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Analysis
Last Updated: 05/03/2010
Mutiny and Media in Bangladesh
Suriya Urmi

Suriya Urmi analyzes the 2009 mutiny of Bangladeshi border guards (BDR) against army officers. This article specifically focuses on the media´s role, as BDR soldiers successfully deceived public opinion before the atrocities were discovered.


Introduction:

The Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) is one of the eldest organizations in the Indian sub-continent, which has a long history of 213 years[1]. Its primary duty is to patrol and ensure the security of the 4,427 km long border; moreover, the BDR also plays a significant role in chasing smugglers, human traffickers and tracking the movement of transnational insurgents.[2] The day before the attack, 24 February 2009, members of the BDR were observing the annual ‘BDR Week,’ which was inaugurated by the Prime Minister Seikh Hasina. Due to that occasion, army officers from different BDR outposts around the country came to the headquarters to participate in the festivities. Strict security measures were taken to ensure the security of the prime minister and other very important state personnel. In the midst of strict security and festivity, the mutineers killed a number of officers and threw their bodies in canals, sewerage lines, man-holes and buried them in mass graves:

Bodies of two senior officers were disposed inside a manhole. Two bodies were recovered from Kamrangir Char area and bodies of seven other officers were recovered from the mouth of the sluice gate, at the sewage line adjacent to the embankment. A total of 53 bodies of officers and others were recovered from inside Pilkhana, most of them from the mass graves dug by the mutineers. Two bodies recovered still have not been identified[3].

Class Interest & Relative Deprivation: Sources of Revolt:

One of the important reasons behind this catastrophe can be linked with class interest; as a group of soldiers revolted due to class based-frustrations. As stated by R.J. Rumel:

The force transforming latent class membership into a struggle of classes is class interest. Out of similar class situations, individuals come to act similarly. They develop a mutual dependence, a community; a shared interest interrelated with a common income of profit or of wages. From this common interest classes are formed, and for Marx, individuals form classes to the extent that their interests engage them in a struggle with the opposite class[4].

Before of the revolt, the rebels were agitated and frustrated around some issues; generally, officers from the Bangladesh Army were placed in higher posts in BDR, and for a long time BDR soldiers were against this system. The soldiers demanded appointments of their own officers to these posts. Further allegations against army officers included appointing only Army personnel in UN missions, depriving the soldiers from being sent. BDR soldiers also mentioned corruption in the administration as sources of their grievances. From the beginning, the soldiers expressed their agitations about these issues through different electronic media. They also campaigned their demands from headquarters through a loud speaker in an effort to attract public and media attention to support their causes. Besides class interest, the idea of relative deprivation is also very apparent to describe the insurrection of BDR soldiers.

Feelings of relative deprivation were strong among the soldiers which arose from the perceived deprivation from unfulfilled basic needs. Their basic needs were disrupted by low salaries, poor ration allowances and difficulty in getting leave; these factors frequently mentioned by the soldiers as sources of their frustration.

Conflict Escalation:

The situation was already inflamed due to different deprivations and frustrations. According to different newspaper reports, the soldiers tried to express their grievances with different political parties before the national election, held in December, 2008. However, the group failed to generate a political response and became more restless. In this context, the masterminds started to organize different secret meetings in the adjacent neighborhood of the headquarters. According to the National Probe Report, in those meetings,

They also planned to hold army officers, including the director general of BDR, as hostages in the annual meeting named as ‘Darbar’ on February 25. To implement the plan they decided to loot the armory and take control of different important instillations including different entrances to the BDR headquarters[5].

Soldiers demanded to raise their different issues in front of the Prime Minister on the first day of the annual ceremony, but the Director General of BDR, Major General Shakil Ahmed, refused to do so, which fueled the final action of the soldiers. At the beginning of the second day’s meeting, the soldiers started the so called ‘rebellion’.

