Gen. Moeen continue to remain in power and in control.

Two things need to be examined carefully to look for clues to the BDR mutiny. First is the scale, ferocity and ruthlessness of the killings of the officers and their families. The men were shot and bayoneted, and in many cases their bodies mutilated. The women were mostly raped and killed. The ten-year old daughter of an army officer was similarly raped and killed. Even children of officers inside the huge complex were not spared. BDR Chief Shakil Ahmed’s son and daughter escaped because they were away in school. Some dead bodies were put in a sewer and flooded down to the Buriganga river. Three mass graves were discovered subsequently. The manner of these horrendous acts reminded one of the 1971 killings by the Pak army and their Bengali collaborators.

Next, was the assassination of an entire corps of army officers in the BDR. Many were Moeen appointees including Shakil Ahmed whose dead body and that of his wife’s were discovered in the mass graves. Others may have been politically neutral or even BNP-JEI supporters. But none were spared. The army stands weakened, but very angry.

A very important pointer not widely mentioned in the press is the fact that after the mutiny started on February 25 morning, the JEI took out a couple of processions from old Dhaka, marching towards the BDR headquarters shouting the slogan “BDR janata bhai-bhai, Moeen er phansi chai” (BDR and the people are brothers, but we want Gen. Moeen hanged).

It must also be recalled that when a delegation of 14 BDR personnel went to meet Sk. Hasina to negotiate, they told her no officer was killed and that Maj.Gen. Shakil Ahmed who was being held hostage did not have a scratch on his body.

In fact, the killings had been done by that time. So why the subterfuge? The only reason would be they were expecting support to come from some other quarters, and that would be only from some sections of the army. That did not happen due to some reasons, but it could have happened.

In July, 2007 a mini coup was attempted against Gen. Moeen inside the Dhaka cantonment. Some 18 officers and other ranks were killed, and many others quietly discharged. Some involvement of Lt.Gen. Masuddin Choudhury was found. He was subsequently eased out and is currently serving as Bangladesh’s Ambassador to Australia.

The brain and finances behind the coup attempt is rumoured to have been Salauddin Quader Choudhury (SQC), Prime Minister Khaleda Zia’s advisor during the 2001-2006 BNP-JEI government. A shipping magnetic from the port city of Chittagong, his close links to the Pak army and the ISI goes back to 1971. One of his ships smuggled in ten truck loads of deadly arms and ammunition for the Assamese militants, the ULFA, in 2004. The consignment was accidentally interdicted by a police officer, but the officer was arrested and the case covered up by the BNP-JEI government. JEI Amir Matiur Rahman Nizami was also involved. That case is being reopened by the Sk. Hasina government.

The conspirators behind the BDR are certainly very concerned with Sk. Hasina’s security priorities especially on the terrorism front. If implemented thoroughly, they would uproot Pakistani intelligence and anti-India terrorism and militant support network in Bangladesh built assiduously from 1975 with the able assistance of state actors. This would be a defeat of the Pak army’s and ISI’s low intensity warfare against India from the east. The new Bangladesh Prime Minister may have taken up too many issues too soon. But for her, time is of essence to set history right, and establish greater co-operation with neighbours for economic development. Setting history right will bring peace and stability. Her father left things half done, trusting in people. The same people betrayed that trust and Sk. Mujib paid with his life.

The first target, however, appears to be the army Chief Gen. Moeen U. Ahmed. The BNP-JEI government made him the army Chief. His main credentials for the job was his tenure of about five years in Pakistan as Bangladesh’s Defence Advisor. But eventually he turned against his perceived mentors for their policies and his fall-out with the Zia family. He is also seen as the main force to break the BNP, expose the JEI and offer a hand of friendship to India. He is also seen on the hand behind Sk. Hasina’s power.

But Moeen is not out of the woods by a long chance. Although his insistence on strong show of force against BDR mutineers broke their back bone, and may have put the BNP-JEI influence in the army on the back foot, it may be temporary. Knowledgeable sources in Bangladesh say that the first battle may have been won by Moeen, but the war is yet to be fought.

It is an ideological and historical war, with an ideology kept burning and nourished from abroad. The tension in Bangladesh, especially Dhaka, is palpable. The country has entered an extended period of uncertainty. No points for guessing the game. #

First published in the South Asia Analysis Group portal, March 3, 2009

Bhaskar Roy is an eminent analyst with many years of experience. He can be reached at