Hundreds of leaders from across the globe converged on the streets of Paris on January 11 for a so-called “Unity March” to show support for the victims and general journalistic freedoms alike in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo shootings and chain of terrorist attacks that occurred in the following days. While this may have been one of the biggest exhibitions of hypocrisy of the century thus far, as many of these leaders themselves have found themselves directly on the opposite side of the issue of freedom of expression, their sham of a message behind their symbolic marching mirrored those of the hundreds of other “Je suis Charlie” rallies held around the world in countries like Japan, Brazil, Ukraine, and, of course, here in the United States. The demonstrators were, however, largely absent in at least one notable region: South Asia.
In fact, while world leaders turned their heads turned towards Europe and screamed for freedom of speech, the exact opposite was happening; shortly before the Paris attacks, on January 4, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina instructed police to ban all forms of public protest starting from 5pm the following day in the capital of Bangladesh, the most densely populated and one of the most politically corrupt—and thereby extremely volatile—countries in the world.
The ban came just before the one-year anniversary of an election boycotted by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and almost all other opposition parties, dubbed “Democracy Killing Day” by BNP leader Khaleda Zia. The vast majority of opposition leaders had held the assumption that last year’s elections would be rigged by the ruling party—an assumption that was seemingly validated after Awami League members of Parliament rewrote the country’s constitution to abolish the “caretaker government” that traditionally takes control during election periods to curb corruption. This is not the first time the country’s constitution has been rewritten to prevent another party from taking power; in 2007, Muhammad Yunus of the Grameen Bank tried to to start the Citizens’ Power Party to offset the corruption, but was shutdown by both parties, and to further insure that he would be stripped of any potential to take power, the constitution was altered so that they could fire him from Grameen Bank, which he himself started and even won a Nobel Peace Prize for in 2006.
In the chaos that followed the most recent rewrite, numerous polling stations were torched to prevent BNP supporters who were not boycotting the election from voting, Zia was placed under house-arrest, at least 20 opposition party activists went missing (and were likely abducted by the Rapid Action Battalion, the government’s special forces unit), and dozens of protestors were killed in the riots that swept the small nation, bringing the year’s total to over 300 dead and closing out the deadliest year in its brief history since the Liberation War of 1971 that led to its creation.
A spokesman for the Dhaka police told the AFP that preventing similar incidents this year was central to the logic behind the ban, saying, “We imposed the ban as rival rallies by the political parties raised fears of clashes.”
In spite of the ban, protestors have taken to the streets and have shown they cannot be silenced. The ban has only further fueled their anger, and rather than just holding rallies, the people have instead begun—yet again—to riot; at least 34 people have been killed–25 of them in firebomb attacks, while 8 others have died in clashes with police and another in a crude bomb blast. Over 700 others have also been injured in arson attacks, including at least 29 who were injured when petrol bombs were thrown at a bus full of passengers. More than 700 vehicles have been destroyed in the street clashes between the parties since January 5th, cutting off Dhaka from the rest of the country and further crippling an already impoverished nation with shaky at best infrastructure, while close to 7,500 opposition activists have been arrested to date with Zia herself being detained in her office by police for more than two weeks under the guise of “protection from the violence on the streets.” On February 4, Zia was also charged for allegedly ordering the killing of innocent people and inciting general lawlessness; she was named among over 50 other people. The situation has become so convoluted that Social Welfare Minister Syed Mohsin Ali said the government is currently debating giving police “orders to shoot [arsonists] on sight as in wartime.”
While the power-players of the West have expressed concern about the political turmoil, said concern has been minimal, in the form of mostly meaningless memos condemning the violence. Following the cues of their governments, media outlets have also largely ignored the ongoing crisis. As Bangladesh isn’t a country with a lot of traditionally valuable resources (read: oil) or in a strategic location (read: in the Middle East), it’s easy to see why the country might be flying under the international radar. But maybe it’s time for the international community to open its eyes and realize that though small and relatively new to the game, the nation is actually an economic force to be reckoned with: Bangladesh is currently the second largest exporter of ready-made garments in the world, behind only China. And as horrific, exploitative, and in desperate need for reform as the industry is, a collapse of the nation’s garment industry—which makes up close to 80% of the country’s economy and is at the center of many a political squabble—would have disastrous effects on the United States’ and the European Union’s economies.
That doesn’t mean the West ought to pick up its arms and topple Hasina’s virtual regime or even use sanctions to end the “battle of the Begums,” as the U.K. has called it, once and for all. After all, Bangladesh is still a young country, and at the relative point in time in the history of the United States, Americans were busy killing each other over slavery and were about to split into two separate countries. Rather, the larger lesson the West ought to take from the turmoil is that there are unstable countries that need to be taken seriously before power vacuums emerge and give rise to extremism outside those in the Middle East. And even then, it’s imperative that we realize that democracy is not a one-size-fits-all dress that you can slip on and call it a day. The American or European model cannot be expected to and will not work in all situations, and it’s time we stop trying to impose the standards that come with them in every corner of the globe; the result of such misguided attempts is before us—a total farce of a government, spiraling downward faster and faster with each day.
So next time we rally about free speech and all our other ideals, let’s remember our own hypocrisy, but the atrocities that we have contributed to in the past and continue to perpetuate by turning our backs as well.