Community Polarization:


When two individuals or groups come into heavy conflict with each other, it is often hard for other community members to remain neutral. They tend to support or join one side or the other, a phenomenon called community polarization[6].

The existence of community polarization among the BDR soldiers can be explained by the fact that very few masterminds knew the actual plan of killing officers. Common soldiers thought that masterminds would take a stand in the second day´s meeting; however, they did not have any idea of the heinous plan. When they refused to take part in killing, they were threatened to be gunned down. The armed rebels started the mutiny by killing the Director General first;

Information received from different sources show that most of the army officers were killed by 11 am on February 25. Of the 57 army officers, 52 were killed in Darbar Hall and adjoining areas, 5 others were killed elsewhere inside the Pilkhana. Nine BDR members were killed during the mutiny. Though no specific information is available regarding the death of the other eight BDR men, it is assumed that they were killed in cross fires when they obstructed mutineers. Besides, an army soldier and four civilians were killed and about 30 others were injured[7].

Entrapment:

Entrapment is a process in which a party, pursuing a goal over a period of time, expends more of its time, energy and money, or other resources than seems justifiable by external standards[8].

From the beginning of the mutiny, the government took different steps for negotiation, but failed due to the entrapment among the rebels. Repeatedly, the rebels urged the government to give an announcement, meeting their demands and granting general amnesty. A two hour long discussions was held between the Prime Minister and a 14-member rebel team at noon; thus, the rebels agreed to surrender their arms. They also promised to release all hostages. On the basis of the resolution meeting with soldiers, the Prime Minister announced general amnesty, but failed to create the expected results. When the rebels returned back to the headquarters, other remaining rebels started to disagree with them and refused to lay down their arms. The soldiers were making different demands at different times and even though several ministers were there to negotiate the situation, they failed to create a solution. Later it became clear that the rebels lingered the surrendering process to dodge mass graves, hide dead bodies, finish looting and flee from the headquarters by taking advantage of the darkness of the night.

De-Escalation:
Prime Minister Seikh Hasina delivered a speech to the rebels at noon on February 26th through the state television and radio and gave final warning to lay down arms. She also mentioned the preparation of a military attack in the neighborhood of the headquarters. She said that if the soldiers did not lay down their arms within the deadline, she would take a very crude decision against them. De-escalation began after her speech and the rebels lost all hope to continue their position. At 5:50 p.m. and onwards, the rebels started to surrender their arms to the Home of Minister Sahara Khuatun. The following morning, the police and the army entered the headquarters, took full control of Pilkhana and started searching for missing army officers.

Non-Violent Direct Action as a Conflict Resolution Approach:

In order to quell the rebels, Seikh Hasina, Prime Minister of Bangladesh, emphasized non-violent direct action. She formed a committee to settle the problem through negotiation and sent a number of responsible persons to expedite the process. Although intense pressure was being placed on the Prime Minister from different corners of the state to quell the cataclysm through military operation, she was firmly determined to solve the problem through mediation and negotiation. As a number of officers and family members supposedly remained inside, and the rebels lied to the nation that they were safe, the military operation would have risked the lives of these hostages. The number of heavy weapons inside was also another consideration not to conduct any military operation. In addition, the number and location of hostages was not known to the government, which also discouraged the military action. Besides, the location of the headquarters is in the Dhanmondi area, which has a very beautiful neighborhood with thousands of high-rise residential buildings and shopping centers. The military operation could have created more casualties in the neighborhood and demolished infrastructure.

The National Probe Report on the BDR mutiny explained this non-violent conflict resolution approach in the following way:

Alongside, preparations were also taken for an army raid if necessary. But the government was not interested to conduct it. Because, they were not completely aware of the situation inside Pilkhana, the number of mutineers, the heavy weapons inside, or the exact location of the hostages. On one hand, there was the risk of heavy casualty of civilian lives and property in an armed attack inside the densely populated Pilkhana area. On the other hand, there was also a huge risk of the mutineers causing massive loss to the residents of the houses and other installations around Pilkhana. In such a situation, a civil war like situation would have been created in the country. Any army attack to check the rebellion could endanger the internal security of Bangladesh[9].

