It is an age old story. There were oppressors, and there were the oppressed. There was discrimination and mistreatment galore. There were promises which were broken. Again and again and again. And finally, it was too much.
Dhaka city was rocked by the sound of gunfire on the morning of 25 February 2009. The Bangladesh Rifles (BDR), our dedicated border security force, had declared mutiny. The mutiny is the outburst of a long standing frustrating discrimination of BDR soldiers from their commanders.
A little background is necessary here: The Bangladesh Rifles originated from the East Pakistan Rifles - a force set up in undivided Pakistan - and came into existence in 1972, shortly after the country's independence. The BDR patrols the borders, checks cross-border crime and is expected to provide support to the army in times of war. The 70,000 strong BDR force is organized into battalions along military lines. The BDR headquarter is in Dhaka, its barracks housing approximately 4000 troops. The army plays a major role in staffing, training and directing the BDR. Soldiers are recruited through advertisements but officers are seconded from the regular army.
And this is how the seeds of discontent were first sown. The masters considered themselves an elite class, far above the lowly serfs. There was great disparity between pay, benefits, working conditions and career advancement between the officers and rank and file, and issues of corruption practised by senior officers. While army personnel are frequently sent to UN missions, no such opportunities exist for BDR personnel. There were also allegations of mistreatment. Soldiers raised their grievances again and again with their officers, to no avail. Recently, their Director General had promised to place the soldiers' demands to the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina when she inaugurated the BDR week events. But he must have forgotten his promise, for he only spoke on behalf of his officers on that august occasion. Disgruntled soldiers grumbled all night. And a terrifying plot was hatched for reprisal.
All Sector Commanders were assembled in the Darbar Hall the next morning when, during the course of an argument between the soldiers and officers, weapons were drawn and fired. We do not know who fired first, but the results were the same. Soldiers and officers died. And innocent civilians were killed and wounded. Gunshots and heavy mortar firing were heard. Plumes of smoke were seen rising from the BDR complex.
107 officers were reportedly killed. Some dead bodies were dropped in canals which were later recovered by the general public on the outskirts of Dhaka.
Among civilian casualties were the 50 year-old man who had gone to collect his asthma medicine from the BDR hospital; the young son of a vegetable vendor; a rickshawpuller; a 23 year-old university student; a day-labourer. They were just going about their business, with no clue about the misfortune that was about to befall them.
Dozens were wounded...
An army helicopter patrolling above the barracks was shot at and mortar rounds were also fired. BDR personnel patrolled the perimeters and used megaphones to announce their grievances to the media and public.
Schools were closed and university dormitories near the BDR headquarters were evacuated. Shops remain closed. Some took shelter behind closed shutters of shops to escape stray bullets. A number of BDR personnel fled the complex in civilian clothes, as did some families. People were in tears over the uncertainty of the fate of their near and dear ones inside the BDR complex.
The army moved to take up position outside the BDR headquarters, effectively putting it under siege.
A 14 member BDR delegation, accompanied by two State Ministers went to meet the Prime Minister. She granted a general amnesty and asked the mutineers to surrender arms and return to barracks. The Bangladesh army also issued a statement calling on the renegade troops to "surrender and go back to the barracks". "Any soldiers who fails to give up arms after this announcement will be prosecuted," the statement said. However, seeing the ever increasing number of army personnel and armaments outside their walls, although some arms were surrendered, the mutineers refused to accede to the PM's requests unless the army moved back to its own barracks. A removal of all army officers from the BDR chain of command was also demanded.
As the renegade BDR personnel started laying down their weapons in Dhaka in response to a general amnesty announced by the Prime Minister, reports started to come in that BDR soldiers in the outlying provinces had also joined the rebellion.TV channels reported that rebellion had broken out in 12 border districts where senior officers, mostly from the army, had fled.
The Prime Minister, in a speech to the nation this afternoon, urged the necessity of a solution through discussion and not force. She also said that BDR personnel should follow their chain of command and should surrender arms. She announced the formation of a committee led by the Home Minister to look into the BDR’s professional problems. She also warned however, that public security should not be threatened and that she would not hesitate to take stern action in the best interest of the nation.
Reinforcements of soldiers in battle fatigues and the police continue the siege to the BDR complex. Arms and ammunition are being brought into a nearby sports field. Army personnel are telling residents of the area to evacuate or take shelter. Cell phone networks outside the capital have been switched off. The Dhaka Medical College Hospital has reportedly been warned to expect heavy casualties.
Are we going to witness another bloodbath today?
While social equity, exploitation and corruption are major challenges in a country like Bangladesh (and indeed, in many other countries), a class struggle should never have to resort to such deadly means. In a democracy, in a people's republic, grievances should not be allowed to explode in this manner. This situation has caught the government unaware, but really, did the government (albeit newly elected), and the intelligence services, have absolutely no idea this was brewing? Could it not have been prevented?
While my sympathies always lie with the under-dog, an immediate acceptance of the BDR's demands would set a dangerous precedent for other disgruntled groups. We certainly don't want to create the impression that "if no one listens to you then go on rampage and your demands will be met immediately." Our strategy should be to diffuse tension instead of allowing it to brew and to the creation of grounds for confrontation, death and destruction. We have survived a war and numerous coups and many violent demonstrations. Has life ceased to have any value? Have we not learnt anything??? Why do we forget so easily?
We have lived under a state of emergency for many months now, and have just begun a new political chapter in the history of Bangladesh. Please let us move forward on the road to functional democracy and leave us not be waylaid, or worse, take a step backward. Dear readers, please include us in your prayers.
(Photo credit: All photos in this post were taken from various websites: BBC, Al Jazeera, Global Voices, Unheard Voices and others.)