Bangladesh gets tough on extremists

By David Chazan, BBC News, Monday 19 July 1999, 17:45 GMT 18:45 UK

More than 50,000 people have been arrested in Bangladesh in recent months as part of a continuing operation aimed at ending lawlessness in some parts of the country.

Residents of areas in the south-west who have lived for years in fear of bandits and armed political groups are welcoming the mass arrests.

In a village outside the south-western town of Jessore, an old woman I met says her son was killed by political extremists.

“He was in the village tea-shop and the gunmen chased him into the paddy fields. They shot him and then they hacked his body into pieces.”

Living in fear

It is a typical story—almost every family in this village has lost a son or a daughter and many of the killings were carried out in the same way.

The nominally Marxist-Leninist groups seem to have abandoned their ideology years ago, devoting themselves instead to racketeering and banditry, looting and rape.

Most of the people in the villages support the mass arrests, but they fear the lull in attacks which the district has enjoyed will not last.

“I’m not sure whether the criminals will go back to their old ways when they’re released,” one woman told me.

“I don’t know whether they will really reform.”

In Jessore town, people say the security operation has changed their lives.

Weapons handover

Hundreds of members of underground groups are handing over their guns at highly-publicised mass surrenders.

The authorities say they will face trial, but they have promised to rehabilitate as many as possible and find ways for them to return to normal life.

Thousands of people came to watch a recent surrender in Jessore, but afterwards many said the arms they saw being handed over were old and rusty—and not the automatic weapons they have seen the gangs use against each other and the police.

“After the surrender, we saw that most of the guns were old and not fit to use. But when they attack villages, they drive around in cars with their guns, we see them, and we know that the guns they handed in were not their real guns,” said one man.

Doubts about long-term effect

One of the activists, Tutul, says he has been underground for two decades.

He surrendered once before, years ago, in return for a similar offer that he would be allowed to lead a normal life.

But the authorities didn’t keep their promise, he says, so he took up arms again. If that happens this time, he says he’ll go back underground.

Many people in the district believe that the armed groups' ringleaders have crossed the nearby border with India and they are hiding there.

The district magistrate, Aminul Rasul, says the arrests will continue as long as it takes to restore security.

I asked him why the authorities had let law and order deteriorate to such a point.

“Before we had not sufficient manpower, now we received many people from the government.”

In spite of the huge numbers of arrests, human rights lawyers believe the police are rounding up the right people.

Many have already been released on bail.

Hassan Imam, the president of the local society for the enforcement of human rights, says making arrests is not enough.

“They have to be rehabilitated. The other people who have not yet surrendered have to be collected and motivated. Then it will have a long-term effect.”

The presence of extra police has rekindled hope of peace, but it is far from sure that an end to the armed groups' reign of terror is in sight.