Bangladesh Army reluctant on election deployment

7 of the 10 division commanders of Bangladesh army and two senior lieutenant generals have pitched against nationwide deployment

70% of Bangladesh Army division commanders are against its nationwide deployment for the 7 January elections. This image is from December 2023, when the Army was deployed in capital Dhaka to quell protests (photo: IANS)
70% of Bangladesh Army division commanders are against its nationwide deployment for the 7 January elections. This image is from December 2023, when the Army was deployed in capital Dhaka to quell protests (photo: IANS)

Subir Bhaumik

The Bangladesh Army is largely opposed to its nationwide deployment to maintain law and order during the 7 January parliamentary polls.

Most of its top commanders understandably seek to avoid allegations of partisanship while helping to hold an Opposition-less election with a prorogued but not dissolved House.

Out of 10 division commanders of the Bangladesh army, 7 commanders as well as two senior lieutenant generals have pitched against nationwide deployment, a top Bangladesh intelligence source said. 

Due to these reservations within the force, the scheduled date of Army deployment for elections has been shifted from 28 December to 3 January, a top military commander said. He added that his own formation, slated for deployment, has not yet been sent into the field.

"We were ready but our seniors are having second thoughts," the commander said on condition of strict anonymity.

The commander said that the Awami League government, worried over possible poll-time violence, has effected a comprehensive military reshuffle in late December 2023, 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, considered a loyalist of prime minister Sheikh Hasina, hails from her ancestral Gopalgunj and 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 get the military leadership to agree to nationwide polltime deployment," said senior commanders privy to recent discussions on the current situation.

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

The intelligence officer said that violence by supporters of the Islamist coalition boycotting the polls was still a lurking threat, interspersed with possible terrorist action, besides the usual clashes between contestants which has already claimed a few lives last year in 2023.

Sukhoranjan Dasgupta, author of an acclaimed book on the 1975 Bangladesh coup, says the army may also be fearful of the kind of US sanctions that were slapped on seven senior police and paramilitary officials in 2021.

"That may be the cause of reluctance to be seen as a regime prop in an election which the West has already written off as less than inclusive," Dasgupta added, "Not only sanctions or visa restrictions; also at stake is the Bangladesh army's UN peacekeeping profile, which has grown over the years."

"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," he said, which is "downright unfair".

"If violence erupts, the army may have to use much force and that may impact its professional image anyway," Dasgupta added. "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." 

Currently Bangladesh is one of the world's largest contributors to the UN peacekeeping missions, fulfilling several responsibilities. A total of 6,089 Bangladesh Army, Navy and Air Force personnel are currently deployed in 11 ongoing UN peacekeeping operations in 5 countries. Of that number, more than 4,900 personnel from the Bangladesh Army are now deployed in various contingents or as staff officers/military observers on one of 13 peacekeeping missions.

The Bangladesh Navy has its ships and water crafts deployed in the UNMISS (United Nation Mission in South Sudan). The Air Force has its helicopters and fixed wing aircraft in MONUSCO (Mission de l'Organisation des Nations Unies pour la stabilisation en République démocratique du Congo, or the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and MINUSTAH (United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti).

A good number of officers from the Bangladesh Armed Forces are also working in the UNDPKO (UN Department of Peace Operations).

"The UN peacekeeping operations not only provide soldiers and officers an 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 7 January polls with a prorogued and not a dissolved Parliament, which gives ruling party ministers and MPs scope 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—Hasina, now prime minister, and her sister Rehana—survived. 

As for the Army, it survived the scars of the 2009 mutiny in the border guard force, the Bangladesh Rifles, when scores of army officers were killed by angry troopers.

The Bangladesh Army has since been 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 prioritises professionalism over partisanship, unlike his predecessor Gen Aziz Ahmed, who was target of a damaging 2021 Al Jazeera investigation titled 'All the Prime Minister's Men'. The report pointed to his links to his gangster brothers, who once provided physical security to then-opposition leader Hasina. 

"Gone are the days when the army would be suspected for staging possible 1975 coups or even 1/11-type political control through a civilian front," said former Indian defence intelligence deputy chief Maj-Gen Gaganjit Singh. "Now the Bangladesh Army is a professional force, conscious of its global image that helps it handle serious UN peacekeeping responsibilities—which is why its leadership cannot ignore within-the-force concerns over loss of professionalism. Its counter-terrorism performance has been brilliant, but it does not want to be tainted by allegations of partisanship."

Others who follow the Bangladesh Army point to the number of officers recruited during the years of the 2001–06 BNP–JAMAAT coalition government who have ascended the military hierarchy over the years, and are not comfortable with attempted politicisation by the ruling Awami League either.  

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

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