Sunday, March 15, 2009

Killings in the Philippines and Bangladesh


WHAT HAPPENED on 25 February in Bangladesh and here? Killings within military units. So, are there lessons to be learned by both countries? What's the connection anyway?

To the complacent or uncaring, there probably are no significant connections, no lasting lessons. After all, Bangladesh is two time zones away, well beyond ASEAN and APEC clusters where the Philippines is active.

Bangladesh is a densely populated South Asian country of 153 million in a 144,000 sq. km. area or less than half the Philippines, with a population of 90 million.
The U.N. 2008 Human Development Index reveals:

In HDI, countries like Samoa (77) and Peru (87) surpassed the Philippines, while Bangladesh is below Laos (130) and Myanmar (132). Although Filipinos have higher Parity Purchasing Power per capita, Bangladesh has lower population growth and fertility rates.

25 February
The highlight of this year's People Power Revolution Anniversary was scheduled on 25 February. Not much happened on that day in the Philippines, except for the conspicuous absence of PGMA at the EDSA People Power Monument main event, plus a shooting incident at Army Headquarters, where a soldier-amok killed two officers and a fellow-enlisted men.

But, on the same day, murderous violence amounting to a national emergency took place in Bangladesh with the killing of 63 (body count) and 72 more missing -- most fatalities being Army officers including Army Maj. Gen. Shakil Ahmed, Director-General of the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) -- the border security paramilitary organization -- and dependents, notably Ahmed's wife.

The bloodshed continued for several hours until order was restored with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's timely intervention and the deployment of larger Army units.

According to Bangladesh's biggest English daily, The Daily Star (28 February): "The mutiny of the BDR was spearheaded by a small group of militiamen who forced others to participate in the savagery, according to survivors. They said the leader group, all of them based in BDR Headquarters, started the killings. The rebels locked officers inside Darbar Hall (the main building) at gunpoint, while others rushed the officers' quarters and the arms depot."

The same Bangladesh daily described the massacre scene: "It looks like a war zone with hundreds of thousands of cartridges, several hundred pairs of boots and as many caps littering BDR Headquarters. The bloodstained floors remind anyone of houses of death."

Metro Manila
In Fort Bonifacio, a shooting incident of much lesser, but still tragic, consequence took place.

Reported the Manila Bulletin (27 February): "A distraught sergeant who failed to go home to Iloilo following his father's death, shot dead his three superiors and seriously wounded another inside barracks last 25 February. The suspect, Sgt. Elias Tial, fled after the shooting. The fatalities were identified as Capt. Dionilo Aragon, Jr., 1Lt Geraldo Fuentes, and M/Sgt. Eliseo dela Cruz. Wounded was Capt. Benito Ramos, Jr., the company commander."

The killer and victims belonged to the Army's Special Operations Command (SOCO), based in Fort Magsaysay. Subsequent investigation uncovered that before firing, Tial was heard to shout: "Hindi kayo marunong magpauwi ng sundalong may problema" (You don't know how to give passes to soldiers with problems). He had earlier asked for leave to attend his father's funeral.

Bangladesh aftermath
"Army Reins In Anger, Problem Solved Politically by Prime Minister" headlined The Daily Star (01 March).

Said Brig. Gen. Mahmud Hossain at a briefing: "We are in profound grief, but being members of a disciplined force, we have to control our emotions. If exemplary punishment is meted out to those who instigated the massacre, that will help pacify our angry officers and soldiers. The crisis was solved politically following the Prime Minister's directives.... We demand a speedy trial."

The police filed murder charges against 1,000 BDR militiamen believed to have been in the premises during the shooting. Meantime, Bangladesh authorities consolidated their control over the messy situation, even as the search continues for those still missing.

Morale: the basic issue
In both happenings, the root cause involved the most basic of a soldier's concerns -- MORALE, which encompasses many factors. In the Bangladesh BDR, initial issues were about low pay, inequity compared to Regular Army privileges, and clamour for inclusion in UN peace-keeping forces that Bangladesh deploys worldwide. The militiamen's anxieties about their poverty gave rise to deeper resentments about alleged corruption and injustice.

As for the Philippines, I wrote in my Bulletin column of 5 March 2006, titled "More Coup Plots, Conspiracies, Threats, etc. To Follow?": "Our people want change -- and quickly -- but it must be quality change done peacefully, without disruption of their daily lives and with foreseeable hope for solution of long-standing problems of poverty, corruption, injustice and inequity."

The Sunday night (26 February) confrontation among Marines in Fort Bonifacio was a powerful wake-up call. Just one burst of gunfire from a nervous Marine would have caused bloody shootouts -- considering that five different AFP/PNP units were in the immediate vicinity. Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed, and a bloodbath was averted. That's how close to violence we were following the main 2006 EDSA Commemoration from which President Arroyo had again absented herself.

Vital lesson
Whether in the Philippines, Bangladesh or elsewhere, let us treat our military, police and paramilitary personnel well and equitably. They do not have to be coddled. Neither should they be involved in tugs-of-war among power-brokers manoeuvring for political ascendancy. What uniformed public servants expect is a level playing field of opportunity to enable them and their families to rise above the poverty into which they were born.

Morale is the key. Today, Filipino morale is way down. So are PGMA's trust-ratings. Need we say more? #

First published by ABS-CBN online, March 12, 2009

Fidel Valdez Ramos, former was the 12th President of the Philippines, an engineer by training and took military as career and became chief of military, February 1986 was swept into military leadership of the people power revolution (EDSA)