The Role of the Media:

A subaltern uprising. That is how private TV channels had reported it, and how it had generally been perceived on 25 February when BDR (Bangladesh Rifles) soldiers – border security forces, additionally entrusted with anti-smuggling operations – rebelled at the Pilkhana headquarters in Dhaka city[10].

The old cliché remains true for the role of the media in the BDR mutiny; the media impacts conflict and conflict affects the media. The role of the Bangladeshi media was highly criticized during and after the mutiny, to date. The coverage focused only on the impact of media over conflict. According to the criticism, reporters interviewed the rebels and the rebels took that opportunity to deliver their message to the nation; moreover, the rebels utilized coverage as an opportunity to spread catastrophe in other outposts of BDR around Bangladesh. The interview with the rebels was found to be instrumental for shaping favorable public opinion and demolishing the image of army officers. The National Probe Report on the BDR mutiny criticized the media’s role and identified it as negative:

From the start of the incident, private TV channels spread the news of the mutiny at home and abroad through live telecasts. In doing so, they gave preference to the commercial aspects of the situation over the national security. Where different intelligence agencies, the army and the government itself could not get details form inside Pilkhana, mutineers in Dhaka and outside of Dhaka were able to get detailed news regarding the position of the army and other on goings inside Pilkhana, thanks to the media. In general, the media encouraged the mutineers by publicising the news about the mutiny, and talk shows which created a sentiment against the government and the army among the people. From the start of the BDR rebellion, it was seen that the media’s uncontrolled, irresponsible and biased transmission, and the easy availability of contact over mobile phones caused tension in BDR units outside Dhaka[11].

Television channels and newspapers disclosed footage and photographs of dead bodies, which created a huge impact on common people. This type of coverage brought up discussion concerning media ethics; what to disclose and what to restrict and how to have a bi-focal mind to understand what the probable consequences of any disclosure may be. The media interviewed the family members, especially wives of officers, while they freed hostages coming out from the headquarters. These interviewees were distressed after a long hostage, worried about their family member´s condition, reluctant to show their faces and covered their faces with clothes. Further, the humanity of the hostages was also neglected for the sake of the scoop, as several reporters asked the victims if the rebels misbehaved with them.

Actually, the television channels were transmitting real-time phenomena to inform the public; from which the soldiers took advantage to propagate their ideas and persuade public opinion. Through frequent news bulletins, phone interviews and continuous scrolls, television channels tried to inform people about the gradual and latest development of the incident. The mutiny manifested the vulnerability of the media and organizations to be affected by the conflict, as there was no other source of information concerning what happened inside the headquarters, except the rebels. The reality of that day was so incredible that no army spokesman was available to be interviewed, which gave the idea that television channels were biased towards mutineers. Although the situation totally endangered journalists’ lives, brave Bangladeshi journalists ignored the indiscriminate shootings by the rebels and tried their best to give the latest and most updated information as much as possible. Due to haphazard firing, the neighborhood became no man’s land and a number of passers-by lost their lives. However, journalists remained in that area and risked their lives for their duty which should be appreciated; however, nobody cared about this.

In Bangladesh, televised talk-shows are unbelievably popular, different guests from civil society are invited to discuss different topical issues and express their opinions. On 25 February 2009, different television channels organized talk-shows on the BDR disorder where different guests expressed an almost supportive opinion of the rebels. These talk shows played a significant role in shaping public opinion; furthermore, the broadcasts proved the impact of conflict over the media. As the rebels lied about the real catastrophe and claimed that all officers were safe and kept as hostages, there was no other source to check their statements; the media, civil society, government and nation as a whole were all deceived.

