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Bangladesh Army The End Of An Era

The Background

During one of the most critical periods in Bangladesh’s history (January 2007 to January 2015), two officers from the same course (3rd BMA Short; date of commission 29 November 1976) were successively Chief of Army Staff of Bangladesh Army. Their terms were preceded by massive and violent political unrests followed by the army backed two-year Emergency. The Emergency (11 January 2007 to December 2008) from the very beginning was controversial, based on flimsy legal ground, corrupt and unpopular. By the end of 2008 it had run out of steam and had to concede general elections. 

In the December 2008 parliamentary elections the Awami League (AL) won an absolute majority and formed the government in January 2009. Barely a month later on 25 February 2009 the Bangladesh Rifles mutinied, brutally murdering 57 Army officers. This event put further strains on an already destabilized country. A few months after on 16 June 2009, General Abdul Mubin was appointed as the Chief of Army Staff. He retired on 25 June 2012 to be followed by General Iqbal Karim Bhuiyan who retired on 25 June 2015. During much of the time in the period 2013-14 the country was plagued by civil conflict which by March 2014 had reached a stage of near civil-war, if one is to lend any credence to local and foreign media.

The Army by mid-2009 had reached its doldrums in everything that made an Army. Indiscipline was rife, morale was low, distrust prevailed between various echelons of command and corruption was rife. The AL government needed to take measures to restore the Army to some semblance of a military force and it fell on the two Chiefs, Generals Mubin and Bhuiyan to get the Army on its feet. What these two Chiefs did, lead to radical changes in the Army: its organization, its training, its outlook and its purpose. Such a radical change had only happened between the period 1971 to 1976. An era had ended with 2009. What the new era will bring is still awaited.

A Personal Note

I was commissioned with 3rd BMA, so generals Mubin and Bhuiyan are my coursemates. I only have a passing acquaintance with General Mubin. We never served in one place and I don't remember having met him in my 25 years of service in the Army. It was only after I had retired and he was a Major General that I saw him again briefly.  On the other hand I consider General Bhuiyan to be a friend. We studied in the same school, residing in the same dorm and house for a number of years. We served together in various places but most memorably in the Staff College. We had much in common including our general outlook/philosophy towards life and a passion for books and arguments on “professional matters”.

I interviewed both generals Mubin and Bhuiyan about their terms of office. General Bhuiyan spoke openly and precisely about the measures he undertook. General Mubin refused to answer my questions and even refused to state his reason for such a refusal but actions speak louder than words and we shall analyze those in subsequent paragraphs.

General Abdul Mubin

General Mubin is a quiet, unassuming gentleman with a cool, even temper; nobody ever heard him raise his voice, utter an oath or hurl abuse at anyone. There is nothing remarkable or exceptional in him except for the fact that he rose steadily in responsibility and rank until the Emergency when he was promoted to a Lieutenant General holding the politically powerful office of the Principal Staff Officer of the Armed Forces Division. Soon after the BDR mutiny the AL government appointed him as the CAS.

What General Mubin did during his 3-year tenure was nothing spectacular or very apparent; he followed the conventional path but his actions had a calming effect on the frayed nerves and sinews of an army severely traumatized by the brutality of the BDR mutiny. His measures could be discussed under the following heads:

(1) Visits: He frequently visited units and formations speaking to officers and men, emphasizing on discipline, training, leadership, customs and traditions of the Army. Never once did he speak out openly about the BDR mutiny or the many social and political conflicts plaguing the country thus sparing everyone a constant reminder of unpleasant events.

Gen Mubeen Shaking Hands With Gen Karim After Handing Over Command. (Both Of Them Are From Same Course)

(2) Tackling Indiscipline: He took a liberal and human approach to dealing with indiscipline. He might have been of the view that time would resolve problems faster and better than repression. This was to have negative consequences during the tenure of the succeeding chief. But for the time being it conveyed the impression that the Army’s Command was not an instrument of harsh repression, thereby restoring confidence and trust in the Army’s command structure.

(3) Training: His constant visits and emphasis on training kept people busy with the essentials and their minds and bodies away from brooding over past events. Training also reestablished bonds of trust and comradeship between officers and other ranks.

