from Asia Unbound

Why Can’t Bangladeshis Protest Peacefully?

January 5, 2015

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Today, one year following national elections in Bangladesh, at least four people died in violence following political protests in Dhaka and other cities across the country. The proximate reason: the opposition Bangladesh National Party (BNP) took out protests, which the ruling Awami League government had banned, to mark a “Murder of Democracy Day.” Despite the ban on protests, press reports indicate that members of the Awami League "outnumbered" the opposition on the streets of Dhaka.

A brief recap of the past year’s events provides the background for today’s tragedy. Throughout much of 2013, Bangladesh was paralyzed by hartals—strikes designed to halt all activity in whatever city they take place—called by the opposition BNP. The BNP, frustrated that the sitting Awami League-led government planned to hold elections overseen by the Bangladesh Election Commission rather than a neutral caretaker government, took to the streets in protest. As I wrote a little more than a year ago,

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.

As events transpired, the Bangladesh national elections indeed took place on January 5 of last year, with more than half the seats uncontested due to the BNP’s boycott, and an Awami League government was voted in with what amounted to an overwhelming share in the National Assembly—more than two-thirds (232) of the 300 elected seats. Some governments around the world made statements of support for the new Bangladeshi government, noting that the election had been held in keeping with the Bangladeshi constitution, which was true. The United States continued to press for greater political inclusion, including in public statements. But as the months went on, it seemed ever more apparent that the government was in place for its full term and was not looking to call fresh elections.

For most of 2014, at least on the political front, things have been relatively quiet in Bangladesh—a great relief, certainly, for Bangladeshis, who suffered under the ongoing hartals of 2013. Now, the head of the BNP, Begum Khaleda Zia, who has been restricted by security forces to her office (the government has said this is for her own protection) has called for a “nonstop blockade” to cover all varieties of transportation in the country. This surely cannot harm anyone but ordinary Bangladeshis and the Bangladeshi economy: recall that a United Nations Development Programme study done in 2005 estimated that each day of stoppage costs the country 0.3 percent of GDP per day, and the Dhaka chamber study estimated that same cost at $200 million per day. Two scholars wrote an academic paper assessing the history of hartals and the “grievous” cost to Bangladesh’s development, tallying historical figures on “burned transport” and other terrible effects of these protests.

Hartals are not unique to the BNP—in fact, they are a universally employed form of political protest across parties in Bangladesh. It’s not uncommon, sadly, to read news accounts following hartals with stories of buses or trains set on fire, ordinary people assaulted on the street, and clashes between protestors and security forces as well as between protestors of opposing parties. None of this violence serves to advance anyone’s political agenda. So I have to ask: why can’t Bangladeshis protest peacefully? Imagine a day of protest that doesn’t prevent a young mother from going to the factory to earn her daily wage, or that doesn’t result in deaths and injuries. Imagine a political rally that focuses on a message and an agenda without disrupting citizens’ lives.

As I said last year, I have great regard for the Bangladesh development miracle that has lifted millions from poverty and helped transform the country into a “Next 11” economy. After only Vietnam, Bangladesh is more supportive of capitalism than the rest of the world. It’s a place that has weathered misfortunes and risen above them. Bangladeshis deserve to continue that progress, and violent protests have no place in that vision of success.

Follow me on Twitter: @AyresAlyssa

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