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Fears Of Instability Haunt Bangladesh After Army Mutiny

  • Abubakar Siddique

Bangladeshi soldiers gather outside the Bangladesh Rifles headquarters in Dhaka on February 25.

Bangladeshi soldiers gather outside the Bangladesh Rifles headquarters in Dhaka on February 25.

Bangladeshi troops searching the site of the mutiny in the capital Dhaka have uncovered a mass grave believed to hold the bodies of some 20 officers killed by mutineers.

Reports say scores of officers from the Bangladesh Rifles guards remain missing after the mutiny by their men, who reportedly harbored a host of bitter grievances, including low pay and a lack of promotion possibilities.

The insurrection by Bangladeshi border guards left at least 60 officers dead before it was finally put down by security forces.

Beyond the initial shock of the violence, the incident has raised concerns about the spread of Islamist militancy in the largely secular Muslim country of 150 million people. Observers suggest Islamist militants could pose the most worrying of threats to stability under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's newly elected, secular government, which rules a country founded in 1971 by a secular nationalist movement demanding separation from Pakistan.

Post-9/11 concerns were raised internationally about the possibility of Bangladesh turning into another South Asian sanctuary for Islamist radicals, such as Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh, a homegrown terrorist group.

Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh was said to have been behind explosions in August 2005 that killed two and injured more than 100 people. Its leader, Siddiq ul-Islam, reportedly trained by Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, was subsequently arrested and executed along with six accomplices in April 2007. In recent years, Islamist militants have also been blamed for murders of senior political leaders, harassment of liberal activists, suicide bombings, and attacks on Western diplomats.

Fragile System?

Nazrul Islam, a senior correspondent for the English-language "New Age" newspaper in Dhaka, tells RFE/RL that the mutiny was not linked to Islamist extremist violence and the rebel soldiers were simply demanding better salaries and improved work conditions.

But with several successful and many failed military coups, the country's fragile political system is prone to armed power grabs.

"I think poverty is the main reason for the instability in our political system," Islam says. "In this part of the world, I think, a state of impunity over the last 38 years has encouraged people to take power by extraconstitutional means."

Islam says Bangladeshi governments have been largely successful in countering the terrorist threat, however. Experts assert that the country's nearly homogenous population (98 percent are ethnic Bengali) and its multifaith heritage (16 percent of the Bangladeshi citizens are Hindus) have prevented its people from drifting toward extremism.

Islam suggests that outsiders should not confuse evident signs of religious piety with militant extremists, who remain a fringe phenomenon.

"Fanaticism is not a big problem as yet in Bangladesh, because the people in the rural areas are very pious but they are not fanatics. People in the urban areas, they are pious but they are not fanatic," Islam says. "A few elements are there -- those who are trying to destabilize the country. And they are pursuing the militancy in the name of Islam. Their numbers are very, very few. And sometimes it is alleged that outside forces try to help them do these things."

Powerful Neighbor

India borders Bangladesh on three sides and the Bay of Bengal is under its naval surveillance.

But in recent years, New Delhi has been building a 4,000-kilometer fence along its border with Dhaka. November's coordinated terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India's financial capital, made the fence a higher political priority.

Islamists in Bangladesh, however, see this as an effort by India toward regional domination.

Mohammad Kamaruzzaman is a senior leader of Jammat-e-Islami Bangladesh -- the country's largest Islamist political party and a key part of the opposition coalition led by former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia. Unlike Hasina, the current premier, Zia is not keen on developing a close relationship with New Dehli.

In a telephone interview with RFE/RL from Dhaka, Kamaruzzaman blamed the Indian media for campaigning against Bangladesh for the last five years. He called the notion that Bangladesh is turning into a fundamentalist state "propaganda."

"The propaganda has been engineered from outside," Kamaruzzaman said. "It is a media campaign against Bangladesh that Bangladesh is becoming a fundamentalist state. It is a conspiracy from those quarters who don’t want Bangladesh to become a developed and self-reliant country -- and by those who are greedy to exploit Bangladesh's natural resources like gas, petroleum, and coal."

Kamaruzzaman's party also runs private hospitals, schools, and credit banks for the poor. He said outside observers should understand that his party, though conservative, "wants to make Bangladesh a welfare state to provide the basic human needs."

"[Indian media] are trying to blame the Islamic and religious parties," Kamaruzzaman said. "[But] the religion-based parties in Bangladesh -- they are playing a very vital role, a very moderate role, a very constitutional role -- to build up a new Bangladesh."

Poverty and geography remain the country's main problems. Bangladesh's low-lying land and coastal location make it an easy target for floods and tropical cyclones.

Political stability will depend on the new government's ability to deliver on promises of "change" to improve governance and boost economic development. Despite the Hasina government's claims of success against Islamist radicals, extremists will find more fertile ground for recruitment should it fail to deliver on its promises.
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