NEW DELHI // Barely two months after democracy returned to Bangladesh following a prolonged period of political instability, the country faces another crisis after its border security guards mutinied and went on a killing spree in their headquarters in Dhaka. Border guards from the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) - believed to be disgruntled about low pay and ill treatment at the hands of senior officers - openly revolted against their superiors on Wednesday for close to 33 hours, killing 74 army officials, in some cases even family members, and about 20 civilians.
Reports have emerged about the discovery of mass graves and about 70 other army officers are believed to still be missing. Yesterday the nation mourned the bloodshed as a mass namaz-i-janaza - or Islamic funeral - was held for nearly 50 army officers killed during the mutiny, including Major Gen Shakil Ahmed, the director general of the BDR. The government has said that 1,000 BDR mutineers are wanted and will be tried for manslaughter. The hunt for them continued yesterday.
"This was a human catastrophe," said Gen Muhammed Ibrahim, a retired army general from the Bangladesh army. "In this country, not unfamiliar with killings, this episode was mind boggling." The country's media also condemned the mutiny. "What transpired at the Bangladesh Rifles headquarters on February 25 was not a mutiny. It was murder plain and simple," Syed Badrul Ahsan, a columnist, wrote in The Daily Star.
"It was a brutal assault on the army, on officers in whose hands rested the capacity for military professionalism. In the larger sense, [this episode] was the incapacitation of a whole nation." The BDR is one of the world's oldest and most experienced paramilitary forces. It was established in 1795, initially as the Ramgarh Local Battalion under the auspices of the British empire, and since then, over the course of several wars, earned itself a reputation as a gallant fighting force. The BDR was at the forefront of Bangladesh's liberation war in 1971.
As the country comes to grips with this recent tragedy, questions are being raised by shocked countrymen about what could have BDR guards to rebel so suddenly and with such violence. Gen Ibrahim believes there was more to the mutiny than disaffection over low wages ill-treatment. "This wasn't a mutiny by an entire organisation. It was just a handful who picked up arms, possibly under the guidance of a larger force," he said.
Ayesha Kabir, the editor of Probe, an English-language Bangladeshi weeklynewspaper, was shocked by the callousness with which the BDR soldiers went about killing their comrades. The operation did not appear to be a spontaneous outburst, Ms Kabir said, suggesting there were forces at work behind the scenes. "Low pay and corruption within BDR ranks alone does not justify taking up arms. These are issues that have plagued several Bangladeshi organisations," she said.
"It was all very well planned, well executed. It appeared premeditated." The mutiny occurred just two months after Bangladeshis voted in a new government, following a long period of political turbulence and two years of rule by a military-backed caretaker government. The Awami League, led by Sheikh Hasina Wajed, clinched more than a two-thirds majority in the Bangladeshi parliament, trouncing the Bangladesh Nationalist Party of her arch-rival Khaleda Zia.
Several conspiracy theories have emerged in Bangladesh as to who was behind the mutiny, but it is far from clear who the real perpetrator might be, if indeed there was underhanded involvement. Sheikh Hasina has sought the help of US Federal Bureau of Investigation to investigate the killings. A formal request to this effect was made yesterday to Richard Boucher, US assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian Affairs. Sheikh Hasina has also approached Britain's Scotland Yard to investigate the case.
Imtiaz Ahmed, a professor in the international affairs department at the University of Dhaka, said he believes the intent of the killings was clear: to destabilise the country. The Dec 29 parliamentary elections, monitored by 1,500 foreign and 200,000 local observers, were feted the world over as free and fair, unlike many previous elections, Prof Ahmed said. The caretaker government revolutionised the elections process, drawing up a computerised list of 81 million registered voters for this election, and purging 11m fake voters from the rolls.
"Bangladesh has found some semblance of stability after years of turmoil. Not many will be happy about that. Bangladesh has many enemies - both within and without," Prof Ahmed said. Certainly the episode has led to an exchange of barbs, with the opposition accusing the Sheikh Hasina-led government of mismanaging the mutiny and of being "too soft" on the mutineers. But there was one upside to this tragic episode, according to Prof Ahmed: "The army and the newly elected political establishment, who have for long had an acrimonious relationship, worked together to quell the mutiny together."