Bangladesh: revolt and fallout

Liz Philipson
31 March 2009

Bangladesh has experienced a rare switchback-ride from hope to fear in the first weeks of 2009. The largely peaceful general election of 29 December 2008 on a 70% voter turnout gave an astonishing landslide victory to the Awami League (AL) led by Sheikh Hasina over the Bangladesh National Party of her bitter rival Begum Khaleda Zia. The end of the army-backed "caretaker" government that had been established in October 2006 was greeted with joy by democratic forces within and outwith the country (see Jalal Alamgir, "Bangladesh: a verdict and a lesson", 13 February 2009).

Liz Philipson is a researcher in south Asian issues. Her work focuses on conflict analysis, conflict resolution and peacebuilding

Also by Liz Philipson in openDemocracy:

"Bangladesh's fraying democracy" (25 June 2006)

The new government was scarcely into its stride, however, when the mood swung in an alarming and wholly unforeseen way, with the mutiny on 25-26 February 2009 of a large section of the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) - the paramilitary force charged with the defence of Bangladesh's borders. The country marked the thirty-eighth anniversary of its founding on 26 March 2009 still shaken by and coming to terms with a complex incident that illustrates the challenges of rooting democracy securely within Bangladesh.  

What made the mutiny even more shocking was that it began not in some remote border-post but in the BDR headquarters in Dhanmondi, a posh residential area of the capital, Dhaka. From there it spread across the country to twelve other BDR camps. In the process, thousands of BDR jawans rose against their army commanders (who are drawn from the regular army), killing many of them and members of their families. The commander of the BDR was one of the victims. The final death-toll remains unclear; several mass graves have been found, and scores more bodies may still be missing.

The news of the mutiny spread tension and insecurity throughout Bangladeshi society, but it was only after state forces had regained control of the situation that the scale of the killing became clear. A retired army major is quoted as saying "not even in the war of independence [1971] and the coups that followed have we ever lost such a big number of army officers". 

Sheikh Hasina initially offered an amnesty to the jawans if they laid down their weapons. When the extent of the slaughter (if not the precise figures) became known the amnesty was withdrawn; some hundreds of BDR are in custody and security forces are hunting BDR on the run. The prime minister's handling of the affair has come under criticism, especially her decision to open negotiations with the mutineers and thus allegedly risk the lives of the army officers; others praise her response to the situation as having averted a potentially even greater disaster. These reactions, like much else in Bangladesh, tend largely to divide according to party political loyalties. 

The mutiny also refocused attention on the already frosty relations between the army and politicians in Bangladesh. The period of "caretaker" government under military control from 2006-08 saw only the latest in a series of struggles by the political parties to retrieve governing authority; the army had jailed many political leaders and their followers, and sought to push both Sheikh Hasina and Begum Zia into exile. This made Sheikh Hasina's handling of the mutiny even more sensitive; the fact that the head of the armed forces pledged support for the government helped to ease the situation.  

Behind the crisis

Why did the mutiny happen? And why did it happen now?  It has been characterised by some observers as an incident involving guns that somehow got out of hand; but this seems implausible and few if any in Bangladesh believe this. Most Bangladeshis are also sceptical about the official version: that the mutiny was sparked by BDR frustration at their remuneration package (which is much inferior to that enjoyed by the army) as well as their exclusion from lucrative United Nations postings that army personnel are routinely offered. 

Also on Bangladesh in openDemocracy:

Farida Khan, "Getting real about globalisation in Bangladesh" (15 April 2004)

Naila Kabeer, "The cost of good intentions: 'solidarity' in Bangladesh" (24 June 2004)

Delwar Hussain, "Bangladeshis in east London: from secular politics to Islam" (7 July 2006)

Farida Khan, "Muhammad Yunus: an economics for peace" (25 October 2006)

Timothy Sowula, "Bangladesh's political meltdown" (24 November 2006)

Delwar Hussain, "Islamism and expediency in Bangladesh" (11 January 2007)

Firdous Azim, "Women and religion in Bangladesh: new paths" (19 December 2007)

Delwar Hussain, "Life and death in the Bangladesh-India margins" (26 January 2009)

Jalal Alamgir, "Bangladesh: a verdict and a lesson" (13 February 2009)

It is true that the brief negotiations between the government and the mutineers (when some army officers were believed to be being held as live hostages) did centre on improvement to BDR terms and conditions. But the suggestions about the background to the mutiny in Bangladesh's cities and villages (and in the drawing-rooms of Dhanmondi) are both different and various. They evoke fissures and conspiracies that have bedevilled contemporary Bangladesh - the polarisation and criminalisation of politics, terrorism, fundamentalism, militarism, and regional geopolitics. There is also a persistent notion (fuelled by the questioning of  Abdur Razzak, a leading member of the Jamaat-e-Islami [JI]party on 30 March 2009) that this was an attempt to undermine the new government before it had become fully established. 

The curtain of fear

The roots of many political problems in Bangladesh have developed from the 1971 war of independence from Pakistan (see Willem van Schendel, A History of Bangladesh [Cambridge University Press, 2009]). The issue still rouses intense emotions; the Awami League government has begun to act on its election pledge of prosecuting of those accused of war crimes during that period (many of whom are associated with Jamaat-e-Islami).

