Increasingly hostile to dissent, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's government wants to halt anti-government momentum ahead of elections later this year. It could backfire.
It doesn’t take much to bring traffic to a halt in Dhaka, the teeming capital of Bangladesh. Most days, cars move only sluggishly. Then there are days without any traffic on the roads, but that’s not out of environmental concerns, but because of a strike (hortal), usually called by the opposition.
But the standstill in Dhaka since July 29 is for a more poignant reason.
Bangladesh’s road safety record is appalling. More than 7,000 people died in accidents in 2017, and this year the toll may be similar. Much of it can be blamed on aging and unsafe vehicles, unlicensed drivers who don’t pay attention to traffic rules or speed limits, crumbling infrastructure, poor lighting, and state apathy.
On July 29, after a bus crashed into students attempting to cross a highway, killing two and injuring others, thousands of students protested by blocking roads, demanding that drivers show vehicle inspection certificates and licences before they could proceed. They spared no one as they took on the responsibility that the state seemed to have given up on.
Even as the government promised action, young men, many wearing helmets to hide their identity, moved around intimidating and beating protesters , and destroying the camera or phones of others, including journalists, who were recording the mayhem. Several of the attackers were identified as members of the ruling Awami League’s student and youth cadre. Over 200 protesters have been injured and over a dozen journalists attacked.
One victim is renowned Bangladeshi photographer, Shahidul Alam. His equipment was smashed, and soon after he gave an interview to Al Jazeera, plainclothes officials raided his home and took him away. He was beaten in custody and at the time of writing, there’s an international effort to get him released from jail, even as the authorities want to charge him under Section 57 of Bangladesh’s Information and Communication Technology Act, which stifles free speech, because he criticised the government on social media.
There is far more going on here than a traffic dispute.
While Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed enjoys a large majority in parliament, where her party has 234 out of 300 seats, her victory in 2014 was pyrrhic. She won so easily because her rival, Begum Khaleda Zia, leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, and her allies had boycotted the elections, giving the ruling party a cakewalk in many constituencies.
Fresh elections are due in a few months, and if they are conducted in a free and fair manner, other outcomes cannot be ruled out – even though there is no guarantee that a BNP-led administration would be any better in addressing Bangladesh’s long-term challenges.
Those include poverty and inequality, but also increasing frustration over corruption, lack of accountability and transparency, and violence. The Awami League government has become increasingly intolerant. Journalists are threatened and newspaper editors face crippling, multiple lawsuits; cases of ‘disappearances,’ where political dissenters are picked up by shadowy forces and not heard of for months, have grown alarmingly; there are allegations of extra-judicial killings, including of more than a hundred who have been killed in a so-called war on drugs; the judiciary has been intimidated; and industrial safety has suffered.
Extremist groups have threated and murdered free thinkers and bloggers while state decrees against hurting religious sentiment has led to a fundamentalist clamour against rationalists and atheists.
While the appalling collapse of the building Rana Plaza in 2013, when more than 1,100 people died as a building housing garment-exporting factories collapsed, is fresh in many minds, it was only the most sensational case of norms being violated. Many other industries, including leather tanneries, brick-making, and shipbreaking, have poor environmental and safety standards.
Bangladesh’s human development indicators show that the country is doing better than many of its neighbours in key areas, such as infant mortality, maternal hygiene, female participation in labour force, and improved health conditions. For that, much of the credit goes to Bangladesh’s numerous civil society organisations, who have shown that the country functions in spite of the government, not necessarily because of it.
Those successes show that Bangladesh’s enterprising people are able to figure their way out of poverty. Many women work in garment factories on low pay, helping build an industry in which Bangladesh has become a world leader, but in which the country has few competitive advantages other than cheap labour – the material and machinery may be imported, as local factories supply to overseas brands which pay as little as they can to squeeze costs, creating billionaire manufacturers and an impoverished workforce.
Many men go abroad for work – according to 2011 data, some 2.8 million Bangladeshis (95 percent of them men) work overseas. Their remittances amounted to $13.5 billion last year, accounting for 7.24 percent of the gross domestic product. In other words, Bangladeshis are improving their lives by being resourceful and finding work where they can.
But when things go wrong, as they did on Dhaka’s highways in late July, people take matters into their own hands to enforce the law, since the state isn’t playing that role, and is instead apparently committed to silence critics.
Hasina Wazed is enjoying international recognition because Bangladesh is host to nearly a million Rohingya refugees fleeing massacres in Myanmar. The camps are overcrowded and the crisis hasn’t abated, since few refugees want to return, even if Myanmar is willing to take them back, and no other country wants to accept them either.
Bangladesh has rightly earned praise for its willingness to accept the refugees, but that goodwill will peter out if Bangladesh continues to act with relative impunity over how it lives up to its obligations to its own people.
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