72 Hours in Dhaka: Witnessing a Coup Close-Up

By Farish A. Noor ~ February 27th, 2009. Filed under: Syndicated Columns.

It was undoubtedly one of the most surreal experiences in my life. Having flown all the way to Dhaka, Bangladesh, for a conference on peace strategies for South Asia, I found myself delivering the keynote address in the first panel of the following day. As the panel proceeded, the blackberries and handphones of the panelists and those present began to light up. Our host interupted the presentation by stating: “Now some of you may be receiving these smses and notices that there is some trouble at the barracks of the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) six miles away. There is no need to panic, the situation is under control. Everything is fine.”

Not so. One by one the Western ambassadors began to take their leave, and we found ourselves in the ackward situation of proceeding with the conference with a quarter of the participants missing.

By mid-day the facts began to spill through the news: Something had gone seriously wrong at the headquarters of the BDR that is located close to Dhaka University, scene of some of the worst bloodshed during the War of Partition that led to the split between West and East Pakistan, and the emergence of Bangladesh.

A note about the BDR is in order here: The Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) is a paramilitary force that numbers around 67,000 troops; all of whom are meant to serve as secondary back-up forces supporting the Bangladeshi regular army in times of war. Despite its lack of heavy ordinance (it has no tanks or Armoured Personnel Carriers, APCs), the troops of the BDR is well armed with regular weapons and light mortars. For years the BDR has been the frontline presence guarding the border with India; and it is well dispersed across the country, based at 450 camps in even the most remote provinces of Bangladesh. Most important of all is the fact that the BDR is officered by colonels and generals of the regular army, and not the BDR itself, in an effort to keep the BDR in check and under army control.

The regular Bangladeshi army, on the other hand, numbers around 110,000-120,000 troops and are better armed with artillery, transport, armour and rapid action forces as expected of any regular troop body. The army’s role in politics, however, has exposed it to strong cricitism from civil society forces and NGOs that have accused senior army officers of corruption and abuse of power. The media and the civilian political parties have no liking for the army either thanks to their crackdown on political parties and fundamental press freedoms.

The initial news we received was this: that a mutiny had broken out and that five senior commanders had been killed along with a number of civilians in a shoot-out. The news coverage was surreal as pop music was played on the radio and TV (always a bad sign of trouble) and little hard information was getting through. Ironically the Bangladeshi press were at the scene and recording interviews with the mutineers themselves, who aired their complaints to the general public via the commercial TV and radio channels. Til mignight, no decisive action had been taken.

By next day, however, the picture that began to emerge proved to be a grisly one: Dead bodies began to appear in the sewers and it was clear that more than five senior officers had been killed.

Information is sketchy at the moment, but what appears to have happened is this: During the annual durbar congregation of the BDR, where troops go on parade, medals and awards are given out and unit commanders are brought to the capital for their annual meet; a group of mutineers broke into the officers conference chamber and began shooting. As information leaked out, the number of deaths rose to 40, 50 and then 50-plus generals and senior officers. At present (27 Feb 2009) it appears that 130 colonels, generals and other senior officers were kidnapped and brutally murdered - many of whom were tortured and bayonetted to death at close range - along with their families.

This was no mere mutiny: The mutineers had leaflets, bandanas (in orange), banners and were calling on the regular troops of the army to join them. What has happened has been the total elimination - in one night - of the entire chain of command of the BDR, including senior officers like Major-General Shakil (Director of BDR), Brig-Gen Bari (Deputy DG of BDR), Colonel Anees (Dir of operations), Col. Mujib (Sector commander for Dhaka), Lef-Col. Inayet (Battallion commander, Dhaka) and Col. Gulzar (former head of counter-terrorism operations). The BDR was left entirely leaderless and the government was paralyzed for 24 hours, unable to do anything.

The civilian government of Sheikh Hasina and her Awami party is barely 2 months old, and this was Bangladesh’s latest attempts to restore civilian rule to the country. Looking at what has happened, anti-democratic forces have struck a major blow to the credibility of her government and one only wonders what may happen next as the mutiny spreads to other parts of Bangladesh. Last night, after a long delay of more than a day, regular army troops backed up by tanks finally moved in, crushing the revolt in the most violent terms. Relations between the regular Bangladeshi army and the BDR will now be strained, after the brutal slaying of so many army commanders and their families. Already tension has risen with India due to the fact that the India-Bangladesh border has been undefended for 48 hours.

4 Responses to 72 Hours in Dhaka: Witnessing a Coup Close-Up

  1. Michelle

    As much as I sympathised with the deads, I wouldnt surprise at the uprising. When rank and file are being paid little and treated like dirt while the higher ranks basking in luxury, what do we expect in here? I am not condoning the murder. Something must be done and the way the lower ranks are being treated.

  2. Abdul Haleem

    I have no clue on Bangladesh but I am concerned yet another violence to be witness. Hope that Farish is safe and well.

  3. Zaki

    Dr. Farish,

    We hope and pray that you are safe.

    I was in Khartoum (attending a conference) when John Garang was killed. There were some troubles in the streets but it was quickly brought under control by the Sudanese authority. But looking at the news and pictures from Dhaka, the situation there seems much worse.

    Do update us on your situation and share with us your observation of the crisis.

  4. Democrat

    Hi Farish,

    Very detailed and accurate account, I was there. I hope you managed to return in good health and spirit.

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