The BDR Revolt and Role of Bangladesh Intelligence Agencies

Published on Friday, 27 February 2009

The BDR Revolt and Role of Bangladesh Intelligence Agencies

Dr. Abdul Momen


Today's revolt in the BDR HQ in Dhaka is an eye-opener.  Due to revolt, reportedly 50 lives were lost. Many civilian also died owing to stray bullets. Whatever the causes of the revolt, it is a fact that there has been a serious lapse of intelligence failure and secondly the death of civilians, closure of schools and postponement of exam demands a serious debate on the merits of keeping headquarters of security forces or cantonments inside crowded localities of the nation's capital.

In USA, the forefathers of its independence nearly 230 years ago decided not to allow heavy weapons within the borders of capital i. e. Washington D. C or the District of Columbia.   However, it allowed individual citizen to bear arms for their self protection.   In the case of Bangladesh given its history of coups and counter coups, it may be necessary to forbid heavy weapons within 50 miles radius of the capital city of Dhaka.  The recent BDR revolt and especially killing of innocent civilians and bystanders once again reminded the Bangladeshi nationals to seriously discuss this issue of relocating both the Dhaka cantonment and the BDR HQ away from the city limit.  

If the BDR Headquarters would have been outside Dhaka away from Pilkhana, an overcrowded area of civilian population surrounded by schools and shops, such casualties could be minimized.  Therefore, it may be recommended to relocate BDR HQ away from capital city.

Similarly, there is hardly any rationale to have Army Cantonment within the capital city.  This may be relocated 50 miles away from the capital city to a remote locality.   In that case, prime and expensive lands will be made available for growth and expansion of Dhaka city.   Moreover, fear and tension of revolt within the cantonment causing disruption of normal life would be lessened.

In Dhaka, civilian vehicles are not allowed to go through the cantonment area and such is an additional cause for bumper-to-bumper hour-long traffic jams on the VIP road.  If the Cantonment is relocated away from its current location, such horrendous traffic congestion could be lessened.  Bangladesh Army is a part of Bangladesh society and it desires to improve quality of life of its countrymen.  In spite of this, it is unfortunate that they have not opened up their roads to the general public yet on their own initiative.  Since army fails to open them up on its own, it may be necessary to relocate Dhaka cantonment for the good of the nation.

The BDR Revolt that occurred following Prime Minister's trip to the BDR HQ is mind boggling. If this would happened during Prime Minister's visit, it could have created a national crisis.  Naturally, serious questions could be raised as regards the efficiency of the Bangladesh intelligence agencies.  According to many, the focus of the Bangladesh Intelligence Agencies both the DGFI and the NSI have been basically pivots around finding and codifying information regarding civilian opinion leaders and political leadership.  The rationale for secretly recording phone, fax and mobile calls of politicians, journalists, opinion leaders and talk-show participants in Bangladesh in addition to lawyers and businessmen has been designed with a view to collect information about civilian activities.  Even their everyday activities and mobility are being watched in the name of nation's interest.  Unfortunately, such appears to be uncommon in the area of security forces.  No wonder, Bangladesh Intelligence Agencies miserably failed in protecting its founder President Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman or founder of the BNP party, General Ziaur Rahman.  It even failed to provide intelligence information regarding the terrorist bombing attack of a public rally of Sheikh Hasina on August 21, 2004 in which 23 people were killed including the wife of current President of Bangladesh, Zillur Rahman and nearly 370 were wounded or maimed for life.  It failed to provide intelligence information regarding grenade attacks on the former Finance Minister ASM Kibria or on British High Commissioner Anwar Chowdhury.   It also failed to furnish intelligence information regarding jehadi bombings in 493 towns and cities of Bangladesh simultaneously. 

 In fact, the performance record of Bangladesh Intelligence Agencies till to-date is very poor. It gets an F grade.   The recent BDR revolt is a case in point. 

