Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The fall out of Pilkhana massacre for Bangladesh and the region

Shafqat Munir, a Research Analyst with the Bangladesh Centre for Terrorism Research (BCTR), has written this piece as a Research Analyst with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore. The article appeared in the UK-based RUSI: Royal United Services Institute, an independent think tank engaged in cutting edge defence and security research.

On 25 and 26 February, soldiers of the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR), a paramilitary force entrusted with the responsibility of guarding Bangladesh's land borders mutinied. What initially appeared to be a few disgruntled soldiers taking up arms for better financial and working conditions, soon turned out to be a calculated massacre. Fifty-nine officers of the Bangladesh Army, who were on secondment to the BDR, and some BDR personnel, were killed over a span of thirty six hours. These officers constituted the entire command structure of the BDR. The murder of such a large number of officers at the hands of the men they commanded left the entire nation stunned in horror and disbelief. As the nation comes to grips with the human carnage, the aftermath of the BDR mutiny has also exposed other problems which will have national and regional security implications.

The Terrorist Connection?
Many theories have been floated about the nature of the mutiny and the real motives of the perpetrators. But as the two official investigation committees are yet to submit their final reports, the Minister in charge of coordinating the investigations has said that there is credible evidence indicating the involvement of one or more terrorist organisations in the mutiny. On more than one occasion there has been specific mention of Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), a proscribed Bangladeshi terrorist organisation. In addition to a possible involvement by Islamist militant groups, left wing extremists and members of the criminal underworld also have a vested interested in instigating an incident that destablisises national security

Over the years terrorism has emerged as one of the crucial national security challenges for Bangladesh. A number of attacks have taken place in the past five years including coordinated serial bomb blasts. However none of those attacks have resulted in the death of such a large number of people. While it is difficult to comment unless the full investigation report comes to light, the possibility of a terrorist organisation infiltrating and instigating a mutiny within a disciplined force raises serious security concerns for Bangladesh and the region.

The Flight of Weapons and Ammunition
As the mutiny ended on 26 February after various rounds of negotiations with the government, a large number of BDR personnel fled Peelkhana, the headquarters of the border guards in Dhaka. It has been widely reported in the Bangladeshi press that many escaped together with a large number of automatic weapons, ammunition, hand grenades and other explosives. While the Army and other law enforcement agencies are currently conducting a country-wide combing operation to recover those munitions, it is difficult to say whether a full recovery will be possible. Such a large number of weapons and ammunition falling into the hands of terrorist organisations, criminal gangs or individuals will certainly have grave consequences for Bangladesh's national security.

As investigations determine whether the mutiny was part of a wider conspiracy, there is, nevertheless, now a strong possibility that many of the absconding BDR personnel who took part in the mutiny will join either an existing militant organisation or will form a militant outfit of their own. They are not only well trained with a number of years of experience; they also carry a large number of weapons and ammunition with them. If an existing militant or criminal organisation is able to absorb these men and the weapons and ammunition they are carrying, it will significantly augment their operational capabilities and pose a critical security challenge to the Bangladeshi state.

The Fall Out: Implications for Bangladesh
For a resource-strained country like Bangladesh replacing fifty-nine well trained officers - especially of senior rank- is administratively and financially an uphill task. While the BDR or the 'Silent Sentinels', as it is known, is mainly entrusted with the responsibility of guarding the land borders, it also undertakes a number of other tasks. BDR members regularly assist the police and other law enforcement agencies in carrying out a number of other duties which include riot and mob control as well as taking part in counter-terrorist operations. Furthermore, the BDR is also the second line force and in the event of a conflict will fight alongside the Army under its operational control. Hence, it can be termed as one of the main pillars of the national security establishment. The mutiny has completely shaken up this institution which traces its history back to the days of the British Raj in 1794. Reconstituting the BDR and reviving its previous state of operational preparedness will prove to be a costly affair for Bangladesh.

Implications for the Region
The borders between Bangladesh and India are more than four thousand kilometers long and very porous in nature. The weakening of border security capacity on the Bangladeshi side as a result of the BDR mutiny will add impetus to the growing threat of transnational terrorism and crime. Bangladeshi terrorist groups are known to have operational linkages with groups across the region. There is a looming possibility that these terrorist organisations are likely to take advantage of the current situation and make trans-boundary movements. It may be noted that during the period of the mutiny and for at least a few days after that, the borders between Bangladesh and India were largely unguarded. In addition to the threat of transnational terrorism, it also poses a challenge in terms of the illegal traffic of narcotics and small arms proliferation. The possibility of a section of the looted weapons being channeled across the border cannot be ruled out.

Finally, the BDR mutiny has left an indelible mark on the collective Bangladeshi psyche because of the scale of the brutality. Furthermore, the problems it has created especially the ones discussed above are going to be a major challenge to the Bangladeshi state. Bangladesh is currently at a critical juncture. On one hand, with a newly elected government in power, the state is slowly settling back into the democratic system after a two year non-political interregnum. On the other hand, a resource strained country is faced with the challenges borne out of the global economic recession.

The BDR carnage further intensifies and complicates the plethora of tests already faced by Bangladesh. The country has hardly ever faced a national security crisis of such epic proportions since its emergence as an independent nation state in 1971. It is therefore a time when the Bangladeshi state will have to act in an organised and united manner and revive one of the most critical pillars of its security establishment and consolidate its national security. While an unstable and insecure Bangladesh is certainly something that the people of Bangladesh do not want, it will also have major implications for the South Asian region.

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