by Subir Bhaumik (from Calcutta)*
The Bangladesh Army, has been deployed to maintain law and order during the 7th January parliament polls, despite most of its top commanders seeking to avoid nationwide deployment to avoid allegations of helping the Government of holding what many describe as a ‘sham election’. Seven of the ten division commanders of Bangladesh army and two senior lieutenant generals had pitched against nationwide deployment, a top Bangladesh intelligence source said.
Due to this within-the-force reservations, the scheduled date of Army deployment for elections was shifted from 28th Dec to 3rd January, a top military commander said. “We were ready but our seniors were having second thoughts,” the commander said on condition of strict anonymity. He said the Awami League government, worried over possible poll-time violence, effected a comprehensive military reshuffle late December, appointing Lt Gen Waker-uz-Zaman as Chief of General Staff in place of the outgoing Lt Gen Ataul Hassan Sarwar Hakim.
Lt Gen Waker, considered a PM Sheikh Hasina loyalist, hails from her ancestral Gopalgunj and has served in the Prime Minister’s Office as Principal Staff Officer of its Armed Forces Division. “Waker’s appointment as CGS was an effort by the Awami League to get the military leadership to agree to nationwide polltime deployment,” said senior commanders privy to recent discussions on the current situation.
Another senior intelligence official told this writer the army commanders are still not reconciled to comprehensive nationwide deployment and would just prefer to keep military units ready to help civil authorities in areas where violence might specifically erupt. He said violence by supporters of the Islamist coalition boycotting the polls was still a lurking threat interspersed with possible terrorist actions besides the usual clashes between contestants which has already claimed a few lives.
Sukhoranjan Dasgupta, author of a well acclaimed book on 1975 Bangladesh coup, says the army may be fearing the kind of US sanctions slapped on seven senior police and paramilitary officials in 2021. “That may be the cause of reluctance to be seen as a regime prop in an election which the West has already written off as less than inclusive and downright unfair,” he said. “Not only sanctions or visa restrictions but at stake is the Bangladesh army’s UN peacekeeping profile which has grown over the years,” said Dasgupta. “Any significant slash in that might cause much disquiet in the army which its commanders can ill afford and there are fears that the US and its Western allies may try to do it. If violence erupts, the army may have to use much force and that may impact on its professional image. It does not want to be seen as a regime prop at par with the police and the paramilitary forces who are seen as an armed extension of the ruling party,” he said.
Currently Bangladesh is the largest contributor in the UN peacekeeping missions, fulfilling several responsibilities. 6089 Bangladesh Army, Navy and Air Force personnel are currently deployed in 11 ongoing UN peacekeeping operations in 5 Countries. Within that more than 4900 personnel from Bangladesh Army are now deployed in various contingents or as Staff Officers/Military Observers in 13 peacekeeping missions. Bangladesh Navy has its ships and water crafts deployed in UNMISS (South Sudan). The Air Force has its helicopters and fixed wing aircraft in MONUSCO (DR Congo) and MINUSTAH (Haiti).
A good number of officers from Bangladesh Armed Forces are working in UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (UNDPKO) as well. “The UN peacekeeping operations not only provide soldiers and officers opportunity to make decent money but are seen as boost for career growth in an army which is not operationally deployed in combat on borders or internal security situations like the Indian Army,” said former Intelligence Bureau official Benu Ghosh, who has covered Bangladesh for long years.
Unlike in most functional democracies, Bangladesh is going into the January 7 polls with a prorogued and not a dissolved Parliament which gives ruling party Ministers and MPs scope to influence the poll process. “That could be worrying the Bangladesh army which is not unwilling to shoulder national security responsibilities but surely not willing to be seen as partisan,” said a former Bangladesh army lieutenant General.
Many in Bangladesh are also worried about strong Western reaction even if Awami League returns to power, after the conviction of Nobel peace laureate Muhammad Yunus who has been found guilty of violating Bangladesh’s labour laws in a trial decried by his supporters as politically motivated. The 83-year-old, credited with lifting millions out of poverty with his microfinance bank, Grameen, has earned the enmity of Sheikh Hasina, the longtime prime minister, who has accused him of “sucking blood” from poor people. Hasina’s administration has become increasingly ruthless in its crackdown on political dissent. The Prime Minister has made several scathing verbal attacks against Yunus, who won the peace prize in 2006 and was once seen as a political rival.
The Bangladesh army wants to avoid getting caught up in the Country’s bitterly polarised politics, having come a long way from the fractious wranglings between senior commanders and the disruptive mutinies following the 1975 coup that led to the assassination of founding father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman with almost his whole family. Only his two daughters – now PM Hasina and sister Rehana – survived.
The army survived the scars of the 2009 mutiny in the border guard force Bangladesh Rifles when scores of army officers were killed by angry troopers and was shaped into a professional force by a very competent and soldier friendly army chief General Iqbal Karim Bhuiyan. The current chief General Shafiuddin is an erudite soldier who prioritises professionalism over partisanship unlike his predecessor Gen Aziz Ahmed who was target of a damaging 2021 Al Jazeera investigation titled “All The Prime Minister’s Men” pointing to his links to his gangster brothers who once provide physical security to then Opposition leader Hasina.
“Gone are the days when the army would be suspected for staging possible 1975 coups or even 1/11 type political control through a civilian front. Now Bangladesh army is a professional force conscious of its global image that helps its handle serious UN peacekeeping responsibilities, which is why its leadership cannot ignore within-the-force concerns over loss of professionalism. Its counter-terrorism performance has been brilliant but it does not want to be tainted by allegations of partisanship,” said former Indian defence intelligence deputy chief Maj-Gen Gaganjit Singh. Others who follow Bangladesh army point to how many officers recruited during the time of the 2001-06 BNP-JAMAAT coalition government have ascended the military hierarchy over the years and are not comfortable with attempted politicisation by the ruling Awami League.
On the cover photo, army personnel check vehicles at key points in Dhaka to maintain law and order ahead of the general election ©Sk Hasan Ali/Shutterstock.com
* Subir Bhaumik is a former BBC and Reuters correspondent and author of well acclaimed books on South Asian conflicts