When a crisis strikes in a country like Bangladesh, the civilian government usually faces two main challenges. First, it must deal with the crisis itself. Second, it must deal with the ever present possibility that the army may intervene and take control of the government. The latter challenge is no theoretical concern: in its short history as a nation, the army has intervened at least three times.
In the latest crisis that has struck Bangladesh, up to 170 army officers have been massacred at the BDR headquarters in Dhaka. The tragedy has been termed a mutiny by the BDR soldiers against their superior officers. However, it is far from clear what motivated the actual killings, and for that matter who planned and carried out these killings. The only thing we know for certain is where the killings took place and who were the victims.
What is noteworthy about the massacre at the BDR headquarters is that it merges the two challenges faced by the government. The crisis itself involves the army. It is the army that has suffered the brunt of this attack, with many of its officers now murdered. Added to the concern that the army may move on its own to restore “order”, there is now a desire for revenge within the army’s ranks. Public sentiment in Bangladesh is one of outrage and shock. There is justifiably tremendous sympathy for the army officers for the great loss of life and for the shattered families left behind in the wake of this tragedy. It is also no small matter that the killings have taken place at Pilkhana – a site of slaughter that launched the 1971 genocide against the Bangladeshi people. Pilkhana is embedded in the national consciousness.
There is tremendous pressure from within the army to act, and in turn, pressure on the government from the army. In the face of this pressure, the army chief Moeen U Ahmed has declared publicly that the army remains “subservient to the government.” Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, in a bid to quell rising army anger, went to the army headquarters in Dhaka to discuss the situation face to face with army officers. Perhaps as a result of those discussions, comes this news:
The government today decided to deploy the members of the armed forces across the country to arrest the fugitive rebels of Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) and seize missing firearms.
A home ministry official preferring anonymity said the troops would be deployed in aid of the civil administration under the ‘Operation Rebel Hunt.’
“Army will help the police to arrest the rebels and seize their arms,” the official told The Daily Star last night.
He said the army would be withdrawn after having the situation under control.
The decision came hours after the meeting of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina with army officers at Sena Kunja at Dhaka Cantonment.
This is a very troubling development. The army is being deployed for law enforcement purposes across the country on a mission to hunt down those that have killed the army’s own. This holds the potential for further bloodshed. Whether the civilian government can keep control of the army once it is out of its barracks and amongst the population remains to be seen. Whether the army chain of command holds or can restrain the lower ranks remains to be seen. In an atmosphere where the army ranks are in a mood for revenge, putting them in charge of hunting down the perpetrators is ill advised. The urge for revenge combined with the natural and historical urge of the army to take control make for a volatile situation.
The government of Sheikh Hasina dealt with the initial crisis in a measured way designed to prevent further bloodshed. Some government officials, most notably the Home Minister Sahara Khatun, risked their own lives to bring the crisis to an end. It is the kind of bravery Bangladeshis have seldom seen from their rulers in recent years. The government’s performance in dealing with the initial crisis should be commended.
Now, however, the government faces the second challenge that all crises bring to Bangladesh. The fate of her government and that of democracy in Bangladesh depend on how she manages to navigate this challenge.