Bangladesh - Students defy the brutality of the military dictatorship

What started as an argument and scuffle between a group of army officers and students watching a football match has ended up as a widespread movement of the youth in Bangladesh, followed by curfew and sever repression, which has only served to spread the movement throughout the whole country.

Bangladesh is boiling. Price hike, unemployment, floods and the declining standards of living has made the life of a common man a living hell. Life is costlier than death. Several attempts have been made in the last year to remove all these menaces and these attempts will be made again and again until this system is overthrown.

Once again the youth, students and teachers have come out onto streets. The movement that started after a small incident in Dacca University has engulfed the whole country. Students are challenging the military dictatorship and their whole system. The military in response has resorted to the old repressive measures and the students and teachers are being brutally repressed. The media is under strict military control. Television, radio, newspapers, even the internet, are all under fierce state control. The journalists who do not obey orders are facing harsh repression.

In September last year workers from garment factories paralyzed the whole country in their protests against harsh working conditions. In the face of the same movement that exploded again in January of this year the government appointed by Khalida Zia stumbled. A state of emergency was imposed throughout the whole country by the Army, and an ex-employee of the World Bank, Fakhr din Ahmed was appointed as a caretaker head of state and the general elections were postponed until December 2008.

This new government used the cover of already failed politicians to survive. All the leading politicians of the country were accused of corruption after which both the former prime ministers Khalida Zia and Hasina Wajid ended up in prison.

In an attempt to appear different from the past governments this new government used the farce of "reforms" but in reality these policies were the continuation of the same old policies which the World Bank and other International Financial institutions are imposing on "third world" countries everywhere. The failure of these policies was the basis of the movement of the workers of the Garment factories.

The present government, which is backed by the military, has not solved a single basic problem in Bangladesh. On the contrary, the prices of items of daily use are rocketing sky high. This has provoked panic and turbulence in social life which is reflected in various events and movements.

An incident that sparked off the movement

In the afternoon of 20th August a football match was being played between the Public Administration Department and Mass Communication & Journalism Department of Dacca University. Among the spectators, along with the students, a few army officers were also present. One has to remember that after the new military backed government was formed in January of this year many army camps were set up at various places in the cities including universities and colleges.

During the match a few students and army officers quarrelled over some issue after which the army men thrashed the students. When some teachers tried to interfere they were also thrashed. After that these students were immediately taken to Dacca Medical College Hospital.

After this incident the acting vice-chancellor Professor Yusuf Haider and Procter of the university Professor Feroz went to the officer in charge of the army camp in the university, Colonel Huda who assured them that appropriate action would be taken. But the students demanded that the officer involved should seek public pardon.

After this incident the students were furious and started chanting slogans against the army and organised a rally and after marching round the university they gathered outside the vice-chancellor's office. During their protest they demanded that the army camp should be withdrawn immediately. That is when the police came and baton-charged the students, injuring seven of them.

The students then moved to the Fine Arts Department and threw stones at the police. After that the raged students came out of the university and started protesting on the road, and within a few hours this protest had spread to other colleges in Dacca and other cities.

Throughout the evening of that day many battles between students and police were held, during which nearly 100 students were injured. The students burnt tires to stop the police charge and tear gas. The police, accompanied by the army, closed all the entry points to Dacca University but the protest continued to get more intense.

The students gathered at the canteen under the banner of "Students against Repression" and announced that if their demands were not met by 22nd August they would call a strike in all the educational institutions of the country. Now they were demanding that army chief Moeen ud din Ahmed apologise in public and that all the army personnel involved in this case should be punished, the injured students should be compensated and all those who had been arrested should be released immediately. Moreover, the military should stop interfering in state affairs.

The students' protests continued throughout the day and the night and also the next day. During these protests many cars were set on fire. An army jeep was set on fire at Kataban crossing near Shahbagh. On Mirpur road on the university campus seven cars were set on fire.

Similar protests also started in other cities in which the students demanded that all army camps in educational institutions should be withdrawn immediately. With the increasing intensity of the protests state repression also increased. The police fired rubber bullets at the students while students burned effigies of Fakhr ud din Ahmed and army chief Moeen ud din Ahmed.

On the night of 20th August the students of Dacca College came to support the university students and participated in the protests. The institutions in which big protests were held include Bangladesh University of Engineering & Technology, Jagannath University, Shere Bangla Agriculture University, Qazi Nazrul College Dacca, Jehangirnagar University, Raj Shahi University, Chittagong University, Shah Jalal University of Science & Technology Silhet, Islamic University Kshtiya, Braja Mohan College Barisal and Michel Madhousdan College Jaisoor.

