Bangladesh at a Crossroads: What Recent Protests Mean for Democracy

On July 29th, two students were killed in a busy intersection in Dhaka city after a reckless bus driver plowed into them. While numerous deaths via road accidents are an unfortunate reality in Bangladesh, this particular incident touched a nerve in the collective body of young Bangladeshi students. Student protests developed, which saw street processions demanding safe roads for everyone. Taking matters into their own hands, students also began disciplining traffic, checking licenses, and educating people on traffic regulations. These peaceful protests from the students, however, would take a very drastic and unsavory turn.

As protestors gathered across the country on August 4th, they were assaulted by alleged armed members of the ruling Awami League’s (AL), specifically from the party’s student wing – the Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL). Reports of violence came in fast from Dhaka and other parts of Bangladesh about how protestors and journalists covering the protests were attacked by BCL members and even law enforcement.

This reaction to the road safety protests in Bangladesh reveals a larger truth about the country’s future: its backsliding democratic credentials have induced widespread discontent within the populace, a fact that is unlikely to be altered in the forthcoming parliamentary elections. If Bangladesh does not reassess the state of its democracy, pervasive political instability will continue to hamper the country’s internal politics and harm its global reputation.

Smothering Non-Conforming Voices

During the protests, men affiliated with BCL allegedly beat, molested, snatched the cell phones of, and destroyed the cameras of reporters covering the protests. Rumors spread like wildfire across social media of students being detained and raped in BCL headquarters and of other more insidious acts against peaceful protestors, allegations the BCL vociferously denied. These acts of violence, however, would not quell the protesters, as the movement spread across university campuses in Dhaka.

Such attacks on university campuses…show the bigger picture in play here. Another student movement would seriously dent the government’s hold on power; these repressive measures were preemptive attempts to quell the movement from spreading too far.

Law enforcement also joined in the chaos, with tear gas shells being fired at East West University (EWU). Baton charges and water cannons were used at Dhaka University, along with other measures taken at other universities to ensure student protests would not develop. Such attacks on university campuses — whose students played an important role in seminal events such as the Bengali Language Movement of 1952 and the movement to oust then dictator H.M. Ershad in 1990 – show the bigger picture in play here. Another student movement would seriously dent the government’s hold on power; these repressive measures were preemptive attempts to quell the movement from spreading too far.

Allegations have also flown against law enforcement for its hand in arresting and mistreating Shahidul Alam, a prominent citizen, photographer, and social activist, in response to his interview to Al Jazeera in which where he was highly critical of the ruling AL and voiced his support for the student movement. Mr. Alam’s maltreatment can be viewed as an assault on freedom of expression itself.

Behind the Protests: Backsliding Democratic Credentials

The government’s method of dealing with protestors are not those which befit a democracy. Police protection for the men affiliated with BCL attacking students and Shahidul Alam’s remand and arrest show exactly what the government thinks of protesters. Previously, protesters who objected to the government’s quota system for civil jobs were also beaten severely, calling into question the efficacy of the right to protest in Bangladesh.

While the rights of Bangladesh’s citizenry are under siege, so are the pillars of the democracy on which the country is built. Chief Justice Surendra Kumar Sinha was effectively forced to resign after one of his decisions regarding the constitution was negatively received. The 2014 parliamentary elections were boycotted by the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) over the repeal of a 1996 law that held all national elections under a neutral caretaker government. As such, the 2014 elections saw over half of the 300 members of Parliament get elected without a single vote being cast in the constituency. Indeed, Bangladesh’s sliding democratic credentials have become more evident as the years have gone by.

Taken into context, the road safety protests give a grim picture for the future of Bangladeshi democracy. Depriving its citizens of the right to protest, to speak freely, and to perhaps have a choice in a national election, an event held only once every five years, has induced pent-up anger across Bangladesh against the status quo.

Improving the Situation

At present, the country is far from a perfect picture of democracy. Bangladesh could repair its deteriorating democratic credentials through this year’s parliamentary elections, which will be held in December 2018. Free, fair, and participatory elections are crucial for Bangladesh’s democracy, as a 2014-like boycott would force the people to choose between the ruling AL or a number of insignificant parties such as the Jatiya Party (JP), doing little to improve Bangladesh’s imperfect standing as a democracy.

However, this scenario is unlikely to come to fruition. The AL has also stood their ground in maintaining that the BNP will not be involved in any election time government. There is also constant mudslinging between both parties, with the AL quick to blame the BNP for any problems associated with the country and the BNP pointing out the government’s perceived mistakes without offering any concrete solutions as well.

As both major political parties are far apart in terms of forming a consensus, one would hope that the Election Commission (EC) might prevent irregularities, such as previously stuffed ballot boxes, voter intimidation, and the unobserved counting of votes. However, the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) K.M. Nurul Huda recently said that he could not ensure anomaly-free polls. The CEC’s comments are dangerous as it encourages those parties with significant interests in the polls – such as the candidates themselves – to be bolder in their efforts to disrupt and win their elections. Recent city corporation polls in Rajshahi, Barisal, and Sylhet, during which mayoral candidates and their supporters breached election laws.

Bangladesh’s Next Move  

The scale of the recent unrest tells us that these protests represent something greater than just road safety. At a time in Bangladesh’s history in which the freedom of expression is under threat, its political parties stand polarized, and the EC cannot ensure free and fair polls, it seems doubtful that Bangladesh’s democracy will repair itself in the near future. Yet, if things remain the way they are, both Bangladesh and its global reputation will suffer deeply, diminishing any chance the country has of entering the pantheon of global democracy.

The scale of the recent unrest tells us that these protests represent something greater than just road safety…If things remain the way they are, both Bangladesh and its global reputation will suffer deeply, diminishing any chance the country has of entering the pantheon of global democracy.

With a functioning democracy and stable internal situation, Bangladesh could use its strengths – its strategic location adjacent to the Bay of Bengal, for which it is being courted by China, as well as its strong existing relations with next-door India – to its advantage. Yet, after witnessing how it deals with its citizens who disagree with the government, countries in the international community and regional partners may be hesitant to pursue cooperation with Bangladesh. The country could also see other negative consequences, such as tougher funding from global partners such as the World Bank (WB), Asian Development Bank (ADB), and even less generous funds from development partners such as Japan and the United States. Keeping all of this in mind, Bangladesh needs to make its next move carefully. If it does not alter course, continued political instability will be its own punishment, one for which the government will have but itself to blame.

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Image 1: Faisal Akram via Flickr 

Image 2: NurPhoto via Getty

Posted in , Bangladesh, Economy, Elections, Foreign Policy, Human Rights, Human Security, Internal Security, Policy, Politics, Security

Atif Ahmad

Atif Ahmad

Atif Jalal Ahmad is a DC based researcher who grew up in Bangladesh. He attended Rutgers University where he graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science and Economics. He wrote a thesis examining the Origins of Corruption in South Asia and possible solutions to it during his undergraduate studies. He is currently a Research Assistant at the Wilson Center, working on South and South-Eastern Asia, researching areas such as politics, security, economics and religion. You can follow Atif on Twitter @AtifJAhmad.

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