Bangladesh Intelligence Agencies are mostly headed by military personnel unlike industrialized countries.  Most of the heads of the DGFI and the NSI in Bangladesh have been active duty military officials.  In contrast, most of the heads of U. S. and the British Intelligence Agencies, for example, FBI, CIA, or MI5 (British) are non-military personnel.  

The current FBI Director is Robert Mueller. He has been a lawyer.  The current CIA Chief is Leon Panetta, a former congressman and a head of a Public Policy Institute at the California University.  He was formerly Chief of Staff of President Clinton. 

If we investigate the personal history of the heads of FBI for the last quarter century, one will be surprised that most of the intelligence heads were lawyers or judges.  For example, there has been a total of 7 FBI Directors from February 23, 1978 till to-date of which three were Acting Directors.  All four Directors were lawyers/judges, and among the Acting Directors, two were career intelligence officers and one was an accountant.  William Webster (1978-87), William Sessions (1987-93), Louis Freeh (1993-2001) and Robert Mueller (2001-current) were Directors and all of them were lawyers/judges.  The Acting ones; John Otto (26/5/87-2/11/87) and Floyd Clarke (19/7/93-1/9/93) were special FBI agents, and Thomas Pickard (25/6/01-4/9/01) was a CPA.  

Given the limitations, the performance record of FBI and the CIA that are mostly run by civilian authority is much superior to that our DGFI or the NSI which are mostly headed by active-duty military officials. 

Take the case of the British Intelligence Agencies.  The British Military Intelligence Section 5 known as MI-5 or its agencies like SIS, MI-6, QCHQ or DIS are again mostly headed by civilian officials unlike Bangladesh.  For example, the current head of MI5 is Mr. Jonathan Evans, a career intelligence officer.  Prior to him Baroness Manningham-Buller (2002-07), a former school teacher headed it for 5 years. During 2000-02, Sir Stephen Lander, a PhD in History was its head. Prior to him, Dame Stella Rimington (1992-96), a diplomat's wife headed the British intelligence organization. It may surprise Bangladeshi military leaders that a well known football player, Sir Patrick Walker headed MI-5 from 1988 through 1991.

There is no denying that the Intelligence Agencies of USA and UK are superior to that of Bangladesh.  Admittedly they have more resources and superior information technology vis-à-vis Bangladesh. However, they have also more restrictions as they have to work within many legal limitations and restrictions unlike Bangladesh. Instead of this, their performance record is superior. 

This raises a valid question.  Should we stop appointing active-duty military personnel in the intelligence agencies that mainly focus their attention on political or civil leaderships?  Instead should we follow that of the USA and UK for the greater interest of the country? 

It is a fact that in Bangladesh, two of its Presidents were assassinated not by their political supporters or by any public citizen. They were assassinated by members of active-duty security forces.  It is unfortunate, and it looks odd when in the name of security, a head of the government for example, Sheikh Hasina is kept at a distance from public thus denying her from mingling with her electorates in Bangladesh.  This was true in the case of Khaleda Zia as well.  In addition, it looks odd when security personnel stand next to the head of the government in all public events. This custom must be done away with to improve nation's image both home and abroad.  Remember, such practice is not common in civilized countries like USA, UK, France, Italy, Switzerland, Finland and the like. Remember, their heads of governments in no way, less exposed to security risk.  The custom in USA is that once a person is allowed to enter the premises through checking, he/she is allowed to meet the President freely.  The security forces stay at a distance unlike Bangladesh.  The way the Bangladeshi security forces behave is deplorable. They literally keep the Prime Minister away from the public. It is a disgrace in the name of security.  When the Prime Minister is surrounded by security officers overlooking her shoulder, it lowers our image in the free world.  Such basically shows that the political leadership of Bangladesh is still under military subjugation or control in spite of a free, fair, transparent and credible election.  Under such aggressive security guardianship, it can neither improve its image nor can attract increasing FDI. 


·         Abdul Momen is a professor of economics and business in Boston, USA

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