from Asia Unbound

When Protests Halt Progress

December 04, 2013

Smoke rises as a bus burns on a street after a nationwide strike was called, in Dhaka November 9, 2013 (Mahmud Opu/Courtesy Reuters).
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If I were to describe a country that has achieved around 6 percent economic growth for much of the last decade, has the eighth largest population in the world, has delivered maternal and child health improvements on a scale comparable to the great Meiji restoration of 19th century Japan, is the world’s second largest exporter of ready-made garments after only China, and has achieved a 94 percent infant immunization rate, what place would come to mind? As much as it pains me to write this, I don’t believe the average Western reader would blurt out “Bangladesh, of course” after hearing that roster of accomplishments, as true as they are.

Yet Bangladesh has most often captured Western headlines over the past year due to catastrophic workplace safety disasters, most saliently the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka in April of this year, resulting in the deaths of more than a thousand workers and injury to many more. The Rana Plaza disaster resulted in an outpouring of fresh American and European attention to workplace conditions in Bangladesh, and rightly so: the major Western retailers as well as major clothing and footwear brands all have huge stakes in sourcing goods from the country.

But in the past couple months, the news has been all politics and protests. The protests are about elections. Bangladesh needs to hold national elections no later than January 2014 as required by the constitution, and the main opposition party, the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), has been in a standoff with the ruling Awami League government over how the elections should be held. Without getting too arcane, the main point of dispute is whether elections should be held under the auspices of a caretaker government (the BNP’s demand), or whether they should be held under an “all party” government and overseen by the Bangladesh Election Commission. Analysts describe the BNP demand for a caretaker government as driven by the deep chasm of distrust between the two parties; BNP leaders simply do not believe that, even with appropriate international monitors observing every phase, a free and fair election can take place without a caretaker unbeholden to the ruling Awami League at the helm.

So the BNP leadership has been adamant that they will settle for nothing other than a caretaker. The Awami League government has offered to negotiate, and the BNP has said it is ready to talk, but direct talks between the two heads of both parties did not go very well, as a published phone transcript illustrated in October. Meanwhile, the government has announced elections for January 5, 2014, an all-party government is now in place, and the BNP as well as the smaller Jatiya Party have both declared that they will not participate, which would undermine the goal of a free and fair election.

For reasons that have never been clear to me as an outside observer, Bangladesh has a particular form of street protest known as the “hartal,” or “strike,” that involves shutting down all economic activity and can include street violence. The United Nations Development Program conducted a study of the costs of hartals in 2005, and estimated losses at approximately 0.3 percent of GDP per day. (In years with extended hartals of 28 days, that amounted to 9.5 percent of GDP lost). In an editorial earlier this year, Bangladesh’s textile industry publication estimated their sector’s losses due to hartals as $20 million per day. In mid-November, a garment industry article noted that road blockages have forced exporters to ship via air freight, thirteen times more expensive than sea freight, and causing international buyers to lose confidence in Bangladesh as a reliable supplier. The Dhaka Chamber of Commerce and Industry estimated overall economic losses across all sectors due to hartal as around $200 million per day. It is difficult to assess how many days this year have been lost to hartals, but to cite just one example, April 2013 had only four working days.

Today is the fifth day of the latest BNP-led nationwide hartal, and we have seen firebomb attacks, beatings, and a bus set ablaze in Dhaka. Today the BNP and their allies extended their hartal “until its non-party caretaker demand is met.” Violence has resulted in deaths, critical burns, and many other injuries. This violence must be condemned. It has no place in a democracy, does not advance any democratic agenda, and hurts all Bangladeshis. Provocations by the Jama’at-e-Islami’s student wing, Shibir, have upped the ante, with the use of “crude bombs,” vandalism of vehicles, and other violence. The UN, EU, India, and the United States have all stated publicly their concerns about the ongoing violence. India, which has much at stake in ensuring a peaceful, democratic neighbor to the east, dispatched Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh to Dhaka, where she met with all major parties today.

So it’s a pity that even amidst days, weeks, and months of recurrent hartals, and with the best wishes of partners around the world, Bangladesh’s politicians remain poles apart. Violence like the past several weeks’ dominates how the world sees Bangladesh and its possibilities. It also undermines the vision of Bangladesh as a “Frontier Five” Asian tiger, as a 2007 report from JP Morgan assessed. Parties should hold protests peacefully, without impeding commerce, and get to the negotiating table. Anything else undercuts the great developments gains Bangladeshis have achieved, and will hurt their future prospects as well.