When Will the International Community Defend Bangladesh’s Brutally Oppressed Protesters?

“Dhaka is now in blood.”

After a long weekend of silence, I once again heard from my contact in Bangladesh — an individual I will refer to as “A” — after government officials squelched internet and data networks on Friday, August 10.

Though it has garnered a tepid reaction from the West, an ever-growing crowd of protesters — primarily students – has been marching peacefully in Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, for more than a week. But the demonstration quickly took a turn for the worse as government-backed counter-protesters descended on the group wielding clubs, sticks and even machetes.

Why are Bangladeshi students protesting?

Demonstrations began after a bus struck six people in Dhaka, killing two students. When I spoke with A last Friday, he explained that this “inhumane” act was the final straw for many who have long felt frustrated. As it stands now, vehicle drivers in Bangladesh are often unlicensed and lack the skills to drive safely, resulting in an increase in fatal accidents. A severe lack of accountability for those who cause crashes is also a major grievance.

Traffic safety might sound like an odd reason to take to the streets en masse, but it goes deeper, with frustrations surrounding government nepotism and perceived corruption. Public transportation chaos is often attributed to the ruling Awami League party and its associates, who dominate the sector.

As A tells me, some protesters have also been calling for the resignation of Navy Minister Shajahan Khan. He’s no stranger to controversy, having most recently been criticized for his flippant attitude toward automobile deaths in Bangladesh.

When did the protests turn violent?

Though some media outlets have reported on the tear gas used by police against protesters, counter-protesters affiliated with the Bangladesh Chatra League, or BCL, were photographed and filmed assaulting protesters with various weapons — including metal rods and machetes. The BCL is a student group linked directly to the Bangladeshi ruling party, the Awami League.

Over the weekend, scores of people were severely injured by BCL activists, and some accounts allege that government police refused to interfere. There are also unconfirmed reports that BCL members attacked and sexually assaulted female students. BCL leaders have rejected these allegations as “absolutely fabricated.”

Who is being targeted?

Though BCL counter-protesters appear to be assaulting student protesters indiscriminately, they have also been targeting photojournalists. By Sunday, seven had been attacked, including photojournalists from the Associated Press and renowned Bangladeshi activist and photojournalist Shahidul Alam, who had to be hospitalized.

What happens now?

As of writing, the streets in Dhaka and other Bangladeshi cities have been largely cleared of protesters. But does this mean that the demonstrators have achieved their goals? Hardly.

A and others share the belief that they have lost. The “government has succeeded, it was all part of their plan,” A. says, referring to the swift censorship and brutality that characterized the past several days.

That plan? “To incite violence and arrest people so that parents don’t allow their kids to participate in the protests,” explains A, who believes young protesters have, understandably, begun to fear for their freedom and their lives.

Right now an unknown number of student demonstrators are either being treated at hospitals or remain under arrest. A says the worry now is that these people will be prosecuted under Section 57, a Bangladeshi law which forbids the criticism of government figures on social media. Though typically this legislation is only enforced against celebrities or those whose posts go viral — that is, people whose criticism gains an audience — there appears to be efforts by government authorities to track down and identify dissidents online in order to prosecute them.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina says she will seek to strengthen driver safety regulations, but given the violent oppression many remain understandably skeptical.

Take Action!

Though cities in Bangladesh are now more or less back to normal, many student protesters’ fates remain to be decided as the government moves to identify and punish participants and organizers alike. Many faced severe violence — in one well documented case, a BCL member gouged out a student’s eye — yet the perpetrators are unlikely to face any meaningful repercussions.

This is why an independent, international probe into the events of the past week is crucial to ensure justice for those who face extreme oppression and to send the message to the leaders of Bangladesh: The world is watching, and we will not stand idly by.

Add your name to this Care2 petition calling for the United Nations to take action!

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Photo Credit: Nirob Khan/Flickr

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