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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The banality of violence in Bangladesh

Photo: Rebel border guards position in headquarters in capital Dhaka


IN THE early morning on the 25 February, a mutiny by the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) broke out in Dhaka. Following some horrific ordeals experienced by many army officers, including senior BDR staff and their families, the mutiny ended 33 hours later.

The dispute, thought to be about the pay and command structure of the BDR, Bangladesh’s paramilitary force, now looks increasingly like a sinister plot to destabilise a democratic but institutionally weak nation-state. While it is not clear how the BDR rebels got access to scores of arms and ammunitions, there are now confirmed reports that some non-BDR individuals and institutions were connected to this mutiny.

The history of the BDR goes back to 1795, when the Frontier Protection Forces were formed by the East India Company of the British Raj. After several name changes under different political systems, the East Pakistan Rifles (1947-1971) became the Bangladesh Rifles in 1972. Currently, junior BDR personnel receive a meagre US $70 per month and usually the senior BDR officers are seconded from the army, creating power inequality within BDR regiments. In addition, there have been recent demands from the BDR for government approval to participate in lucrative peacekeeping missions overseas.

The bodies of 81 officers - disposed of in sewers and shallow graves - were discovered in the days after the bloodshed ended, with an estimated 1,000 guards fleeing in civilian clothes. Some army officers are still missing. There are horrifying tales of rape, looting and arson that emerged from the accounts of survivors. The Director General (DG) of the BDR Major General Shakil Ahmed and his wife Naznin Ahmed’s bodies were also found in one of the mass graves.

Earlier sympathy towards the BDR from ordinary citizens quickly evaporated following the broadcast of partially decomposed and charred bodies, mass graves, signs of disrespect shown by the mutineers to the deceased, and the trauma of families who had lost their loved ones. The mutiny and the horror that emerged during this event have been compared to the violence of 1971. The aggressive methods of this mutiny, indeed, bear an uncanny resemblance to the 1971 genocide by the Pakistani army and their collaborators.

The Awami League government came back to power in December 2008. Amongst its ‘new’ promises was the commitment to hold a war crimes trial that would bring the perpetrators of 1971 to justice. Jamaat-I-Islami, the political party which sided with Pakistan during the war has a lot to lose if the government decides to go ahead with the trial. Commerce Minister and the Chair of the Investigation Commission, Faruq Khan hastily suggested in a press conference on 3 March that the BDR massacre was executed to foil the government’s efforts to hold the war crimes trial. He also mentioned ‘the horrid Peelkhana killings and plundering clearly show that the conspirators active in destabilising the Bengali nation and its language are menacingly strong.’

Some were quick to point to the role of other Islamic groups, such as the JMB (Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh) and HuJI-B (Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami Bangladesh) that have an interest in destabilising the state. While this investigation is still continuing, the Commerce Minister has been repeatedly pointing to the JMB.

Although it is entirely possible that these groups were involved, without conclusive evidence, it is not prudent for a senior political leader to comment in this way, and it may jeopardise the inquiry.

The other opinions and conspiracy theories circulating include India’s interest in having a weak Bangladeshi border patrol and Pakistan’s ISI wanting to divert attention from the war crimes trials.

These are entirely unsubstantiated assumptions, but the mutiny has stalled the war crimes movement, created human insecurity and anxiety, and posed a significant challenge to the recently elected government. In addition, weakened border patrols mean that cross-border smuggling operations have the upper hand for the time being.

The government issued an order asking all BDR officials to come back to work within 24 hours on 28 February. Nearly 5000 BDR personnel have since rejoined duties. However, anxious families waiting outside the BDR headquarters have reported that they had not heard back from the troops since. There are also unconfirmed reports that retaliatory measures have been taken against the BDR personnel. A treason case was filed, naming BDR deputy assistant director Touhidul Alam and five others and accusing more than a thousand officers in connection with the mutiny. Investigators have so far confirmed the involvement of 450 BDR personnel in the mutiny and suggested that at least 12 of them led several groups of mutineers.

The government is considering holding the trial under the Army Act of 1952. If this happens, the likely application of the death penalty for the most serious offences will provide swift justice, but that justice may not be fair. It would be more constructive to create a special tribunal, upholding the rule of law that would attend not only to punitive mechanisms, but also consider the context of such violent outbursts and the grievances of the BDR personnel.

Security anxieties have led to the government controlling the flow of information from Bangladesh to the outside world. Some of the earlier discussions between senior army officers and the Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, have been posted on YouTube. As a result, the government banned YouTube and 5 other blogs that covered the mutiny stories and debates. While it is true that the event generated many rumours, in this globalised world there are many ways to bypass such naïve controls. A democratic government must respect the value of information flow, and it is not astute to try to impose sanctions on information in the name of security.

The three-day national mourning period announced by the government was only for the army officers who were killed. There was no account of the distress of ordinary BDR staff, and the civilians who were killed during the mutiny. The Bangladeshi media has depicted the BDR as an ‘evil’ force which carried out ‘demonic’ activities, either deliberately or through its subtexts. This narrow portrayal prompted many acts of prejudice against innocent BDR staff and their families. The media’s representations of the assassinated officers as ‘fallen heroes’ also illustrate the powerful symbolic- both material and real location of the army as the sole protector of the nation. No other institution’s carnage could evoke such strong reactions.

The media in Bangladesh has also been careful not to report any stories of rape, gender-based violence and intimidation. However, these horrific stories are now trickling down from Peelkhana violence survivors to the global audience through various channels. While it is extremely important to protect the privacy of the survivors with utmost gender sensitivity, these acts demonstrate that the mutiny was not only about pay, hierarchy and a desire to in participate in UN peacekeeping missions. What was this violence about? Without considering the crimes committed against the families that were held hostages, the investigation will not be complete. Even one rape is too many. It is the government’s and civil society’s responsibility (including the media) to ensure that violence committed against women and children is not pushed under the rug in the name of honour and purity of the nation.

What does this recent uprising mean in terms of Bangladesh’s internal politics and the region? Firstly, it reveals the deeply embedded insecurity and instability of Bangladesh that have existed since the beginnings of independence. Political assassinations, coups, martial law, have shaped its political system where intense divisions and distrust remain between the civilian governing bodies and the armed forces. Similar to other political killings of the recent past, if this violence is not resolved, and if there is no justice, Bangladesh will face a serious crisis. In the worst event this could result in either overthrowing a democratically elected government or a return to a military regime or both.

Secondly, the military and civilian intelligence agencies such as the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI), Military Intelligence (MI) and the National Security Intelligence (NSI) must be reviewed for their failure to predict this crisis. Is there any evidence that at least some of the factions of the agencies were involved in the mutiny? If there is, Bangladesh has to restructure these intelligence bodies, so it does not replicate the experiences of the Pakistani intelligence community, especially the ISI.

Thirdly, a violent and chaotic revolt and massacre carried out under the banner of the BDR, the unit that serves as Bangladesh’s primary border policing institution, questions the moral authority of BDR to protect the sovereignty of the nation-state. #

First published in East Asia Forum, March 20, 2009

Dr Bina d’Costa is a Research Fellow at the Centre for International Governance and Justice, RegNet, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, Australian National University (ANU). East Asia Forum provides a platform for the best in East Asian analysis, research and policy comment on the Asia-Pacific region and world affairs

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