Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Bloody mutiny shaken Shiekh Hasina, democracy and region

Hasina now has to deal with Islamist forces, hardline officers and political opponents
Photo: The manhunt Bangladesh army soldiers try to identify the bodies of missing Bangladesh Rifles officers

FARIHA KARIM

WHEN GUNFIRE first echoed through the morning of February 25 in Dhaka’s normally amiable Dhanmondi neighbourhood, few realised that an event that could change the landscape of Bangladeshi history was unfolding at the headquarters of the country’s paramilitary border forces, the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR). Over the next two days, nearly 3,000 BDR men turned their guns on their command superiors before the revolt was called off, leaving 77 officers, eight BDR men and five civilians dead. Among the killed whom firefighters later exhumed from a mass grave discovered in the compound grounds was Major General Shakil Ahmed, the BDR’s Director General.

Over the days that followed, questions over the events of February 25 and 26 have pointed to sinister possibilities. The mass graves, the scale of the killings and the meticulous way in which the insurrection was carried out indicate that this was an attack engineered by a hand far more powerful than a group of young soldiers disgruntled over pay scale, as was initially thought. Some are even asking whether the intelligence agencies knew of the outbreak, as a possible explanation for their failure to prevent it. The government, meanwhile, is engaged in conciliating the armed forces over its handling of the crisis. In particular because it refused to send the army in immediately, which, it is being claimed, led to further deaths. Meanwhile the world is watching, to see if, and when, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina delivers on her promise to ensure that those responsible are punished.

Theories have emerged from sections of the Indian press that shipping magnate Salauddin Quader Chowdhury, alleged to be close to Begum Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, was involved. Growing counter-claims have also been made, primarily by Pakistan, of the role of India’s intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing. While experts agree that affixing blame is still premature, they are also unanimous about the involvement of a bigger player than just the BDR.

According to Major Muniruzzaman, who heads the Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security: “What happened is in the interests of anyone who wants to weaken Bangladesh to the level of a failing state. Anyone looking at border capacity would be hitting the BDR, as would anyone who wants to settle scores with the armed forces or the BDR. But there is a complete lack of information. We can’t jump to any conclusions without an investigation.”

Another security expert, who asked not to be named, looked at the possibility of a terror group being behind the attack. “These symbols — the red headscarves the BDR snipers wore, the bayoneting, the three bullets in the neck, the gouging out of eyes — are not coincidental. They are used by specific groups.”

Minister for Cooperatives Jahangir Kabir Nanak, who was in the thick of negotiations with the rebels, called the revolt “a conspiracy”, and said the officers were murdered in a well-planned way. He said, “a vested group” had “distributed millions” among BDR soldiers to kill their officers.
Sheikh Hasina, however, has so far refused to be drawn on the possibility of foreign involvement. A six-member team headed by Home Minister Sahara Khatun has been charged with investigations, but, as critics point out, the probe has not begun in promising circumstances. Crucial forensic evidence was destroyed within days, possibly hours. At the BDR compound’s Darbar Hall, for example, where the massacre allegedly began, blood had been washed away and chairs neatly stacked at the side by the evening of February 27. In addition, it is suspected that the scenes of the mutiny and the accounts of what happened were manipulated.

Major General Ahmed’s house, for instance, was found in a shambles, with every item of furniture strewn across the floor. Blood and shattered glass covered all available space. Yet, in the midst of the chaos, a five-foot glass cabinet containing heirloom crystal was left completely untouched, apparently because the mutineers “didn’t want the antiques”, according to Major Shumon Ahmed, who led reporters around the ransacked home. Was the destruction visible at the house enhanced after the event to make the BDR attack appear even more vicious? Why, after all, would soldiers bent on havoc reserve care for glass ornaments in an otherwise plundered house?

There are other conflicting accounts of what exactly happened, and to whom, which the investigation will be expected to reconcile. The rebellion broke out at about 9.30am while Major General Ahmed was addressing around 3,000 BDR men in the Darbar Hall — on this, survivors agree. From there on, versions vary. A source close to the army claims a soldier stood up and began demanding to know whether he had raised BDR grievances with the Prime Minister during her visit the previous day. Ahmed was shot when he refused to ‘obey’ orders to sit down. Survivor Colonel Shams says the soldier ran out and tried to put a gun to Major General Ahmed’s head. According to others, a group of soldiers, waiting behind the main stage with guns, ambushed the Director General during the meleé. While there will inevitably be differences in the way events are recalled, the discrepancies only add further complexity to an already problematic situation.

