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Friday, March 20, 2009

The BDR Rebellion in Bangladesh: Prevailing Uncertainties

Photo A H Arif/DrikNews: As the conflict spread, rebel BDR soldiers took position with heavy guns in Sylhet BDR camp. 26th February. Sylhet. Bangladesh

The fallout from February's rebellion by Bangladeshi soldiers, and explains why the present remains so perilous

A subaltern uprising
That is how private TV channels had reported it, and how it had generally been perceived on 25 February when BDR (Bangladesh Rifles) soldiers – border security forces, additionally entrusted with anti-smuggling operations – rebelled at the Pilkhana headquarters in Dhaka city.

Discontentment had been the issue. Over food rations (three months, as compared with twelve for the army), denial of UN peacekeeping mission services, low pay (the average BDR guard earns about 70 dollars a month), non-payment of promised daily allowances for extra duties rendered, corruption in the officer ranks. What appeared to have rankled most was army control, since the BDR administration and nearly all its officers are from the army. In the words of one mutineer, ‘we are not against the nation, or the Government. We want that the BDR should belong to the BDR.’

It was the second day of the annual BDR week. Three thousand BDR soldiers, along with their commanding officers, had come to Pilkhana for the occasion, joining the three thousand plus stationed there. The 33-hour-long mutiny broke out at a meeting in the Darbar Hall of the BDR compound, which stretches over 3 square kilometres, and is located in the city centre. How many actively took part is anybody’s guess. The police have since filed charges of rebellion, killings, arson and looting of armories against more than a thousand BDR soldiers. The army, police and RAB (élite force) have launched Operation Rebel Hunt to capture rebel soldiers, missing firearms and ammunition. Two hundred and thirty six BDR soldiers have been arrested so far, including the suspected ringleader, deputy assistant director Syed Tawhidul Alam.

The horror and brutality
As bodies of army officers dumped in sewage canals far away surfaced; as mass graves in the HQ compound were unearthed; as the decomposed bodies of the director general, and others – mostly senior army officers – were discovered; as mutilated bodies were found, bayoneted, eyes gouged out, some burned: the subaltern uprising story receded into the background. Wives of two army officers and a domestic maid had also been killed. Allegations of rape surfaced. As horror at the brutality encompassed the nation (more than 74 were killed, including three civilians killed by random bullets, and seven soldiers; according to the latest updates, 2-3 officers are still missing, while 4 bodies remain unidentified), army officers publicly contested Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s decision to resolve the rebellion through political rather than military means. She should not have sat for negotiations with the mutineers, nor sent Government ministers and her party leaders to talk to the rebels, nor declared a general amnesty (later clarified to exclude the killers). Instead, the army should have been allowed to ‘crush’ the rebellion. It would have been over in a matter of minutes. Lives of precious army officers would have been saved.

Calmer, more reasoned voices argued, mainly in the blogosphere, since the national media (print, TV) was also under attack for having highlighted the BDR soldiers’ grievances, that a military operation would probably have resulted in more deaths, of hostage officers and their family members, and also of civilians, living in adjacent densely-populated neighbourhoods. That anti-aircraft guns could hardly have been used to flush out rebels hiding among innocent people living in residential quarters and office buildings. That terrorists and hostage-takers could have been attacked, but only after all other means had failed. That news of an army operation could have led to a nationwide escalation since the rebellion had spread to other parts of the country. That it was undoubtedly a massive intelligence failure. That even though the army had borne the brunt of the BDR carnage, parliamentary discussions and public debate on corruption in the army should go ahead.

Contesting authority
Rumours of an army take-over circulated wildly (not surprisingly, given that it has occurred three times in the nation’s 38 year old history). Grief-stricken and enraged members of the army were repeatedly urged to show restraint, even after the army chief General Moeen U Ahmed had declared that the army would be ‘loyal to democracy’, and would remain ‘subservient to the (elected) government’. Civilian authority was contested, at times outrageously, via widely-circulating e-mails purportedly from officers of the army, and leaked audio recordings of the Prime Minister’s closed-door meeting with aggrieved army officers in Dhaka cantonment. The US ambassador extended support to the newly-elected democratic government, adding later that the US Government would also assist Bangladesh in combating terrorism. As the immediate crisis was overcome, Sheikh Hasina’s display of leadership in having resolved it peacefully was lauded by other foreign dignitaries and leaders. And within the nation, the army was repeatedly congratulated for having exercised restraint. Even though, as a Bangladeshi blogger pointed out, this was precisely what the military should be doing, i.e., supporting the civilian government, and working under its leadership.

The Government has instituted a high-powered probe into the mutiny, assisted by FBI and Scotland Yard investigators. The army has launched an independent probe. However, there is nationwide apprehension that the truth may not be revealed, that the reports may not be made public, and that judicial processes may falter. Calls for the formation of an all-party parliamentary inquiry committee have not been heeded by the Government. Mud-slinging has erupted between the political party leaders, by the Prime Minister herself, and her ministers, equally matched by the ex-Prime Minister and the current leader of the opposition Khaleda Zia, and other BNP (Bangladesh Nationalist Party) leaders. Meanwhile, the Government has done away with disparities in food subsidies that had existed between the officers and the lower ranks of the police force. Concerns are being voiced in human rights and political activist circles over a demonization of the BDR as a whole, even though individual soldiers had risked their own lives to save several army officers during the hostage crisis.

Tensions and turbulence
Several feminist activists think that questions need to be raised about military training per se, that rape, looting and utter disregard for human values seem to accompany the actions of armed forces the world over. Others feel this is not the time to raise these questions, or bring up the decades-long allegations of indigenous peoples in the militarily-occupied Chittagong Hill Tracts. The present, they say, is too perilous. That the worst may not be over is signalled by the Government's recent decision to cancel the Independence Day parade, on 26 March.

The subaltern uprising story has paled away as threats to the nation’s territorial sovereignty have become clearer. Were foreign forces involved? Did they capitalize on long-standing and simmering grievances among BDR subalterns, those who are regarded as ‘the nation’s first line of defence’? The Indian media has pointed its fingers at the ISI (Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence), at Pakistan’s reluctance for 1971 war criminals to be tried by Sheikh Hasina's Government. Counter-theories have emerged, arguing that RAW (Research and Intelligence Wing, India’s foreign intelligence agency), and thereby the Indian Government, stand to gain most from turning Bangladesh into a vassal state.

That the rebellion was pre-planned and could well have de-stabilized the Government and the nation by igniting a series of cascading ‘tensions and turbulence’ is no longer doubted. But it is also true that recent revelations by a government minister about JMB (Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh, a banned Islamist organization) links are not only pre-mature but also unwise.

Earlier, Sheikh Hasina had expressed her support for the US war on terror, and pledged to work for the formation of a joint anti-terrorism taskforce by SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) countries. Whether the rebellion will facilitate Bangladesh in joining the US-led ‘war on terror club’ remains to be seen. If it does, it will not help to build a strong national army free of political aspirations. Nor will it aid the people in their ongoing struggles for greater democratization of state and society. Clearly, it will not be in Bangladesh’s national interest. #

First published in The New Internationalists, March 17, 2009

Rahnuma Ahmed is an academic with an university in Bangladesh, a social justice activist and involved with Drik Picture Library (

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