According to Bangladeshi government officials, an uprising by paramilitaries that flung the country into chaos and confusion for a day has ended. At a meeting on Wednesday between army officials and paramilitaries at their Dhaka headquarters, members of the paramilitary Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) revolted. Their mutiny led to the deaths of upwards of 50 people, including several civilians trapped in the BDR's Dhaka compound and caught in the crossfire elsewhere as the rebellion spread to other parts of the country. Full casualty figures are yet to be confirmed, but officials insist that the rebelling BDR troops have stood down.
In Bangladesh - and in much of the rest of south Asia - the central government employs paramilitary units to flesh out a multi-layered security apparatus. BDR units serve comparable functions as their equivalent in India, the Border Security Forces (BSF), tasked with patrolling the frontiers. Yet their command structure is drawn from the army, not from their own ranks. BDR troops are also not as well remunerated as those in the army, and are also not eligible to join the lucrative UN peacekeeping missions in which so many Bangladeshi soldiers are deployed (Bangladesh is the second largest contributor of personnel to UN peacekeeping forces, second only to Pakistan).
Economic grievances thus probably lay at the heart of the rebellion, which constitutes the first real test of the newly democratically-elected government under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Unsurprisingly, Indian intelligence officials have suggested that the mutiny was stoked by elements of the Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh's largest Islamist party. New Delhi believes that the party and its affiliates have links with Pakistan's ISI secret service, which is allegedly building a network in Bangladesh in order to further destabilise and infiltrate neighbouring areas of India. Bangladesh's ruling Awami League party tends to lean more towards New Delhi than its counterparts.
The rebellion placed Sheikh Hasina's fledgling government in a particularly precarious position. Her own centre-left Awami League-led administration faces unrelenting pressure from the opposition, led by Begum Khaleda Zia and her centre-right Bangladesh National Party. Any slip-up, any obvious error, and the opposition would score points as it continues to demand more seats in parliament.
Sheikh Hasina also had to resolve the situation quickly in order to maintain an edifice of strength and decisiveness before her own army. Bangladesh's armed forces have routinely intervened in political life, most recently shepherding the governing of the country for two years till elections this winter. The democratically-elected government's wariness of its armed forces matches the army's own intolerance for the frequent failings of civilian rule.
BDR sources say they've only laid down arms because Sheikh Hasina has pledged to look into their demands. The prime minister will have to be careful in negotiations with the rebels, conceding enough to cool tensions, but not conceding so much as to encourage further fraction in what remains a fragmented political landscape.
A video of BDR troops airing their demands before the media (in Bangla)
Also in openDemocracy about Bangladesh:
Jalal Alamgir, "Bangladesh: a verdict and a lesson", (13 February 2009)
Delwar Hussain, "Life and death in the Bangladesh-India margins" (26 January 2009)
Delwar Hussain, "Islamism and expediency in Bangladesh" (11 January 2007)
Timothy Sowula, "Bangladesh's political meltdown" (24 November 2006)
Farida Khan, "Muhammad Yunus: an economics for peace" (25 October 2006)
Delwar Hussain, "Bangladeshis in east London: from secular politics to Islam" (7 July 2006)
Liz Philipson, "Bangladesh's fraying democracy" (26 June 2006)
Naila Kabeer, "The cost of good intentions: 'solidarity' in Bangladesh" (24 June 2004)
Farida Khan, "Getting real about globalisation in Bangladesh" (15 April 2004)