Dhaka: Thousands of Bangladeshi students have vowed to stay on the streets protesting until their government agrees to demands for improved road safety and justice for those who died in traffic and during violent clashes over the weekend.
Thousands of students paralysed parts of Bangladesh's capital on Sunday to protest the country's abysmal road safety conditions. Teenagers dressed in school uniforms erected checkpoints across the city, forcing the police and government ministers to observe traffic laws that are otherwise poorly enforced.
Shahidul Alam, a well-known photographer and activist who posted a photo on Facebook (below) of his smashed camera gear, was arrested on Sunday by plain-clothed police after giving a television interview in which he said Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had no credibility and was using "brute force" to cling to power.
A court in Dhaka ordered him to be confined for seven days for questioning on charges of spreading false information and propaganda against the government.
Amnesty International called for Alam's immediate release, with deputy South Asia director Omar Waraich saying in a statement that the arrest "marks a dangerous escalation of a crackdown by the government."
The protests started nearly a week ago after two students were killed and 12 others wounded when a bus plowed into a bus stop on July 29.
The driver had lost control of his vehicle while racing another bus to pick up passengers, a common occurrence in Bangladesh, where dozens of poorly regulated private transportation companies vie for customers. Nearly 7400 people died in traffic accidents across Bangladesh last year, with another 16,100 injured.
The protests intensified on Sunday when university students joined the middle and high school students who have led the movement so far. The newcomers joined in solidarity after a pro-government student union joined the police's ranks and clashed with protesters on Saturday and Sunday. Armed with scraps of metal and thick, gnarled tree branches, pro-government student protesters attacked and wounded five photojournalists, including a photographer from The Associated Press. At least 200 people have been wounded in the protests.
Police used tear gas and batons to subdue demonstrators and shut, or slowed down, access to the internet in several areas to curb protest participation and information flow.
The move prevented protesters from uploading pictures and video of their demonstrations to social media or the messaging service WhatsApp, prompting protesters to accuse the government of blocking free speech. But Telecommunication Minister Mustafa Jabbar said in an interview that a technical issue had prevented mobile providers from offering faster connections.
Other officials said the mobile internet speeds had been purposefully slowed after rumours that the Awami League party detained, killed and raped several demonstrators at one of their offices in Dhaka.
But students are still finding ways to access social media to spread photos and videos of the violence under the hashtag #wewantjustice. Several have contacted Fairfax Media with accounts of beatings and rapes.
Unconfirmed reports said four male students were killed and four female students were raped during the clashes. Photographs, including one of a dead student in his uniform, are too graphic to show.
Students have blamed the pro-government student union associated with the ruling Awami League party, the Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL), for the violence and have started an online petition asking the "United Nations and security services" to classify it as a terrorist organisation. It has received more than 120,000 signatures.
Authorities have publicly denounced students' accounts saying they are false rumours, trying to tamp down protesters' rage.
"I think mobile operators' problems have come as blessings for all of us — otherwise we would get more rumours by now," Jabbar, the telecommunications minister, said.
The demonstrations have been leaderless so far, with students gathering at their schools or universities in the morning before funneling out onto the street to block roads and erect makeshift checkpoints around their respective institutions. Bus operators across the country shut down long-distance routes this week in response, some telling TV stations they were afraid of the violence.
On some days the protests have attracted up to 15,000 students, with parents leaving work to join their children and restaurants offering free food to demonstrators.
The students' ability to organise and to enforce poorly obeyed laws has embarrassed the governing party, the Awami League, as it heads into elections in December.
Students responsible for checkpoints have forced the police and government officials to provide driver's licences and car registration. They have also helped ease street congestion by forcing Dhaka's drivers — notorious for driving on the wrong side of the road or skipping traffic lines — to obey laws.
"If children like us can establish discipline in traffic management, why can't the traffic police do it?" said Tameem Dari Khan, who recently graduated from high school and is waiting to attend university. "It's because they get bribes. They are not interested to check properly, so they can get some illegal benefit."
On Thursday, students asked a police sergeant on a motorcycle to show his licence, which he refused to do. When the sergeant slapped a young boy, the students attacked him and set fire to his motorcycle.
Despite that episode, most interactions at student-run checkpoints have been peaceful. A government minister travelling in his motorcade was stopped at a checkpoint last week, and was then forced to ride with his security detail after his chauffeur failed to produce a driver's licence. Students have turned over unlicensed drivers to the police.
The police's violent turn this weekend may encourage more students to come out, observers said. The ruling party has also blamed the opposition for stoking protests.
On Sunday, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan praised the patience displayed by the police, but added that law enforcement officers would not continue to "sit idle and watch."
"We will go for tough action if the limit is crossed," he said.
For many, the protests are about much more than the country's hazardous road conditions. They also symbolise the poor governance and corruption across Bangladesh.
The student movement has demanded that the death penalty be imposed on the driver who careered into the bus stop at full speed on July 29, and that the government enforce more rigorous traffic laws.
Shipping Minister Shajahan Khan mocked the protesters during a news conference last week. Pointing out that a recent bus crash in neighboring India had killed 30 passengers, he said that "they don't complain about it as we do."
Khan is also the head of Bangladesh's powerful transportation lobby, which activists say is a conflict of interest.
The transportation sector has long operated above the law, with powerful officials either owning private bus companies or relying on its workers for political support. By bribing officials, transportation companies obtain driver's licenses for employees, who are often first-time drivers. They also bribe the police to get out of deadly accidents or allow their decrepit buses to continue along commuter routes.
"The transportation sector is absolutely corrupt," said Iftekharuzzaman, who goes by one name and is the executive director of Transparency International, Bangladesh.
New York Times, with Fairfax Media