Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Despotic Desperation: Bangladesh's Rapid 'Assassination' Battalion

Worse, have we even thought even for once, that for every 'terrorist' killed in a 'crossfire', there are probably a hundred alive out there, who have the sophistication, skill and accuracy to shoot and kill only their 'leader' in the dark of night, with indigenously developed weapons that are inherently inaccurate but deadly? If we are talking about anybody being 'elite' here, and if the RAB stories are to be believed as 100% kosher, we have to face the prospect of deadly 'elite' criminals on the loose, and RAB is surely no match for them.

Despotic Desperation: Bangladesh's Rapid 'Assassination' Battalion

Estimating performances of the one-year old Bangladesh police commando Rapid Action Battalion or RAB, any rational analyst will have to move beyond the realms of the hard job of security and law enforcement and focus on the ongoing battle in the public and political domain about 'morals', unending smart talks, as also a healthy dosage of 'street knowledge'.


The Bangladesh Nationalist Party, BNP, who were swept into power in 2001, on the promise of tackling the deteriorating law and order situation is under a spate of 'crossfire' aimed by the Media, Opposition and Human Rights activists in the country. 'Straight shooting' by thinking sections of the society has resulted in 'aimless' reactions from movers and shakers behind the RAB phenomenon, bordering not only on arrogance, but that of despotic desperation, and which sends some very ominous signals.

While the government claims 'the overall law and order situation has improved' since the induction of RAB, the situation on the ground and on the human rights front, or more that of civility and plain decency is unfortunately entering a phase where red flags are being raised, and one the BNP has to contend with in the days ahead, specially in the run-up to polls 2006.

For the moment the government has the upper hand in this sordid Ping-Pong of who "criminals" are, as opposed to the why
"human rights activists in Bangladesh never complain when policemen are killed"
a phrase used in gay abandon by the tough talking State Minister for Home Affairs, Lutfuzzaman Babar.


It rightfully begets a counter question:
"Why do we need you Mr. Minister or the RAB if the objective is to 'kill' and NOT prosecute criminals".
Surely if a dossier of 'criminals' is circulated together with a well drafted 'Wanted Dead or Alive' warrant, the spectre of violent criminals in Bangladesh can be uprooted overnight, with the suffering public at large 'doing the needful', without the malevolence of a trigger happy police commando masquerading as an 'Elite Force' at huge expenses to the exchequer.


To elaborate, in context of Bangladesh's criminality and the RAB, quite a few terminology's needs to be sorted out at the outset:


1. The word is 'Shontraash' meaning terror, together with 'Shontraashee' or terrorists, and those not in the loop may easily be misled into visualizing heavily armed 'Al-Qaeda-ish' men with stockpiles of sophisticated weapons at their disposal, openly defying the law, and setting upon one carnage after the other.

The term in reality represents a blatant misnomer, for who these highly over blown 'terrorist' are, are no more then men from the poorest shanties and slums in the country, who start as petty thieves, form gangs, then escalate to extortion with fire crackers and crudely made 'pipe-guns' revolvers and pistols in their arsenal, and there is no looking back after that. What happens next is predictable and not peculiar to our region. Politicians recruit them for purpose of bomb attacks, assassinations and other acts of violence to enforce their mandate and no party as such is immune from this accusation, least the BNP.

2. The invention of Bangladesh's press, the word is 'Godfather' (no Bengalee translations available) and a grave insult to the imagination of the late Mario Puzo (1920-1999)!

These are individuals who 'finance' these so-called 'shontrashee's' and by that, let us not be fooled into believing that they hide behind 'fortified doors in well guarded villas' such as seen in Bollywood or Hollywood movies! Far from it, they are well known politicians whose tentacle reaches the highest echelons of the government at any given time, and no real 'hard cash' as such exchange hands in the bargain.

All that is done is allow these 'criminals' to have a free reign by asking law enforcers to 'look the other way', when robberies, extortion's and murders are committed, when 'opponents of the state' are wiped out by '3 Star' or '5 Star' gangs of organized state-backed Mafia syndicates. In the murky world it is always a battle for the turf, and who rules it have often been decided in Bangladesh's history by a combine of policemen, intelligence agencies and killers propped up to serve immediate exigencies. All too often criminals are 'eliminated' whenever they have served their 'useful purpose', or have grown powerful enough to threaten the status quo.

