Thursday, August 23, 2007

Bangladesh virtually cut off from rest of the world

SALEEM SAMAD

Violent student riot demanding for end of emergency rule, restoration of democracy and return of military to the barrack has left Bangladesh's military-backed emergency government face its first major challenge since taking office in January.

To quell the countrywide student riot, the authority clamped indefinite curfew in all major cities, switched off mobile phone network, all internet traffic has been routed through state telecom, imposed blanket media censorship, arrests and raids of suspects of the “evil force” as well as pro-democracy activists, as described by chief of emergency government Dr Fakruddin Ahmed said over state owned media.

Bangladesh is virtually disconnected from the outside world with further fear of deepening political crisis. The military leaders riding a tiger may not have any other alternatives but to imposed absolute military rule in the country to abort the political crisis.

More than a dozen journalists and press photographers were assaulted and detained by army patrols manning the streets of the capital Dhaka. Many of the assaulted journalists were hospitalized.

Three journalists from CSB TV news arrested for broadcasting “disturbing news.” Nearly a dozen journalists were released from police detention. Several journalists are still believed to be in police custody.

Wednesday saw the first death in three days of mayhem when students attacked a police checkpoint northwest of Dhaka, the United News of Bangladesh agency said.

Bangladesh has been under a state of emergency since January, when the interim government took power following months of violence and political turmoil over vote-rigging allegations.

In a third straight day of violence on Wednesday, one bystander was killed and dozens of others suffered mostly minor injuries in a clash between rock-throwing youths and police in Rajshahi, a police official said.

The six cities affected were the capital Dhaka, northern Rajshahi and Sylhet, and southern Chittagong, Barisal and Khulna. All public and private colleges and universities in the six cities would also be closed.

Television channels also showed protesters armed with sticks and stones rampaging through parts of Dhaka and the southeastern city of Chittagong in defiance of a government ban on demonstrations.

The government appealed for calm, accusing troublemakers without any genuine grievances of hijacking the protests which began with demands by Dhaka University students for the army to withdraw from their campus.

The army camp was shut down early Wednesday but the decision failed to quell the sporadic clashes.

In a televised address Dr Fakruddin Ahmed accused "a few evil forces of taking advantage of a trifling incident."

He said opportunists were trying to foment anarchy, but he promised the curfews were only a temporary measure.

Documentary filmmaker and writer Shahriar Kabir in a statement to expatriate Bangladeshi in Europe and North America described that Bangladesh is “going through a dreadful critical phase.”

He said his home phone is cut off and is apprehending that he would be arrested. He urged expatriates to condemn emergency, curfew, police/military atrocities and raise voice for early election and restoration of democracy.

He warmed that Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami is taking advantage of both emergency and people's unrest. Most of the pro-Islamist district administration and police chiefs are very active.

Experts had earlier voiced fears the army could go further.

"If police cannot control the situation it will mean that this government does not have a support base and by implication martial law will be inevitable," said one analyst, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Trouble first erupted on Monday on the Dhaka University campus after several students said they had been manhandled by soldiers during a football match.

The students demanded that soldiers be withdrawn from the campus, where a small contingent was stationed when the state of emergency was imposed in January.

But discontent has been rising in recent months, most notably over the increasing cost of living.
Two other military governments in the past - that of Ziaur Rahman and Muhammad Ershad - were both brought down in protests that were started by students.

Keeping the peace will now be the major test of this government's authority, our correspondent says.

The government has enjoyed broad popular support after nearly two decades of misrule by corrupt politicians although there has recently been rumbling discontent among the very poor about the rising prices of essentials.

It has pledged to implement far-reaching reforms to clean up Bangladesh's notoriously corrupt politics before holding fresh polls by late 2008. #