Sunday, March 15, 2009

Mutiny tests Bangladesh's government

Photo Pavel Rahman/Associated Press: A Bangladeshi border guard's daughter was consoled by a police officer at the guards' headquarters. Her father was missing after reporting back

SOMINI SENGUPTA

SHIEKH HASINA survived when gunmen executed her extended family late one summer's night in 1975. She survived again when assassins hurled 13 grenades at her political rally in 2004, instantly killing two dozen people.

Today, barely two months into her tenure as prime minister of this fractious, poor and coup-prone country, she confronts her greatest challenge yet: an unusually savage mutiny by border guards that left soldiers buried in mass graves late last month and widened the gulf between her fragile elected administration and a military just returning to barracks.

Altogether, 74 people were killed, mostly army officers in command of the border force.

Two separate investigations are under way — one by the army, another by her government. Whether either will yield credible results or whether their findings will be consistent remain a mystery. Hasina's fate and the stability of her country depend on it.

In an interview this week, Hasina called the mutiny "a big conspiracy" against her agenda to establish a secular democracy in this Muslim-majority nation of 150 million. She struck a note of defiant resolve.

"No one will stop me," she said. "I will continue." Then she raised her eyebrows and offered a hint of a smile. "We have to unearth all these conspiracies."

Hasina, 61, has the air of a strict grandmother. She speaks softly. She wears starched traditional Bengali saris that cover her head. Her eyes are a cool gray.

She said she was keen to swiftly hunt down and punish those responsible for the mutiny. She declined to say who they might be but suggested that several factions unhappy with her agenda could have been responsible, including Islamist militants whom she has vowed to crush. Among those killed, she pointed out, were army officers who had led the crackdown on terrorist groups in the country.

"There are many elements. These terrorist groups are very much active," she warned, speaking extensively for the first time since the Feb. 25 siege. "This incident gives us a lesson. It can happen again. The conspiracy hasn't stopped."

After two years of army-backed rule, Hasina's Awami League was elected last December with a resounding three-fourths majority and a slate of provocative promises. She said she would root out Islamist guerillas, try alleged war criminals that collaborated against Bangladesh's independence from Pakistan in 1971, nurture friendly relations with neighboring India, and stop anti-Indian insurgents from using Bangladeshi soil to begin attacks against New Delhi.

The election drew a massive turnout of around 80 percent. They were hailed as among the most credible and least violent in recent years.

Then came the massacre.

On the last Wednesday in February, at a conference in the headquarters of the Bangladesh Rifles, a border guard pointed his weapon at the force commander. Some commotion ensued, according to investigators, and then other guards stormed the hall. Gunfire could be heard blocks away. Hundreds of civilians who lived, worked and went to school inside the compound were trapped.

Hasina allowed the army to take position around the compound but not to storm it. She negotiated with the mutineers for the next 36 hours, first directly, then with emissaries whom she dispatched to a sweet shop on the edge of the compound. She offered a general amnesty and promised to address the rebels' grievances. On day two, when they refused to surrender, she threatened to send in tanks. By the time the siege ended, more than 6,000 border guards had escaped. The armory was stripped of an unknown quantity of weapons.

No sooner did it end that argument began. Today, the bitter points of contention are whether the army commanders were killed before or after negotiations began (the time of death has not yet been established on all the victims), whether Hasina had pressed to know the scale of the killings before offering amnesty, and most important, why she did not permit the army to storm the compound early on.

"The government was not in charge," charged Abdur Razzak, a leader of the conservative Jamaat-e-Islami party. "This was an army problem. The army should have solved it in their wisdom."

Razzak saw the mutiny as a conspiracy designed "to weaken the army, to weaken the state." Razzak's party was trounced in the last election; its share of 300 elected seats in Parliament declined from 17 in the last election to two this time around.

Hasina said sending in the army would have resulted in a bloodbath in and around the compound and risked a potential civil war between 46 border guard battalions scattered across the country and their army commanders.

In any case, few here believe that the mutiny was what it first appeared: a rebellion of rank-and-file border guards aggrieved by their commanders and working conditions. In a country where conspiracy theories are a national sport, the mutiny has become a screen onto which many anxieties are projected.

Some point to terrorist groups and anti-Indian insurgents. Others allege that it was fueled by intelligence agencies in either India or Pakistan; both countries have been alternately friend and foe to Bangladesh. There are still those who suggest that it could involve politicians who lost the last election, while others attribute it to elements within Hasina's party as a ploy to keep the army in check.

Whatever the results of the official inquiries, they may well be divisive and painful.

Equally likely, the truth of what happened may never be known. Bangladesh holds many mysteries in its heart, including the question of who ordered the killing of Hasina's father, the former prime minister and the leader of Bangladesh's war of independence, Sheik Mujibur Rahman, on the night of Aug. 15, 1975. Hasina was spared only because she had been visiting her husband, a nuclear physicist on a university fellowship in Europe at the time. Eighteen members of her family, including her brothers and their wives, were executed.

Her chief rival, Khaleda Zia, head of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, has also lived with mystery and loss. It is not fully known who ordered the 1981 assassination of her husband, a former military ruler named Ziaur Rahman.

The two women, bitter rivals, have alternately ruled Bangladesh for more than 15 years. The army-backed caretaker government sought to sideline them from politics. It charged them both with corruption and kept them in solitary confinement. They both survived. Released from jail, they returned to contest the election.

The key to Hasina's survival today is keeping the military on her side. Her face-off with the army came into sharp focus three days after the mutiny ended. She confronted an unusually rowdy room of army officers. They berated her for failing to crush the mutiny quickly enough and for not allowing the army to take charge early on. The screaming match was recorded and put up on YouTube. Such a no-holds barred confrontation between uniformed soldiers and the prime minister shocked the nation.

This week, in the interview, Hasina said she sympathized with the soldiers' grief even as she cautioned them against taking revenge – or power. She said the army would only damage its own credibility if it did. So far, the army does not seem interested.

Hasina's most dangerous enemies have been the Islamist militant groups that have sunk their roots here in recent years. They have been implicated in assassination attempts against her, including the grenade attack on her political meeting in August 2004, and another on the British ambassador to Bangladesh earlier that same year. They have killed an Awami League politician named Shah A.M.S. Kibria, carried out suicide bombings, and killed judges in their quest to establish Islamic Shariah law in the country. Several have been sentenced to death.

Hasina lost partial hearing as a result of the grenade attack. This morning, she sat under a framed portrait of her murdered father and said she would not be bowed.

"If I am afraid for my life, the whole nation will be afraid," she said. "I know some bullets, some grenades are chasing me." #

First published in the International Herald Tribune, March 14, 2009
Somini Sengupta is New Delhi Bureau Chief, The New York Times. She is presently on assignment in Dhaka, Bangladesh