Revenues for 'shontrashee's' nonetheless flows from smuggling primarily in the banned cough syrup 'Phensydyl' (Codeine phosphate - used as a narcotic substance), in a network that stretches from the borders with India (where it is legal) and heroin, to all major truck and bus stops, sea and riverine ports, to railways stations in Bangladesh, and distribution channels are decided by powerful politicians. Gold smuggled in through the Dhaka Airport is handled similarly.

The above is only a brief summary on how the political-criminal-law enforcement nexus operates in Bangladesh and probably will do so in a long time to come.

3. The highly abused word is 'Elite Forces' in describing the Rapid Action Battalion. In reality they are no more than men with impeccable records who have been culled from all branches of the Armed Forces, Police, Paramilitary outfits and Coast Guards.

Their 'elitism' if at all, stems from the fact that they receive salaries lot higher than our average policeman, are armed with sophisticated weapons, and have a undeclared 'license to kill' which, while the government, Home Ministry and the RAB flatly deny, scrutiny of reports on extra-judicial killings and resultant public statements made by Ministers of the BNP eulogizing their 'achievements' props the forces to dangerous territory. Any future government with integrity can, and will use these statements as 'hard evidence' for criminal prosecution.

Let us however pause and give the 'devil its due'.

Ask the 'man on the street' and he will tell you that what the RAB is doing is 'perfectly okay and needs to be done'. RAB's ability to literally 'hunt down' some of the worst known public offenders who have remained elusive, comes hand in hand with a noticeable change in many neighborhood where goons have either fled or have been picked up. However the question of what may happen when RAB pulls out is discussed in hushed tones. Clearly deploying RAB is a palliative and no long-term strategies worth our notice have been spelled out to preclude the public fear of criminals.

RAB has so far not been used for 'political purpose' as often berated by the Opposition, other then when one or more 'terrorist' of the Islami Shibir - a 'sometimes common enemy' to both the position and the Opposition are killed? One will thus have to wait and see how they behave ahead of the elections and how many more 'shontrashee's' they would be able to nab or kill in 'crossfire's', when surely the Opposition will recruit more of these petty criminals to put pressure for the 'ouster' of the government, as much as the BNP will maneuver in similar manners to 'thwart them'.

4. The term is 'Crossfire' heavily laden with arrogance that is the composition of the 'know all', 'my way or the highway' power drunk men within the BNP folds.

The 'stories' planted for public consumption's are lackluster, repetitive and betrays any good intentions that the RAB may have been created for, other than to invoke and play upon the public imagination of 'rule by fear as the key', and the fear is that of torture and death at the hand of RAB, a 'monster' created at the expense of the peoples vulnerability.

Where the BNP fails as much as it tries the Goebellian trick of repeating a lie many times over till it becomes or is considered the TRUTH, is in the infantile statements by its leaders, the most remarkable of none less than the Law Minister Barrister Maudud Ahmed when he takes a populist overtone by stating publicly:
"The human rights of 140 million people is greater than that of a few 'criminals'"


The word 'criminals' having being discussed in some length already, what fails many analysts is the bull-headedness of the government description of events, when only a few well-intentioned questions can expose the lies perpetrated.

Bulleted and read between the line, the 'Crossfire Death Gazette' notification without variations is as follows:

  • RAB picks up a 'wanted terrorist' who has 'murdered several times' - enough justification.
  • RAB takes him for interrogation at one of its many bash-up stations.
  • The arrested 'terrorist' directs them to his hideout during an arms recovery operation.
  • The 'terrorist accomplices' laying in wait, shoots dead their 'leader'.
  • No RAB men are killed or wounded and only rusty country made weapons and shotgun cartridges are recovered.

This is in short what the Government wants us to believe is a 'crossfire' or an 'encounter'. Fair enough.

