Monday, October 30, 2006

Panic on the Streets of Dhaka

The last week or so has been a tense one in Bangladesh. Having established a unique constitutional set up in order to protect against threats to their democracy, the country has been plunged into unnecessary violence and disruption. Hasan, the Governance programme manager at VSO told me with no hint of dark humour that this was an historic moment because in the past supporters fought with police who would retreat to barracks after a few shootings, whereas what has occurred this week has been fighting between different factions, with the police blindly shooting into a crowd.

The Bangladeshi constitution states that an interim government is established led by the chief advisor to ensure free and fair elections. They have three months to organise and hold these elections, scheduled for January. The chief advisor proposed by the outgoing BNP government - Judge KM Hasan – was rejected by the opposition Awami League because he is a former BNP member. He refused to accept the position just before the deadline and put a small constitutional crisis in place. There were three other persons that could be called upon but all said no (or were rejected by the parties) and so the President has taken the position, for now.

Whilst this was going on, Dhaka was descending into turmoil. Rival groups of supporters blockades railways and roads leading to the city to stop food and other goods entering. The roads were completely deserted as offices closed, and groups of police were the main pedestrians, hanging about intersections with stacks of riot gear by their sides and substantial sticks in their hands. And of course, semi automatic weapons loaded with rubber – and real – bullets.

In the evenings along Paltan Avenue, around Mirpur Road and Dhanmondi and in other parts of the central city, fires were set, supporters clashed and home-made bombs were lobbed at police. The demonstrators were properly tooled for a fight, and we met many carrying six foot wooden paddles looking like a giant hurling stick, some adorned with the colours of the Awami league. The people carrying them, however, were often diminutive and bespectacled, a strange combination! At least 18 people have died in the city as a result of police firing, and over 500 were injured. At the moment the city is calm and shops have opened for the first time in a week, but the Awami League is only tolerating the current president as chief advisor. If he does not do what they want him to by Thursday, then there will be more violence on Friday and beyond.

The FCO’s warning to British nationals has been to not leave the Gulshan area. Unfortunately, we are the few British nationals that are on the other side of the city from Gulshan, its bright lights and refined police checks, and instead are squashed between the Parliament itself and the areas of violence. On one hand it is very exciting, with flags and announcements and some tension in the air, but it is also so unnecessary given the system in place. As all over the world, the ones that are dying did not start it, and are dying for political parties promoting none of their rights or meeting their needs, but rather ensuring the Begum Zia and Sheik Hasina remain powerful and influential women in Bangladesh, if nowhere else in the world.
Today, however, all is open and it may be possible to get a curry for the first time since I arrived.

1 comment:

Mark said...

It sounds better than Essex mate.