A year’s political unrest has brought 500 deaths and 20,000 injured as a 48-hour shutdown is called in protest over ‘farce’
In a crowded hospital ward, where cockroaches run between rusty beds and tired nurses change stained dressings below filthy fans, lie Lokman and Alamgir. Until two days ago, the two middle-aged friends earned a meagre living selling onions together on the streets of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. Now, badly burned, they are fighting to live.
They do not know the allegiance of the crowd that blocked the way to their store early in the morning. Nor the identity of whoever threw the petrol bomb that turned their small truck into a fireball.
“Who can I blame?,” said Alamgir’s 19-year-old son, Mohammed Liton Islam.
“The opposition parties have been calling the blockades so it must have been their followers who did this. But the government has not arranged for a proper election. They are both responsible.”
Such sentiments are common not just among the relatives of other similar victims at the Dhaka Medical College hospital, nor just among the doctors who say they see such injuries every day, but in bazaars, bus stations, tea shops and homes across Bangladesh, the poor and restive south Asian state of 150 million, where more than 500 have died and 20,000 have been injured in 12 months of political unrest.
With a long-awaited and long-feared general election finally due on Sunday, there is much tension this weekend. On Friday opposition parties in Bangladesh ordered a 48-hour “hartal” (closure of shops and offices) in addition to an ongoing nationwide blockade of railways, roads and waterways to “win the right of the people to vote”, according to senior officials. Tens of thousands of troops have been deployed to secure polling stations.
In the short term, the reasons for the violence are clear, if complicated.
The main opposition party – the Bangladesh Nationalist party (BNP) – is boycotting the elections after the ruling Awami League refused to install a neutral caretaker administration before the poll.
The boycott – along with an effective ban on the participation of the country’s biggest Islamist party – means that more than half of the seats in the national parliament have not been contested and most have already been won by government candidates.
Newspapers in Bangladesh have dubbed the poll a farce but Awami League politicians said they wanted the BNP to participate, even offering a choice of ministerial posts.
“Personally I would have welcomed the contest and I am disheartened that the opposition did not show up for elections, for the betterment of the country and for a more meaningful democracy,” said Kazi Nabil Ahmed, a first-time Awami League candidate and now member of parliament in the south-western Jessore district.
Opposition officials say they had no option but to boycott a poll they felt was sure to be rigged and try to force concessions through “street agitation”.
Fazlul Haq Milon, a veteran BNP politician from Gazipur, said that he had not participated in the polls because “all kinds of torture is imposed upon us by an autocratic government”.
But beyond the short-term factors are broader issues. Analysts have described the violence as the result of a fight for the soul of the country.
“This is not just a struggle for power but it is a tussle between liberal and pro-democratic elements and non-democratic, anti-secular ones,” said Shantanu Majumder, professor of political science at Dhaka university.
Shamsher M Chowdhury, vice-chairman of the BNP, dismissed such analysis as rubbish. “That’s a kneejerk reaction that makes no sense whatsoever,” he told the Guardian.
Some analysts see the problem as an intensification of the contest between factions within the country’s elite that has been going since Bangladesh won its independence from Pakistan in a brutal civil war in 1971, while others attribute the extreme polarisation of Bangladeshi politics to the animosity between Khaleda Zia, the leader of the BNP, and Sheikh Hasina, who heads the Awami League.
Zia, 68, is the widow of the country’s pre-eminent military leader in the civil war. Hasina, 66, is the daughter of the “father of the nation”, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Both men were assassinated.
One significant cause of recent unrest has been the trial of men, largely from opposition parties, accused of committing war crimes during that conflict. Last month, Abdul Qader Mollah, a senior official in the Islamist Jama’at Islami (JI) organisation, was hanged after being found guilty of killing a student and a family of 11 and of aiding Pakistani troops in killing 369 other people during the independence war.
Government officials say the trials, which human rights groups have criticised for failing to observe due process, are necessary to “exorcise historical ghosts”.
Though successive judgments have prompted thousands of JI activists to take to the streets to protest, a survey in the Dhaka Tribune newspaper last week found 74% of Bangladeshis were “satisfied” with the tribunal.
International interest in Bangladesh spiked after the deaths of 1,134 garment workers in a factory collapse in April. Most were making clothes for western retailers.
Garment factory owners have suffered as the continuing unrest has led to blocked freight and delayed orders and has put off potential customers.
Mustafizur Rahman, an economist at the Centre for Policy Dialogue in Dhaka, said overseas buyers now placing orders for summer clothescollections in the west were not coming to Bangladesh.
“If the political confrontation continues, the [problems] will continue. We will have to see what happens after 5 January,” Rahman said.
There appears little chance that the most recent call for protests from the BNP will succeed in derailing Sunday’s poll. The opposition has been weakened by arrests of power-brokers and organisers and faces a police force which remains loyal to the government.
Little is likely to be solved by the vote, however. Even Awami League sympathisers predict more conflict and say another election between six and 18 months from now is probable.
“Sunday’s vote is an election in legal and constitutional terms but not in essence. I can see little hope for a deal in the short term and that means more violence, more street agitation,” said Majumder, the political science professor.
Islam, the son of the injured onion seller, now has a brother, a sister and a mother to support. He earns £70 a month in a knitwear factory, making sweaters for sale on western high streets.
“Now it will be very difficult for us as a family,” he said. “The chance of any improvement in the future is very small, I am afraid. It will be very difficult for the country too.”