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25 February, 2010. USA
Exactly one year ago today, a group of violent soldiers belonging to Bangladesh border security force called BDR revolted, started murdering their officers, occupied a part of capital Dhaka and held hundreds of military officers, general soldiers and civilians hostage. During this time of occupation of nearly two days, the marauding soldiers committed one of the worst massacres in the history of Bangladesh. During these two days, they searched and killed 57 seven senior officers of Bangladesh Armed forces trapped inside the compound.
During this occupation, rather than a bold decisive response against the soldiers in killing spree, the one-month old government of Awami League opted to negotiate with the mutineers, thus indirectly giving those soldiers enough time to hunt and kill all the military officers trapped inside occupied Pilkhana campus and commit an array of other crimes including loot, arson, rape etc.
Immediately after the incident, considering the sensitivity of the issue or out of political indecisiveness, while the main opposition party refrained from being overtly critical of governments stand, the media gave the government a free ride by not critically discussing government handling of the mutiny.
The media spin that was most widely used during the immediate aftermath was that by sacrificing 57 senior army officers, government prevented an even bigger civlian casualty in the heart of Dhaka. This logic is based on a hypothetical scenerio that a group of paramilitary soldiers without heavy weapons will fight a fierce artillery gunfight and war with a combined force of the army and the air force and thus would endanger the safety of residents living in nearby areas.
Although government’s decision got a free ride at the time of the incidence, it is imperative that we discuss the decision in a critical point of view. This kind of discussion is very important in formulating a national strategy in any such problem in future.
First basic flaw in the civilian casualty spin is the hypothetical nature of the consequences. It is very difficult to believe that a group of BDR soldiers will be able to fight such a fierce war with armed forces. This sort of situation is not unprecedented in Bangladesh. Since independence there are instances where similar occupation/ hostage situation in the heart of Dhaka or other parts of the country were dealt with decisive military counter offensives. Examples can be cited are 1977 occupation of Dhaka Airport at Tejgaon, 1994 occupation of Ansar HQ in Khilgaon, 1977 revolt in Bogra cantonment.
Second logic was that it was a hostage situation and government had no option but to give in to the demands of the killers. Examples of Pakistan Lal Mosque, Aircraft hijacking, and lately Taj hotel etc were shown. But one has to understand that Pilkhana is not an aircraft or a mosque or a hotel. It is a part of BD, double the size of Vatican city. It has two graduate level colleges, three schools, several mosques, botanical garden with rose/ orchid garden, paddy fields, markets, shops, zoo with the walled boundary. In addition there are residential quarter, lush green fields and sports complex. It was not a hostage situation, it was occupation of a part of Bangladesh. A war was declared. A soldier was shot and killed on 25th morning and another soldier was wounded who later died. Civilians were also shot at indiscriminately and killed.
Although heavily armed military units were deployed within 30 minutes of the first shot at Pilkhana, the forces were kept idle and later was withdrawn. While supreme commander and the army chief is expected to be in secure war room in Army HQ, our army chief was seen sitting all day at the unsecured civilian residence of the PM that was also withing firing distance from Pilkhana.
The rest of the story is more pathetic. Mysteriously, after two days of permissive killing, all the mutineers fled the campus under cover of darkness. Frantic SOS calls from the brightest officers stopped one after one.
Two days later when mas graves, charred bodies were being discovered, most of the killers were out of reach with an unknown amount of weapons and ammunition.
In the coming years, there will be more discussion on handling of Pilkhana massacre. This would look like a big failure of PM and will keep haunting her.
When PM Hasina’s father was being surrounded by the killers, his frantic phone calls did not bring any help from the Army high command or paramilitary Rakhkhi bahini. This has always been an issue of pain for Sheikh Hasina. But when a similar SOS came to her, although her initial gut feeling supported sending in army, she later failed. A 15th August style massacre was replicated under her watch. Children of Major General Shakil or Colonel Mujib lost both of their parents and hundreds of others lost either their parents, husbands, brothers, sister, sons or daughters. Even teen age maid/ helping boys were also killed.
The reason of this command failure from civilian and military leadership was not PM Hasina’s Hasina sole failure. There was inherent problem in her advisers. In Pilkhana type situation, it was the job of the military chief to set up command center, device a strategy, design specific plans and present the PM with the defence/military perspective in dealing with such scenario. In this regard, the person who failed most miserably is Army Chief. Post 1/11 role of this Army Chief created an uneasy relationship between civilian leadership and army chief. PM could not trust army chief. Plus govt was new. It was the job of Chief of Army Staff to advise and convince PM for prompt action and present her the strategy and the plans. But this chief’s post 1/11 activities handicapped his ability to perform his job with authority. This COS had no moral or legal right to remain as Army chief after his failed coup of 1/11. In ideal world, there must not be any lack of trust between the head of the government and the Army chief. If that develops, any patriotic army chief, who cares more for his forces and the country than his own job, should resign. COS Moeen U Ahmed was so eager to keep his own job, he totally failed in his job to defend the country as well as protect his officers. He failed his army as well as the nation.
We must learn from our experience of 25th February. As a nation we must know what we will do if Myanmar send 500 mercenary to occupy Cox’sbazaar, or JMB takes over Bholarhat Upazilla and impose strict Islamic law or Maldives send troops to capture Mongla port? Would we send the local MP with white flag?
We always talk about the spirit of 1971. On 25th March night of 1971, EPR jawans/officers were attacked in a similar way in the same garrison in Pilkhana. Those soldiers did not raise white flag citing neighborhood civilian. As a war was declared, EPR jawans of Pilkhana fought back.This is the spirit of 1971. A war was imposed on us on 25th Feb 2009. We raised white flag without fighting. This was not in line with spirit of 1971. May be our Supreme court Justice Mr ABM Khairul Haq, citing ‘71 er chetona’ as the principle of of constitution, would write another 400 page verdict someday declaring governments BDR handling was illegal.
Jokes aside, seriously speaking, if we have to send local MPs with white flags to deal with occupation and mutiny and make army retreat with their dead soldiers, Why we build and keep the army then?
A battle was fought on 25th February 2009. We failed to respond appropriately, thus losing 57 of our brightest military officers.
It is a shame. And it was a command failure of the civilian and military leadership.
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Rumi Ahmed is a Bangladeshi blogger from United Sates.