Protests have been erupting in Bangladesh since July 29 — it all started when two high-school students were killed in Dhaka, after being hit by a bus. This was the latest in a long line of road-related deaths, and many throughout the country feel that the government is doing little to prevent further loss of life. The streets are plagued with drivers without licenses, skyrocketing casualty and death rates, and little enforcement of what rules do exist by the law. For example, the bus driver who struck and killed the two students was unlicensed and determined to reach his destination before another bus, driving recklessly to get to his destination as fast as possible.
After the death of the two students, a largely peaceful series of protests began. They amassed so quickly, that they essentially shut down Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh and also its largest city. This led to retaliatory efforts from both citizens as well as law enforcement. Non-lethal force has been used in an attempt to disperse the protesters, including rubber bullets and tear gas. Reports have surfaced of the rape of some female students who were protesting. On top of this, the government has attempted to block access to social media by shutting down internet access via cell phone — the tool that was widely being used to rally these protests.
The government has been considering changes in the laws — most recently a law was put forth, proposing capital punishment to those responsible for a traffic accident. However, this is new and has not yet been approved.
Bangladesh has received international criticism in their handling of the protests — attempting to shut them down via restriction of the internet and other forms of communication, not to mention the widespread violence against the protesters, many of which are students between the ages of 13 and 18. Journalists have been beaten bloody when attempting to take photos of the demonstrations, and protesters have sometimes been met with machetes, metal rods or sticks.
And so, just as this is a protest against the traffic laws in Bangladesh, it is also rapidly become about the freedom of speech and freedom of the press.
Human Rights Watch has condemned the handling of the situation; Brad Adams, Asia director at HRW, said that,
Yet again, Bangladesh authorities seem determined to take abusive shortcuts to problems, and then denounce those who criticize. The authorities should immediately release anyone, including Shahidul Alam, they have locked up for peaceful criticism. Instead, authorities should prosecute those, including members of the ruling party’s youth supporters, who are attacking children with sticks and machetes.”
The youth supporters he is referring to are part of the student body but are officially attached to political organizations. Some have described them akin to Hitler’s Youth — perhaps not in ideology, but rather in the sense of both loyalty and an official arm of the government within the student body.
The U.N. has also spoken out, saying that they are “increasingly concerned for the safety of children and young people caught up in recent protests over road safety in Dhaka and other parts of the country,” and that, “Students and young people have a legitimate right to speak out on issues of concern to them including road safety issues and to have their opinion heard without the threat of violence.”
The U.S. Embassy in Dhaka released a statement on Facebook, saying:
The peaceful demonstrations of the past week in favor of better vehicle and road safety, led by students and school children across Bangladesh, have united and captured the imagination of the whole country. While we do not condone the actions of a few who have engaged in senseless property destruction, including of buses and other vehicles, nothing can justify the brutal attacks and violence over the weekend against the thousands of young people who have been peacefully exercising their democratic rights in supporting a safer Bangladesh.”
In response, Bangladesh‘s Minister of Information Hasanul Haq Inu said that the U.S. was “poking its nose in Bangladesh’s internal politics in an indecent way.”
Featured image: Bangladeshi students shout slogans as they block a road during a protest in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Saturday, Aug. 4, 2018. Five days of protests by tens of thousands of students angry over the traffic deaths of two of their colleagues have largely cut off the capital Dhaka from the rest of Bangladesh, as the demonstrators pressed their demand for safer roads. | AP Photo/A. M. Ahad