When some bodies of deceased officers started to be found in a canal on 26 February 2009, television channels immediately started to focus their attention on the rescue activities and predicted the huge loss of lives. Newspapers also played the same role as the television channels; firstly, the media was supportive towards the rebels, due to the lies. Later, the media revised their position by discovering the truth and assessing the consequences. Another important consideration is that the rebels totally lied to the nation through the media about keeping officers as hostages, when in fact most of them were being killed while others were wounded due to the gunfight and under treatment in the hospital inside the headquarters. Reporters frequently asked the rebels about the condition of the officers and their family members and were answered with lies; however, these questions proved the responsible attitudes of the television reporters.

Bangladeshi media showed extreme gender sensitivity in this incident; none of the media outlets reported the sexual harassment and rape of women by the mutineers. The media exhibited significant solidarity amongst themselves not to expose this issue; which would have made the survivors’ lives more difficult. Although it came out later by an eye-witnesses and relatives of survivors, the media remained silent in this respect. This can be another consideration for understanding the media’s responsibility and judging their roles more objectively.

Social networking sites; i.e, twitter, facebook, blogs and more, played significant roles in this mutiny; several bloggers and webhosters posted pictures, reports and comments about this incident. As Prime Minter Seikh Hasina was in disagreement with the Bangladesh Army to quell the rebellion through a military attack, army officers became agitated against her. The officers thought that as the Prime Minister refused to attend the dinner at the headquarters on the eve of BDR week, she had some ideas that this mutiny would happen. Seikh Hasina met with agitated army officers and spoke with them in an off-camera session. But some army officers recorded that conversation and posted the footage on a video sharing site, YouTube. Those audio clips were embarrassing for the Prime Minister, as army officers exchanged hot words with her. In this context, the government blocked YouTube in Bangladesh for a while, which eventually demolished the freedom of speech in this age of information.

Bangladesh has a long and bloody history of democratic struggle, and has always disliked any military intervention in governing the country. Moreover, the freedom of speech and media mean a lot for the people of this country. Bangladeshi media enjoyed freedom since 1991, but this freedom was disrupted in 2006 under the military rule which continued for two years. The military regime had a special envy against media industries and was disturbing freedom of speech in several ways. After the 2008 election, the media started to exercise their freedom again. In this pretext, the media and the common people were already unhappy with the Bangladesh Army. The BDR mutiny happened in the midst of this situation, and the prevailing socio-political context exerted significant influence in media coverage and public opinion. This complex network of different stimuli on the role of the media in shaping public opinion about the BDR mutiny needs to be researched more.

The real-time broadcasts can be seen in a constructive way, as television footage can help to find the mutineers. The masked mutineers can be identified by examining their voices. The video footage can become an important tool to examine the vulnerability of the situations in which reporters performed their duties. After the mutiny, different media released interviews with the survivors and deceased officers’ wives, where they tried to attract state attention to provide necessary support for those families. On the contrary, the media displayed significant ignorance to cover deceased civilians’ families. This ignorance also proved the bourgeoisie character of media industries, where powerful social classes get more attention than the powerless.

Conclusion:
After two-years of military rule, a new democratic government was elected in Bangladesh in 2008. The people were dreaming about the democratization in all aspects of the society and the state. But at that moment, the mutiny by BDR soldiers had destroyed the dream and expectations for a stable and peaceful Bangladesh. The government must ensure the exemplary punishment of the rebels, reconstruct the BDR, properly investigate and rehabilitate the family members of the deceased officers. However, the human rights of the detained soldiers should not be violated. As media reports already disclosed a number of unusual deaths of detained soldiers alleged to be linked with torture during interrogation, violations of human rights of detainees becomes a more anxious issue. The transparency and accountability in the trial procedure should be maintained. The frequently mentioned sources of deprivation and frustration by the soldiers should be kept in mind and necessary steps should be taken to solve these issues in order to avoid the same incident in future. Proper compensation and support should be provided to the families of deceased civilians as well as deceased officers.

