Since its independence from Pakistan in 1971 with the help of its archenemy India, Bangladesh has faced several military interventions. Hasina’s father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who was the founder of both the Awami League, officially known as the Bangladesh Awami League, and the country, was also killed in a military coup in 1975.
The BNP is currently led by Khaleda Zia, the wife of Ziaur Rahman, who was also assassinated — like Mujibur Rahman — during an unsuccessful military coup in 1981. Zia has been in jail over corruption charges since February and has been disqualified from participating in the elections.
The military has found itself mired in bloody upheavals since the nation’s bloody birth in 1971. The army remembers very well its miserable failure with the most recent experiment in politics from 2007 to 2009. During the period, army-generals-turned-king-makers unsuccessfully sought to banish the battling ladies from politics.
The army’s stint was marked by dismal failures. In the end, the military leaders had to find a face-saving way for a retreat, a move that diminished prospects for future military maneuvers into politics.
We see each coup as the strongest signs of the structural instability of the military – a hypothesis valid as well for all the mutinies, internal fights and desertions which will follow from 1975 to 1981. All revolved around two major issues: the influence of revolutionary ideas on the troops and the opposition between muktijuddha and the repatriated. It is precisely because of these two dimensions, and the factionalism they provoked, that none of the putsches aimed at establishing a military dictatorship, that is to say aimed at guaranteeing the interests of a corporation which did not exist in the first place.
The different revolts that occurred in Bangladesh until 1981 are better understood as survival reflexes, designed to defend one’s own group against others. It was generally felt that if one of these groups dominates the state, then others would be threatened in their fundamental existence. This existential threat perception resulted from the officers’ diverging political trajectories, which implied very different roles for the army itself, and from Mujib’s effort to manipulate and divide the military establishment which prevented it from defining a clear mission for the institution.
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Mutiny Against Corrupt Army Officers
The Bangladesh Rifles revolt was a mutiny staged on 25 and 26 February 2009 in Dhaka by a section of the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR), a paramilitary force mainly tasked with guarding the borders of Bangladesh. The rebelling BDR soldiers took over the BDR headquarters in Pilkhana, killing the BDR Director-General Shakil Ahmed along with 56 other army officers and 17 civilians.
Impunity in Bangladesh was present at the country’s birth. The 1971 war of independence was marked by atrocities on a massive scale committed against civilians, which are yet to be seriously addressed. Those who were initially detained and convicted for some of these abuses were shortly afterwards released. The scale and nature of the security forces’ involvement in human rights abuses has since then varied over time, but the unwillingness of governments to hold these forces to account has been constant.
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Extra-judicial Killings by DGFI
As a result, torture, killings in government custody, and other human rights violations by the police, armed forces, and the government’s various paramilitary groups have become deep rooted problems. In recent years the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and the military intelligence outfit, the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI), have emerged as symbols of abuse and impunity.
RAB, an elite paramilitary force created in 2004 to address public outrage over violent crime, has allegedly been responsible for over 550 killings since it began operations. Human Rights Watch and others have long alleged that many of these deaths, often described as “crossfire killings,” were actually extrajudicial executions of people taken into custody. The police soon adopted these same methods, and several hundred killings have been attributed to the force over the past few years.
Torture of detainees by state officials is routine. Detainees are subjected to severe beatings, sexual violence, electric shocks, having nails hammered into their toes, and being tied to poles and forced to stand for long periods of time. DGFI runs torture centers in the cantonment in Dhaka with purposely fitted rooms for torture. It has medical personnel on stand-by who can administer first aid and revive unconscious victims who can then be subjected to further ill-treatment.
Rape and Torture Against Indigenous Girls
Indigenous women and girls in Bangladesh are increasingly being raped in land-related conflicts, especially in militarized areas. An alarming trend worth reflecting upon on the International Women’s Day 2018.
The Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh have been affected by what has been described as “genocide” or “ethnic cleansing” for many years. In the 1960s and 1970s, thousands were forced off their lands to make way for reservoirs and hydroelectric schemes, a displacement made worse by massacres against the Jumma people (the collective name for all indigenous peoples in the region), and nearly twenty years of conflict against a military dictatorship and also with the democratic government of Bangladesh.
This only ended in 1997 when a peace accord recognized the rights of the Jumma people over their lands. This accord remains largely unimplemented, and the Jumma people are not even acknowledged in the Bangladesh constitution.
Violence, particularly sexual violence, is routinely carried out by settlers and the military alike. The figures make for sickening reading: in 2014 alone 117 indigenous women faced physical and sexual abuse, 57% of these being children. Twenty-one of these women were raped or gang-raped, and seven were killed afterwards.
During the first few weeks of 2015, at least three confirmed rapes were reported within sight of military checkpoints supposed to bring security to the area. These are only the reported incidents; the true figure is likely to be much higher. It is common practice for the police not to report rape, and medical staff are pressured against doing so. No wonder indigenous lawyer, Samari Chakma, calls the Chittagong Hill Tracts a “rapist’s heaven”.
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