Fellow blogger Dhaka Shohor was the first person to inform me about it — bhai, what’s happening in Pilkhana (or something to that effect). It was slightly before the midday on 25 February 2009. Within the next hour I had received phone calls, texts and facebook messages. By 2pm Dhaka time, I was in front of a computer. Unheard Voice was live almost incessantly for the next couple of days, with bloggers from three continents continuously updating information as they came in from Dhaka. In nearly a decade of blogging, I have never experienced something more stressfull or taxing on the emotions.
Whether it is two children fighting, or there is a communal riot, or armed men are holding a plane full of passengers hostage, or two countries are amassing tanks on the border, the first thing to do in a crisis situation is to diffuse the tension — that’s what I said in the last post about today’s Bangladesh. This was even more true four years ago. Whoever was at fault on 25 February, whatever was the grievances or failures, whether there was a conspiracy or not, the first and foremost task facing the government was to diffuse the situation.
As I understood the facts about who could reasonably have known what in the real time, I believed the government did a good job in diffusing the situation. Let me explain that in some detail.
This is how I understood matters to be:
1. the mutiny broke in the morning of the 25th, Major General Shaqeel Ahmed and other senior officers were dead very soon, but the government did not know, and crucially, could not have reasonably been expected to know, the full extent of the massacre;
2. the government did not know, and could not have been expected to know, whether this was a sporadic, random event, or part of a broad conspiracy that might have included a coup attempt;
3. the government did not know, and crucially, could not have been expected to know, the size, composition and location of the rebels; and
4. the public mood was decidedly anti-army, and the media and punditry of all types were sympathetic to the BDR rebels.
Given the above, the government decided to diffuse the situation by talking to the rebels, instead of issuing an ultimatum. An ultimatum would have been credible only if the government was willing to ‘pull the trigger’ — given the uncertainties, this was something the government was not willing to do. Given the uncertainties, it seems to be that the government’s approach was the correct one.
Of course, by the 27th, we came to know the true extent of the massacre and it became clear that the public perception of ‘noble, subaltern BDR’ vs ‘greedy, elite army’ — peddled by, among others, Munni Shaha and Nurul Kabir — was simply wrong. Had the government known these, perhaps they would have taken different approaches to diffuse the situation. But, it still seemed that the government could not have known a lot of facts. And given the known unknowns, the government’s decision was still defensible.
And as late as 2011, I did defend it thus.
In the two years since, however, based on conversations with a number of serving and retired army officers, I have changed my views significantly regarding the second and third points. It appears that the details of the rebels’ disorganised nature, their lack of any organised leadership, their state of murderous delirium that inhibits rational defensive posture, the lack of sophisticated weaponry available to them, and their exact locations were all made available by many of the still surviving officers through mobile phones to their superiors by early afternoon.
That is, when the Prime Minister made the crucial decision to meet the rebels, she would have been reasonably expected to know that the rebels were a disorganised bunch that has already killed their commander and other senior officers. Let me stress what she would have been reasonably expected to know. I have no idea what she actually knew.
Further, Bangladesh army is not a stranger to hostage situations involving murderous armed men. Apparently, many officers have experiences with similar situations, albeit involving African militants and civilians, not fellow Bangladeshi soldiers. Given the location-composition-strength-morale of the rebels were known, the army would have been reasonably expected to prepare operational plans to suppress the mutiny. Contrary to the spectre of tanks and heavy weaponry that was peddled at the time, I have been told that any such operation would have involved a commando style raid that many army units have performed in Africa.
In light of the above, it is my current view that the best path available to the government to diffuse the situation would have been for the Prime Minister to make a public speech calling on the rebels to surrender unconditionally or face the consequence, while ordering the army to strike should the rebels not surrender by a certain time.
It is important to understand that had the alternative path been taken, we still probably would have lost several dozen bright officers. Nothing I have heard contradicts the timeline put together by Syeed Ahamed in 2009 — most of the murders took place before anything could have been done.
But the alternative path would still have been a better way to diffuse the tension. By talking to the murderers, the Prime Minister was sending out mixed signals to the rebels. Talks of army reprisals scared other BDR jawans across the country. It might not be widely known, but apparently there was the possibility of a second mutiny in the Baitul Aman camp in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Fortunately for Bangladesh, the commanding officers there (names witheld on request) tackled the situation well, and there was no bloodshed. By talking to the rebels, and allowing the mutiny to linger, the government was actually escalating the situation, not diffusing it.
And when the full extent of the massacre became known, it caused a tremendous uproar in the army. The wound still festers, and may well have contributed to the events of last January.
Given the above, I no longer believe the government pursued the best possible option that it could have reasonably expected to perform. In plain English, I no longer defend the government’s handling of the crisis.
Why did it perform the way it did? Perhaps it was sheer incompetence, or at least inexperience. The minister in charge of the BDR — Tanjim Ahmed — was AWOL. His boss, Sahara Khatun, proved to be utterly incompetent. The Prime Minister did not trust the party veterans like Tofail Ahmed. Perhaps she did not believe the army, fearing it to be the beginning of another coup attempt — the demons of 1975 and all that.
I don’t know. Instead of further speculating, let me leave you with an interesting excerpt (footnote 105) from last year’s International Crisis Group report on Bangladesh.
According to senior military officers close to the decisionmaking process that day, no detailed military operation plan was proposed to the government; allegedly the army, navy and air force chiefs were made to wait an hour before they met with Sheikh Hasina, who prioritised consultations with her cabinet. Crisis Group interview, military officers, Dhaka, January 2012. However, other officers suggested that “assaulting the BDR headquarters” would not necessarily mean using tanks or air power, but rather a commando force specifically to rescue officers who were using their mobile phones to report their situation. Crisis Group interviews, Dhaka, January 2012. An assault with heavy weapons “in the middle of Dhaka would have caused serious insecurity among the people, risked civilian casualties and, politically, could have led to regime change and a possible military takeover”. Crisis Group interview, retired military officer, Dhaka, February 2012.