Bangladesh army: victims and victimizers
By Rater Zonaki
March 18, 2009
Source: UPI Asia
Hong Kong, China — The bloodshed at the headquarters of the Bangladesh Rifles, who protect the country’s borders, on Feb. 25 and 26 was initially labeled a mutiny. Since then more information has unfolded, and the media have termed it a massacre and a mass assassination. The BDR soldiers killed around 60 army officers, from the rank of captain to major general.
The death toll is reportedly 73, which includes six soldiers of the BDR, three pedestrians, the wife of the director general of the force, and a retired colonel along with his wife. The rest of the victims were officers, and one soldier, of the Bangladesh army. Four officers are still missing since the incident.
Separate civilian, police and army investigations are ongoing, some including experts from the United States and the United Kingdom. At the same time the nation is busy commenting and analyzing the reasons behind the killings. As political parties debate the causes and consequences, measuring the success and failure of the authorities in accordance with their own interests, the government has launched “Operation Rebel Hunt” to catch the culprits.
The public image of the armed forces has been very mixed. Whenever there are floods, cyclones or other devastating natural disasters, the government calls on the army to conduct relief work and engage in disaster management. During such times soldiers and officers are perceived as diligent and brave, helping to restore calm and hope.
The people have applauded the army’s humanitarian efforts for decades, because they have helped the common man. Other than that, as the day-to-day functions of the armed forces are not directly related to the public, people do not see the army at close quarters.
However, many Bangladeshis have experienced the bitter side of the army, which is far different. People have witnessed their crackdowns on political opponents, social activists and human rights defenders and read of their arbitrary arrests, detentions, torture and extrajudicial killings. They have also observed that such offences have not been thoroughly investigated and that the perpetrators have not been brought to justice.
For example, on Oct. 16, 2002, the government of Prime Minister Khaleda Zia deployed the army across the country in the name of "Operation Clean Heart," which continued until Jan. 9, 2003, to crack down on illegal arms and criminals.
During the 86-day crackdown, around 11,200 people were officially arrested and detained in custody; 2,500 people were listed as criminals and about 300 as suspects by the police. Around 2,000 different types of arms and 29,700 rounds of ammunition were recovered. Although more than 50 people died in the custody of the armed forces, their deaths were officially termed as "heart attacks."
In reality, an additional 8,000 people were arrested and detained, and all who were detained were seriously tortured. Who was responsible for such illegal actions, which affected the ordinary people financially, socially and physically? What kind of affinity could people have with the army in the light of their brutal actions?
The past two years under emergency rule have created new records of brutality at the hands of the armed forces, which have illegally arrested, detained and tortured thousands of people. Officers of the Bangladeshi army were the dominant perpetrators in almost all cases.
Allegations of extortion by the army have also surfaced where businessmen and industrialists were kidnapped and ransoms demanded. Such people were allegedly detained on fabricated corruption charges, intimidated and tortured in custody till the ransoms were paid.
Compared to the army, the BDR soldiers are more closely in touch with the public, at least in the cities they protect along the more than 4,000-kilometer-long border, under the leadership of the army.
Still there are corrupt BDR soldiers who allegedly allow smugglers to transport goods in and out of Bangladesh for personal benefit. While the beneficiaries of such illegal trade appreciate the soldiers' “supportive" role, the majority of the common people believe that the BDR protects the territory well.
Following the tragic killings on Feb. 25 and 26, the government immediately announced it would give one million takas (US$14,620) as compensation to each of the families of the army officers that were killed. Yet it completely ignored the civilians that died, for more than a week.
Only after the media reported the slip-up did the authorities announce they would give 200,000 takas (US$2,924) to the families of the civilian victims. Such discrimination, which has prevailed for decades, makes people wonder why civilians are considered less human than the armed forces.
The government must reconsider the fairness of such decisions. The armed forces should also rethink their actions during "Operation Clean Heart” and similar crackdowns, when politicians provided them impunity at the cost of huge grievances to the people.
The army officers should also reflect on their image as brutal giants during the state of emergency. The military should understand and accept that the Parliament has the right and responsibility to discuss such issues openly. They should accept that they are not above the laws of the land.
It is easy to vilify the BDR soldiers for the violence of the February killings. But one must not forget that this force represents at least 67,000 Bangladeshi families. It is important for the nation to look beyond political games and find the truth behind the February massacre.
(Rater Zonaki is the pseudonym of a human rights defender based in Hong Kong, working at the Asian Human Rights Commission. He is a Bangladeshi national who has worked as a journalist and human rights activist in his country for more than a decade, and as editor of publications on human rights and socio-cultural issues.)