Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Political Violence

The political situation has deteriorated here once again, and I hear that it is even making the BBC at home, which is rare. From reading the Guardian and Independent websites, and some BBC pages, it is clear that the main focus is on militant Islam and whether this situation will allow some force to take hold. Extreme Islam, however, does not have a great foothold here. The political impasse will not create a power vacuum to be filled by such people, but is rather a battle for control of this political space. Two great blocks of wealth, capital and other interests in Bangladesh are struggling for power and using the common people as their means to do. But the benefit for those at the bottom will be minimal: the parties do not even publish manifestos. No one knows what they stand for.

Currently, however, on the streets the tension is clear and can be stingingly felt. Mentioning the Awami League or the BNP, or their leaders Sheik Hassina and Kaleda Zia will bring furious argument from anyone. The AL has decided to boycott the election on January 22nd saying that it will not be free and fair. This is probably true: the President was a BNP nominee from the last Parliament, and throughout that time the Electoral Commission (EC) in charge of producing an election was filled with BNP stooges to ensure that the BNP can win, even though they are widely expected to lose a fair election. The evidence for this is amazing: the voters list produced by the EC has 10 million more names that there are people in B

However, on the other hand, there is a constitutional requirement to hold the election by January 25th, which is 90 days since the handover of power to the caretaker government. If this is not done, then the interim Government will have infringed the constitution and broken the law. What this means is that with the AL demand for a new date or no election, and the BNP ensuring its voter list is used, both parties are forcing the constitution to be infringed and undermining the functioning of the State.

What this is means on the streets is at times stunning. 60,000 troops have been deployed in and around Dhaka to ensure that violence is minimal, but in the areas north of my flat there have been major riots (which are those shown on the television). The police and army have been given special powers of arrest which allow them to arrest anyone at anytime for any reason without a warrant, and to detain them without charge until 25th January. This legal brutality is incredible, and already over 5,000 people from Dhaka have alone have been detained and will not be able to vote. Inevitably, they are the poorer, less powerful members of society. It’s the sort of measure of which John Reid would be immensely proud.

For me, it is rather fascinating. The army occupied the small green outside my flat for the last three days (they got extremely angry when I asked if I could take a photo, see above); three trucks with 40 or so soldiers crowding around this small space. With another blockade on (possibly until the election day itself), there have been protests. On the road by my office, a major place for rallies, a group of AL supporters threw bricks at a police van, out of which about 10 police men jumped and began a lati (large solid stick) charge, and fired rubber bullets in the air which flew over our office. Some garment factories have been burnt to the ground, and five small bombs went off. Also, stashes of explosives have been found.

The British High Commission security advice is typically useless, saying stay in Gulshan and Baridhara, both of which are an hour from where we live and work. It is expected that on the day of the election itself it will be very violent indeed, with perhaps 100s of deaths. A similar situation in 1996 left 160 dead in Dhaka, and a government that lasted 13 days before having to call a new election.

But to other matters, and two useful bits of info on life here that may add some context to what is like. Firstly, we only have cold water, and with the current ‘coldwave’ (as the Bengalis call it), these showers have become too miserable. So we are now heating water on a stove and then use a jug to wash from a big bowl. It is practically medieval, certainly time consuming, but more pleasant than a freezing shower.

The second is that I barely use a knife and fork anymore. All Bengali meals are eaten by hand, mixing the curries and dhals into rice for a few minutes before stuffing it into your mouth in balls forming in the hand. When I do get back, there will be a Brick Lane curry Bengali-style for you all to practice.


Hazel said...

Dear Tom

I hope you don't mind - I've put a link to your blog from mine. It's been great reading it and seeing what another YfD has been up to! The politics sounds fascinating, and a total contrast to the apathy and quiet (perhaps slightly dull?)of Malawi.


Mark said...

Sounds almost as dangerous as Maida Vale where I'm staying at the moment - someone tried to hit me on the head with a Ciabatta yesterday, and the locals tell me there is NO buffalo mozzarella available within a ten mile radius. Not sure if I'll cope.

Take care Wipps, and if you're still alive after the elections, I'd still really like to come and visit...

Maria said...

No one deserve to die especially those innocent people.