Crisis in Bangladesh

It’s been a strange last couple of days. Bangladesh has descended in to violent protests, the two main political parties mobilising their supporters and activists, with tens of thousands of people taking to the streets all over the country. These people don’t mess about, and are armed with sticks, and either sort of oar-like planks, or sickles, depending on which political side they’re on. It almost makes one think of something out of Asterix.

The irony is that we are possibly the people with the least awareness of what’s happening in Dhaka; as although we’re smack in the middle of town, we’re strongly advised not to leave our flat, and have no internet, no English-language radio, and no TV.

The only way you can tell that something is awry is that it’s quiet. The streets are practically empty, there are very few cars on the road, the very occasional baby-taxi, and just lots of passenger-less, meandering rickshaws. There are people walking around, talking on the streets, but nearly all the shops are closed so there’s virtually nothing to do but hang around on the street and talk to someone. Compared to a normal working day in
Dhaka, which is full of a teeming mass of noise, pace, rush, energy, frustration and pollution, it’s very unsettling, as if everyone’s left town and you don’t know why.

However, there are various forms of police and security forces all over the place, camped out on every major street corner. They vary from oldish looking little guys in crappy uniforms with sticks, who look like they’ve seen better days, to riot police with flak jackets and bigger sticks, to the Rapid Action Battalion, who wear all black uniforms and sunglasses, occasionally a bandana, and look seriously hardcore, with guns to match. And then there are army people. So even though it’s earily quiet, there’s very much a calm before the storm sense around the place.

Actually, Dhaka without the daily chaos is very nice, but you look out the window at the tranquillity down below, with the knowledge that about four miles away in the centre of town all hell is breaking loose.

Because we’ve been stuck without much info, and it’s all been happening so quickly anyway, I can’t really surmise easily what’s been going on.

But the strange, stupid, and frustrating thing about it is that everyone has known this could or would happen for years, and in the last month it’s been pretty much a racing cert. And yet it’s been allowed to happen.

You can get a good timeline of Bangledeshi’s recent political history off the BBC here.

My 60 second nutshell is this: The two party leaders, Khalida Zia of the ruling Bangladesh National Party and Sheikh Hasina of the opposition Awami League hate each other. From 1996 the Constitution was changed to allow a Caretaker Government to take power for 90 days at the end of the normal electoral term, and oversee the new elections. In May 2004 the BNP amended this, so that they could get their man in as the head of the CTG – allegedly. The opposition Awami League have said this was wrong and have been going nuts ever since.

Constitutionally the government had to be dissolved last Friday, and the head of the CTG sworn in. The AL said they would kick off big time, and dialogue on this over the last month has failed. On Thursday there was a major defection of about 100 senior members of the BNP, forming a new party, the Liberal Democratic Party. On Friday, the BNP handed over power. The AL kicked off big time. The swearing-in ceremony was switched to Saturday. The proposed head of the CTG, under intense pressure, said he was ill and pulled out at the last minute.

More riots. No-one there to take over power. Shahidul Alam took some amazing photos of the chaos.

Yesterday the President stepped in and said he would lead the CTG, in the constitutional absence of anyone else. Now we’re waiting.

I have to go back and do another session here at VSO, so will try and write more later on.

But Blog-a-rhythm cinically has suggested that Shiekh Hasina and Khaleda Zia (the leaders of the AL and BNP) be awarded another Nobel Peace Prize, for ‘making a peaceful country in to a holocaust in only 14 hours’.

It’s obviously not that bad, but from an observer’s point of view, that such utter carnage could develop, so quickly, and so expectedly, makes you wonder what politics is all about.

I think the bigger, more interesting story is about the Constitution, how it can be used to govern a country, and how personalities in a democracy can overshadow the conceptual sanctity of a Constitutional Democracy itself. What comes first – the people? The Nation? The Constitution? And who has the power/authority to decide?

Something worth thinking about.



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