India supported the Bangladesh cause in 1971; indeed it is doubtful whether independence would have been achieved without Indian assistance. Since then party alignments in this area too have come to polarise, with the Awami League continuing to be closer to India while the Bangladesh National Party is perceived as having become closer to Pakistan. As a result, the AL sees Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) as the source of hostility to it, while the BNP views the Indian foreign-intelligence service's Research & Analysis Wing (RAW) similarly. There is no doubt that both these agencies are active within Bangladesh and maintain complex relations with sections of the Bangladeshi security forces, including some parts of the army. The traces of suspicion enter the media and the mentality of the political class and sections of the public: articles are published accusing India or Pakistan of involvement in the BDR massacre, while Sheikh Hasina herself insists that "outsiders" were involved and that "we have to unearth all these conspiracies". 

Bangladesh's history subsequent to the independence war has been steeped in political violence, coups and counter-coups and military governments. This has helped create a political culture of swirling rumour and suspicion that often makes connections between apparently disparate events (see Shafiq Alam, "Bangladesh seeks answers over its bloody birth", AsiaOne News, 25 March 2009). For example, the use of grenades in an assassination attempt on Sheikh Hasina in 2004 during her address to a party rally managed to kill twenty people and injure 200. The event was surrounded by speculation: about a possible link to religious fundamentalism, and to the fact that the trial of those who in 1975 killed her father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was at last about to begin.

A little later, there were strong rumours that the grenades were the same as those from a huge illegal arms-shipment that mysteriously disappeared after confiscation at Chittagong earlier in 2004 (and was subsequently linked to the United Liberation Front of Assam [Ulfa] in India's unsettled northeast state). Moreover, it was alleged that grenades from this shipment were involved in an attack in the same year which killed three people and injured scores of people (including the British ambassador); leaders of the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HuJI) movement have been tried for this attack. By a circuitous route, a rumour has it that more grenades from this shipment were found inside the BDR headquarters.  

The corroded polity 

There are also more straightforward political rivalries at play in the background to the BDR mutiny. In 1990 the democratic parties in Bangladesh cooperated to oust General Ershad, who ruled Bangladesh under martial law (1982-86) and then as president (1986-90). However that cooperation quickly ebbed away: for the next fifteen years the AL and the BNP alternated in government and fought bitter political battles. During this time, parliamentary politics yielded to frequent opposition boycotts and street protests - often violent. 

The hallmark of Bangladeshi politics became corruption and criminality. During the last BNP government, Begum Zia's son Tariq Raman acquired the reputation of a godfather of an extensive network of graft and crime (he is now in exile). There is also a local, Bangladeshi dimension of the growing links between criminality and politics throughout south Asia, amid fears that the dramatic outbreaks of violence in various countries of the region may have roots in transnational networks of organised crime or religious militancy.

In the post-1990 period, both the AL and the BNP made electoral alliances with JI, thus increasing the JI's profile and influence. The BNP also brought the JI into its 2001 cabinet. A series of explosions perpetrated by the JMB raised fears over links between Islamic parliamentary parties and Islamic militant groups, which had a negative impact on the JI.  However, the JI remained the best-organised party in the country and the only one with a long-term strategy (though its leader and a former minister, Nizami, was arrested on corruption charges in May 2008; and the party did badly in the December elections).

Bangladeshis in general believe that there are many questions still to be answered about links between militant Islamic groups and established politicians and the security services, both of which have been accused of assisting these groups on certain occasions.   

The BNP/JI coalition government was accused by then Awami League opposition of "fixing" both the caretaker government and the election commission and other official bodies. When the interim government took office in October 2006, violence had erupted on the streets and Dhaka became ungovernable (see "Bangladesh's fraying democracy", 25 June 2006). In December, President Iajuddin Ahmed announced a national state of emergency, an overnight curfew, and the postponement of the elections scheduled for 22 January. He also stepped down as temporary prime minister of Bangladesh. 

The military-backed caretaker government that then took office was initially welcomed as bringing order, and its fierce anti-corruption drive was particularly popular. However, it also banned political activity, jailed thousands of political activists and attempted to force both Sheikh Hasina and Begum Zia into exile. Once again, activists from the two major parties found common cause in opposing a military government. 

After the storm  

The democratic election of December 2008 returned Bangladesh to its status as a functional, constitutional democracy. However, even then, it was clear that the challenges for the victorious Sheikh Hasina were formidable. Bangladesh is far from a tabula rasa. The AL administration inherits all the violence, criminality and political schisms and opacity that have bedevilled the country since independence. The BDR massacre was the first major test of the new government and the immediate crisis was managed well. However, both the army and the government investigation commissions are yet to report. It may be important that these two commissions are in broad agreement and that their conclusions are generally credible to Bangladeshis who seek the truth out of fear for the future of their country. 

But to endure the BDR storm is only the first hurdle. To govern well will require Sheikh Hasina and her ministers to break with the same old ways of corruption, nepotism and impunity. If the foundation laid at the election is to consolidate the functioning democracy and develop practical democracy for Bangladeshis, there must be change throughout the system. Some analysts see the AL as a party that has been shaken by the events of the last two years; others fear that the size of its majority will obscure the need to learn lessons.   

It is too early for any balance-sheet of the new political dispensation. But there have already been parliamentary walkouts, and the Awami League has restricted the powers of the election commission that managed to deliver one of the most peaceful elections Bangladesh has known. The signs are mixed. Bangladesh remains suspended between past and future.

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