Bangladesh Under Siege: Yasmin Khatun

Posted: May 8, 2013 in Articles and Updates
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With the Twitter conversation taking shape on Saturday, reports of clashes made their way early in the hours of Sunday morning. Following the prime minister’s calls for a meeting with the opposition on Thursday night, the sheer scale of what was to come was laid bare. The world set its eyes upon Bangladesh a few weeks ago, looking at the Savar tragedy and pondering as to what role each individual player was playing – the consumer, the international multi-million dollar customer, the lawyers, businessmen and the politicians. The collapse highlighted the plight of a country dealing with so many issues, but this specific issue a concern to the international community because we’re faced with clothing tags with ‘Bangladesh’ painted across them and our shops overhauled these garments.

It may not be as fashionable or Stoke Newingtonite friendly as our mission to rid ourselves of t- shirts the price of sandwiches, but on Sunday hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshis took to the streets of their capital a number dwarfing the May Day workers protest of 2,500 and confronting the weight of the nation’s turmoil.

The sizeable gathering of made up of mostly Hefazut e Islami followers, the group out on the streets of the capital for the second time in as many months. Army officers met the protestor’s, their aim? to have the city on lockdown and disperse the half million strong group. Hefazut e Islami has massive support in Bangladesh and have shown their clout in the sheer numbers joining their march.

In what became the largest protest the country has seen in years, the traditionally non-political religious group Hefazut came out with larger numbers then in April with a determination not to back down. A religious group holding high regards in the country a month ago the group marched through the streets of Dhaka, putting forward a 13-point charter of demands including the ‘enactment of anti-blasphemy laws’. The group’s demands were deemed extreme and quickly dismissed by the government. In a statement at the time the government said current laws were adequate enough to deal with the issues at hand and that there would be no change to the law. A month later, border guards were prepared by Saturday night and by mid-afternoon clashes begun.

Hefazut are a substantial force in a country where politicians can be trusted as far as they can be thrown. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasinah and her main rival Khaleda Zia have both been in prison and Bangladesh Jamaat e Islam are plagued by their past. Hefazut may not be a political party but they certainly do have a substantial enough following to make change and the political elite are fully aware of this.

By nightfall in Dhaka, reports from the ground claimed electricity had been cut, 15,000 army officers called in and opposition TV stations raided. Social media became an isolated form of communication and bloggers and activists began comparing the evening to the dark night of 1971, when Bangladesh fought for its independence and so many lives were lost. Dhaka is now under effective curfew and the government has banned gatherings in the city. The extent of the injuries and death is difficult to be ascertain, national reports put figures of the lives lost in their 20’s but personal accounts share a very different story, numbers which are far higher and reaching well over 2,000. The Asian Human rights commission said that numerous victims had been shot at close range and Amnesty international has called for an independent investigation.

On Sunday, I attended a rally of nearly a thousand people in front of the Bangladeshi embassy in London, whilst there, within hours the reports of the death toll in Bangladesh reached at least 30 and those injured in their hundreds. By late afternoon the opposition who have an 18 party alliance, pledged their support for those protesting and former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia called upon the Bangladesh Nationalist party to come out in support. Although Hefazut have had the silent support of the alliance there has previously been hesitation to out rightly make a statement.

As the week proceeds the baggage of the dark night in Dhaka must be made to come to surface. The government can no longer continue its charade of growth and development built on the back of corruption and the silencing of its opposition. The relentless shooting of protestors, interference in the courts and the blind eye to corrupt dealings in industry, the government of Bangladesh should not be allowed to isolate itself and must be held to account for its actions. The Savar tragedy added to a tumultuous year for Bangladesh, but the buck doesn’t stop with Sohail Rana or Primark. A massacre is what the reports from the ground claim and the fight for authority continues. There are deep rooted problems the nation is facing and its bloody roots add a complex layer to the multi-faceted issues at play. The Awami league may not wish to recognise the problems they are facing but an election is looming and the nation of Bangladesh is wide awake and ready to rebuke.

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