General Mubin’s approach to solving an extraordinary problem through conventional means did not make a better Army in any way but it held together an army which, many thought, was on the verge of breaking up; the spectre of 1975-76 was on most peoples’ minds. He stabilized the Army, thus directly contributing to political stability as well as laying the foundations of the various structural changes which General Bhuiyan put into motion later.

General Iqbal Karim Bhuiyan

General Bhuiyan’s appointment came as a surprise to almost everyone both within and outside the Army not because he was unsuitable for the post but because it was difficult to visualize two chiefs from the same course. It was a politically wise decision. Both the Army and politics were for the time being stable but any instability in the Army at this time could send the country into a political and social tail-spin. To avoid such consequences, structural changes were necessary in the Army; General Bhuiyan was the exact man for the job.

General Bhuiyan is a brilliant man – as a student and as an army officer. Like all such people he had a complex personality, with a few strikingly contradictory traits: He was ambitious without being greedy for power and wealth; he would tolerate no opposition to his will, yet he was a very amiable person; he had no charisma, yet he possessed a commanding presence. He was also a soldier’s soldier spending a great deal of time and effort in improving not only the professional standards of his under-command but also their living standards. So, when he was appointed the Chief of Army Staff expectations were high for radical changes. 

Gen Karim With Indian Army Chief

When he became the Chief, General Bhuiyan (as per his statement) set himself the following aims:

(1)        Non-interference in the politics of the Country.

(2)        Upgrading the educational standard of all ranks – officers and other ranks.

(3)        An emphasis on leadership at different levels of command with special attention being paid to moral and ethical training and education of all ranks.

(4)        Upgrading the living standard (food, housing, and health-care) of all ranks, with special attention being paid at reducing the large discrimination between the entitlement of officers and other ranks.

Fulfillment of these aims called for changes in organization, in training and in attitudes of serving personnel. There were corollaries and consequences to these changes. For example: the bar for promotions to Lieutenant Colonel and above was suddenly raised creating heart-burn and frustrations for a lot of officers. Improvements in housing and medi-care called for large budgetary layouts for massive construction projects which caught the attention and criticism of many, both within and outside the Army.

As these changes were being put afoot, basic problems of indiscipline and corruption continued. For example: a number of officers attempted to murder a politician who they thought was involved in the BDR mutiny; another group of officers led by a Major attempted a coup d’état; a couple of mid-level officers deputed to the RAB murdered seven persons for monetary gain. These incidents which caught the attention of the entire Nation are but striking examples of the deep-rooted malice within the Army, particularly its officers.

Whether General Bhuiyan intended them or not, there were other changes which detracted form the purpose and function for which states raise and maintain armies. These aspects are covered in detail in an article titled “The Changing Role of the Bangladesh Army – 1971 to 2014” published in the Bangladesh Defense Journal issue of March 2014.

General Bhuiyan, when quarried about the above issues, maintained that given the tremendous constraints, only so much can be done within a short tenure of 3 years.

Concluding Remarks

Besides the problem of short 3-year tenure Army Chiefs in all states suffer from political, social and economic constraints. They have to hold themselves accountable and answerable not only to their under commands but to the politicians who run governments and parliaments. In Bangladesh things are even more difficult because the polity itself is unstable.

PM Sheikh Hasina Inaugurating Newly Procured Russian ATGM. Chief Of Staff Gen Karim Standing Beside Her

The changes which General Bhuiyan brought about would not bear fruit immediately but in the medium (5 years) and long (10 years) terms these changes would take effect and an Army will take shape which will be more in tune with the ethos and pathos of a democratic republic and more in tune with the times. Such structural changes ought to have been undertaken when the Nation attained its independence in 1971 but that didn’t happen, sadly, to the detriment of the Nation-state.

Other urgent changes are necessary too. Army laws, regulations and rules are centuries old, meant for a colonial Army, not the Army of an independent, modern and democratic Nation-state but that is a call not so much of soldiers as that of politicians.

The purpose of an army is not to maintain peace or to contribute to the national GDP or to enhance the educational standard of its populace or to run governments. The sole purpose of an army is to fight wars successfully. Changes whatever their nature and scope or however radical they are, are not worth the effort and resources if their single minded focus is not on preparations for successful war-fighting.