I'm going to kick this post off with some history, and work my way up to the problem I almost had with the Bangladeshi police. It's going to be heavy on writing and light on pictures, so if that's okay with you, let's get started.
The Bloody Past Of Bangladesh
Here’s something I bet you didn’t know: Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan used to all be the same country. But following the withdrawal of the British in 1947, the region was divided into 2 countries: India and Pakistan. Bangladesh was known as “East Pakistan.” It was not until the Bangladesh Liberation War ended in 1971 that Bangladesh became a country, but their freedom came with a cost.
Before Pakistan left Bangladesh, they not only committed genocide against the Bangladeshis, but also carried out a long campaign of systematic rape. It is estimated that Pakistani soldiers raped more than 400,000 women, and murdered as many 3,000,000 civilians. However, Pakistan estimates the death toll to be less than 300,000. (Like, of course they do).
Genocide is obviously a terrible thing, but the effects of this particular genocide were much more far-reaching than what meets the eye. The Pakistani military chose their victims strategically. Similar to what the Khmer Rouge did in Cambodia, Pakistan targeted only those who were educated. When the mass murder of a country’s intelligentsia occurs, the effect is that the “reset” button is pushed. Rebuilding after this kind of tragedy can be a daunting undertaking, usually taking generations.
You should be happy to know that eventually Bangladesh came out on top and drove Pakistan out. India joined in the fight towards the end, ultimately helping Bangladesh win their freedom. However, most Bangladeshis are still wary of India. In the eyes of many, India has tried to take all the credit for the victory over Pakistan, when in reality Bangladesh needed no savior - they would have won the war on their own, even if it had taken a bit longer. India and Bangladesh have had some issues since then, but since Bangladeshi independence came about in 1971, the newly formed nation has been slowly making its way down the path to recovery. It has not been easy though.
Bangladesh's Genocide Memorial
Not far from where I was staying in Dhaka (Rayer Bazar) was a large brick wall with an odd square window cut into the middle of it. I had seen it from my window a number of times before anybody explained to me what it was. It turned out that this was a memorial from the genocide.
While Rayer Bazar is now a slum area in Dhaka, it is also has a fair bit of history behind it, and at the time of the war, it was a swamp. Rayer Bazar actually has ghost stories stretching back much farther than the Liberation War: stories of pirates and thieves who met their end here long before modern national boundaries had been drawn, and haunt the area to this day. But in 1971, it was into this swamp where the corpses of Dhaka’s murdered innocents were dumped, after being kidnapped and tortured. When the war was over, it was here that the people of Dhaka found the rotting bodies of their loved ones.
So I decided to take a walk over there. Through the crowded muddy streets of the Rayer Bazar slums I walked, with this massive brick wall looming on my horizon. When I got there I found my self walking among families who were in the midst of their weekend outing together. People sold balloons and peanuts, children played cricket with no shoes, and couples sat talking, never without a few inches of space between their bodies. I took a walk around this odd structure and this is what I saw:
It was an odd structure, but a powerful one. There wasn’t much to do but walk around it, buy some water, and sit down to chill. This wall stands as a monument to the bloody, turbulent past of Bangladesh, but instability has continued to plague the nation, even stretching into the present. So let’s talk about the recent protests, because that it a little bit closer to the reality that I faced when I arrived in Dhaka.
Bangladeshi Politics Today
In 2013 Dhaka was rocked by some of the most violent protests you can imagine. I had done some research on this time period before my arrival, but ended up with more questions than answers. Once I actually arrived in Dhaka though, all I needed to do was ask around to get a clear chronology of what actually happened in 2013. I heard a few different versions of the story though. To be honest I'm still a little fuzzy on the details, but here's my best shot at explaining it…
Prior to the 2014 elections, the party currently in power in Bangladesh (the Awami League) carried out a large series of highly publicized executions. During this time, a lot of people were speaking out against the government, so the victims of these executions were basically the people that were speaking the loudest. These murders were then pinned on the leaders of the opposing party (the Bangladesh Nationalist Party), and they were thrown in jail. These leaders were the people who would have run as representatives of their districts in the next elections - the Bangladeshi equivalent of U.S. Congressmen.
To be clear, these opposition leaders were not totally innocent. In Bangladeshi politics, it's sort of just part of the deal that everybody is dirty. However, despite their run-of-the-mill corruption, they definitely weren't murderers, and their imprisonment was definitely not fair. So with the election just around the corner, and most of their leaders in prison for crimes they didn't commit, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party decided to boycott the election, leaving the Awami League to win by default.
This was the point where the Bangladeshi people had had just about enough.
