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Bangladesh: Solidarity with student movement

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One month ago, the state authorities in Bangladesh cracked down viciously on mass student protests in Dhaka, the country's capital. The goons of the Bangladesh Chhatra League, a student wing of the Awami League, the governing political party, and the police, attacked protesting students.

The movement was sparked by the killing of two students on 29th of July by a speeding bus. At first sight, it looks surprising that a road accident could lead to such a big movement. However, the deaths of these students was not an isolated accident, but part of a bigger picture, pointing to the neglect of elementary safety regulations by the government. At least 7,397 people lost their lives in road accidents just last year, according to the non-governmental Passengers' Welfare Association. That means about 20 are killed on a daily basis.

In addition, these student protests must be seen in the context of growing discontent and repression by the government. In April, there were mass protests against the “quota system”, which reserves posts in the civil service for the grand-children of the fighters killed in the war of independence in 1971. The demonstrations were brutally repressed by the police.

After the killing of the two students at the end of July, students came out in huge numbers and took the streets, demanding “We want safe roads” and “We want justice”. Thousands of teenage students, many as young as 13, joined in solidarity. They blocked the traffic and asked drivers to show their permits and protest against the government. The movement in July was clearly a continuation of the protests sparked after the demonstrations in April by university students demanding reform of civil service employment.

Once again, the government responded with severe and brutal repression. The Bangladeshi security forces launched a massive crackdown. More than one hundred and fifty students were injured during the protest. Female students were sexually harassed and even raped. At least 20 journalists were reportedly beaten up by the youth wing of the ruling Awami League. Police arrested many protesters and activists, including Shahidul Alam, one of Bangladesh's top photographers and activists, for supporting the students.

Prime Minister Hasina “ordered” the students to end their action and demanded that “all guardians and parents keep their children at home”. The Interior Minister, Asaduzzaman Khan, denounced the protests as “a conspiracy to make the government inoperative”. Signaling a possible witch hunt against protest organisers, he declared that the government would “take stern action against those conspiring to exploit this by inciting the minors”.

In a desperate move to dispel concern over the licensing and traffic laws, the government approved its Road Transport Act, by which traffic offenders can be jailed for five years and denied bail. The government also announced it will consider capital punishment for those responsible for fatal road accidents.

During the protests, Bangladesh authorities shut down mobile internet access across whole swathes of the country, in an attempt to try to limit the ability of students to mobilise or spread growing online outrage over how the government has handled the protests, hours after police and unidentified men wielding sticks and stones clashed with students.

Although the protests have largely subsided as a result of the repression, the government's use of brute force has exposed the political fault lines in Bangladeshi society. They are a warning that Hasina’s government, unable to contain discontent, is moving increasingly toward dictatorial forms of rule.

While these student demonstrations were mainly focused on road safety, it is clear that they also reflected the people's growing frustration with the government.

Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center, believes that the protests were an expression of longstanding, pent-up anger about the government and its policies on the whole.

"It's hard to imagine that the mere issue of traffic safety, important though it may be, could spark such a widespread and sustained period of dissent," Kugelman told DW. "The road safety issue is the straw that broke the camel's back; these large protests were rooted in much deeper and complicated grievances."

We have seen many movements in the past years like the one over student quota reforms, whose leaders have just been released from jail or are still in prison. We have also seen working class struggles in the recent past, both in textile and other sectors and these show the real social force that can lead a fight against the government and capitalism.

In December, there will be national elections and it is clear that the government is moving towards more authoritarian rule to win these elections. At the same time, the bourgeois opposition aims to gain from the growing discontent. In this situation, it is important for the student movement and the working class to join forces and build a strong movement to fight against the current government and also the bourgeois opposition.