Monday, March 02, 2009

Bangladesh: Behind the carnage

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Reliable details of the two-day (February 25 and 26, 2009) mutiny of some junior ranks of the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) against Army officers are still scanty. However, even the limited details available so far indicate that the situation was and continues to be much more serious than was originally thought. It could flare up again if not handled with care by the Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, the Army Chief , General Moeen U Ahmed, and the new Director-General of the BDR, Brig Gen Moinul Hossain.

2.Sheikh Hasina and the Army chief are till now acting in tandem in dealing with the sequel to the mutiny, but the critics of Sheikh Hasina are already turning their guns on her as the holder of the defence portfolio for not reacting promptly to the mutiny in order to put it down and prevent the massacre of a large number of senior officers of the Army by the jawans (soldiers) and other junior ranks of the BDR. While the Army chief himself has reiterated his faith in the civilian leadership, individual senior officers have been critical of Sheikh Hasina for allegedly not allowing the Army to intervene on February 25 itself after the mutiny broke out and for trying to deal with the situation through her Home Minister, Sahara Khatun, under whom the BDR comes.

3. The constitution of two parallel probe committees-----one by the Home Minister and the other by the Army--- speaks of the lack of confidence of the army in the thoroughness of any probe by the committee set up by the Home Minister. Reports indicate that only those, who did not participate in the mutiny, have so far surrendered to the Army or the police and that many---if not most---of those who participated in the mutiny have managed to go underground. The Army is focussing its enquiries on those , who held the peace talks with the Home Minister in a local restaurant in response to his appeal before the talks broke down. The suspected ring leaders are four Deputy Assistant Directors (DAD) of the BDR-----Touhidul Alam, Nasiruddin Khan, Mirza Habibur Rahman and Abdul Jalil, --- sepoy Md Selim and Abdur Rahim, whose rank in the BDR is not known.

4. The National Standing Committee of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) of Begum Khalida Zia,in a statement on February 28,2009, alleged that the 'action and reaction' in the wake of the killings in the mutiny proved the Government's total failure to resolve the crisis. “Narrow mentality and controversial steps and statements of the Government made the situation more complex,” it said and added: "The Government could not take timely steps to prevent the killing of army officers and their family members, and torture on women and children.The Prime Minister, who is also the Defence Minister, cannot avoid responsibility for the failure to take effective measures to protect arms and ammunition, and prevent escape of criminals.”

5. From the details available so far, the following reconstruction is possible: Maj Gen Shakil Ahmed, who was the Director-General of the BDR,and his wife were extremely unpopular with the jawans of the BDR, who used to accuse them of being corrupt and of misusing or misappropriating funds meant for providing relief to the families of poor jawans.The BDR was observing the BDR Week from February 24,2009, to mark its raising day. About 6300 personnel of the BDR were to participate in the various functions organised in this connection. About 3300 of them belonged to BDR battalions stationed in Dhaka. The remaining came from the various field units. Sheikh Hasina inaugurated the Week at a function in the Darbar (conference) hall of the BDR headquarters in their campus at Pilkana on February 24. Some directly-recruited junior officers and other ranks of the BDR had requested Maj.Gen.Shakil Ahmed to allow them to meet her separately after the inaugural function to express their grievances to her. He turned down their request. On coming to know of this, she wanted to meet them. He advised her not to do so on the ground that it might weaken the discipline. She did not insist on meeting them.

6. That night, pamphlets criticising Shakil Ahmed, his wife and other army officers circulated in the campus. Either the army officers and military and civilian intelligence agencies were not aware of it or they ignored it under the impression that this was one of those things which keep happening in the BDR. On February 25, a conference was held in the Darbar Hall, which was addressed by by Shakil Ahmed. As he was interacting with the staff, some persons wearing red head bands and wielding machine guns forced their way into the hall and started shouting slogans against him and opened fire indiscriminately.

