The Trials of Bangladesh

25 November 2009

The Trials of Bangladesh

By Gwynne Dyer

If a Shakespeare should ever arise in Bangladesh, he would have plenty of tragedies around which to weave his history plays. The country is only 38 years old, but the vendettas between the leading families, the murders and plots and coups, have been just as tangled and bloody as the ones in 14th and 15th-century England that gave the great playwright so much of his material. But that kind of history may be coming to an end in Bangladesh.

It’s not quite dead yet. Last February, at least 4,000 soldiers serving in the Bangladesh Rifles, a border defence regiment, mutinied and began killing their officers. Fifty-seven officers and 17 other people were murdered by the mutineers, who dumped their bodies in sewers and an incinerator. The violence spread to military camps all over Bangladesh.

The mutineers said that they were revolting against poor pay, but many people suspected that there was a political motive behind it all. If there was, it failed. The rest of the army remained loyal, tanks surrounded the regiment’s various camps, and the government promised to look into the rebels’ complaints if they surrendered.

That was a lie, of course: they were all arrested. The first nine soldiers went on trial for mutiny before a military court on 24 November and more than 3,500 others will follow in various military cantonments around the country, while several hundred others will be tried before civilian courts for murder, rape and looting.

This is not the kind of blood-spattered Shakespearean ending that Bangladeshis have become much too familiar with. The trials may even answer the question of whether there was a political motive behind the military uprising. But suppose there was. What could it have been?

There has been a second high-profile court case in Bangladesh in the past month. On 19 November the Supreme Court confirmed the death sentences for 12 former military officers who took part in the assassination of Bangladesh’s founding father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, in 1975. The five ex-officers who are actually in custody, and whose final appeal was rejected, now face imminent execution for their crime of 34 years ago.

Few countries had a bloodier birth than Bangladesh. For a decade and a half after the partition of India in 1947, it was just the eastern wing of Pakistan, a country in two parts with a lot of Indian territory between them. But the two parts never got along, and when what is now Bangladesh tried to leave Pakistan in 1971 it got very ugly.

The Pakistan army killed up to three million people in rebel “East Pakistan” before Indian military intervention forced it to withdraw. East Pakistan then became the independent country of Bangladesh, and the country’s nationalist political leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (who had spent the war in jail in West Pakistan) came home to lead it.

Mujib was an autocratic man: by 1975 he had closed down all the opposition papers and declared himself president for life. But he did not deserve what happened to him and his family.

In the early hours of 15 August, 1975, a group of young officers stormed Mujib’s house and killed everybody in it, including his wife, his three sons (one was only nine years old) and his servants. Twenty people in all. Only his two daughters, who were abroad at the time, survived. One of them, Sheikh Hasina, is now the prime minister. (I told you it was Shakespearean.)

The young officers who murdered Mujib were overthrown by a different group within months, and another coup removed that bunch before the end of the year. Eventually power ended up in the hands of General Ziaur Rahman, who was also murdered by fellow officers in 1981. His widow, Khaleda Zia, has been prime minister three times, and still leads the main opposition party.

General Zia was not involved in the murder of Mujib, but he did end up allied to the people who had killed him: officers who detested Mujib’s secularism, and in some cases had helped the Pakistani army slaughter their own people during the independence war. They killed Zia too, in the end, but that does not stop Zia’s widow and Mujib’s daughter from hating each other.

That personal vendetta has virtually paralysed the politics of a country with half the population of the United States. Ever since democracy was restored in Bangladesh in 1990, Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia have alternated in power, each devoting all her time in opposition to sabotaging the other’s initiatives. But now the page may have turned.

The Supreme Court’s confirmation of the death sentences on the ageing conspirators of 1975 may finally enable the country to move past its obsession with those horrific murders. If there was a political motive behind the Bangladesh Rifles mutiny, it was to stop that verdict from being passed, but the insubordination did not spread.

Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League won the last election by a landslide, and the army stayed loyal to the elected government right through the mutiny. The Bangladeshi Shakespeare may be running out of material.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 9 and 14. (“This is…been”; “Mujib…family”; and “The Supreme…spread”)

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.