Monday, December 3, 2007

Bangladesh bans protests against starvation

Bangladesh bans protests against starvation
SYLHET, Bangladesh,
December 3, 2007
Source: UPI Asia Online
Picture Courtesy: New Age

Column: Humanity or Humor?

Bangladesh will no longer allow protests or processions from victims of the recent cyclone, a government official said Friday, after starving villagers in the disaster-hit area held demonstrations demanding food and relief.

Maj. Gen. M. A. Matin, chief coordinator of disaster management, rehabilitation and relief work as well as advisor for the Ministry of Communications, reminded the nation that a state of emergency is in effect in the country and that violators of its anti-protest rules will be arrested.

Thousands of people are still homeless and without adequate food or clean water since Cyclone Sidr struck southwestern Bangladesh on Nov. 15.

True to the government's threat, on Sunday law enforcement officers arrested 14 people for demanding relief from the authorities in a demonstration at a school ground in Barguna District. The arrested men were detained in police custody for the day.

About 500 villagers in the area went on hunger strike to demand the release of the arrested people. They also refused the relief offered by the government. Following these public protests, the authorities were compelled to release the detained people in the evening.

Through this crackdown, the government magnified the severity of the ongoing prolonged state of emergency in Bangladesh. The government has gone beyond the suspension of freedom of expression to the suspension of the right to food, or people's right to survive.

The victims of Cyclone Sidr might not have understood that the government has also granted them a new right: the right to starve to death! This is one of the innumerable attempts of the government to hide its utter failure to address the people's dire needs; it has revealed the shamelessness, inhumanity and inefficiency of the nation's leadership.

The government and its policymakers apparently did not consider that their repressive actions might backfire. The arrests of the 14 starving victims resulted in even larger protests by the inhabitants of a number of villages, which compelled the arrogant government to release the detained people.

Governmental power can make a country's leaders blind and deaf, especially in countries like Bangladesh. The leaders speak ad nauseam, shutting off the views of everyone else, although their refusal to acknowledge and permit other opinions contributes nothing to the suffering nation.

Bangladeshis have received an important message, however: they must learn from the people of Barguna, who were arrested for demanding food and were able to free the detained people through larger protests on the same day. Fear profits nothing; these sufferers were brave enough to break their silence and challenge the powerful until they backed down.

Meanwhile, the military-backed government must learn from the same incident how worthless the state of emergency is! The people of Barguna forced the authorities to release those who had been detained, as the people of Bangladesh will soon force the government to withdraw the state of emergency. The time is rapidly coming when the military-backed government will find no way to flee.
(Rater Zonaki is the pseudonym of a human rights defender living in Sylhet in Bangladesh who has been working on human rights issues in the country for more than a decade and who was a journalist in Bangladesh in the 1990s.)

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