A critical test for Bangladesh

. 2/28/09

The short-lived but deadly insurrection by the rank and file of the Bangladesh Rifles marked a critical test for the two-month-old government in Dhaka that is still in the process of consolidating civilian control after two years of Army-backed emergency rule. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina handled the situation with calibrated firmness. The fact that what started as a takeover of the BDR’s Dhaka headquarters spread to 15 border districts, despite an offer of general a mnesty by the Prime Minister, did reflect deep-rooted grievances among the guards. These relate to issues of pay and treatment by the Army commanders, and a change in the command and control structure. Sheikh Hasina in a televised address promised to look into their grievances, while also holding out the threat of putting down the mutiny by force. Only when the tanks rolled out in a show of force did the renegades relent. Through it all, the government continued with the talks and it was this mix of accommodation and firmness that paid off. The events came against the backdrop of widespread frustration in the country, which faces high food prices, a slowing economy, and rampant corruption within the ruling classes — a formidable challenge confronting the fledgling government.

Her administration needs to dismantle certain support systems that by all accounts continue to remain entrenched in the country for terror outfits that resort to depredations in India. For its part, New Delhi needs to ensure that its borders with Bangladesh are secure and that there is no laxity in controlling access along the 4,100-km boundary, only a part of which is fenced. What impact the BDR rebellion will have on the delicately poised civilian government depends on whether, and how swiftly, Sheikh Hasina’s administration is able to redress the genuine grievances of the rank-and-file forces — without upsetting the powerful military leadership — and assert its overall authority. The Army should be commended for the restraint it displayed during the standoff and in the face of the massacre at the BDR headquarters in which the victims were by and large its officers. As Sheikh Hasina exhorted the guards on Thursday, all sections should “give democracy and the economy a chance to develop,” in a country that has seen 19 coup attempts and the killing of two Presidents during military takeovers since it gained independence from Pakistan in 1971.

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