BOSTON — Bangladesh’s newly restored democracy encountered its gravest challenge last week. The country’s paramilitary border guards, called the Bangladesh Rifles, or BDR, staged an armed mutiny on Feb. 25 at their headquarters against their army commanders.
Citing grievances over pay and work conditions, the mutineers claimed that they had taken the commanders hostage. Army tanks began to roll toward the BDR headquarters in the heart of the bustling city of Dhaka. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina stepped in quickly and firmly, offering an amnesty to the mutineers in exchange for their surrender.
They surrendered the following day, and not before some ringleaders escaped wearing civilian clothes. As the authorities took control of the BDR compound, they found that the mutineers had brutally executed most of the senior officers whom they had earlier claimed to have held hostage. Shallow graves were found filled with bullet-ridden and bayoneted bodies; some were even burnt. A total of 135 officers were killed or are still missing.
The aftermath will be difficult for Bangladesh, and by implication for U.S. interests in the region. The mutiny took place when Bangladesh had barely emerged out of two years of military-backed rule. The consequences threaten to bring back a larger political role for the army.
In early 2007, amid persistent political confrontation, the military took over power, with American and British support. Waging their war on terror, the U.S. and the U.K. perceived that an authoritarian interlude might be useful in clamping down on rising Islamist extremism, a la the Pakistani model under Pervez Musharraf.
Trends over the next two years indeed offered parallels to Pakistan. The military-controlled “caretaker” government undertook a large-scale political purging, jailing many through summary tribunals. As in Pakistan, the main intelligence agency emerged as the key decision-maker, pursuing its own agenda and protecting some of the extremist leaders. Moreover, the influence of the military expanded greatly into businesses and the bureaucracy.
Creditably, Bangladesh’s top general, Moeen U. Ahmed, kept hardliners at bay and fully delivered on his promise to hold elections in December 2008. The main center-left party, Awami League, won by a landslide; the main Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami, was crushed; and the military handed power back to the people peacefully.
The mutiny threatens this peaceful equation. The Awami League government has asserted that the uprising was pre-planned. Parts of the Indian media have quickly speculated design by Pakistan to destabilize a Bangladeshi government considered friendly to India. Others have pointed fingers at Islamist extremists or political rivalries: conspiracy theories are rife.
If the government’s investigation unearths foreign connections, then regional tension and mistrust will surely increase.
The Bangladesh Army showed great patience as the political leadership defused the mutiny — but with so many of its officers slain, it wants a freer hand in dealing with the rebels. Out of sympathy, or pressure, the government may give in. The re-assertion of the military just after it had handed power back will create parallel authorities in delivering justice and imperil due process, exacting on the institutions of democracy a toll that the country can ill afford.
For the United States, the dilution of democracy in the third largest Muslim-majority nation in the world will be the worst outcome. Wisely, the U.S. has vocally supported the political government. It needs to stick to that position, recalling that nothing reduced its own moral authority more than taking shortcuts with justice after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The Obama administration admits that this jeopardized the ideological battlefront against extremism.
Similarly, the British foreign minister, David Miliband, wrote recently that the wholesale military logic of the war on terror was “wrong.”
“We must respond to terrorism by championing the rule of law, not subordinating it,” Miliband wrote.
In the unsettling aftermath of Bangladesh’s recent trauma, America and Britain can offer a steadying hand by gently yet persistently offering this crucial insight to those tempted to seek quick results at the expense of core democratic values.
Jalal Alamgir is assistant professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.