There were MASSIVE protests. Things got violent. People weren't only upset with the Awami League though. The public was also angry that the Bangladesh Nationalist Party had given up the fight. As one local put it, "they acted like pussies." It was a complete failure of Bangladesh's political system. Here are some pictures of what happened that year:
These protests failed to bring about any real change unfortunately, because the party in question is still in power. If I had to guess I'd say that it's likely that more of this is to come.
...And That Brings Us To My Arrival
I was wary about coming to Dhaka so I had done my best to get a few words of wisdom from friends of friends who were living there before my arrival. They kindly obliged and wrote me a few emails to let me know what to expect. These people had been living in Dhaka during the aforementioned protests. My eyes were wide reading their stories of not being able to leave their apartment because there were bombs going off in the streets during these riots. What was I getting myself into?
Things had definitely quieted down by the time I arrived in Dhaka, but within a few days of my arrival, a new set of protests began. This time the subject was the cost of education, which is a subject that I think most young Americans can relate to.
Here are the basics of the conflict:
The government had raised taxes on the universities in Bangladesh (this tax is called the VAT).
In order to keep their profit margin the universities raised their prices and transferred this cost down to the students.
- The students were not happy about this.
I hadn’t been in Dhaka long when I entered the office one day to find people crowded around a TV. Clips of angry crowds were on the screen. I asked what was happening and I was filled in.
“We have to go to that!” I said excitedly. Nobody else seemed to share my enthusiasm. But as fate would have it, the protests would come to us before too long.
The protests continued on through that week. Thanks to my new Bangladeshi SIM card, I received messages from the government trying to shift the blame onto the universities for the hike in tuition fees. That is the translation of the text pictured to the right.
Thanks my few Bangladeshi Facebook friends, I watched the story play out through social media, just like I would at home. Pictures of angry crowds filled my news feed. I crossed paths with the protesters a few times during my stay in Dhaka. I would usually be seeing the protesters marching down the street yelling from whatever car or rickshaw I was in. The driver would then take a sharp turn down the nearest available alley, taking us farther from the congestion caused by these demonstrations. Dhaka is congested enough as it is. These instances were all pretty uneventful... with one exception.
One night I went out for with a few of my coworkers to a restaurant for dinner. We hopped off our rickshaw and began to cut through a public park when we heard yelling off in the distance. It was coming from right where we were headed. It wasn’t long before a man walking the opposite direction to us stopped to tell us something in Bangla. The translation came that there were protests happening ahead of us, and that we should be careful.
When we got to the main street, we found a crowd gathered at a police blockade looking out onto the street. A small crowd of men yelling in the street was blocking traffic, which normally travels through Dhaka’s major veins at breakneck speeds. We jumped into the flow of people and climbed the stairs to the footbridge that crossed the street. From there I stopped to snap a few quick pictures on my cell phone.
We hurried from there across the bridge and came down on the other side of the street. I had to stop at the ATM, but as soon as I turned around the Bangladeshi police, who had just arrived, began a brutal beating of an unlucky protester. I turned around just in time to see his unconscious body be put into the back of a little police cart and be dragged off. Naturally I whipped out my phone to take a few more pictures, which was a terrible idea. As a 6-4 white man in Bangladesh, it’s hard for me to be sneaky. The police immediately saw me, and quickly began fast-walking towards me, waving their nightsticks and yelling. Just then I felt a hand on my arm. One of the Bangladeshi guys from my office that had brought me out quickly grabbed me at my elbow and pulled me along forcefully, away from the police. We disappeared around a corner, into the crowd, and the police let it go. So shout-out to Sujoy for saving my stupid ass.
Later on I asked what would happen to the man that had been beaten and dragged off. People around the dinner table were quiet. “I think… he will get more beatings later” I was told, in a quiet voice. People steer clear of the police in Bangladesh. They are corrupt, violent, and often lack the educational background that you’d think would be a prerequisite to that sort of job. Higher ranking officials on the police force have more credentials, but still, you do not want to have an issue with the police in Dhaka. I'm not sure what I was in danger of having happen to me, but I'm guessing that the worst case scenario isn't too different from what happened to that poor guy whose unconscious body we saw get carted off. My saving grace would have been the fact that I'm a foreigner. Whatever would have happened though, I think we can all agree that it wouldn't have been good. These weren't even major protests by Dhaka's standards either. It seemed like it was pretty normal.
Don’t worry, there’s a happy ending to this story. In the end the demands of the protesters were met. Eventually the government gave in and lifted the VAT on education. The truth is that protests like this are just way things get done in Dhaka. You won’t ever hear about it in the western media though. Bangladesh continues to be a black hole when it comes to information. That's why I'm here. To give you a peek inside the black hole.
So, until next time…