Bangladesh strikes make work a peril
December 1, 2013
DHAKA, Bangladesh — The rickshaw driver was approaching an intersection in Bangladesh's capital when two men stopped his vehicle, doused it with gasoline and set it ablaze. The reason: He had gone to work.
Nizam Uddin, a 40-year-old father of four, was attacked this week simply for being on the streets of Dhaka, trying to earn some cash despite a nationwide blockade called by the opposition to protest the government's refusal to step down ahead of elections in early 2014. Activists have taken to torching cars, trucks and public buses that defy the strikes.
"What is it for? Why will we die this way?" asked a weeping Uddin, who has been hospitalized since Tuesday's attack with first- and second-degree burns on his hands and face. "Politicians don't care about us. They just long for power."
In the past month, about 40 people have been killed and hundreds wounded as rival political factions clashed in the streets. At least eight of the dead and 80 of the wounded suffered burns, according to Dhaka Medical College Hospital.
Many of the victims were just trying to earn a living in one of the most impoverished countries in the world.
There have been at least 25 days of nationwide general strikes this year in Bangladesh, plus various regional shutdowns, but many cannot afford to heed them. Nearly 30 percent of the country lives on less than $2 a day. Uddin has never earned more than $10 a day driving a rickshaw.
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General strikes shutting down transportation, businesses and industry are common tactics in South Asia to press political agendas. When a strike is called in Dhaka, the streets of the normally clogged capital of 12 million people become nearly empty. Schools and shops close, and when the strikes are defied, they can turn violent.
Children have been caught up in the bloodshed, including Monir, an 11-year-old boy from Dhaka's suburbs.
His father, Ramjan Ali, drove his van in defiance of another strike earlier this month and told local media that he had taken Monir because he had wanted to see Dhaka city. The father said that while he had stepped out of the van to see if it was OK to keep driving, someone set fire to his vehicle with Monir inside. Doctors at the medical college hospital burn unit spent three days trying to save his life, but he was too badly burned and died Nov. 7.
The death of Monir, who was identified only by his first name, triggered a wave of outrage and calls for peace, but the violence has continued. A 72-hour strike began this week, with opposition activists blocking roads, railways and waterways. At least 13 people had been reported killed by Wednesday.
Police say the violence is the work of opposition activists or paid henchmen, but the opposition denies having any link to the violence and blames the government for the attacks. No arrests have been made in the attacks on Monir or Uddin.
Bangladesh has a grim history of political violence, including the assassinations of two presidents and 19 failed coup attempts since its independence from Pakistan in 1971.
In the latest dispute, the opposition is demanding that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's government resign so a neutral administration can oversee the polls. They say Hasina might rig the election if she stays in office, a claim she denies.
Analysts fear the chaos could exacerbate economic woes in this country of 160 million and lead to radicalization in a strategic pocket of South Asia.
A key factor in the dispute is the role of Jamaat-e-Islami, the country's largest Islamic political party. The party is a key ally of Khaleda Zia, Hasina's chief rival, and was a coalition partner in the government Zia led from 2001 to 2006.
Student wings of the major parties, particularly Jamaat-e-Islami, are also believed to be involved the attacks and clashes with police. The party has been declared illegal by a court, keeping it from participating in elections. It doesn't have widespread popular support, but it does have a following among students at universities across the country.
Several general strikes earlier this year were triggered by death sentences issued against Jamaat-e-Islami members convicted of war crimes during the 1971 independence war.
"Yes, there is a threat of rise of radical forces," said political analyst Hassan Shahriar. But he added that the country so far has been unable to achieve a true democracy, "where all the views will be fairly accommodated."
Iftekhar Zaman, who heads the local chapter of the Berlin-based anti-graft group Transparency International, said politics so often turn violent because the country has a "winner-takes-all" style in which the state is all-powerful.
But jockeying for position means nothing to people to Uddin, who may need months to recover from his burns. He was his family's only breadwinner.
"I need to earn money. I need to feed my family. I can't sit idle," Uddin said from his hospital bed. "Politicians should understand we are human beings. Life is precious to us, too."