Monday, February 18, 2013

Protests in Shahbagh Square

Warning: this blog post contains graphic images of the 1971 Liberation War in Bangladesh.

For almost two weeks now there have been nonstop protests in Shahbag square in Old Dhaka.*  The protests have been dubbed by some news media outlets as the Tahrir Square of Bangladesh.

For those of you who have already forgotten the Arab Spring of 2011, Tahrir Square is where the Egyptian people gathered to protest the corruption of their long-term President, Hosni Mubarak, protests that eventually got him out of office. Although, he was then replaced by his second-in-command, a hand-picked, loyal army General. And then, later on, the Muslim Brotherhood was elected and...I'm not going to get political, but you can read all about them here

Image via Environmental Grafitti
The story of the Shahbagh Square protests starts with the end of the British  rule in Southern Asia. East and West Pakistan were created as a unified country because they shared a common religion (Islam), although culturally (and ethnically for that matter) they were entirely different.

 Bangladesh, then East Pakistan, suffered greatly under the rule of West Pakistan. Especially when you consider that the East had a bigger population, but only got about 40% of the money and resources that the West got. The final nail in the casket was the Bhola Cyclone of November 1970, which is considered to be one of the (if not the) deadliest cyclones (hurricane) in the history of the world. The West Pakistan response has been largely criticized as inefficient and slow. Bangladeshi political leaders began voicing their opposition to being ruled by Pakistan, in the December 1970 elections they voiced that opinion by electing a leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who promoted separating from West Pakistan.

Image via Gendercide.org
In response, West Pakistan did a couple of things. First, they refused to allow Sheikh Mujibur Rahman to take office, despite his popularity and the fact that he was elected by the people. Second, on March 30 1971, the Pakistani army, in an effort to curb these separatist movements, effectively slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Bengalis. The Pakistani army targeted Hindus, the intelligentsia, and political leaders, killing anywhere from 50,000 to 1,000,000. Regardless of the final casualty count, it has widely been regarded as one of the costliest genocides in the modern era. Yahya Khan, the President of West Pakistan, was reported as saying "We must kill three million of them, and the rest will eat out of the palm of our hand."
Bangladeshi civilians, justifiably outraged, began attacking the Pakistani army, using guerrilla war tactics. Although the Pakistani army though they had wiped the resistance out by June, Bengali's received support and supplies from India to continue. On December 3, 1971, West Pakistan declared war on India, and the Indian army entered Bangladesh officially to do battle. On December 21st, the war was over, and the Bangladesh state was formed.

Image via Financial Express BD
Now back to Shabagh square. Since 1971, there has not been retribution for the atrocities committed during the Liberation War, until the Bangladeshi government organized an International Criminal Tribunal (ICT), with no international presence, to prosecute those who had aided and abetted in the genocide committed by the Pakistani army.

Abdul Quader Molla, one of the leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami political party, is one of those on trial. On February 5, 2013, he was sentenced to life in prison for his crimes. Locals have informed me that Molla passed information to the Pakistani army, which led to the death of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, as well as to the murder and rape of countless others.

Image via the Daily Star Online





On the day of his conviction, a protest formed in Shabagh Square and has been ongoing since then. The people of Bangladesh are angry. They are angry at the government, who created this tribunal over 40 years after the crimes were committed, and then gave them little power to punish the offenders. They are angry that the tribunal didn't sentence him to death for his crimes. They are angry that Jamaat is threatening civil war, causing violence (including the murder of a high-profile blogger), enforcing Hartals (day long strikes), and generally causing trouble. For the most part, outside of the violence caused by the Jamaat party, the protest has been peaceful, with candlelit vigils and silent, passive protests.

I'm on the fence about the situation. On the one hand, there is irrefutable evidence that he assisted the Pakistani army in murdering his own countrymen. On the other hand, should we punish death with death? If we kill him are we any better than he was? Will killing this man heal the wounds of the nation? If he is put to death for his crimes, will Jamaat turn more violent?

Most of the locals I've asked about it feel that he should be executed for his crimes, although they are also worried about his followers causing more violence.

Too many questions unanswered. Only time will tell. Don't worry, I'm out in the countryside. And, like the embassy keeps telling me in email updates, I have an updated security plan.**

*Old Dhaka is basically what you might consider the "downtown" of Dhaka. It's where Labagh Fort is, Dhaka University, and the Shahid Minar. We generally stay away from Old Dhaka, it has incredibly narrow streets (not unlike Thamel in Kathmandu), and Dhaka University is well-known for having clashes between political parties that involve violence. 
**Extra milk, drinking chocolate, and peanut butter are enough emergency supplies, right?

1 comment:

  1. Bangladesh was officially liberated on December 16th. Other than that, love the piece.

    Just in response to your 3rd-last paragraph: Bertrand Russel said about the Nuremberg trial, that he does not support capital punishment in case of a general homicide, because people can be engulfed by emotions; but for a planned genocide, for indiscriminately killing people cold-blooded with who you have no connections, that calls for literally the maximum punishment.

    One other argument that we pro-Shahbag people would like to present is - these people have been elected MP's in the past; they will get "division" facilities in prison, meaning preferential treatment due to their status of former lawmaker. They will be fed, clad and served with the money that we pay in tax. We cannot allow the killers of our forefathers be enjoying food that is bought with our money!

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