Bangladesh rivals end 10-year silence – but fail to find peace

Three-day general strike begins with wave of violence after talks fail to halt stand-off

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The Independent Online

An historic phone call – believed to be the first direct conversation between two of Bangladesh’s fiercest rival political leaders for a decade – has failed to resolve a bitter stand-off, and instead the country has been rocked by a fresh wave of violence.

At least five people were killed and hundreds more injured yesterday as protesters set fire to vehicles and buildings, and security forces opened fire with live rounds on the first day of a three-day general strike called by the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), to demand that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina quit and make way for elections under a caretaker government.

Ms Hasina had telephoned opposition leader Khaelda Zia on Saturday and asked her to cancel the strike – a major step for the two “battling begums” (begum is an honorific for a Muslim woman of rank). The pair dominate Bangladeshi politics and their animosity dates back decades.

During the 40-minute conversation, part of which was broadcast on television, Ms Hasina asked her rival to come for dinner with her party colleagues instead of going ahead with the strike. But Ms Zia declined, saying she would only talk when the strike was over.

As a result, fresh violence erupted across the country. One man, a supporter of Ms Hasina’s Awami League (AL) party, was reportedly hacked to death in Jessore, 85 miles west of Dhaka. Meanwhile, police said they had opened fire on BNP supporters in the western town of Nagarkanda after up to 3,000 people ransacked a rural market and attacked officers with bricks.

“We opened fire in self-defence,” district police chief Jamil Ahsan told the AFP news agency, saying that one opposition activist was killed in the firing and five were wounded. 

The most recent stalemate between Ms Hasina and Ms Zia relates to their disagreement on who should oversee the next parliamentary election, due to be held by January 2014.

For the past 15 years a supposedly neutral caretaker government has been placed in charge to organise a poll. But Ms Hasina and the AL scrapped the plan after Bangladesh’s Supreme Court ruled such a system would breach the constitution.

Ms Zia and her party have said an election held under such conditions would not be fair and have called for the caretaker government system to be reintroduced. Ms Zia, who has twice previously served as premier, and her 18-party opposition coalition, have demanded Ms Hasina resign and called the strike to try to pressure her.

Asked why the BNP was proceeding with its strike despite the invitation to meet with the Prime Minister, senior party leader Ruhul Kabir Rizvi told The Independent: “During the telephone conversation, Madam Hasina invited us and asked us to withdraw the strike. But, she did not mention anything about the non-party caretaker government, which is our main demand. The strike is going on successfully and this portrays the people’s support.”

Bangladesh, which has been ruled alternately by Ms Zia and Ms Hasina since 1991 (a government of military-supported technocrats headed the country from 2006 to 2008), faces a host of economic, social and environmental challenges.

It is also dealing with the trauma of a special court that is hearing war-crimes cases relating to the country’s bloody struggle for independence. Those who have been tried and convicted include BNP leaders, along with senior members of the country’s largest Islamic party, Jamaat-e-Islami, which has traditionally been close to the BNP.

Political violence is nothing new in Bangladesh. But this year has been exceptional, with at least 150 people killed in clashes. At least 13 people have been killed since last Friday, when Ms Zia addressed a rally of 100,000 people in the capital. A spate of similar violence in 2006 led to  the appointment of a caretaker government.

In the capital, Dhaka, about 10,000 paramilitaries and police officers have been deployed to try to prevent clashes during the 60-hour strike, due to conclude tomorrow evening.

Deputy Law Minister Quamrul Islam blamed the opposition for the fighting, telling a ruling-party rally in Dhaka: “We wanted to talk, but they chose the path of violence.”