Sunday, August 2, 2009

Dropping the Ball.

Human Rights Watch often makes a big deal of the authoritarian tendencies of South Asian democracies. In "Ignoring Executions and Torture" (subtitled: Impunity for Bangladesh’s Security Forces), a 76-page report published in May 2009, the watchdog makes only a passing reference to the BDR mutiny three months before.

"However, there is credible evidence that several members of the country’s border security force, the Bangladesh Rifles, were tortured to death by the army following their detention as suspects in an apparent mutiny that took place in February 2009 and left more than 70 people dead."

Ignoring the jibe at the Bangladeshi government ("an apparent mutiny"). The Human Rights Watch has been uncharacteristically silent on the subject of these tortures, as over this weekend the 35th death of a BDR jawan was recorded.

However, the context presented by the Daily Star contains two notable items: 1.) the deceased was not accused in the mutiny case and 2.) his colleague noted that the jawan was complaining of chest pains that morning. In this instance, torture on the part of the army is probably not the cause.

An earlier death did sound a bit strange, another "chest pain" victim was said to have bore "several red marks." However, the article did not explicitly state that the Army was involved. The article also indicated, up to that point, four jawans had committed suicide, seven died of heart attacks, and nine of "other diseases" (Daily Star).

Yet the HRW has not issued a statement since May 2009. It may be that the organization is faced with a dilemma. The narrative of an authoritarian state's organs working in concert to oppress the common people breaks down somewhat when it is not oppressing its people - but its own security services.

Whatever the case, the deaths of each jawan needs to be investigated, particularly those that perished under mysterious circumstances.

Moreover, the Bangladesh Rifles should be reformed. The Army should no longer provide officers for the organization, pay should be improved to the greatest extent possible (perhaps with a redistribution of funding following the demobilization of the Army brigade that was recently recalled from the CHT), and the link between the BDR and the Ministry of Home Affairs should be strengthened.

Finally, a perspective shift needs to occur. The BDR, as the BBC points out, has never mutinied. The Army cannot claim to be such a stalwart back of democracy. General Ziaur Rahman (husband of current Opposition leader Khaleda Zia, BNP) and General Hussain Muhammad Ershad (MP, Jatiya Party) both attained the Presidency of Bangladesh through a military coup. Finally, the Caretaker Government, in power from 2007 to Dec 2008, had the backing of General Moeen U Ahmed, who retired in mid-June 2009 (New Nation).

Bangladesh, the U.S., UK, and Australia should support the reformation of the Bangladesh Rifles and they should ensure that the jawans are treated with the respect, dignity, and honor deserving of Bangladesh's "first line of defense."

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