The Dacca University Teachers Association also called a general meeting for the next day on 21st August and extended support to the demands of the students. Teachers' associations of Raj Shahi University and Jehangirnagar University also supported these demands. Students and Teachers of Raj Shahi University held a joint protest on their campus.

In the evening of 21st August Fakhr ud din Ahmed appeared on TV and apologized to the students for the behaviour of the army officers and announced that all army camps in the universities would be withdrawn immediately. Moreover, severe action would be taken against the people involved in this issue. However, this failed to pacify the enraged students and the movement spread to other cities and its intensity amplified with every passing moment.

In Bangladesh University of Engineering & Technology the students protested by forming a human chain. When the students of Jagannath University approached the vice-chancellor they were charged with tear gas and three students were injured. After that the students called a strike in the university. Ten students of Shere Bangla University were injured in battles with the police. Students of Jehangirnagar University blocked Dacca Aricha road.

Students boycotted the classes and exams and called a strike on 22nd August. Students and Teachers of Raj Shahi University protested with black ribbons on their arms while the police snatched all their banners. Similar protests were held in other universities. According to Dacca Blog people walking on the pavement and small vendors and shop keepers joined these protests after which the numbers participating reached the thousands. In these incidents three people were killed, one in Chittagong and the other two in Raj Shahi.

Fearing the intensity of these protests, the government imposed a curfew on the night of 22nd August in six districts, including Dacca. All universities were closed down till further notice while all students were given a few hours to leave the hostels. After the announcement of the curfew panic spread throughout Dacca. Much less time was given to close businesses and go home and thus chaos in the transport system was the result.

That night a big crackdown was carried out by the military. Bangladesh was practically cut off from the rest of the world. Mobile phone networks were shut down, all the internet traffic was monitored through the state telecom agency, the media was curbed by fierce censorship and a large number of students and media workers was arrested. Hundreds of journalists were abducted and taken to unknown places. Raids were carried out to capture various student leaders and teachers. Many teachers left their homes and went to safer places.

The curfew was lifted after six days on the night of 28th August. During this period many student leaders and teachers were arrested and tortured. Strict restrictions were imposed on TV, radio, newspapers and every other source of information. Anyone who spoke out against the government was subjected to severe physical torture.

Basis of the movement

After the new military backed government was formed in January of this year they failed to stabilise the economy of Bangladesh. The trade deficit has continued to widen rapidly. According to newspaper reports at present the trade Deficit of Bangladesh is US$3458 million, which is highest in the last eleven years. This huge deficit is due to the decline in exports which is the result of the policies of the WTO and other imperialist financial institutions. According to the figures released by Bangladesh Bank, the rate of growth of exports has decreased from 21.63% to 5.94% in one year. Due to the fall in exports the Bangladeshi currency, the Taka, is under severe pressure and could be devalued. Large number of textile factories are being closed and unemployment is on the rise.

All these factors have led to an increase in inflation, due to which prices of items of daily use have increased. According to official figures, since November last year the prices of all food items have increased by at least 40 %. The price of powdered milk has recorded an increase of 120%. According to a report of the World Bank, inflation was 9.2% in the month of June alone and it will increase further in the coming months. In the report it is stated that, "Increase in the prices of food items is a serious problem. Floods can further aggravate this problem. In the next two months inflation can rise."

This economic crisis has seriously affected the standard of living of the common people and life is becoming tougher for poor people. Each day adds to the pain and suffering. In the holy month of Ramadan the hoarders have raised the prices even higher, adding to the already intolerable suffering of the people. In these conditions it is no surprise that we are witnessing a violent movement of youth.

Devastations of Flood

This year once again Bangladesh is facing heavy floods which have rendered false all the hollow claims of progress. The North East and Central areas are facing devastating floods. According to government figures on 20th August, when the protests began, 587 people had died due to flooding and millions had become homeless.

The government has nothing to give to the flood affected people and this is adding to the misery of the affected people. The entire infrastructure has collapsed as no preventive measures were taken. Due to lack of food, clean drinking water and medicines, the affected people are living in miserable conditions. Many viral diseases have spread in the affected areas. In 39 districts affected by flood, women and children have nothing to eat or drink.

According to the Flood and Disaster Management Authority, 15 million people have been made homeless, out of which 66,159 people have been given shelter in 475 relief camps. 26,026 km of roads have been destroyed along with 1764 big and small bridges. Large areas of crops have been affected which will add to the misery of poor farmer. All these figures alone reflect the failure of the government.

