Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Questions about Bangladesh army

Zafar Sobhan of Daily Star asks questions about Bangladesh army, not in his own paper, but in TIME magazine.

Bangladesh is still reeling following the discovery of mass graves and evidence of cold-blooded execution of army officers who were killed amid last week's mutiny at the headquarters of the nation's paramilitary border security force, the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR). The body of Lt. Col. Golam Kibria was found floating through a sluice gate in a nearby sewer Monday morning, bringing the death toll to 74, with 70 more BDR commanding officers who were present at the headquarters when the mutiny occurred still missing and presumed dead.

The mutineers initially raised demands related to their pay and conditions of service, but the extent of the carnage now appears to raise concerns about the depths of the anger that led to the uprising.

What has shocked the country is the mutilation of many of the dead and the gruesome manner in which their bodies were deposited in mass graves or dumped in sewers to avoid detection. Of the 74 dead bodies that have been recovered, 33 cannot be identified. Together with arson and looting of officers' houses, there are also unconfirmed reports of rape and murder of officers' family members, with at least one wife, that of the BDR commanding officer, confirmed killed. While Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was widely hailed for her steady handling of the crisis, some critics are arguing that if she had sent in troops to storm the compound at once many of these killings and atrocities could have been averted. (See pictures of Bangladesh and Pakistan's forgotten war.)

Investigations are underway, with the prime minister revealing on the floor of the parliament that she has approached the U.S. government as well as the United Nations for assistance. The stakes are high in the search for those responsibile for the mutiny and their real motives. Sheikh Hasina's government was elected into office two months ago following two years of rule by an army-backed caretaker government, one that surprised many political observers by voluntarily relinquishing power. The army got good marks for the electoral transition and has been praised for suppressing the mutiny. But in everyone's mind is the military's past usurpings of civilian power in Bangladesh's short history.

At present, the public mood is one of relief that the army command seems to be playing a subordinate — and constitutional — role to the government. However, the prime minister's challenge now will be to ensure that the anger within the armed forces is kept in check and poses no renewed threat to the authority of her fledgling democratic government.

So far, the general consensus has been that she acted wisely in seeking a peaceful resolution to the crisis. The mutiny began in the early hours of Feb. 25, with sounds of gun-fire heard coming from the BDR headquarters in the heart of the capital Dhaka, where some 4,000 BDR troops were gathered, along with approximately 160 officers (temporarily asigned from the army to command the border security force). The occasion for the convocation was a durbar, or gathering of troops, the previous night. After over 24 hours of intense negotiation and the offer of a general amnesty — followed by a direct appeal by the Prime Minister to the rebels to lay down their arms — troops were readied to storm the BDR headquarters, a threat that finally prompted the mutineers to surrender early Thursday evening.

The Prime Minister defended her choice to negotiate and wait out the rebels. Speaking on the floor of the parliament Sunday, she was categorical in response: "I opted for talks to save lives, to save the officers and their families." An error would have been unthinkable. "The PM had to take a decision in real time. If they had stormed the compound and it had gone wrong, it could have been an even worse catastrophe," says Brig. Gen. Shahedul Anam Khan, an ex-senior army officer and an authority on strategic affairs.

Now, the Prime Minister has to hope that the investigation supports her decision — and that new revelations do not exacerbate the carefully calibrated relationship between an army used to taking charge and the new civilian government.

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