In the past few days, Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh, which has a population of over 18 million people, has been rocked by protests that have effectively shut down the city. The demonstrations were sparked after two young people were struck by a bus and killed. These tragic deaths were just the latest to be added to the thousands of similar fatalities each year that stem from government corruption and weak enforcement of the law.
As US News reports: “Corruption is rife in Bangladesh, making it easy for unlicensed drivers and unregistered vehicles to ply the roads. At least 12,000 people die each year in road accidents often blamed on faulty vehicles, reckless driving and lax traffic enforcement.”
While the immediate issue are these deaths, what has become clear is that the reaction of the government has unleashed widespread anger at government corruption and reignited longstanding fears about state violence: “Repression has been a trademark of this government over the past five years,” Omar Waraich, the deputy director for South Asia at Amnesty International, told The New York Times. “Whether it is journalists, the opposition or peaceful protesters, dissent has never been tolerated.”
The protests have grown for several days, and so has government repression. All social media platforms are being strangled, and the government has reported it is suspending 3G and 4G telecommunications. People are rushing to download photos, videos, and all other information available before Facebook and Twitter are completely shut down. Most recently, internationally known photojournalist Shahidul Alam was abducted from his house by Bangladeshi detectives and is being held for Facebook posts and remarks he gave to Al Jazeera about the situation. Amnesty International has called for his immediate and unconditional release, and an open letter is circulating among international scholars and activists.
What follows is the information I have been able to gather from students and colleagues in Dhaka, as well as from published sources. My sources include both middle-aged professors and high school and university students, who have in turn shared screenshots of Facebook and Twitter posts they have quickly downloaded before the crackdown on social media. For obvious reasons, they wish to remain anonymous, especially as the government has already been accused of using the Bangladesh Chhatra League to beat the young demonstrators. The Chhatra League is made up of university students aligned with the Awami League, the party of the regime. As a result, its members can easily access universities and high schools and attack protesters.
My colleagues in Dhaka and the students with whom I am in contact have told me that while some have vandalized buses and set them afire, the vast majority of the tens of thousands of protesters have been peaceful.
This fact has also been corroborated in the mainstream media. A student named Sabbir Hossain told The Telegraph: “We all are feeling threatened here. We wanted a peaceful protest. We don’t want any trouble occurring around here. Yet rubber bullets were shot at our brothers.”
The Sydney Morning Herald also corroborated the peaceful nature of most of the protests.
The use of rape resonates in the minds of people here because it was a major weapon of terror during the war of independence, when hundreds of thousands of girls and women were raped.
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, a professor at Columbia University and internationally respected human rights activist, asked “all Bangladeshi radical movements to come to support these woman students, so that the resistance grows in numbers. The only redress is through the widest possible activist publicity.”
The very government that has allowed the traffic deaths to spiral upward is the same which is using these terrible measures to quell the protests. A university professor in Dhaka told me: “The political dynasties of Bangladesh have a history of cracking down on any dissent, peaceful or otherwise. This was especially the case here because the ministers and important government-affiliated people are often the worst violators and the least punished in terms of traffic offences.”
The government is using extreme repressive measures to put down the demonstrations. There is now only a bare trickle of information coming out of Dhaka, as the authorities are shutting down all social media and threatening reporters and civilian journalists.
One of the few media sources still reporting is Muktiforum, which claims: “With reports of Internet slowdown, that hampers livestreaming and evidencing of the brutal attacks, and the government’s warning to the media, that has made many local outlets back away from covering the events, Dhaka city has now turned to a war zone. Journalists and photographers had already been attacked yesterday, and many journalists are still being attacked on Sunday. A co-editor of Muktiforum and two reporters were harassed yesterday, while many fear to be attacked today. Students say that many of their fellow protesters are still missing.”
The Daily Star has also widely reported on assaults upon journalists and offered photographic evidence.
While the report by UK Telegraph makes a vague reference to “pro-government activists” who “attacked youngsters, including some of those rushing to nearby hospitals for treatment,” many on the ground have no doubt that these activists are working in concert with the police. The Chhatra League has a long record of violent, vigilante-type activities against those who are considered enemies of the state. They are especially active on university campuses. The Telegraph reports that the government is dismissing all these reports.
What, exactly, are the student’s demands? Nothing radical, at least to the outside observer: They include improved road safety and justice for those who died in traffic and during violent clashes over the weekend.
These high school students have actually set up checkpoints and established safety measures across the city. As The Sydney Morning Herald reports:
The demonstrations have been leaderless so far, with students gathering at their schools or universities in the morning before funneling out onto the street to block roads and erect makeshift checkpoints around their respective institutions. Bus operators across the country shut down long-distance routes this week in response, some telling TV stations they were afraid of the violence.
On some days the protests have attracted up to 15,000 students, with parents leaving work to join their children and restaurants offering free food to demonstrators.
The students’ ability to organise and to enforce poorly obeyed laws has embarrassed the governing party, the Awami League, as it heads into elections in December.
One thing is clear — the high school students have tapped into something powerful, and they know it. They feel an urgent sense of duty, as they see government corruption leading to more and more deaths of ordinary people simply trying to carry on their lives in safety. One student told me: “In Bangladesh, students have historically been the people who bring about change.”