Students in Bangladesh who held mass protests to highlight the long-standing problem of road safety may have sowed the seeds for a vibrant reform movement that could challenge the authoritarian government accused of rampant corruption and blatant rights abuses, activists and analysts said.
Thousands of students, many of them teenagers, took to the streets for nine days after a speeding bus plowed through a group waiting on a road side, killing two students on July 29.
The campaign blossomed into a mass movement stemming from a variety of grievances against the government, which violently cracked down on the protests this week amid criticism from human rights groups and even foreign governments.
The protests caught the country and the government off guard, media analyst Ali R. Razi said.
“Such a big spontaneous movement without leadership had not been seen before in Bangladesh. It’s a new experience for everyone,” he told BenarNews. “Those who started this movement will carry it on in their hearts forever.”
The daring students occupied key streets and even stopped vehicles, including those of a cabinet member and a judge as well as police officers, and demanded them to produce their driving licenses. Some of those who could not produce the document were asked to leave their cars behind.
“What actually happened was a revolution,” Razi said. “The goal of this was to show the weaknesses of the government to the government administrators [and] it has been achieved. This is the biggest success and potential of this movement.”
Political analyst Dr. Ataur Rahman said the students exposed the double standards of the government officials who were entrusted with the task of enforcing the law.
“Those who speak of law, they themselves do not obey the law,” he told BenarNews.
The protesters also issued a nine-point demand to the government, including a call for capital punishment for negligent drivers who killed pedestrians.
Some saw the student protests and demands ahead of national elections as a culmination of pent-up popular frustrations with the government and what they perceive to be a lack of justice in everyday life.
Among the concerns of human rights and reform groups are poor governance, corruption and nepotism in Bangladesh. Enforced disappearances and extra-judicial killings have also been widespread in recent months. More than 100 people have been killed under the government's war on drugs, many shot by police in cold blood, the groups said.
“They [the student movement] want justice,” Dr. Badiul Alam Majumder, secretary of civil society advocacy group Shujan told BenarNews. “Basically this is the [result] of 47 years of mischief [and] this protest is against corrupt politics and a corrupt state-system.”
Bangladesh marked 47 years of independence from Pakistan in March.
As the protests spiraled, the government announced plans to amend the law to increase the maximum penalty for road accidents from three years imprisonment to five with a pledge that capital punishment would be considered for serious offenses.
“The maximum punishment will be a death sentence if the investigation reveals that the errant diver intentionally caused the accident to kill someone,” Law Minister Anisul Huq told reporters.
While the government moved to appease the demands of the students, it also launched a crackdown on the protests.
More than 100 people were injured as police sprayed tear gas and fired rubber bullets at protesters. The violence was compounded with attacks by pro-government thugs wielding iron bars on demonstrators, journalists and even the U.S. ambassador’s car, according to reports.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has accused the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party and its main ally Jamaat-e-Islami of attempting to fuel student anger.
Dhaka Metropolitan Police spokesman Masudur Rahman reported 39 arrests, including 22 students from private universities.
Prize-winning photographer human rights activist Shahidul Alam, who was documenting the protest in Facebook postings and in an interview with Al Jazeera, was among those arrested.
“I plead with the citizens of this country, please protest. People who love this country, please protest,” he told reporters as he was being moved into a Dhaka courtroom the day after his arrest.
Alam, who said he was beaten, has remained in custody after a judge on Monday allowed a seven-day remand for police to question him. He was treated at a Dhaka hospital on Wednesday and returned to police custody.
International rights advocacy groups called for Alam’s release and an end to violence against journalists.
More than two dozen journalists were injured over the weekend including Associated Press photographer AM Ahad. Postings on social media showed about a dozen men striking him with long sticks and batons.
Information Minister Hasanul Haq Inu called the attacks shocking.
“I will write to the home minister (Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal) to identify the attackers and take action against them. The home minister has already given me a verbal assurance that action will be taken in this regard.”
The protesters not only drew the attention of the Bangladesh government, but an international audience, including major foreign media, as well. Hasina’s government came under fire from the United Nations and the United States along with rights groups.
A Facebook post by the U.S. embassy declaring the protests “have united and captured the imagination of the whole country,” was rebuked by the Bangladesh government.
UNICEF, the UN’s children agency, in effect, defended the students.
“Students and young people have a legitimate right to speak out on issues of concern to them, including road safety issues and to have their opinion heard without the threat of violence,” UNICEF Bangladesh said in a tweet
The European Union said the protests highlighted fears over road safety and the enforcement of laws and regulations on the roads in Bangladesh.
Road accidents kill 12,000 people and cause 35,000 injuries in Bangladesh each year, said the Accident Research Institute of state-run Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology.
“The government’s recognition of the need for action is a welcome step and we therefore expect further government action to address this without delay,” European Union representatives in Bangladesh said in a statement.