Bangladesh has been crippled by ongoing violence that was originally sparked by students protesting for new road safety laws in the country.
What started as peaceful demonstrations following the death of two students at the hands of a bus driver reportedly racing another to pick up passengers – has descended into scenes of violence and harrowing stories of corruption.
The city of Dhaka witnessed an eye-watering 4,000 pedestrians killed in road traffic accidents last year, the deaths of these two students, like countless others, seemed destined to slip under the radar once more.
Only this time didn’t slip beneath the radar. Outrage spread quickly across social media and tens of thousands took to the streets and demand change.
A movement fiercely led by the youth of Bangladesh started with students blocking roads and intersections, bringing the city to a standstill.
Protestors stopped trucks, taxis and even police cars and demanded to see the licenses of those driving, acting as street vigilantes where authorities had failed.
However what started with students begging for their safety to be considered, quickly descended into scenes of violence and horror stories of government corruption.
Clashes between protestors and police have escalated drastically, with officers using rubber bullets and tear gas against the demonstrators. A claim which had been initially denied by the authorities, despite accounts from hospital staff who had treated students and journalists who had fell victim to the attacks.
Only witnesses say it isn’t just police attacking students. One group in particular, the Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL) a pro-government student organisation have been accused of violence towards both the students and media persons covering the situation.
A quick look into the kind of reputation surrounding the BCL and things begin to add up. The top result being a petition signed by more than 100,000 people asking for the organisation to be enlisted as a terrorist group.
We reached out to the BCL on numerous occasions for a comment on the clashes, however they did not respond to our requests.
Students in Bangladesh are just unstoppable. You can’t stop them by throwing bullets at them or beating them brutally. Even at night, they are ready to protest with candles to remember the students that we’ve lost during protest. World needs to know. Please retweet.#WeWantJustice pic.twitter.com/TEbk8YPZ3D
— Sifat Hossain (@sifat70) August 5, 2018
Fear has dramatically grown amongst those involved with and those covering the clashes. We spoke to a number of students, who for fear of being arrested asked to remain anonymous when giving their version of events.
One student explained that the full extent of the violence was not being covered in mainstream media, largely due to the fear of locals speaking out.
“Things have gone from bad to worse today. Police and the ruling party agents “Chatro League” have started attacking students all over the country. Even they have entered many university campuses and beat the students brutally.”
He want on to explain him and fellow students were genuinely living in fear for their lives.
“Universities have become war-zones. We are being tortured by this government and we don’t have anything to do.”
That fear of being identified quickly made sense. During the course of our lengthy conversation a high-profile photographer, Shahidul Alam, was arrested and charged with spreading propaganda and false information on social media for comments made on Facebook.
It came just hours after Alam appeared for a television interview on Al Jazeera, where he criticised the government’s handling of the situation.
Alam was forcibly removed from his home and into a waiting car by men in plain clothes according to eye witness reports. They covered one CCTV camera with tape to hide their actions, and removed footage from another that detailed their entry into the building.
Omar Waraich, Amnesty International’s Deputy South Asia Director raised concerns about the treatment of the photographer in custody.
“Shahidul Alam is a prisoner of conscience detained simply for peacefully expressing his views. We are deeply worried about his treatment in custody and the condition in which he attended court.”
“The Government’s reaction to the recent protests in Bangladesh has raised global alarm. The violence unleashed against peaceful young students and journalists covering the protests has been a worrying spectacle which risks tarnishing the country’s reputation.
“The rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly should be protected by the state, not crushed.”
Bangladesh government’s tear gas shells are now used as pencil stands by students. pic.twitter.com/lG776kgegb
— taslima nasreen (@taslimanasreen) August 7, 2018
The overwhelming feeling is that these students are helpless. As you delve further into the horror stories it becomes harder to read. First hand accounts of kidnap and accusations of sexual assault by pro-government groups.
Another student we spoke to who took part in the initial protests described the brutality displayed towards her and others.
“We are the general students who got beaten, tortured by the student politicians. Those goons used knives, steel rods, even guns over the students to stop the protest.”
So what of the government themselves, the ruling Awami League Party? A group which has remained eerily quiet throughout the clashes, refusing to condemn the actions of groups that are attacking protestors in their name.
Reflecting on the initial reasons for protest, they have promised to consider road safety reforms, an announcement that seems insignificant in comparison.
It’s clear the party has been embarrassed by what the situation has escalated to on their watch. They have urged students to abandon their demonstrations, even cutting off 3G and 4G access in an attempt to break down communication channels for those organising further protests.
Yet government figures have made it abundantly clear which side they sit on. None more blatantly than the cold and remorseless statement in which general secretary Obaidul Quader asked “Will we kiss them if they advance towards Awami League office?” As if to give their seal of approval to the pro-government groups accused spearheading the violence.
Such events seem like they have been destined for a long time now, a sense of political unrest has been boiling up for years in the country. It’s now past breaking point.
The elections which took place in 2014 were littered in controversy, with almost all major opposition parties boycotting the election and 21 people being killed on election day.
Now what began with students begging for their own safety on the roads has escalated into something much bigger, something on a scale which the country has never witnessed before. These students are fearing for their lives and those in power are clearly not prepared to offer any real solution, rather they are sitting back and letting others commit atrocities on their behalf.