Rajendrapur, Bangladesh – “Wearing a blue helmet is a question of national pride,” Colonel Ashraf from the Bangladesh Army told Al Jazeera. He has just come back from a 13-month UN peacekeeping mission in the Ivory Coast and now teaches soldiers from around the world in peacekeeping operations.
Experienced tutors such as Colonel Ashraf play a critical role in keeping global peace. The impoverished South Asian country is, after all, the world’s largest contributor to peacekeeping operations, with almost 10,000 troops and police deployed in 45 conflict zones. And as newer conflicts erupt, piling further pressure on the UN to intervene, additional peacekeepers are being rigorously trained at the Bangladesh Institute of Peace Support Operation Training.
“Our contribution to peacekeeping operations is crucial. It’s a way for Bangladesh to exercise what we call our soft power. It’s a way of winning hearts and minds.”
– Brig Gen Anissuzaman Bhuyan
It is here at Rajendrapur, 35km out of capital Dhaka, that Bengali-speaking soldiers learn languages and skills required for foreign deployments. With most troops deployed in the Democratic Republic of Congo and other French-speaking African countries, soldiers typing away in French is a common sight at the institute’s language lab.
“As peacekeepers, we need to build relationships with the local community,” reminds the man in charge, commandant Brigadier General Anissuzaman Bhuyan.
Bangladesh does not have the military might that other countries have. But it does have an army of 300,000 in a poor and densely populated country accustomed to political instability and natural disasters. It knows how to handle conflict.
“Our contribution to peacekeeping operations is crucial. It’s a way for Bangladesh to exercise what we call our soft power. It’s a way of winning hearts and minds,” adds Bhuyan.
With 47 UN missions under its belt, the country is a heavyweight in peacekeeping.
Manzoor Hasan, an advisor at BRAC University’s Institute of Governance Studies in Dhaka, says: “This gives Bangladesh brownie points in international relations. At the very least it improves the country’s image. At most it allows Bangladesh to place its nationals in key positions in international organisations.”
In 2002, the West African country of Sierra Leone made Bengali one of its official languages after Bangladeshi peacekeepers built a 54km road during the civil war.
Shortly after the invasion of Iraq, former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld landed in Dhaka to discuss whether Bangladesh could be involved in operations. Bangladesh declined this offer.
At the training centre, there are also soldiers from Sudan and Sri Lanka. “We are learning to use a different approach. We are learning about human rights and how this can be used in zones of conflict”, says Major Atif from the Sudanese Army. Both Sudan and Sri Lanka have gone through decades of war.
On site, there are fake checkpoints manned by local villagers pretending to be insurgents. They are carrying real arms with blank ammunition. Villagers living around the institute participate in the training. Some pretend to be angry protesters. There are even child soldiers holding wooden guns.
The trainer, Lieutenant Colonel Mustafiz, told Al Jazeera: “We prepare soldiers for all sorts of real-life scenarios, because it’s a dangerous job. Many UN peacekeepers have lost their lives.”
In the past 50 years, 2,994 soldiers have died on UN missions. “Increasingly, UN soldiers have become targets for rebel groups,” says Mustafiz.
The institute is adapting its curriculum to real-life events. In Syria, several UN observers were abducted and later released. “The UN does not pay ransoms, so we need to expose them to these difficult hostage situations.”
Soldiers earn much more while on UN deployment [Nicolas Haque/Al Jazeera]
At the institute, therefore, soldiers go through simulations. Two soldiers are abducted and are made to stand in the heat for seven hours with no water, their hands tied and blindfolded. Two other soldiers are tasked with trying to negotiate their release.
The observer training is a three-week course. The first two weeks are online, where soldiers learn about UN regulations and their mandate. Since the school opened its doors in 1999, more than 1,200 students from 26 countries have come here to learn from the Bangladesh Army how to maintain peace.
“There is a paradox here,” says Hasan. “The army and police are praised for doing a wonderful job abroad, but at home their track record has a lot to be left desired.”
Indigenous rights activists from the Chittagong Hill tracts, where the Bangladesh Army fought with tribal people, believe that 2,500 women were raped in the two-decade-long conflict. They point the finger to the military. Recently, human rights activists blamed security forces for the enforced disappearances of 22 people. Armed forces and the police deny these allegations.
Commandant Bhuyan is keen to point out that peacekeeping is part of Bangladesh’s constitution. Article 25-1 states the importance of promoting international peace and security. Bangladesh gained its independence from Pakistan in 1971, but it was not recognised by the United Nations until 1974. Its desire to take part in UN military operations was also a means to be recognised as an independent sovereign state by the international community.
UN military operations are also very lucrative. Though the army does not reveal how much a soldier earns while on UN deployment, estimates suggest it could be about $1,000 a month. Compared with the average monthly soldier pay of $180, UN peacekeeping is obviously a lucrative option. The Bangladesh government also benefits from deploying its troops abroad. While officials are cagey about the figures, it has been estimated that foreign exchange remittances are in the region of $1 billion over the past three years, as a result of peackeeping operations overseas.
In a young nation with a history of coups, it also keeps the soldiers busy.
Analysts say the army’s appetite for seizing power has waned since the nation’s soliders started taking part in peacekeeping missions.
However, domestic politics remains vengeful, volatile and violent. In 2007, the army backed an interim government led by technocrats in order to end the violence between the two rival parties that dominate Bangladesh politics. Peacekeeping is something the Bangladesh army do abroad, but learn at home.