Saturday, March 28, 2009

Pilkhana massacre casts shadow over Bangladesh military

From New Straits Times:

THE mutiny by troopers of the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR), the country's border guard, on Feb 25-26 was a wake-up call for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed that her government, despite the massive popular mandate won last December, remains vulnerable to internal and external threats.Hasina's own life remains at risk.

That the mutiny did not take place when she took the salute and addressed the BDR personnel just a day earlier meant that she had a providential escape.Her father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who led the freedom movement against Pakistan, himself fell to an assassin's bullet in a military-led putsch in August 1975. Hasina has been attacked at least three times and has had to leave her private home for a more secure government house.

As a nation, Bangladesh was never as traumatised as when Sheikh Mujibur and, in 1981, Gen Ziaur Rahman were gunned down. That they were presidents supposedly enjoying the highest security only underscores the lack of that security when the political situation becomes volatile and the men in uniform fall prey to personal ambitions, internal squabbles and politicking.

Undoubtedly, the BDR mutiny that saw the planned killing of 55 Bangladesh army officers -- besides two brigadier-generals, 16 colonels, 11 lieutenant- colonels, 23 majors and two captains -- was the most serious incident affecting the armed forces since Bangladesh's independence.The mutiny seemed part of a larger plan to weaken the army by depriving it of its young officers and by fomenting dissension and discord in its rank and file. After the BDR mutiny, the next target could very well be the army.

That the BDR director-general, Major-Gen Shakil Ahmed, was gunned down within the first few minutes of the mutiny and other officers were shot or bayoneted to death and their family quarters raided and looted by the mutineers points to a planned conspiracy that may have been hatched over a period of time.There is also speculation that the government's move to hold "war crime trials" -- of those who killed civilians at the behest of the erstwhile East Pakistan regime during the 1971 struggle -- led to this "conspiracy".

The principal target of this move are the leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh's largest Islamist party, which shared power with Begum Khaleda Zia during 2001-06.It is significant that confessions by the BDR personnel detained after the mutiny, according to media reports, point to the presence of elements of not only Jamaat, but also banned organisations including Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), donning BDR uniforms and taking the lead in the insurrection.All this remains under investigation.

The government has secured help from the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation and Britain's Scotland Yard to identify the "outside linkages" in the mutiny. But some Bangladeshi commentators have pointed to the poor record of past investigations.For the army, that has ruled directly or indirectly for 15 years, the mutiny has been a traumatic moment. However, what's most significant is that under Gen Moin U. Ahmed, it steeled itself and did not retaliate.This undoubtedly defeated what seemed the basic motive behind the mutiny: the army retaliating in anger to its officers being killed and triggering, in the process, a civil war.Ahmed has opened relations with many armies, including India's, and worked to widen the horizons of his men, gently pushing them towards being a professional force.

The 67,000-strong BDR is largely officered by the army, a matter for resentment in some quarters. The stated reason for the mutiny was the strongly perceived discrimination of the BDR vis-a-vis the army. An army officer reportedly gets 30 per cent more pay while on deputation.This has parallels with the army and paramilitary forces in India, Pakistan and many other countries. The army is under the Defence Ministry while the border guards are under the Home or Interior Ministry.Disparities do exist in salaries and perks and working conditions. But here they were used to arouse sentiment against the officers. To portray the BDR mutiny as some kind of class struggle, as was done in some quarters, would be at best romantic and, at worst, wrong and risky.

The real issues after the mutiny are the breakdown of the chain of command and of intelligence failure at all levels. The government has done the inevitable by replacing the top brass in most of the civil and military intelligence units.There has been criticism of the role of the directorate-general of Field Intelligence raised on the pattern of Pakistan's ISI, which keeps surveillance over politicians and bureaucrats.In both Pakistan and Bangladesh, the civilian governments did nothing to alter this and indeed utilised this organisation for their partisan ends.

Taken totally by surprise at developments taking place right in the heart of the national capital, the government appeared to baulk on the first day. Ministers and aides who rushed to the BDR headquarters were told of the mutineers' grievances. Hasina declared a general amnesty, hoping to get the soldiers to lay down their arms.The mayhem, however, continued for another 24 hours. Much time was lost before it became clear that most officers had been killed in the first couple of hours. Their deed done, many of the rebels found time to throw away their guns and uniforms and flee.

A mutiny by a military or paramilitary unit is usually put down before it escalates and infects other forces. Unfortunately, the BDR mutiny was dealt with as if it was a hostage crisis.Finally, the mutiny left the country's borders open. The virtual abandonment of the border check-posts along a 4,000km frontier made India, as also Myanmar, the other neighbour with a 300km border, vulnerable to infiltration, smuggling and illegal movements that take much joint effort to curb.

In such circumstances, the need for greater vigilance and political stability can hardly be overstated.

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