Saturday, March 07, 2009

WINTER IN SPRING- Reflections on the recent BDR Massacre

Photo: Mutinous para-military border forces surrender at headquarters for disciplinary action


EVER SINCE human beings have learnt to arm themselves blood has flown of innocents as well as those found guilty posthumously. For Bangladeshis the rebellion by a section of the paramilitary forces came both as a shock and a surprise. Shock because the people only at the fag end of the last year had chosen a government of the people, for the people and by the people that they expect would not be a repeat of kleptocracy of the last elected government who did everything to subvert the constitutional process and pushed more people into the basket of poverty in an already one of the poorest countries of the world. Like all countries of the world Bangladesh wants to be free of poverty trap that cannot happen unless we can project the portrait of a country that is periodically visited upon by natural and manmade disasters but holds promises for development.

World Banks Branco Milanovic who had conducted a survey of underdeveloped countries covering the period 0f 1980-2002 had concluded that poor countries remain poor mainly because of their involvement of internecine and intra-regional conflicts. Other causes include donors fatigue, particularly in these days of global meltdown when their own future remains uncertain. For least developed countries like Bangladesh, Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) constituted to monitor and defend our international borders has been historically commanded by officers deputed from the army from the days of Pakistan and since the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971in which BDR also played a heroic role along side the army and the people. In the early hours of the revolt when people realized that the sounds of bullet firing was not a routine exercise by the paramilitary force there was panic among the residents of the nearby areas.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina announced general amnesty to defuse the situation but made clear that the amnesty would not cover those who killed, looted and were found guilty of gross unlawful acts. She also formed a high powered enquiry committee to get to the bottom of the revolt including if there were elements that had financed and/or assisted the revolt. Even if some credence is given to the allegations made by the leaders of the revolt to the Prime Minister it appears the revolt did not take place on the spur of the moment caused by heated arguments between a soldier and the Director General of BDR but was pre- planned. To kill as many army officers as possible. The question is why? Who gains most from the decimation of so many senior army officers and consequent possible destabilization of the just hugely popular government?

Some commentators have suggested that it was an expression of class struggle due to increasing iniquitous distribution of national wealth among the people. Usage of such terminology in the twilight hours of socialism would be misplaced despite the failure of unbridled capitalism that has brought the global economy to its knees. Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman and others have lamented the fact that 20% of the national wealth in the US is possessed by only one percent of the population and that no society can live in peace if such disparity exists. Yet no one has seriously suggested the return of socialism that came as a phenomenon at a certain period of the last century and that too initiated by a handful of people and then imposed on others who had little option but to acquiesce.

Allegations of corruption levelled against some officers of BDR by the soldiers, even if found to be based on some truth in the background of Bangladesh topping the list of corrupt countries several times in the past, cannot explain the bloody attack on the army officers because even the very influential people accused of corruption had been interned. The same procedure could have been followed for the army officers alleged to be corrupt. Two things have been found wanting-command failure and intelligence failure. It is not readily understood how the commanders and the intelligence personnel failed to realize the gravity of the conspiracy that by the most recent account claimed more than 60 lives. Bangladesh, however, from the days of the assassination of the Father of the Nation in 1975, assassinations of the four national leaders and of President Ziaur Rahman, Bangladesh is no stranger to bloody upheavals.

But the BDR revolt on the heels of the free and fair election and formation of a popular government that is not even two months old raises suspicion whether recession of democracy, seen by Stanford Professor Larry Diamond in some parts of the world, is not being orchestrated by elements who are directly involved with the wave of extremism sweeping the world. It would be both premature and hinder the investigation process to speculate on why and how the BDR revolt happened. The people of Bangladesh familiar with allegations of corruption do not believe that legal options being open to deal with corruption massacre of such large number of army officers was the sole recourse to resolve alleged corruption.

Bangladesh is counted among the poorest countries of the world. Poverty of the people has been enormously compounded by unlimited kleptocracy practiced by the government that held power during 2001-2006 from the highest level to the lowest earning for the country the title of being the most corrupt nation on earth for four successive times. In Marxian analysis poverty stricken great majority of people have nothing to sell but themselves as opposed to the wealth of the few that increases constantly. Inevitably the process of accumulation of wealth is corruption-ridden.

