Sunday, October 22, 2006

Humanitarian Interventions -- Bangladesh, 1971

One way to turn down the emotional volume on humanitarian interventions and consider them on their own merits, apart from discussions of U.S. policy is to consider humanitarian interventions that did not involve the United States. There were three major examples of such interventions in the 1970's. In 1971 India intervened to support Bangladesh in its war for independence. In 1979, Vietnam invaded Cambodia to depose the murderous Khmer Rouge. Also in 1979, Tanzania invaded Uganda to depose despot Idi Amin. Let us consider these three examples to see what they teach us about humanitarian intervention. (Usage note: I use the term intervention to mean sending in troops when a war is ongoing and invasion to mean sending in troops in the absence of a pre-existing war. The use of one term or the other is not intended to indicate moral approval or disapproval).


Pakistain, pre-1971 was surely one of the least viable countries in the world. Consisting of the Muslim majority areas carved out of India, Pakistan had two separate lobes on opposite sides of the Indian subcontinent with no overland connection. West Pakistan was almost entirely Muslim, but had numerous ethnic groups, while East Pakistan was about 20% Hindu, but ethnically almost entirely Bengali, with a small Bihari minority. Pakistan's two lobes shared a common religion but were completely unlike racially, ethnically, linguistically and culturally. West Pakistan was completely politically dominant, although East Pakistan had the larger population. For most of its history, Pakistan was a military dictatorship, but in 1970 free elections took place. The West Pakistani leadership failed to account for the fact that Bengalis could be counted on to vote uniformly as an oppressed group, yet they formed a majority of the population. As a result an absolute but slim majority of the vote went to the Awami League, a Bengali nationalist organization with a program of East Pakistani autonomy that stopped just short of formal independence. The West Pakistani rulers were unwilling to accept the result and sought to renegotiate the demands for autonomy. Bengalis responded in March, 1971 with a general strike that gradually led to the de-facto takeover of East Pakistan's government by the Awami League, and increasingly to calls for an independent Bangladesh.

The Pakistani army ultimately cracked down, beginning with massacres in Dacca, the capital and then spreading to the countryside. The initial massacres in the city killed thousands, targeting particularly the university, police stations, and slums. The terror spread to the country, where numerous entire villages were destroyed. The remnants of the Bengali army and police launched guerrilla resistance to the occupiers, provoking further savage reprisals. The Pakistani army attempted to turn an ethnic war into a religious war by blaming the rebellion on Bengal's Hindu minority and calling for Muslim solidarity. Many accounts are given of the Pakistani army stripping men below the waist and killing any who were not circumcised (required for Muslims). A few Bengali Muslims joined in the holy war, but most regarded themselves as Bengalis first. The minority Biharis, on the other hand, sided with the West Pakistanis. Bengalis, when they gained the upper hand, massacred Biharis and Biharis, where in the majority, massacred Bengalis. Estimates of the number of people killed range from one million to 3.5 million. An estimated 10 million refugees fled to India.

India provided for the refugees and aided the insurgents, but did not immediately take direct military action. One reason for this was almost certainly that Pakistan had an alliance with China, which would have come to Pakistan's aid if India intervened. The Indian government therefore bided its time, signed an alliance with the Soviet Union, and waited for winter, when the Himalayan passes with be blocked with snow and prevent China taking military action. In December, India launched a blitzkrieg which swept the Pakistani army from the countryside. Within 12 days, the Pakistani forces were holed up in the capital and surrendered. Yet even during that short time, they went on one last killing frenzy, directed specifically against the educated and anyone who might be potential leaders of the new nation. Once triumphant, the Indian forces generally maintained order until the Bengalis were able to take over, but they were not able to prevent savage reprisals by the Bengalis against the collaberationist Bihari minority, and many gruesome murders and massacres took place. Although some early attempts were made to justify India's actions as a humanitarian intervention, the general reaction of the international community (included the United States) was hostile.

Bangladesh became an independent nation, the Awami League took over the structure of government, and India was able to withdraw within a few months. Mujibur Rahman, the winner of the original election, became president. He ultimately proved an inept leader and was overthrown and killed in a coup in 1975. Bangladesh continues to be an improverished, troubled, and turbulant country. But India's two-week war successfully ended the atrocities, and the two countries never developed the sort of hostility that continues between India and Pakistan to this day.



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