As protest movements around the world are taking to the streets. Many in Bangladesh have also come out to make their voices heard. These demonstrators, as mirrored in numerous other nations, have shown up for various reasons. Many of their justifications are similar to those expressed in other places: myriad issues related to COVID and the war in Ukraine, political corruption (whether real or perceived), etc.
The right-wing Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) organized a protest that saw tens of thousands occupy roads around the capital city of Dhaka on Saturday. The BNP put forward a list of 10 demands, that included issues like ending criminal cases against their politicians and supporters, the formation of a neutral Election Commission, and the ability to oversee the elections that are supposed to take place next year, amongst others.
A number of politicians from the BNP have been arrested in the days leading up to, and following the protest. On Friday, the BNP party secretary general Mirza Alamgir, was taken into custody. Authorities did not give a clear reason for the arrest.
On Wednesday morning, Jamaat-e-Islami party leader, Shafiqur Rahman, was placed in police custody. He is the leader of the third largest party in the country and was arrested after he pledged to join the protests led by the BNP.
Jamaat-e-Islami has seen numerous party leaders tried, and even hanged, for war crimes since 2009, and the party has been banned from contesting elections since 2013. From this time on they have taken part in multiple protests against the long-ruling Bangladesh Awami League (AL). These protests have at time become violent, even to the point of turning deadly.
In turn, the AL has used its security forces to respond in kind. Such crackdowns have led to tens of thousands placed in police custody, and likely hundreds shot in the streets.
At least one person has already died in the latest scuffles between police and protesters. It remains unclear how the man was killed, however, the government claims that the death was due to injuries sustained by Molotov cocktails thrown by protesters, though there has been no evidence put forward to confirm this narrative as of yet.
The current government is still controlled by the centrist Awami League. The party holds both the prime minister seat and the vast majority of the legislature, occupying 301 of the 350 available seats.
Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh’s prime minister, has maintained her position since 2009. Some citizens, especially those sympathetic to opposition parties, have grown increasingly upset with the current government, believing their actions mitigate the effects of the multiple ongoing global strains, have not been adequate.
Many are also angered by what they see as a crackdown on freedom of speech and expression due to harsh measures taken against those going out to protest on Saturday and the arrest of opposition forces both pre and proceeding the demonstration, without clearly disclosing their rationale.
Even Peter D. Haas, the US Ambassador to Bangladesh, has pleaded with authorities to allow for open political expression in the country, and mentioned that he was worried about allegations of political violence and intimidation.
All of the 7 BNP legislators have now resigned, claiming that the 2018 elections were rigged by the AL. Though the Awami League has questioned why the opposition leaders remained in their seats for four years, only to protest right before the upcoming elections.
While these claims of election fraud have come with little evidence to back them up, the most recent clashes and arrests could be a serious issue for the country approaching the elections. Recent elections have seen hightened levels of violence, back in 2014, also saw abysmal voter turnout, leading to amplified allegations regarding the illegitimacy of the ruling government.
Likewise, with essentially a one party state and a prime minister that is currently in her fourth term, opposition officials, and citizens that support them, may grow increasingly exasperated. Hopefully this will manifest itself in more dialogue, peaceful protests from opposition forces and constructive responses from the AL, leading to a more representative government. However, looking to history, this is at least as likely to lead to growing levels of political tension and possibly instability and violence in Bangladesh.