Dhaka’s war against democracy

Dhaka’s war against democracy

Police attack students protesting in Dhaka for safe roads. (EPA photo)
Police attack students protesting in Dhaka for safe roads. (EPA photo)

The students’ protests in Bangladesh since July 29 against appalling road safety that attracted international attention have dissipated and the government of Bangladesh began its familiar course of action in earnest.

The police have filed at least 29 cases against unknown students many of whom were in school and college uniforms while leaving out the Awami League cadres who had attacked the peaceful protestors. Information Minister Hasanul Haq Inu rejected statements of concerns issued by the US and the UN over the safety of student protesters.

The reaction of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government to the students’ protest was first arrogant and dismissive. Then the government tried to buy off the family members of the victims i.e. two students killed in road accidents that triggered the spontaneous protests and made a series of promises which had no takers. When these failed and protests intensified with mass public support, the government simply attacked the protesters - an attack on peaceful ordinary citizens with entirely legitimate grievances.

The demonstrators were regularly baton charged and fired at with tear gas and rubber bullets and hundreds of students were injured. More worryingly, Awami League activists armed with clubs, metal bars and machetes joined the police - as they have done in the past - to attack the protesters. Police watched mutely while children were beaten up by these thugs. As one observer noted, “an entire generation will associate their political awakening with machete-wielding Awami league thugs”.

Shahidul Alam, a prominent human rights activist has been arrested following his public denunciation of the government’s violence in an interview with Al Jazeera. The High Court has ordered a second medical exam given the allegations of torture during detention.

The response of the international community has been mixed. The US issued a statement underlining that “nothing can justify the brutal attacks and violence over the weekend against the thousands of young people who have been peacefully exercising their democratic rights”. It possibly woke up to the reality after unidentified thugs had attacked a convoy of cars carrying the US envoy to Bangladesh on Aug 4. The European Union issued a stunningly weak statement of concern, failing to identify the perpetrators and making no reference to rights whatsoever. Information Minister Hasanul Haq Inu did not find it worth rejecting. India, as expected, said nothing.

The students’ protests did not emerge in a void. It is not hard to trace the causes of the rapid deterioration of the political climate and an increasingly illiberal, intolerant and violent government.

Bangladesh’s human rights record has always been extremely poor, exemplified by hundreds of extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances. When in power, both the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) are happy to use terrorism to attack the opposition, but the reality is that terrorism’s root is found to be in the potent mix of their own political violence, abusive and corrupt governance and a runaway human rights problem.

The government has openly used the war against terror and recently, the war against drugs, as political cover to strengthen autocratic rule and break the opposition once and for all. The government has filed a staggering number of legal cases against opposition BNP leaders and party cadres. In October 2016, Prothom Alo, a Bangladesh newspaper, estimated that there were 21,000 outstanding cases against 403,878 members and leaders of the BNP. In October 2015, the BNP had claimed about 17,885 party workers and leaders were in detention while BNP chief, Khaleda Zia, remains in jail on corruption charges. The crackdown has reduced violence between Awami League and BNP activists - a euphemism for armed thugs often involved in drugs, corruption and violence. The Awami League thugs have found themselves with a monopoly and their violence and criminality have grown exponentially. Security forces have been granted ever more poorly defined powers and impunity. These powers have not focused on terror or drugs but rather on attacking the political opposition and increasingly any dissent.

Hoodwinked by the war against terror, the international community has paid far too little attention to these destabilising policies. Excluding a good half of the voting public forever is unsustainable. The corollary of these policies is protest. And protesting in Bangladesh is violent. Based on media reports, between 2002 and 2013, about 2,400 people were killed, and 126,300 injured in political violence. If the Awami League continues to use illegitimate use violence to shut down legitimate peaceful protests then inevitably protests will become more clandestine, more violent and will inevitably involve acts of terror. And it seems similarly inevitable in the context that such a violent reaction would appear likely to find, for many, a religious mantle.

The situation is set to deteriorate before the general election in Bangladesh later this year. The international community, particularly India, has looked the other way despite the fact that it needs to stop feigning ignorance for its own long-term benefits.

The reaction of the Awami League government against peaceful protests is clear: it won’t obey its own laws and it sends out an appalling message to its citizens about the use of violence. The government of Bangladesh is effectively teaching the country’s youth that violence is the solution to political problems. Obviously, Bangladesh is not fighting a war against terror but rather a war against democracy that breeds terrorism.

Suhas Chakma, is Director, Rights & Risks Analysis Group.

Suhas Chakma

Asian Centre for Human Rights director

Suhas Chakma is director of the Asian Centre for Human Rights.

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