Bangladesh Surprise: Peaceful protests welcomed

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Published on January 21, 2023
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The article was originally published in the Washington Times on 20th January 2023

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Shah Ali Farhad: 

Bangladesh’s main opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), spent months preparing for weekend protests in December in the capital, Dhaka. BNP Standing Committee member Dr. Khondker Mosharraf Hossain predicted that the Bangladeshi government would “not be able to maintain law and order.” Western press sounded the alarm, warning of “organized violence” and chaos. The U.S. Embassy alerted American citizens about potential violence.

And then… nothing bad happened.

When Bangladeshi’s awoke on Monday morning, they found their country as peaceful as ever. Dhaka’s streets, while congested and loud as usual, showed no signs of chaos or violence. There had been none.

Unfortunately, Western observers rarely celebrate the many peaceful protests that have occurred in the country, but rather focus on the few instances in which law enforcement acted to preserve public safety.

Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, for example, demanded that governments “publicly call on the prime minister to allow Bangladeshis to freely engage in peaceful political activities.” Yet that is precisely what happened on Dec. 10. The BNP freely engaged in large, generally peaceful gatherings without government interference.

Bangladesh’s democracy functioned exactly as it should.

Article 37 of Bangladesh’s constitution guarantees the right to protest. The only permissible exceptions occur when public safety is at risk. But Bangladeshi police were not called upon to exercise that right during the most recent round of protests. In the month leading up to the Dec. 10 rally in Dhaka, the BNP organized nine public assemblies. Each occurred without violence.

The government worked tirelessly to accommodate the large gathering in Dhaka, offering the use of Suhrawardy Udyan, a national memorial, which was spacious enough to safely hold the expected guests. But the BNP refused and instead demanded to hold the gathering in the congested streets in front of its party office in Naya Paltan. This choice presented significant public safety concerns.

On Dec. 7, three days before the rally, worries about public safety became a reality when BNP leaders and activists assembled in the streets of Naya Paltan. To prevent a breakdown of law and order, additional police were deployed in the area. BNP leaders and activists hurled stones and bricks at law enforcement officers, injuring 49 police officers. But chaos on the streets was largely averted.

The BNP’s Dec. 10 rally took place at another venue, Golap Bagh, and went off without incident. The gathering was significantly smaller than predicted and failed to bring about “popular agitation,” as BNP officials forecasted. Democracy in Bangladesh prevailed, and freedom of expression was protected.

Western governments and critics of Bangladesh underestimate the popularity of Prime Minister Hasina, as well as the unpopularity of the BNP. The prime minister’s policies have raised millions of Bangladeshis out of poverty, digitized the country and propelled the nation to astounding economic growth. She has significantly improved the lives of Bangladeshis.

The BNP, on the other hand, has yet to offer new ideas or attractive candidates for election. Rather, in years past, it produced violence rather than debate. It has been discredited nationally for its allegiance to Jamaat-I-Islami, a banned political party that collaborated with the Pakistan Army against Bangladesh during Bangladesh’s War of Liberation. Recent threats to “restage another 1975,” a violent coup that led to the massacre of Bangladesh’s founding father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and much of his family, only cements the BNP’s reputation as an extremist organization prone to violence in the minds of Bangladeshis.

This misunderstanding about Bangladesh’s political landscape extends to its elections. In the election year of 2014, BNP members instigated nationwide strikes and set fire to thousands of homes, cars, buildings, and businesses. On election day, they firebombed polling booths. BNP-backed attacks killed 231 people and injured 1,180 others. In 2018, with polls indicating a Hasina landslide, the BNP boycotted the election. The BNP leveled baseless accusations about the validity of the election anyway. Election observers from India, Nepal, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation declared it free, fair, and peaceful.

The government of Prime Minister Hasina has managed to allow free and open expressions of dissent and to tamp down threats of violence. Media criticism notwithstanding, the government has taken steps to ensure that citizens’ rights to gather and make their views know, while still protecting the public.

Bangladesh is an example of how democracy can work, despite a deluge of complaints from foreigners.

Writer: Bangladeshi lawyer, researcher, and political activist, is senior political associate at the Dhaka-based research organization the Centre for Research and Information and a former special aide to Bangladesh’s Prime Minister.