A week after the thirty-three hour-long Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) mutiny ended, there is still no clear picture emerging. While the death count of the tragedy continues to rise, rumours and conspiracy theories swirl around Dhaka and New Delhi. While it may be too early to explain the crisis completely, some immediate implications are becoming clear.
First, one can put the fears of many Awami League sympathisers to rest: it seems the mutiny has only made the newly elected government stronger. Its calm, rational but firm response has won it praise. Commendably, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was able to rally the entire country, including her bitter political rivals, behind her. In addition, her address to the nation during the mutiny, which is being credited as the turning point in the crisis, brought her out in the best possible light. Several other factors have worked in favour of the government, including convincing the public that the mutiny was largely the armed forces’ mess, and not the civilian government’s.
More than a few observers have wondered aloud if there was a political conspiracy behind the mutiny, aimed at weakening the government. Even if this unlikely possibility were true, it seems like the conspiracy has backfired.
Internationally, however, the mutiny will have a major adverse impact. The mutiny has definitely cut short the honeymoon period that newly democratic Bangladesh was enjoying worldwide. With the world watching as tanks rolled down the streets of Dhaka, the fears of instability have come rushing back. For Hasina, the task of attracting more foreign investment has just become doubly difficult — and with a recession looming, too.
Moreover, for its South Asian neighbours, especially India, concern grows to incorporate the regional security perspective. Given the state of affairs in the BDR, isn’t there a possibility of other indiscretions by the service? The obedience of the Bangladesh military and paramilitary forces has been brought into question before. There have even been allegations that factions of the armed forces have been giving active support to Islamist militants including the Al Qaeda-linked HUJI. Though these allegations should be taken with a pinch of salt, questions do loom larger given the current state of discipline in the forces. After the matter is finally resolved, the Bangladesh government should provide the region with assurances of the BDR’s integrity in this matter.
As for the BDR itself, it is unlikely that their demands will be met anytime soon. After their surrender to the army they’re in a much worse bargaining position than before. One of the most prominent demands by the mutinous BDR men had been to remove Army-deputed officers from the BDR and allow recruitment of their own officers. However, the fear of another mutiny will, if anything, bring the BDR further under the army’s thumb. Of course, given the killings of senior army officers and the endangerment of their families, it is unlikely that the army will forgive the BDR anytime soon. The days ahead are likely to witness several administrative actions that leave the force weaker than before. There has already been talk of disbanding it or changing its name.
Many hope that the crisis will force the Bangladesh armed forces to institute much-needed reforms. However, such reforms can’t be expected to come from within the army itself. A more likely eventuality is that the army uses several stop-gap measures — like administrative transfers and sterner control over BDR NCOs — to prevent the tragedy from repeating.
Though the government managed creditably during the crisis, wrapping up the situation will require much more tact. In the past days there have been several mentions, in hushed voices, that one of the major reasons for mutiny lay not in pay issues but somewhere else. There has been talk, for example, of disputes between NCOs and officers over the distribution of profits generated by corruption in the force. In reports buried in the avalanche of news about the mutiny was a mention of crores of takas from illicit activities of some BDR soldiers being a significant factor in the mutiny.
If this set of claims hold any truth, which is very possible, any significant investigation is likely to open a can of worms no one wants to see. Depending on the civilian government’s strength vis-a-vis the army, the Hasina government has two courses to choose from. Either the government can probe deeper into the matter, making it potentially an embarrassment for the army, and thus weakening its position. Or it can follow the age-old tradition of burying the matter in investigations and commissions until the public forgets.
Though it is too early to say, from the looks of it the government is choosing the second option. From its recent statements it seems the Awami League is hoping to gain as much as it can from the crisis, by projecting the mutiny as a as part of a deep-seated conspiracy against Bangladesh’s democracy. No prizes for guessing that the conspirators are ‘foreign elements’ or the government’s political opponents.