Bangladesh Army Reluctant Of Election Deployment – OpEd


The 1,600,000-strong Bangladesh Army is ‘seriously reviewing’ implications  of deployment to maintain law and order in the rundown to and during the 7th January Bangladesh parliament polls.

Its top commanders are worried that the Army may get tainted by allegations of partisanship trying to provide security cover for an Opposition-less election held with a prorogued but not dissolved House, at a time when its improved professional credentials have earned it increasing space in UN peacekeeping operations. 

“Seven of the ten division commanders of Bsnhladesh army  have argued against election  time deployment along with two senior lieutenant-generals ,” a top Bangladesh intelligence official said on conditions of anonymity .

The professional concern explains why the date of Army deployment for elections was shifted from Dec. 28 to January 3, confirmed a top military commander whose formation was earmarked for immediate deployment but is yet to be deployed at the time of writing. 

“We were ready but our bosses are having second thoughts,” said the commander who cannot be identified because he is not authorized to speak to the media.

He said the Awami League government, worried over going into an election with the threat of violence lurking, has gone for 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 is considered a loyalist of PM Sheikh Hasina, hailing from her ancestral Gopalgunj whose father-in-law was Gen Mustafizur Rahman, appointed Army chief by Hasina when she first came to power in 1996. He has served in the Prime Minister’s Office as Principal Staff Officer of its Armed Forces Division. 

“Waker’s appointment as CGS may be seen as  an effort by the Awami League to soften the top echelons of the army to end its reservations about getting deployed,” said the military commander who was privy to recent discussions of top commanders over the current situation.

Another senior intelligence official told this writer the army commanders are still not reconciled to comprehensive nationwide deployment and would prefer to keep military units ready for aid to civil authorities in areas where violence might specifically erupt.

“We anticipate three types of violence — by Opposition BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami activists to disrupt the polls, by Islamist radical groups keen on Awami League’s ouster and between supporters of those contesting elections. The army feels it should have been deployed before violence erupted in late November,” he said, again on conditions of anonymity .

Bangladesh analyst Sukhoranjan Dasgupta thinks the army may be fearing the kind of US sanctions earlier slapped on seven senior officials of police and paramilitary forces if it is seen as a regime prop in an election that the West has already written off as less than inclusive and downright unfair.

“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. 6,089 Bangladesh Army, Navy and Air Force personnel are currently deployed in 11 ongoing UN peacekeeping operations in 5 countries. Within that more than 4,900 personnel from the 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 also working in 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 allows ruling party ministers and MPs 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. 

He said the Bangladesh Army has 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 

It 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 prioritizes professionalism over partisanship unlike his predecessor Gen Aziz Ahmed who was target in 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. 

Subir Bhaumik

Subir Bhaumik is a former BBC and Reuters correspondent and author of books on South Asian conflicts.

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