Upheaval Marks Another Election in Bangladesh

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As Bangladesh prepares for elections in January, the two main parties remain bitterly opposed. Protests are interrupting transportation in a nation where violence has become a routine part of the election cycle.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Trouble has returned to Bangladesh in the run-up to its general election in January. In Bangladesh's capital, Dhaka, thousands of protesters are clashing with police and threatening to impose an indefinite economic blockade. They are demanding electoral reforms and that the election commissioners they accuse of bias be removed.

As NPR's Philip Reeves reports, these latest protests are part of a deep-seated political conflict dividing the South Asian nation.

(Soundbite of cars)

PHILIP REEVES: Mohammad Manjoohak(ph) is performing his morning ritual. As the sun rises he comes here, to the center of Bangladesh's capital, Dhaka. He stands on the sidewalk with a group of other men studying a newspaper pasted on a wall. Today, he's particularly absorbed in his reading. Mohammad runs an auto parts shop. He wants to know if there'll be a repetition of recent political violence and strikes that have hit his business hard.

Mr. MOHAMMED MANJOOHAK (Owner, Auto Parts Shop): (Through translator) I cannot open my shop. There are some routine expenses. I cannot meet them and I cannot pay to my staff.

REEVES: Mohammad's been losing money hand over fist, and he's worried he'll soon have to lay off people.

Mr. MANJOOHAK: (Through translator) If really the situation develops, yes, I have to do it.

REEVES: Situation is a polite word for deadly political battle. It's over the makeup of the caretaker government and the election commission. The opposition suspects the outgoing government's planning to rig the elections. But for many Bangladeshis, the crisis is part of a long and paralyzing dispute between two former prime ministers, two women with millions of followers who lead the two biggest parties.

Professor ASIF NAZRUL (Dhaka University)I don't know. I mean what chemistry works between them?

REEVES: Asif Nazrul is professor of law at Dhaka University.

Professor NAZRUL: They just don't talk to each other for last couple of years. Can you believe it? And they don't even greet each other. They talk very, very, very obnoxious, insulting thing against each other.

REEVES: One of these women is the most recent prime minister, Khaleda Zia. She's head of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and widow of the former president, Zia Rahman, who was assassinated 25 years ago. This is the other.

Sheikh HASINA (Awami League): (Speaking foreign language)

REEVES: Sheik Hasina, leader of the main opposition Awami League. Her father was Bangladesh's first prime minister, Sheikh Mujib. He and most of the family was assassinated during a military coup 31 years ago. Observers say the rivalry between the two women is largely due to unsettled issues over Bangladesh's war of independence and the assassinations that followed. But Professor Nazrul says the two are able to prolong their feud because no one stands up to them.

Professor NAZRUL: The way they are tempered, the way they are flattered by top intellectuals of our country, so they think they are, whatever they are doing, they are doing the right thing.

(Soundbite of crowd)

REEVES: This is the picture that springs to mind in the West when Bangladesh crops up in conversation. Rusting ferries shoved through a muddy maze of waterways packed with people who can't be sure they'll arrive. Hundreds have died in ferry sinkings in the last few years. But Debapriya Bhattacharya, head of the Center for Policy Dialogue in Dhaka, argues that Bangladesh tends to be unfairly stereotyped.

Mr. DEBAPRIYA BHATTACHARYA (Center for Policy Dialogue): And the strategic importance of Bangladesh (unintelligible) is very much underplayed. If you look at the location of Bangladesh, it's not only - it is located as a bridge between South and Southeast Asia, it's location, as you can see. But it is also the gateway.

REEVES: A gateway to two rising giants, India and China. Bangladesh is also now notching up nearly seven percent growth. Its garments industry is doing brisk business.

(Soundbite of water)

REEVES: So are the fishmongers in Dhaka's markets. Tens of millions of Bangladeshis still live below the poverty line. Yet these days the country is able to produce food for almost all of the 140 million population. Bhattacharya says it's too easy to overlook Bangladesh's progress and to blame all of its problems on the leading ladies.

Mr. BHATTACHARYA: It is very difficult to say that you (unintelligible) leaders and immediately everything is being solved. This is over simplification, a bit naive attitude towards the problem.

REEVES: Few would accuse Hussein Mohammed Ershad of being naïve. He was Bangladesh's military ruler for some eight years. In 1990, he was thrown out and into jail. These days he runs a small political party as a free man, freely airing his views about Bangladesh's female leaders.

Mr. HUSSEIN MOHAMMED ERSHAD (Former Military Leader): If these two ladies are not there heading these two political parties, the men are there - men, men are there - all the things are not so bad. They can sit down and talk to each other. But these two ladies will not sit down across the table and talk about anything.

REEVES: Ershad, who's 76, is a figure from the past. The future lies with Bangladesh's young, people like business students Ferish Khan(ph) and Kashiko Karim(ph). They would be found enjoying a lunch of Coca-Cola and curry in a popular Dhaka restaurant.

Ms. FERISH KHAN (Student): We need a different political party, I mean someone who will actually contribute to the country.

Mr. KASHIKO KARIM (Student): In our generation the qualified people, I mean the students, they do not want to join the politics. Just because it's too chaos, too violent in our country, and we need to change this viewpoint.

REEVES: For now, though, Bangladeshis conduct their politics on the streets, often violently. And, say analysts, if the past is any guide, that could well mean more dangerous instability before the election in January.

Philip Reeves, NPR News.

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