7. There are two versions as to what happened to him. According to one version, he was shot dead inside the darbar hall itself. According to the other version, he and other Army officers ran out of the hall in panic and fled to their residences or offices located inside the campus. Shakil Ahmed himself ran to his house. Some of the mutineers chased him there and killed him and his wife, Some other mutineers chased the other officers to their offices or residences and killed them.

8. A number of other jawans and junior officers of the BDR, who initially did not participate in the mutiny, took guns from the BDR armoury and joined the mutineers in their killing spree. Thousands of bullets were fired indiscriminately all over the campus by rampaging personnel of the BDR. When Sheikh Hasina heard of the mutiny and the firing, she thought that the mutineers had taken some Army officers hostage. She, therefore, asked her Home Minister to establish contact with the mutineers and persuade them to release the hostages. She was reportedly not aware that the mutineers had started massacring the officers the moment the mutiny started. It is understood that even the Army chief was not aware of this.

9. The moment the mutiny broke out, there was an almost total black-out of communications between the Army officers caught inside the BDR headquarters and their superiors in the Army headquarters. Before the mutiny, the mutineers had disrupted all land line telephones. All the army officers caught inside had mobile telephones. Only one of them managed to send out a distress message. Others could not communicate. It is not known why this was so. Some reports suggest that the mutineers had seized all mobile telephones from the officers inside. Thus, while the mutineers were able to remain in touch with their colleagues all over Bangladesh, the Army officers caught inside were unable to communicate with anybody. The Army sent an armed group to the BDR campus to find out what was happening. It also sent two helicopters to fly over the campus. They all withdrew when the mutineers opened fire on them.

10.Only by the morning of February 26,2009,did the extent of the savagery become evident to Sheikh Hasina and the Army. She authorised the Army to intervene and broadcast a warning message to the mutineers. The sight of the deployment of Army tanks and heavy artillery around the campus unnerved the mutineers and they called off the mutiny. It is not yet known how many of them managed to escape from Dhaka and how many surrendered.

11. When the Army entered the campus and started looking for the Army officers caught inside, it realised with shock the extent of the savagery perpetrated by the BDR mutineers. So far, the Army has recovered the badly mutilated bodies of 73 army officers and some civilians including wives and other family members of the killed officers. It is repored that there were 137 Army officers of various ranks inside the BDR campus when the mutiny broke out. The remaining are missing and feared killed. Their bodies have not yet been recovered. Many of the recovered bodies carried bullet as well as bayonet injuries. The bodies of the wives of some of the killed officers had been disfigured. Neither Pakistan nor Bangladesh, where miitary revolts and rule are common, had seen a savagery of this kind since the British left the sub-continent in 1947.

12.Brigadier General Mahmud Hossain, Director of Military Intelligence, told a press conference in Dhaka on the night of February 28,2009, that the army was ready to storm the headquarters of the BDR soon after the mutiny erupted, but heeded Sheikh Hasina's advice at the last minute to resolve the issue politically."The Prime Minister directed that the crisis should be solved politically and it has been resolved in that manner." He described the incidents as "possibly the worst massacre of army officers in Bangladesh's history", and added that the anger among the armed forces was "very natural". He said the army has begun its own probe into the killings of its officers during the mutiny even as the investigation ordered by a government-constituted committee continues.

13. One of those missing is Colonel Gulzar Uddin Ahmed, of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), who had played an active role in the drive against the jihadi organisations such as the Jamia'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB).Before being promoted as Additional DG of the RAB, he was in its intelligence wing and had commanded the operation that had led to the capture and execution of JMB operations commander Siddiqul Islam alias Bangla Bhai.

14.The belief in Bangladesh official circles is that the BDR mutiny was triggered off partly by the unaddressed grievances over the living and service conditions and partly by anger over the action of the Army chief in carrying out the death sentences awarded to Bangla Bhai and other jihadi leaders in 2007. There has reportedly been a penetration of the BDR by the Hizbut Tehrir which was very critical of the executions which were projected by it as carried out under US pressure.(2-3-09).

The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai.
Published by Mike Hitchen, Mike Hitchen Consulting
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