Thursday, August 30, 2007

Photo the Bangladesh army cannot stand

If a single image can sum up the thorny mess into which Bangladesh has once again stumbled, then this perhaps is it.
JOHN SUDWORTH

Photo caption: The image has caused the army much embarrassment

A sandaled demonstrator in mid-air kick and a hatless army officer in terrified retreat.

In the background, bystanders hurry away. Out of shot, a military vehicle burns and the security forces are in danger of losing control to the angry mob.

The photo gives a momentary glimpse of just how bad things got during three days of violent protest that rocked cities across Bangladesh last week.

But the picture is significant for another reason. As we found out on the first night of the curfew imposed to contain the trouble it was an image that deeply upset the Bangladeshi rank and file.

Its publication was seen as a humiliation, every bit as great as if that flying sandaled foot had been aimed at the behind of the army chief himself.

Shortly after the curfew came into effect on Wednesday night, the BBC team was out filming.
No one was sure whether the media would be allowed to move freely.

Dhaka's streets, normally a round-the-clock festival of noise, were deserted.

Road blocks and checkpoints were being manned by the paramilitaries and the army was on patrol.

'Wrong message'
Sure enough our presence was soon noticed.

Two army jeeps pulled up sharply and a young officer jumped out. We were ordered to drop the camera as he radioed back to his base.

After a tense stand-off the message was relayed that we could continue filming "as long as we didn't give the wrong message to the country".

But in true Bangladeshi style the officer and I were soon the best of friends.

In the middle of a deserted city I was invited to sit on the kerb with him, while his troops waited restlessly in their trucks.

He offered me a smoke and then, with his arm round me, he told me of his time training in the UK, of his sense of duty and his love of his country.

He told me of the dark forces at work behind the rioting.

And most of all he told me how he hated that photo, and how irresponsible it had been of the newspaper to publish it.

We shook hands and parted on good terms. But then I have a white face and an international press card.

It's impossible to know whether it was this same officer and the same troops, but on that same evening a group of Bangladeshi journalists were left in little doubt about what the army thought about the role of the media.

Masud Parvez was one of a group of reporters from a national internet news service standing outside their office.

Two army jeeps pulled up and the reporters identified themselves as local newsmen.
"So what," came the reply.

Masud was given a prolonged beating on the steps of his office. He has an injury to his hand where he tried to fend off a rifle butt.

Some soldiers hit him with hockey sticks that they'd been carrying for exactly this kind of occasion.

Deepening rift
"I told them we were journalists from bdnews24.com. But despite giving our identity they started hitting us," he told me.

"It was a terrible experience. I can't make you understand how scared I was at the time."

Masud is just one of a number of reporters and cameramen beaten by the security forces over the period of the curfew.

The Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalists puts the number at 30 or more.

Of course none of this can be blamed on a single image. But the photograph, and the reaction to it, gives a wider sense of a deepening rift between the military-backed authorities and civil society.

The army top brass has blamed what it calls evil forces and political opportunists for prolonging last week's rioting.

Five senior university professors, all distinguished academics, have been picked up by the army and detained.

One of them, Professor Anwar Hossain, is general secretary of the Dhaka University Teachers' Association.

His son, Sanjeeb, was at home when the army called in the early hours of the morning.

"It takes on a very sinister tone," he tells me.

"The teachers of Dhaka University are considered the heart and soul of this nation.

"It's a very unfortunate situation when teachers are being interrogated and actually taken away in the middle of the night."

An unknown number of students are also in custody. We visited one address, very close to where the photograph was taken, shortly after an army raid.

A dozen or so students had been arrested, and we saw clear evidence that a number of people had been interrogated and harshly beaten.

'Retribution and arrests'
This government came to power in January with the backing of the military on a wave of popular support vowing to reform politics and stamp out corruption.

But its reputation has been tarnished. A slum demolition programme, an attempt to exile two former prime ministers and its inability to contain the spiralling cost of food have all added to a growing sense of frustration.

Many newspapers have taken the view that the violence last week was a genuine expression of anger and frustration, rather than the work of shadowy forces of evil.

"Instead of retribution and arrests we suggest that dialogue be opened between teachers and students on the one hand and the caretaker government on the other," read one newspaper editorial this week.

Meanwhile, military intelligence units appear to be using media images to find and arrest those involved in the violence.

As for the photo that so upset the army, luckily for him at least, the protester doing the kicking is difficult to identify.

But they are looking for him.

Both the editor who published the image, and the photographer who took it, have been visited and questioned by the army.

John Sudworth is BBC News correspondent based in Dhaka, Bangladesh
Link: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/6966467.stm