(For related story see [nSP503017])
By Anis Ahmed
DHAKA, Feb 26 (Reuters) - A mutiny by paramilitary troops over pay and command issues has dashed hopes Bangladesh’s new government would quickly stabilise the South Asian nation, which has a long history of political turmoil.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina took office last month after a widely praised democratic election ended two years of rule by a military-backed interim authority.
Political analysts and the foreign countries that provide much needed aid to the impoverished country of more than 140 million say it needs a period of relative calm to attract foreign investment and enable various development programmes to work.
Following are some questions and answers about the mutiny and Bangladesh’s political situation.
WHO IS BEHIND THE MUTINY AND WHY?
The mutiny erupted on Wednesday in the Dhaka headquarters of the paramilitary Bangladesh Rifles (BDR), whose primary duty is guarding the country’s borders and who are posted widely across the nation. Officials say the fighting on Wednesday was largely among BDR elements themselves. Around 50 people were killed, including some civilians.
Although the government reached a deal with the Dhaka units that initially appeared to be holding on Thursday, gunfire broke out in more than a dozen other towns from disgruntled BDR forces, and then started again in the Dhaka headquarters.
The mutineers want better pay and benefits and a command structure drawn from their own ranks rather than the army, as is now the case. They are not known to be demanding political changes.
WHAT ARE THE IMMEDIATE CHALLENGES TO THE GOVERNMENT?
If the government cannot quickly end the mutiny it will appear weak and could see other elements of the military step in — as they often have in Bangladesh’s turbulent history — to bring order, ending the hope that Hasina’s election had cemented the return of democracy.
But if the government caves to the mutineers’ demands, that will set a precedent for others within and outside the security forces to use violence to achieve their aims.
Bangladesh’s political parties have often resorted to mass protests and violence, and the government needs a united military to ensure such tactics do not get out of hand.
Both sustained unrest and military intervention would be unwelcome for investors and donor countries, and could ruin hopes for a stable period of economic growth in a country where some 40 percent of the populace is below the poverty line.
IS THIS PRIME MINISTER HASINA’S ONLY PROBLEM?
An opposition alliance led by former prime minister Begum Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) asked for more front row parliamentary seats and a deputy speaker position, boycotting parliament over the issue.
It agreed to end the boycott after being assured of better seating soon, but political analysts fear it could come up with other demands and take to the streets if they are not met.
Even before the mutiny there was some deterioration of law and order after emergency rule was lifted just before the elections. Police say around 20 people have been killed and dozens injured since the December polls, mostly in clashes between supporters of Hasina’s Awami League and Khaleda’s BNP.
WHAT ARE THE GOVERNMENT’S SUCCESSES?
Hasina’s government has been widely applauded for its initial success in bringing down food and other commodity prices, and reducing diesel and fertiliser prices to help farmers, the mainstay of the country’s agrarian economy.
Hasina has also been praised for picking a cabinet of mostly young ministers not tainted by allegations of corruption.
HOW ARE THE MARKETS AND ECONOMY BEHAVING?
Prices at the country’s two bourses rose immediately after Hasina’s election win, but investors had been largely apathetic since. On Wednesday and Thursday, as news of the mutiny hit, shares dropped more than 1 percent but the currency was little changed.
The central bank says economic growth in the current fiscal year to June 2009 is likely to miss its 6.5 percent target, only matching last year’s 6.2 percent expansion, mainly due to the global financial crisis. Political upheaval could push it down further, economists say. (Additional reporting by Ruma Paul; Writing by Anis Ahmed and Jerry Norton; Editing by Dean Yates)