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Bangladesh revolt tests civilian rule

The recently elected government took quick measures to end a paramilitary force mutiny that erupted Wednesday, though the situation remains tense.

By David MonteroCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 27, 2009

Surrendering: Bangladesh border guards prepared to stand down after their deadly mutiny that started in Dhaka Wednesday and spread throughout the country.

Pavel Rahman/AP

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Bangladesh was supposed to be back on track, with a newly elected civilian government and a re-invigorated commitment to rooting out corruption and militancy.

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But that hope suffered a setback when military tanks rolled through the capital on Thursday, seeking to quell a mutiny that has pitted branches of the armed forces against one another and spread to 12 districts outside the capital.

The violence began on Wednesday, when members of the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR), a paramilitary border security force, opened fire on their commanding officers because of alleged grievances over poor pay and slow promotions.

By late Thursday, the rebelling officers, who are believed to number as many as 4,000, surrendered their arms to the police. But as police determine the true death toll from the uprising, there are fears that the mutineers may have killed more than 100 officers. If true, analysts warn, the news could unleash fresh violence, including a possible retaliation from the Army.

The crisis highlights the challenges for the newly elected government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina as she steers a fragile course back to democracy following two years of Army-backed rule. As tanks encircle the BDR headquarters and the bodies of the dead are traced, concern abounds that the stability of one of the world's largest Muslim nations could hang in the balance.

"This is a very great concern for us. It's coming at a time when the government is still new and getting settled," says Brig. Gen. Shahedul Anam Khan (ret.), a security analyst in Dhaka.

For now, the scale down of the crisis is registering as a win for Sheikh Hasina and her civilian government, according to some observers.

The government "is only 50 days old. But they have surmounted a totally unprecedented crisis in a very mature manner. We believe that, because of the presence of a parliament, the situation has been dealt with much more coolly than if there were a caretaker government," says Maj. Gen. Syed Mohammed Ibrahim (ret.), who writes on security issues for local newspaper in Dhaka.

A history of coups

Violent coups have long been a feature of politics in Bangladesh, an impoverished nation of some 140 million people. The country was born of rebellion in 1971, when the Bengali-speaking people of what was then East Pakistan violently broke away from Pakistan in a bid for their own homeland. Not long afterward, in 1982, Lt. Gen. Hussain Muhammad Ershad, the Army chief of staff, seized control in a military coup and ruled until 1990, when democracy returned.