Thousands of security officers patrolled the streets of Bangladesh’s capital on Wednesday trying to prevent violence during a general strike called by 18 Opposition parties.
The strike was ostensibly organised to demand changes in electoral law and to protest the deaths of 29 people, many of them Islamic hardliners, on Monday during street demonstrations calling for new anti-blasphemy laws. But many Bangladeshis see the protests as continuing gamesmanship between Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her archrival former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia ahead of elections next year.
“These politicians have gone mad,” said Dildar Ahmed, a 50-year-old taxi driver. “They are fighting to gain power over our dead bodies.”
Rioting has swept Bangladesh since late February when a war crimes tribunal convicted Delwar Hossain Sayedee, a top leader of the small Opposition party Jamaat-e-Islami, of committing atrocities during Bangladesh’s 1971 war for independence against Pakistan. Clashes between police and Sayedee’s supporters killed more than 70 people. War crimes trials of other Opposition leaders are pending.
The Opposition has accused Hasina of using the tribunals to try to weaken her opponents ahead of the elections, which she denies. Jamaat-e-Islami is a key Zia ally that was a coalition partner in her Government from 2001 to 2006.
The Opposition also is demanding the restoration of a constitutional provision that mandated elections be held under a neutral caretaker administration. The system was abolished two years ago after the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional.
Fearing arrest by the war crimes tribunals, Jamaat leaders have gone into hiding.
But a new group emerged in its place.
Hefazat-e-Islam, led by a respected octogenarian Islamic thinker Shah Ahmed Shafi, says it is a non-political organisation fighting those who want to undermine Islam. It accused the Government of tolerating blogs ridiculing the country’s dominant religion and has called for a harsher law against blasphemy.
The Government rejected the demand, saying current laws were sufficient and reaffirming the nation’s secular character.
Many in Bangladesh suspect Shafi’s group is a Jamaat proxy, pointing to its roots in the country’s thousands of Islamic schools, reported financing by Jamaat and backing by Saudi Arabia.
“The blasphemy law is not the real issue here. This group of fighting for Jamaat to protect the war crimes suspect.” said Anwarul Azim, head of a university in southeastern Chittagong, where Shafi has his headquarters in an Islamic school.
Analysts also see the latest street fights as prelude to the show of power ahead of next year’s general election.
“In the final analysis, the game is all for power,” said Hassan Shahriar, a political columnist. “Zia is supporting the hardliners not out of love for them, but for their support in the next elections.”
Jamaat and the Islamic groups command nearly 3 per cent of the vote.
Last week, Hasina offered to hold talks with Zia to try to end the unrest.
“Strikes and deaths on the streets are not a solution,” she said, “Talking to each other is the best way to settle political differences.”
Zia has turned down the offer, saying the Government must first agree to appoint a caretaker administration to oversee the election.