Bangladesh Relaxes Curfew

In Bangladesh, the army-backed interim government has eased a curfew that was imposed in a bid to end days of clashes between police and students. Authorities have called the violence a "conspiracy" and have closed a number of universities in the capital and other cities.

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In Bangladesh today, security forces have been raiding houses around the capital Dhaka. They've already arrested a couple professors and at least one student leader following three days of student clashes with police. Those protests became so violent that the government imposed a curfew in major cities. The unrest marks the first serious challenge to the unelected, army-backed emergency administration running this nation of 150 million people.

NPR's South Asia correspondent Philip Reeves sent this report.

PHILIP REEVES: Seven months have elapsed since an interim government, backed by the military, took power in Bangladesh. Elections were canceled. An indefinite state of emergency was imposed. It was installed after months of chaos. Almost every day there were mass protests and street battles between Bangladesh's rival political parties, fueled by anger over the outgoing government's efforts to rig the polls.

Bangladeshis were tired of bloodshed and economic disruption, and they were also tired of rampant corruption. Many welcomed the new regime. Now, there are signs that's changing.

Mr. SAJEEB WAZED (Son of Sheikh Hasina): This government, whatever popularity it had five months ago, is gone.

REEVES: That's Sajeeb Wazed. His mother is Sheikh Hasina, a former prime minister and head of the Awami League. The League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, the BNP, are the country's largest political parties. The emergency governments launched an anti-corruption operation, detaining dozens of top politicians from both. They include Sheikh Hasina. She is accused of extortion. Her son Sajeeb says the charges against her are fabricated and complains the authorities are keeping her incommunicado.

Mr. WAZED: Me and my immediate family, who all live outside of Bangladesh, we've lived outside most of our lives, we have not been allowed to speak to her at all. She has not been allowed access to telephones at all.

REEVES: This week, thousands of students took to the streets. The trouble began in the capital at Dhaka University when students subjected to the presence of troops on campus. It soon spread and non-students began joining in. The government declared a curfew in six cities, which it's now beginning to ease, and closed many universities indefinitely.

Some believe this unrest marks the start of a campaign to force the interim government and the man behind it, the Army Chief General Moeen U Ahmed, to restore democracy.

Suhas Chakma, director of the Asian Center for Human Rights, says the administration is in trouble.

Mr. SUHAS CHAKMA (Director, Asian Center for Human Rights): We have come to a point of no return. If the present administration goes that way, and if the BNP and Awami League come to power, the military is quite fearful that they will be taking vengeful actions against the military officials who themselves, at present, are involved in many corruption activities.

REEVES: The interim government has said there will be elections by the end of next year, but it's not certain. For years, Bangladeshi politics have been dominated by stultifying enmity between the two women who had the biggest parties - Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia of the BNP. The interim government is trying to end this with fundamental reforms.

Bibhu Prasad Routray of the Institute of Conflict Management in New Delhi says this is a lengthy task.

Dr. BIBHU PRASAD ROUTRAY (Research Fellow, Institute of Conflict Management): We are talking about a complete overhauling of the electoral process, taking the corruption and anti-corruption laws to the maximum. And it will take time. It will not end with 2008. It might even go until 2010.

REEVES: But the concern among Bangladeshi political groups is that the interim government is less interested in reform than in strengthening the army's hold on power.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, New Delhi.

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