Hasina has a lot to worry about. There are many sidelined army and intelligence officers who have links with hardline Islamic groups who consolidated themselves during the tenure of Khaleda Zia who formed a government, in 2001, with the support of the Jamaat-e-Islami. Many in Bangladesh agree that the mutiny was the handiwork of ‘antidemocratic’ forces comprising Islamic organisations, mainstream politicians and hardline army officers. The officers, in particular, fear being prosecuted if the 1971 cases are reopened.

Bangladeshi intelligence is also under the spotlight like never before. Serious questions have been raised about both the National Security Intelligence and the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence, which were unable to provide warning of the revolt. Some, like Lt Colonel Kamruzzaman, have claimed that the only way it could have happened was with intelligence complicity: “Field agents of intelligence agencies were involved. They knew everything.” Sheikh Hasina herself has said little — it is only too obvious that Bangladeshi intelligence was on the ball when they told her to leave the country two years ago because she was facing death threats. But she is facing mounting pressure to hold intelligence to account. Even if the theory of its involvement does not ultimately hold, the questions over its failure will remain.

And what about the role of the armed forces? Immediately after the attack, they were given the opportunity to communicate with the public on a new footing, on a fresh wave of public support. Media analysts have commented on how the massacre gave the army an opportunity to repair its battered reputation following the two-year rule of the military-backed caretaker government. While the army was previously held in some mistrust, it became the victim overnight. And all talk vanished of the alleged excesses of its term in behind-the-scenes power.
Now it faces an uncertain future, and is still testing its relationship with the government. Having taken a severe hit, with some claiming the number of officers killed was the same if not more as that of the war dead of 1971, action is being drafted to restore the army to even better form than before. Within a week, Sheikh Hasina had signalled major changes to the defence forces, including the reorganisation of the paramilitaries’ operational responsibilities.

Yet many in the army are still sore, it is claimed, over the way the mutiny was handled. While troops were in place in the vicinity of the BDR compound by 11.30am on February 25, they received no permission to enter — Sheikh Hasina preferred talks and negotiations with the rebels while the bloodbath was in progress. This has led, in the aftermath, to “awkward questions” from officers during closed-door talks, and rumour has it that the army is looking to avenge for its losses. Says a source close to the army: “If they had gone in with tanks, its true there would have been more deaths, but they would have been BDR deaths. It is possible that they will continue to ask for concessions, because they believe they suffered needless casualties. They will want something in return.” This has placed complete pressure on Sheikh Hasina to rebuild their confidence, not only for the defence of her country, but also for the stability of her government.

The BDR also faces a new future under the command of its new Director General, Brigadier General Mohammad Mainul Islam. Amid calls to have it disbanded due to the spectacular failure of the chain of command, it is clear that there is little possibility of its remaining as it was before the uprising.

As for Sheikh Hasina, how she will be seen by Bangladesh is still to be decided. So far, she has earned praise from some quarters for her initial handling of the crisis, just weeks into her administration. The fact that the crisis was handled and directed by the government, and not the military, is being interpreted as a sign that here is an administration prepared to take control. While some in the army may have felt aggrieved, it was reassuring to others that the country was now under a stable, civilian, democratic government, depriving the military of the dominant role it has assumed at various stages in Bangladesh’s history. Sheikh Hasina’s stance has also enhanced her global standing, but the real test is still to come, and will depend on the transparency and credibility of the mutiny investigation. The reformed BDR will be under constant watch, and a new reservoir of trained, capable soldiers will have to be gathered quickly. In the process, the government and army will be expected to ensure fairness and address all major personnel issues.

How Sheikh Hasina handles wavering army support is also being monitored as a key indicator of her government’s ability to survive. Ultimately, the crisis represents her finest balancing act: her negotiations to address army grievances risk her being seen as too far in its camp, which would cost her the public legitimacy she appeared to win in epic proportions during last December’s election. And if she is unable to win army favour in the coming weeks, she faces the risk of military discontent, raising the threat of a possible coup. There is also the question of whom an independent, full investigation implicates. If there are actors involved in the mutiny who are in current positions of power and responsibility, Sheikh Hasina will face the tough test of removing them, even if they have previously served her interests.

Maintaining equilibrium in the circumstances will be a major task, and perhaps not what the government was expecting so soon into its honeymoon period. But to resolve these issues is the only choice it has. #

First published in Tehelka magazine, New Delhi, March 14, 2009

Fariha Karim is a freelance journalist based in Bangladesh and the United Kingdom