Mutiny tests new Bangladesh PM: analysts

27th February 2009, Comments 0 comments

Poverty and corruption challenges will continue to haunt the new Bangladeshi Prime Minister who has successfully put down a deadly mutiny by underpaid border guards.

DHAKA – Bangladesh's Sheikh Hasina has passed the first major test of her premiership in facing down a deadly mutiny by underpaid border guards, but analysts say she must now battle the wider challenges of poverty and corruption.

At least 42 people died and dozens were injured in the capital Dhaka this week when troops from the paramilitary Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) staged a two-day revolt over pay and conditions, targeting army officers.

With more than 100 army officers still missing, officials say they expect the death toll to rise.

Manzoor Hasan, the director of BRAC University's Institute of Governance Studies in Dhaka, told AFP there were a "few worrying hours" where the prime minister, less than two months into her tenure, appeared to be losing control.

"It was a bit of a baptism by fire for her. It was a critical test, but I think in the end she tackled it competently," he said, adding that the attack had taken the country by surprise.

The violence was the first major crisis the prime minister has faced since her landslide election victory in late December, which ended two years of army-backed rule.

Hasan praised Sheikh Hasina, who was previously premier between 1996 and 2001, for her strong leadership during a televised national address on Thursday when she threatened strong action unless the mutinous guards surrendered.

However, he said if she followed through with a promise of general amnesty, it would be a mistake.

"When a disciplined armed force becomes undisciplined, it's a source of great instability. It's up to the prime minister and the government to restore discipline to the BDR quickly and take stern action on those responsible," Hasan said.

"Encouraging impunity is not a good look."

The 70,000-strong BDR's main role is to patrol and secure Bangladesh's 4,000-kilometre (2,500-mile) border with both India and Myanmar.

It also distributes relief during natural disasters and last year handed out subsidised food when inflation spiralled to more than 10 percent.

The average BDR trooper earns about USD 70 (EUR 55, CHF 82)  a month - the equivalent to a very low government clerk and a salary that has long been a source of simmering discontent within the ranks.

The revolt has highlighted the frustrations felt by many in Bangladesh, which suffers from high food prices, a slowing economy and rampant corruption.

Security expert Imtiaz Ahmed, who teaches at Dhaka University, said Sheikh Hasina's strength in resolving the standoff lay in cooperating with the army, with both parties keeping their cool.

"The government is only 51 days old and I don't think they were prepared for such a thing. They will be reflecting on this for future emergencies and preparing to be more efficient with back-ups ready," he said.

Ataur Rahman, political professor at Dhaka University, said the new government had focused all of its attentions on the parliamentary process since coming to power.

This week's events showed the government could not afford to ignore underlying causes of long-term discontent in Bangladesh, especially the twin scourges of poverty and corruption.

"There are so many issues facing this country that it can be daunting for leaders, but they should not forget the issues facing the people."

Bangladesh - one of the poorest countries in the world - has a history of political violence, coups and counter-coups since winning independence from Pakistan in 1971.

Food prices have skyrocketed in the past two years, with the World Bank estimating rising inflation in that time has pushed some four million people in the country of 144 million below the poverty line.

AFP / Expatica

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