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HISTORY PLAYS

If a Shakespeare should ever arise in Bangladesh, he would have plenty of tragedies to weave his history plays around. The country is only 38 years old, but the vendettas between the leading families, the murders, plots and coups, have been just as tangled and bloody as the ones in 14th and 15th-century England that gave the playwright so much of his material. But that kind of history may be coming to an end in Bangladesh.

It’s not quite dead yet. Last February, at least 4,000 soldiers serving in the Bangladesh Rifles mutinied and began killing their officers. Fifty-seven officers and 17 other people were murdered by the mutineers, who dumped their bodies in sewers and an incinerator. The violence spread to military camps all over Bangladesh.

The mutineers said they were revolting against poor pay, but many suspected that there was a political motive behind it all. If there was one, it failed. The rest of the army remained loyal, tanks surrounded the regiment’s camps, and the government promised to look into the rebels’ complaints if they surrendered.

That was a lie, of course: they were all arrested. The first nine soldiers went on trial for mutiny before a military court on November 24, and more than 3,500 others will follow in various military cantonments around the country, while several hundred others will be tried before civilian courts for murder, rape and looting.

There has been a second high-profile case in Bangladesh recently. On November 19, the supreme court confirmed the death sentences for 12 former military officers who took part in the assassination of Bangladesh’s founding father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, in 1975. The five ex-officers who are actually in custody, and whose final appeal was rejected, face imminent execution for their crime of 34 years ago.

Few countries had a bloodier birth than Bangladesh. For a decade and a half after the partition of India in 1947, it was just the eastern wing of Pakistan, a country in two parts with a lot of Indian territory between them. But the two parts never got along, and when what is now Bangladesh tried to leave Pakistan in 1971, it got very ugly.

Curtain call

The Pakistan army killed up to three million people in rebel East Pakistan before Indian intervention forced it to withdraw. East Pakistan became independent Bangladesh, and Mujib, who had spent the war in jail in West Pakistan, came home to lead it.

In the early hours of August 15, 1975, a group of officers stormed Mujib’s house and killed everybody in it, including his wife, his three sons and his servants. Only his two daughters, who were abroad at the time, survived. One of them, Sheikh Hasina, is now the prime minister. (I told you it was Shakespearean.)

The officers who murdered Mujib were overthrown by another group within months, and a coup removed that bunch before the end of the year. Eventually power ended up in the hands of Ziaur Rahman, who was also murdered by fellow officers in 1981. His widow, Khaleda Zia, has been prime minister three times, and still leads the main opposition party.

Zia was not involved in the murder of Mujib, but he did end up being allies with those who killed Mujib: officers who detested Mujib’s secularism and had helped the Pakistani army slaughter their own people during the independence war. They killed Zia too, but that does not stop Zia’s widow and Mujib’s daughter from hating each other. That personal vendetta has virtually paralysed the politics of Bangladesh. Ever since democracy was restored in 1990, Hasina and Khaleda have alternated in power, each devoting all her time in opposition to sabotaging the other’s initiatives. But now the page may have turned.

Hasina’s Awami League won the last election by a landslide, and the army stayed loyal to the elected government right through the mutiny. The Bangladeshi Shakespeare may be running out of material.

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