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August 10, 2018

Dhaka protests


August 10, 2018

The best indicator of how democratic a government is can be seen in the way it handles dissent. By that metric, the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in Bangladesh seems to be lagging. For over a week now, thousands have been protesting in Dhaka over road safety. The protest was spurred by the killing of two teenagers by a speeding bus, allegedly owned by the relative of a government minister. The reaction of the government to these protests shows how little tolerance it has for civil society protest and how quick it is to resort to violence. Last Saturday, more than 100 people were injured as police fired rubber bullets at protesters. The next day, renowned photographer Shahidul Alam was picked up by plainclothes police officials for being critical of the government in an interview he gave to Al Jazeera. Alam has been charged under a draconian law. With his arrest, however, the Bangladeshi state has hurt its own image. Alam’s friends say that he was badly beaten by the police, and international rights groups have called for his release. Alam himself said after a court appearance that he was tortured. It was only on the orders of a court that he was belatedly shifted to hospital to receive treatment for the injuries he suffered. The intent of the government, it seems, is to shut down all criticism – through violent means if necessary.

Apart from the violence against student protesters and the arrest of Alam, the Bangladeshi government has also blocked mobile phone signals and internet service in parts of Dhaka and other cities to make it more difficult for protesters to organise. Shahzahan Khan, the minister whose relative is believed to own the bus that killed two teenagers, furthered fuelled the protests when he said there is no outrage when people are killed in road accidents in countries like India. Human rights activists in Bangladesh claim that the death toll from the accident was actually higher but that information is being suppressed by the government. A government that relies on censorship, arbitrary arrests and misinformation to quell protests is only likely to end up fuelling even more public outrage. Dhaka is one of the most densely populated cities in the world and its residents know best how to improve road safety. Should they continue to be silenced, there is every chance of the protests widening.

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