This huge devastation has exposed the hollowness of the system. This system does not have the ability to rebuild all that has been destroyed. This system cannot even give shelter to the people who have been displaced by these floods. These people will have to face the hardships of life by themselves. This system only gives them death at every moment and they will have to snatch every breath of life.

Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank

The imperialist financial institutions play out the farce of "reforms" to pacify the masses. Their followers who call themselves "champions of human rights" actually help these institutions to impose the brutal system on the masses. Last year the Noble prize for "peace" was awarded to a banker from Bangladesh, Muhammad Yunus. All the bourgeois media have been praising Yunus for his "greatness" and humane nature. In reality, this apparently nice person is a bloodthirsty wolf who is exploiting the masses.

His Grameen Bank was founded on a "no profit no loss" basis. But since 1996 he has become a millionaire while the poor people who he used for his business are still living hand to mouth. His project itself is no longer a success story now. Richard Shaffer from New York says that the "mobile in village" project of Yunus is no longer successful. Salim, an officer from the Grameen Bank told Shaffer that "poor women who now come into this business remain poor". But the wealth of Yunus is increasing several times over. The military backed government formed at the start of this year, first offered Yunus the premiership which he reluctantly refused. This shows the weakness of these "great" people, because they know that the system on which this government is formed is collapsing and it can spark a movement anytime that can challenge this system. This also highlights the weakness of the bourgeoisie of Bangladesh and how they are incapable of any reform in the country.

Disgraceful Army and one photograph

Due to the weakness of the capitalist class in underdeveloped countries, the army generals got a big share in the economy and have played a big role in the politics of those countries. Bangladesh has experienced long periods of military rule and the interesting thing is that the fall of all these military dictatorships was started by students' movements. Now, once again generals are imposing the brutal policies of the World Bank and IMF. Hiding behind the already notorious and failed politicians, they are attacking the working class. But as in Pakistan, the dictator and the politicians who were foes some years back are now close friends because their interests are the same. Similarly in Bangladesh these foes will not hesitate in becoming friends when their interests will be threatened by a movement of the working class. The military has exposed itself by repeatedly taking power.

This is reflected in a photograph in which a student is seen kicking an army officer and the officer is trying to escape. This photograph was published in the Dacca Daily Star and it created waves throughout the whole country. The masses saw the photograph as a reflection of their feelings and said that actually this student is kicking army chief Moeen ud din Ahmed.

After that the photograph was banned throughout the whole country. The photographer who had taken this photograph was arrested and brutally tortured. Other journalists working for the paper were also arrested and subjected to severe torture. Because the face of the student who was kicking cannot be seen in the picture he couldn't be identified. But raids were made on the homes of students who were suspected of being the culprit. The arrested students were tortured physically abused.

The Bangladeshi media still faces severe censorship and an environment of oppression is present on all university campuses. Arrested teachers have been accused of serious crimes and have been sent to jail. According to the Audio Bulletin of E-Bangladesh the activists of Jamat-e-Islami, a right-wing religious party, are the front men of the army and police. They are spying on the students and teachers. Their members in the police and bureaucracy are using this opportunity to avenge their political rivals.

What Next?

This students' movement has not yet succeeded in uniting with the labour movement. In September last year and January this year we saw same violence in the movement of the garment workers. The basic reason was there were no trade unions.

Similarly the movements of youth and students are always violent. But when these movements join hands with the labour movement, this not only strengthens them, but the character of these movements also changes. The method of struggle of the working class is the general strike. If workers call a strike in important sectors of the economy the whole of society is paralysed.

No political party is leading the movement at present, although the activists of various political parties are present in this movement. No party has offered a clear programme. All are demanding general elections so that they can come to power once again and start plundering and looting. All parties are once again subjecting this movement to the false perspective of dictatorship versus democracy. The two regimes of Khalida Zia and one regime of Hasina Wajid were unable to solve any of the basic problems of the masses. Whether it is dictatorship or democracy the economic system remains the same, and the suffering of the common people remain the same as well.

If a left wing party were to offer a clear revolutionary programme at this critical juncture and link this protest with the basic demands of the working class, the movement would not only spread to wider layers it would also be more powerful and consistent. The present crisis has proved that no solution in Bangladesh is possible on a capitalist basis. Only after a socialist revolution could a society be built which would be able to face up to the natural calamities and use these forces to the advantage of humanity. Only a socialist economy can built the necessary infrastructure on such a large scale.

The flames raised at Dacca University instantly engulfed the whole country and if this movement moves ahead and the working class joins it then this fire can spread to the whole South Asian subcontinent. The flames rising out of hunger and deprivation will burn down this obsolete system.  


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