A former country director of World Bank in Bangladesh was candid enough to publicly point out the system loss in power sector resulting from collusive theft by the employees of the sector and the consumers; port inefficiencies costing over $ one billion a year; governance problem and inefficiency in the banking sector slowing down GDP growth over one percent per annum. Giving a detailed analysis the WB official concluded that Bangladesh was losing 2-3% GDP growth a year due to corruption. Speaking on fighting corruption in Bangladesh he stated that countries with poor governance which includes corruption grow more slowly than countries with honest and accountable government.

A background paper prepared for the World Bank on corruption in Bangladesh agreed with Gunar Myrdal that speed Money not only distorts the mechanism of efficient allocation of resources through the establishment of perverse patron-client relationship between bureaucracy and the private sector but also encourages corrupt officials to delay the process of decision making in anticipation of more bribes thus effectively practicing blackmail. It has been argued that corruption also diverts foreign investment from sectors like health and education to infrastructure because the scope of corruption in the latter area is more. In any case as successive World Bank officials and donor representatives have pointed out time and again pervasive corruption in Bangladesh reduces the flow of foreign investment.

Bangladesh failed to get the benefit of the Millennium Challenge Account amounting to 100 crores of Takas due to pervasive corruption. Given this theoretical discussion on corruption one must agree that a great chasm exists in our society between the rich and the poor.

The BDR revolt in some ways could reflect the asymmetry of income distribution in our society. But such a conclusion can only be reached after allegation of corruption against some army officers of the BDR is proved beyond all doubt. The government besides forming a high powered committee formed to investigate the BDR rebellion has decided to enact a law for speedy trial of killers in special tribunal and the Law Ministry has been asked to place a draft to the cabinet for its consideration. French Nobel laureate Albert Camus in his novel la peste, his philosophical essay Lhomme revolte, Letat de Siege, and Le Juste used the concept of revolt. In these writings Camus deals with the absurdity of human existence because of human beings inability to create a world beyond the limitations implied in being human thus leaving the possibility of revolt.

Added to, these is the examination of the complex personality of the Mexican people by celebrated Mexican writer Octavio Paz in his book Labyrinth of Solitude where, according to him, the Mexicans see two faces of women, one of the Mother of God and the other as temptress and helpless being while the Mexican male is seen as macho. According to Paz the Mexicans build around themselves a wall of solitude and indifference between reality and themselves and thus lives in solitude, alienated and a life in the abstract. One wonders if the BDR revolt could have been generated from the perceived isolation of soldiers from the officers corps. Former army officers hotly contest this thesis because they say the way BDR is structured it is not possible for a significant portion of the forces to remain discontent without getting redress. In that case the possibility of a conspiracy to decimate a large portion of the officers corps remains. Only time and enquiry into the massacre can answer these questions. The allegation levelled against some army officers of subaltern behaviour vis- is the common soldiers in a binary relationship of inferior and superior groups has been contemptuously dismissed.

Internationally Bangladesh runs the risk of being equated with Haiti, D R Congo, Liberia and Uganda of the past and in the worst case scenario with Somalia. This loss of international credibility inflicted upon Bangladesh would affect our efforts to bring in foreign capital that in any case would be difficult with a meltdown global economy. In developing countries a number of crucial factors, such as human capital base in the host country, the trade regime and the degree of openness of the economy helps FDI to have a positive impact on the economy. FDI determinants being infrastructures, macro-economic stability, skills and sound institutions, a study by South Asia Center for Policy Studies (SACEPS) has shown that slow rate of capital formation have held South Asian growth back relative to other regions and investment is a major determinant of capital accumulation. It, therefore, follows that investment generation in the private sector should be an important policy for South Asian governments. Besides poor governance, low quality of infrastructure delivery, high transaction costs, unpredictable law and order situation, poor judicial enforcement are causes of low growth in South Asia. Not withstanding Raul Prebischs scepticism about accretion of national wealth through foreign investment that often has high social cost an international conversation has started as to whether in view of global meltdown Adam Smiths theory of minimalist role by the government for economic growth is not an outdated theory after all.

The remnants of the unfortunate drama of BDR rebellion are still unfolding. One is confident that the scars of the massacre, an aberration, will not spill over the borders of Bangladesh and the high hopes of a vibrant democracy rekindled through the recently held election will continue to flourish. #

First published in the South Asia Analysis Group portal, March 2, 2009

Kazi Anwarul Masud is a former Ambassador and Secretary of Bangladesh. He can be reached at