Andrew Biraj/Reuters
People lit candles in memory of killed members of the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) in Bangladesh on Sunday.

Bangladesh: mutiny dealt serious blow to country's security

Prime Minister Hasina revoked an amnesty for rebel soldiers as the Army announced Sunday that it was deploying across the country to apprehend fugitives.

They were found lying in ditches by the dozens. Many were bound at the hands and feet. On their uniforms they bore the marks of their crime: the badges and stripes of colonels, majors, and lieutenants of the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR).

Over the weekend, police in Bangladesh discovered 50 bodies in three mass graves at the BDR headquarters in Dhaka, bringing the total death toll of officers killed in last week's mutiny to 63. Among the dead were Maj. Gen. Shakil Ahmed, the head of the Bangladesh Rifles, a paramilitary border security force, and his wife, who lived on the headquarters premises. Four days after the armed uprising, more than 72 officers are still missing. They are feared dead as well.

Reacting to the scale of the tragedy, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina rescinded the general amnesty she had earlier offered rebellious BDR soldiers, warning that those responsible would be subject to exemplary punishment. Heightening fears of possible clashes, the Army on Sunday announced that it was deploying across the country in an operation to apprehend fugitive BDR soldiers, while police filed a case charging six lower-level BDR personnel with leading 1,000 men in the uprising.

As grisly evidence continues to be exhumed, Bangladesh is confronting a tragedy that, even by the tumultuous standards of this South Asian nation, ranks among the worst ever seen here: Many of the country's brightest military leaders have been killed in one strike, their death rendering a serious blow to the country's security apparatus while feeding fears that more violence may follow.

"The BDR is fully divested of its command structure. It's a big blow for the country. We have a weakened border," says Brig. Gen. Shahedul Anam Khan (ret.), a columnist on security issues for The Daily Star, a leading English-language newspaper.

Days after the mutiny, Dhaka remains a city captive to fear and rumors. In living rooms and restaurants, in offices and on the street, Bangladeshis have done little else in recent days but comment, question, and speculate – sometimes wildly – on the origins and repercussions of the bloody uprising.

According to official accounts, thousands of BDR personnel from across the country gathered at an annual BDR conference last Wednesday in Dhaka. Among them were 168 officers. Suddenly, shots were fired by junior personnel, who were allegedly aggrieved over poor pay scales and untimely promotions. The mutiny appeared to spread in subsequent days as BDR soldiers in several districts abandoned their barracks. But it was quickly reined in when Prime Minister Hasina, under pressure to de-escalate the situation, promised a general amnesty.

Still, the facts themselves have served only to deepen the public's sense that the mutiny was well planned and, perhaps, connected to a larger plot to destabilize the country, which just restored democracy in December elections, as one observer points out.

In an editorial for The Daily Star, Abdul Bayes, an economics professor, posed key questions: "How could soldiers get arms instantly from the store that lies almost one kilometer away from the [meeting] hall? Second, why should thousands of [soldiers] leave the hall as if they knew before what was to come next? Third, how could thousands of the [soldiers] flee despite the fact that the whole area was cordoned? Fourth, the killings, tortures, and disposal of dead bodies seems to indicate that the whole episode was pre-planned and done in a systematic fashion."

While the questions swirl, Bangladesh's new civilian government is trying to react quickly but judiciously to answer them. An investigation committee was hastily formed last week but, after opposition political parties complained that they were not included, was just as quickly dissolved. A new committee was announced on Sunday, to be comprised of members of all the political parties.

New tensions seemed to be developing by the weekend's close. On Saturday, the Home Ministry ordered all BDR deserters to return to their barracks or face harsh punishment if apprehended later. By Sunday, thousands were reported to be on their way back, where they will face questioning. Many, if not most, are innocent, but there are concerns that the Army or the general population, with emotions running high, might seek retribution.

"There will be some fears because [the BDR soldiers] do not know what awaits them. Out of enmity, some people may try to instigate others to violence," explains M. Zahir, an eminent lawyer and legal analyst in Dhaka.

The government now has a tightrope to walk, Mr. Zahir adds: interrogating the BDR soldiers to ascertain who is responsible for a national tragedy, while also shielding them from a swell of public anger.

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