If the above is true, RAB with all its 'elitist' trappings is the biggest failure in Bangladesh's law enforcement history. It proves with the million (or is it billions, with the newly commissioned APC and the helicopter-wing coming in shortly?) being spent on it, other than its placid and boring media cells, it evidently has the lousiest intelligence apparatus to go with it, even though it owns dedicated telecomm towers, and video-conferencing facilities which apparently links all 7 battalions commanders with the Home Ministry for a 'gup-shup' before a 'kill' is made?

What a lot of observers and security experts find ludicrous is how is it that the 'terrorist' leader's accomplices get a wind of RAB coming their way, and then proceed to meticulously lay a well-planned ambush ready and waiting for the 'elite forces' when they reach there?

How is it that RAB with access to all the sophisticated weapons (some say they are also equipped with night vision goggles) seized in the Chittagong arms haul of April 2004, evidently fires many shots, sometimes for hours, on the 'terrorist accomplices' without ever killing or capturing a single? The gap in these stories also shows that despite the much-flouted 'popular support' they enjoy, no member of the public comes forward to encircle and apprehend these criminals when they attack the RAB.

Worse, have we even thought even for once, that for every 'terrorist' killed in a 'crossfire', there are probably a hundred alive out there, who have the sophistication, skill and accuracy to shoot and kill only their 'leader' in the dark of night, with indigenously developed weapons that are inherently inaccurate but deadly? If we are talking about anybody being 'elite' here, and if the RAB stories are to be believed as 100% kosher, we have to face the prospect of deadly 'elite' criminals on the loose, and RAB is surely no match for them.

Having said than, none has failed to note that RAB has been totally ineffective in locating, arresting or even 'crossfire-ing' any members of the banned 'Islamic terrorist' groups in Bangla Bhai's Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh, JMJB - or the Jamaat-Ul-Mujahideen. While the government belatedly maintains that it was not a crackdown aimed at 'fundamentalists' per se - but a law and order situation, it is all the more reason that RAB should have single handedly and effectively countered their menace.

The normal conjecture of the BNP that the 'presence of RAB' is good enough to deter crime was blown to smithereens when 'terrorist' carried out bomb attacks during a Valentine Day concert in Dhaka University, and all we witnessed in the media is their menacing counter-moves with badly tied bandanas, AK-47's and cheap eye shades (at night?), limited to 'elite' sweeping and cleaning of the debris after the incident! RAB's intelligence has failed thus far to arrest any one linked to that attack.

Adding to Bangladesh's woes is the Opposition Awami League who simply cannot take a strong stand on extra-judicial killings, human rights or Special Forces, when its 'checkered past' is fraught with the creation of a similar high-handed force in the Rakkhi Bahini of the 70's to further their political agenda.

In the end it is Bangladesh that stands to suffer, and long before this controversy sees the end of a dark tunnel there are several observations that we should make.

  • If the BNP government fails in the next election, will the RAB be dissolved? If yes, who should be held guilty for the huge expenditure in creating this force. when evidently they have been nothing but a failure?
  • Will the BNP pass a Bill of Immunity for all the extra-judicial killings caused by the RAB ahead of polls 2006, as it did for the Army in Operation Clean Heart of 2003? If yes, how does the Armed Forces of Bangladesh handle the fact that some of its best men on deputation to RAB have committed the worse 'corruption' imaginable, indulge in murder - which no one, not even God is willing to forgive? How will the forces adjust with men who have been made to murder civilians, without causing severe strains and compromising its chain of command?
To conclude, if one has to take RAB at face value, the over bearing truth is, BNP will have to dissolve the forces and work hard to make the Police a lot more proactive and efficient. Importantly they will also have to cut them off access to criminals at the pain of death.

Politicians being who they are, if allowed to go unchecked, its historical nexus with criminals will result in situations where organised Mafia's will emerge to seriously challenge the status quo, and the public fed up with the system will be left with no option but create vigilantes forces, where a spark will create enough justification for a civil-war to ignite, without any of us knowing who is shooting whom.

'Crossfire' and what it means will thus become apparent to all, including the RAB.

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