Mutiny in Bangladesh: unsolved mystery threatens regional stability
As long the mutiny in Bangladesh remains an unsolved mystery, it opens the door to instability in a country of 150 million people struggling with rising extremism as well as a region that includes Pakistan and India.
More than a year has passed since soldiers within the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR), a paramilitary border force, staged a violent mutiny at their headquarters in the capital, Dhaka. Yet no one seems to really know why it happened.Skip to next paragraph
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On the morning of Feb. 25, 2009, BDR soldiers mutilated and killed 57 of their officers, and raped and killed many of the officers’ wives. Then, just as suddenly as the carnage began, most of the mutineers slipped into the city, disappearing without a trace. The attack was the most grievous blow dealt to the Army in Bangladesh’s history.
A full reckoning has only just begun. Many of the offending rebels are now well known, their crimes well documented. In mid-July, Bangladesh charged 824 of them with murder and conspiracy, the single largest charge in the country’s history. Formerly East Pakistan, Bangladesh became its own country in 1971, when the two parts of Pakistan split after a war which also involved its neighbor, India.
In the absence of an accepted explanation
But the leaders of the attack remain unidentified, and it is still not known how many people were actually involved, let alone what their motive was. Some analysts worry that lack of a satisfactory explanation will threaten the already politically volatile nation. Others say that further instability in Bangladesh would open up the country to terrorist organizations in the region.
The government finally offered a motive in a report this month: The mutiny, it said, was a spontaneous outburst caused by longstanding grievances over pay. BDR soldiers make about $70 a month, while their officers are accused of living lavish lifestyles.
But many here are unconvinced, and have sought answers of their own. In drawing-room conversations, blogs, and Facebook postings, many here have gravitated to the possibility that terrorist groups are to blame.
The mutiny, they speculate, was an attempt to derail a secular democracy emerging under the leadership of a liberal, female prime minister, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, who took office just two months before the mutiny erupted.
It is still a theory – and one that, for now, the government seems to be discounting. But in this land of conspiratorial politics, many informed observers are not willing to completely rule it out.
The land of conspiratorial politics
Bangladeshis have been here before.
In 1975, the country’s first prime minister, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was killed in another military coup. In 1981, the Army chief who took power in that coup, Zia ur Rehman, was himself assassinated.
Ever since, explosions and assassinations have rocked this country with great frequency but little explanation. Bangladeshis are still putting together the pieces.
This mutiny is no different. Three official investigations – one by the civilian government, one by the Army, and one by the police – had previously reported little about a motive.
“I’ve not seen a situation where people take up arms and kill 57 of their officers. It defies logic. It is not a spontaneous outburst,” says retired Maj. Gen. Shahid Anam, who spent 35 years in the Army and is now a security analyst in Dhaka. Anam would not put full stock in the theory that extremists are to blame.
But like many here, he wouldn’t rule it out either.
Last March, an official charged with coordinating the government’s inquiries, Commerce Minister Farukh Khan, announced that some of the mutineers had links to Jamat’ul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB). Local media investigations corroborated the notion. But Mr. Khan later retracted his statement. He did not explain why.