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March 14, 2009

Bangladeshi Premier Faces a Grim Crucible

By SOMINI SENGUPTA

DHAKA, Bangladesh — Sheikh Hasina survived when gunmen executed her father and extended family late one summer night in 1975. She survived again when assassins hurled 13 grenades at her political rally in 2004, killing two dozen people.

Today, about two months into her tenure as prime minister of this fractious, poor and coup-prone country, she confronts her greatest crucible yet: an unusually savage mutiny by border guards last month that left soldiers buried in mass graves and widened the gulf between her fragile administration and the military.

Altogether, 74 people were killed, mostly army officers in command of the border force.

Two separate investigations are under way to identify those responsible: one by the army, another by Mrs. Hasina’s government. Whether either will yield credible results is unknown. Mrs. Hasina’s fate and the stability of the country depend on the outcome.

In an interview this week, Mrs. Hasina called the mutiny “a big conspiracy” against her agenda to establish a secular democracy in this Muslim-majority nation of 150 million. She struck a note of defiant resolve.

“No one will stop me,” she said. “I will continue.” Then she raised her eyebrows and offered a hint of a smile. “We have to unearth all these conspiracies.”

Mrs. Hasina, 61, has the air of a strict grandmother. She speaks softly. She wears traditional Bengali saris that cover her head. Her eyes are a cool gray.

She said she was keen to hunt down and punish those responsible for the mutiny. She suggested that several factions unhappy with her agenda could have been responsible, including Islamist militants, whom she has vowed to crush.

“There are many elements,” she said in her first extensive interview since the Feb. 25 siege. “These terrorist groups are very much active. This incident gives us a lesson. It can happen again.”

After two years of army-backed rule in the country, Mrs. Hasina’s won a resounding majority of the parliamentary seats in elections last December, after campaigning on a slate of provocative promises. She said she would root out Islamist guerillas, put on trial those suspected of conspiring against Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan in 1971, nurture friendly relations with India and stop anti-Indian insurgents from using Bangladeshi soil to launch attacks against New Delhi.

The election drew a turnout of around 80 percent and was cited as among the most credible and least violent here in recent years.

Then came the massacre.

On the last Wednesday in February, at the headquarters of the border patrol, known as the Bangladesh Rifles, a guard pointed his weapon at the force commander. Some commotion ensued, according to investigators, and then other guards stormed the hall. Gunfire could be heard blocks away. Hundreds of civilians who lived, worked and went to school inside the compound were trapped.

Mrs. Hasina allowed the army to take position around the compound but not to storm it. She negotiated with the mutineers for the next 36 hours, first directly and then through emissaries. She offered a general amnesty and promised to address the rebels’ grievances. On the second day, when they refused to surrender, she threatened to send in tanks. By the time the siege ended, more than 6,000 border guards had escaped, and an unknown quantity of weapons had been taken from the armory.

As the bodies of the dead soldiers were discovered, the horrific nature of the violence became evident. Some army officers had been shot at close range and then stabbed repeatedly with bayonets. Eyes were gouged out. A stack of 38 bodies was found in a mass grave.

No sooner did the siege end than the arguments began. Today, the bitter points of contention are whether the army commanders were killed before or after negotiations began (the time of death has not yet been established for all the victims), whether Mrs. Hasina pressed to know the scale of the killings before offering amnesty, and, most important, why she did not permit the army to storm the compound early on.

“The government was not in charge,” said Abdur Razzak, a leader of the conservative Jamaat-e-Islami party. “This was an army problem. The army should have solved it in their wisdom.”

Mr. Razzak said the mutiny was a conspiracy designed “to weaken the army, to weaken the state.” Mr. Razzak’s party was trounced in the last election; its share of the 300 elected seats in Parliament fell to 2 from 17 in the December elections.

Mrs. Hasina said sending in the army would have resulted in a bloodbath and risked a potential conflict between the 46 border guard battalions scattered across the country and their army commanders.

In any case, few in Bangladesh say they believe that the mutiny was what it first appeared: a rebellion of rank-and-file border guards aggrieved by their commanders, their pay and their working conditions. In a country where conspiracy theories are a national sport, the mutiny has become a screen onto which many anxieties are projected.

Some point to terrorist groups and anti-Indian insurgents. Others say that it was fueled by intelligence agencies in either India or Pakistan — both countries have been alternately friend and foe to Bangladesh. There are those who suggest that it could involve politicians who lost the last election, while others blame people within Mrs. Hasina’s party whose goal is to keep the army in check.

The truth of what happened may never be known. Bangladesh holds many mysteries in its heart, including the question of who ordered the killing of Mrs. Hasina’s father, Sheik Mujibur Rahman, a former prime minister. Mrs. Hasina was spared only because she had been visiting her husband in Europe at the time. Eighteen members of her family, including her brothers and their wives, were executed.

Central to Mrs. Hasina’s survival today is keeping the military on her side. Her face-off with the army came into sharp focus three days after the mutiny ended when she confronted an unusually rowdy room of army officers. They berated her for not allowing the army to take charge early on. The screaming match was recorded and put up on YouTube, shocking the nation.

This week, in the interview, Mrs. Hasina said she sympathized with the soldiers’ grief even as she cautioned them against taking revenge — or power. So far, the army does not seem interested.

Mrs. Hasina’s most deadly enemies have been the Islamist militant groups that have put down roots here in recent years. They have been implicated in assassination attempts against her, including the grenade attack on her political meeting in August 2004. Mrs. Hasina lost some of her hearing as a result of that attack. Sitting under a framed portrait of her father, she said she would not be bowed.

“If I am afraid for my life, the whole nation will be afraid,” she said. “I know some bullets, some grenades are chasing me.”