Long running complaints between branches of Bangladesh’s military has broken out into full scale mutiny in the last two days that claimed at least 50 lives. What began as a shootout in the capital Dhaka has spread to towns across the country. While the main reason for the mutiny is a pay dispute, it is also likely be a test of power for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina who has only been in the job a month. Ranjit Bhaskar says the fact that the army had to be called out to quell the uprising just weeks after December's election is “an important reminder that the country's political situation remains complex and fragile despite the restoration of democratic rule”.
Nevertheless the most proximate cause is a pay dispute involving the paramilitary Bangladesh Rifles (BDR). The standoff at the BDR headquarters began yesterday when troops took dozens of high-ranking officers and military brass hostage after a gun battle erupted between rebels and loyal police and troops that killed 50 people. The dead included passers-by who were caught in mortar fire when the violence spread to the nearby streets. Afterwards, the BDR had reportedly accepted an offer of amnesty from the prime minister and agreed to lay down arms earlier on Thursday. But the fighting resumed later in the day.
The BDR is the country’s border security and anti-smuggling force. Known by the grandiose nickname of “The Vigilant Sentinels of Our National Frontier”, the force was set up after partition in 1947 as a descendent of the British East Pakistani Rifles. In 1971 it fought for the liberation of Bangladesh from West Pakistan and emerged as the new country’s leading paramilitary force. There is confusion over exactly how big the force is. The BBC thinks it is 40,000. The Guardian today was reporting 42,000 posted across 64 camps whereas Al Jazeera claim there are “50,000 paramilitary soldiers”. Meanwhile, BDR’s own website says they have a total manpower of 65,000 troops.
Whatever the size, it is a significant security organisation that the government needs to control. According to police reports, BDR members had revolted in 12 border districts which represents a quarter of the zones where they are stationed. The initial revolt started in the capital Dhaka and then fanned outwards. One local police chief reported heavy fighting at a BDR training centre in the southeastern town of Satkania. Another talked of indiscriminate gunfire in the northeastern Moulivibazar district where the commanding officer fled the camp. Violence was also reported in Chittagong and Naikhongchari in the south, Sylhet in the north-east, and Rajshahi and Naogaon in the north-west.
Back in the capital, the soldiers initially agreed to surrender after the government said it would grant amnesty and discuss their grievances. But it was little surprise to hear that fighting had resumed later in the day. The mood was full of resentment about army entitlements as one rebel soldier told television reporters. Unlike the army, the BDR is under the Home Ministry and has a different pay scale. "Army troops are sent abroad to work in UN peacekeeping missions and they get fat salaries,” he said. “But they don't take border guard personnel for peacekeeping. That's discrimination."
A government spokesman said mutinous soldiers would be treated harshly. Bangladesh’s new Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Cabinet members met in an emergency session today as the Dhaka standoff entered a second day. Some diplomats in the capital speculate that an ulterior motive of the violence is to test Hasina. She succeeded a military-backed administration last month and is the daughter of Mujibur Rahman, who is considered the father of Bangladesh. He won an election in 1970 and led the country to independence one year later which earned him the nickname of Bangabandhu "friend of Bangladesh". However in 1975 his own army officers assassinated him and 23 family members. Hasana and her sister were away in Germany at the time, and were the only ones left to carry on his line.
Since Bangabandhu’s death, Bangladesh has been dominated by military dictatorships, either overtly or disguised by stooge leaders. Hasina inherited the leadership of her father’s party and suffered imprisonment at the hands of several Bangladesh rulers. She was elected Prime Minister in 1996 after two disputed elections and ruled for five years. She was defeated in a landslide in 2001 but continued to lead the party despite criminal charges of extortion and murder. The High Court dismissed all the charges last year and she returned from exile in November to fight the election which she won in a landslide. But defeated Premier Khaleda Zia rejected the result saying the poll was ‘stage-managed'.
Pranab Dhal Samanta writing in Indianexpress.com noted that the BDR is heavily penetrated at the lower and middle ranks by affiliates of Zia’s party. There are also links between Zia’s brother and a disaffected BDR general. It doesn’t take much to join the dots. Samanta believes the force is now being controlled by disgruntled military officers who are known affiliates of Zia’s party. “A spectre of instability coupled with suspicious battles within the Army…and a new government wanting to try 1971 war criminals could rapidly trigger an unexpected crisis in Dhaka,” he writes.