Before drawing any conclusion against the media’s role, the complexity of the event, vulnerability of the situation, access in the event and availability of sources should be kept in mind, otherwise it will create an injustice for media industries. As the society and state expect a very solid and constructive role from the media, the media can restrain themselves from overtly supporting a cause and can take a step back to understand a phenomenon properly. As the media tend to provide scoops in real time and work under intense time pressure and competition, ethics and professionalism remains to be dilemmas in many cases. Significant research needs to be done in order to gain a complete understanding on the role of Bangladeshi media in the BDR mutiny.


[1] Iqbal Khaled Chowdhury “BDR Mutiny: Security Implications for Bangladesh and the

Region”, bipss.org, 2009http://www.bipss.org.bd/BIPSS%20special%20report%20on%20BDR%20mutiny.pdf. , (accessed 12 March 2010)

[2] Ibid.

[3] bangladeshnews.com, “A summary of the National Probe Report on the BDR Mutiny”, bangladeshnews.com http://www.bangladeshnews.com.bd/2009/05/29/a-summary-of-the-national-probe-report-on-the-bdr-mutiny/. (accessed on 10 March 2010)

[4] R. J. Rumel “Understanding Conflict and War”, Vol.3. Conflict in Perspective, Chapter 5,

Marxism, Class Conflict and the Conflict Helix, (Beverly Hills CA: Sage Publications, 1977) http://www.hawaii.edu/powerkills/CIP.CHAP5.HTM (accessed 10 March 2010),

[5] bangladeshnews.com, “A summary of the National Probe Report on the BDR Mutiny”, bangladeshnews.com http://www.bangladeshnews.com.bd/2009/05/29/a-summary-of-the-national-probe-report-on-the-bdr-mutiny/. (accessed on 10 March 2010) p. 2

[6] Dean G. Pruitt et al, Social Conflict: Escalation, Stalemate and Settlement, (New York: McGraw Hill, 2004) p.118.

[7] sacw.net, The BDR Mutiny of Bangladesh and Question of Democratization, Institute of Peace & Conflict Studies, http://www.sacw.net/article756.html (accessed 10 March 2010)

[8] Dean G. Pruitt et al. Social Conflict: Escalation, Stalemate and Settlement (New York: McGraw Hill, 2004) p.118.

[9] bangladeshnews.com, “A summary of the National Probe Report on the BDR Mutiny”, bangladeshnews.com http://www.bangladeshnews.com.bd/2009/05/29/a-summary-of-the-national-probe-report-on-the-bdr-mutiny/. (accessed on 10 March 2010)

[10] sacw.net, The BDR Mutiny of Bangladesh and Question of Democratization, Institute of Peace & Conflict Studies, http://www.sacw.net/article756.html (accessed 10 March 2010)

[11] bangladeshnews.com, “A summary of the National Probe Report on the BDR Mutiny”, bangladeshnews.com http://www.bangladeshnews.com.bd/2009/05/29/a-summary-of-the-national-probe-report-on-the-bdr-mutiny/. (accessed on 10 March 2010)


Ms. Suriya Begum has been teaching in the Department of Mass Communication and Journalism at the University of Dhaka, Bangladesh since 2007. She completed her undergraduate and first Master´s in Mass Communication and Journalism from the same department. In addition, Ms. Begum is currently a candidate for her second Master´s in Media, Peace and Conflict Studies in the Department of Peace and Conflict Studies at the University for Peace, Costa Rica. Ms. Suriya Begum has conducted a handsome amount of research works to date. Out of her research works, ‘Election Violence on the Minorities in Bangladesh’, ‘Problems and Prospects of Local Journalism in Bangladesh’, ‘Human Rights Violations in Bangladesh and its Portrayal in Newspapers’ are especially significant. She also translated Article 19’s Training Manual for Public Officials on freedom of expression into Bengali. One of her working areas is researching the role of the media in society; besides this, she is also interested in conducting research on the role of the media in conflicts. Another passion is to understand the gender lens in different media outlets and contents.
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