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.

By , Correspondent

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    Members of Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) who are accused of a mutiny are summoned for a hearing before a special court in Dhaka July 12.
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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.

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.

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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.

Others are more adamant about such links.

A possible clue?

As proof, many have pointed to the story of one of the fallen in the mutiny, Col. Gulzar Uddin Ahmed.

In 2006, Gulzar, as he is widely known, was appointed the first director of intelligence for Bangladesh’s Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), a special police force. Within months, he arrested hundreds of operatives of JMB, the country’s most lethal terrorist organization. He then arrested six of the group’s leaders.

Because of Gulzar’s police work, all six men were all put to death in 2007. Gulzar became a national hero. Then, in early 2009, he was transferred to a position of command within the BDR. He had planned to take his family on a vacation. But first he went to attend the BDR’s annual meeting in Dhaka.

That was Feb. 25, the day of infamous bloodshed. Gulzar’s body was found 10 days after the mutiny. He had been tortured before being killed – a sign, many believe, of retribution. “He was the most brilliant officer in the police department, who was totally committed to uproot Islamic militancy,” says Sharier Kabir, an outspoken activist against Islamic extremism in Bangladesh. “That’s why he has been killed so brutally.”

Gulzar’s status as a martyr in the fight against terrorism has risen. His Facebook page, created posthumously, has more than 22,000 fans. JMB’s targeting of Gulzar may be an apocryphal tale. But there are, analysts say, grounds for extremist groups to target the new prime minister.

In her return to power, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina promised to reinstate Bangladesh’s 1972 Constitution, which would remove Islam as the state religion and posit secularism as the country’s foundation. She swore she would try those Bangladeshis who, in siding with Pakistan during Bangladesh’s war of liberation in 1971, had killed fellow Bangladeshis in the name of ensuring a more puritan form of Islam. And she had promised to destroy international terrorist networks operating in her country.

In this quest, Hasina knew she had an ally in the BDR force. In 2008, the BDR’s director general, Shakil Ahmed, publicly vowed to crush militancy in Bangladesh.

He singled out both international operators like Harkut-ul-Jihad (HUJI), a terrorist group founded in Pakistan, and domestic groups like JMB. Two months after being elected, Hasina stood beside Mr. Ahmed to address soldiers at the BDR’s headquarters on Feb. 24, 2009 – the day before the mutiny.

What could the goal of the mutiny have been?

If the goal of the mutiny was simply for BDR soldiers to secure better pay, that has not yet happened. The government is still mulling over such reforms. In the meantime, the government has passed the Border Guard Bangladesh Act 2010, which makes mutiny an offense subject to capital punishment.

And if it was to deter Hasina from taking on radical groups, the opposite appears true. Since her election, RAB and BDR have launched a sweeping crackdown on local and international terrorist organizations, making some of their most sensational arrests since Gulzar’s. In the churn of news and analysis, Bangladeshis continue to grasp at all possibilities.

But whatever the mutiny's goals, analysts say, it appears not to have gotten far.

“It’s a complex scenario. There has to be more serious research on it,” says Imtiaz Ahmed, a professor of international relations at Dhaka University and a prominent political analyst here. He added, with a laugh, “Maybe in 20 or 30 years we’ll know.”

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