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 , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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

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.

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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.

The Army stepped in again in January 2007, after months of violent street clashes between the two main political parties left dozens dead and virtually froze democracy.

Only after two years, during which the Army conducted a sweeping crackdown on corruption and cleaned up the national voting list, did Bangladesh navigate its way back to democracy.

The election of Hasina, whose Awami National Party held power between 1996 and 2001, was lauded as a welcome return to civilian government.

But that was interrupted by the rumblings within the ranks of the Bangladesh Rifles that exploded into a mutiny Wednesday.

According to local reports, junior soldiers opened fire on 168 high-ranking officers who were attending a national BDR conference before effectively seizing control of the BDR headquarters in the heart of the capital.

Analysts here say that the ranks of the BDR, which is made up of some 65,000 soldiers making only $70 a month on average, have long felt underpaid and underappreciated.

Accusations of corruption

Hours into the initial uprising, rebelling soldiers accused their commanding officers on live TV of stealing millions from food distribution programs and maltreating their subordinates.

Whether this week's developments will amount to another interruption of democracy has been a matter of intense debate in Dhaka over the past two days. "I don't think our democracy is under threat in any way. I think at this stage, [the government] has managed pretty well, resolving the issue with less violence given the initial killings," says Imitiaz Ahmed, a professor at Dhaka University.

Swift response

Mr. Ahmed highlighted the swift measures with which Hasina's government managed to negotiate a general amnesty for the rebelling soldiers in return for putting down their arms. And as of late Thursday afternoon, 20 officers were released from the BDR headquarters unharmed, suggesting that the crisis was simmering down.

But many say the crisis may be just beginning. Only eight officers' bodies have been recovered, meaning more than 100 officers are unaccounted for.

Their murder would constitute the single largest loss of Army officers in Bangladesh's history – a blow that could invite a violent backlash, analysts say.

"People will be shocked. There will be psychological damage. Amnesty will not be possible," says Mr. Khan, suggesting that the amnesty granted yesterday by the prime minister would not be able to last.

As the crisis unfolds, Khan adds, the government's near-term actions will be critical. The BDR's grievances, while not easily solved, must be seriously addressed, he and others say – including better compensation and more efficient promotions.

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