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Thousands of high school students took to the streets in Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka after a boy and girl were hit by a speeding bus early last week. The demonstrators are calling for justice and better road safety measures, including stronger government regulations on drivers. Despite the peaceful nature of the protest, the Bangladeshi government has attempted to violently disperse the student-demonstrators by firing tear gas and rubber bullets into crowds, raising larger concerns over corruption and oppression.
According to the World Health Organization, traffic accidents injure 400,000 and kill 18,500 in Bangladesh each year. The fatalities can be attributed in part to poor government oversight; many drivers in Bangladesh are not licensed, and traffic laws are poorly enforced. Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan has promised to launch a public transport safety campaign and urged protestors to disperse. Protestors have refused to disband, however, until all their demands have been met. Students currently control several streets in Dhaka and have been regulating drivers, checking for licenses and identification.
Bangladeshi officials have taken a hardline approach to the protests, with Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan threatening “tough action” against those “crossing the limit.” Beyond direct attempts to disperse protestors, the government has also ordered internet services to shut down, while pro-government forces have violently attacked journalists and activists. The recent attempts to stifle public discourse reflect a broader trend issue of repression and corruption. Shahidul Alam, a photographer and social activist, says that the demonstrations are driven in part by these larger factors, including “the looting of the banks, the gaggling of the media, the extrajudicial killings, disappearings, bribery and corruption.” Bangladesh currently ranks 143rd out of 180 countries on Transparency International’s 2017 corruption perceptions index. The country has consistently ranked among the world’s most corrupt countries.
The students’ initiative is commendable, given the country’s longstanding history of corruption. Their commitment to the cause, and the international attention it is bringing, may be able to force some degree of change within the government. Not only will this save lies by alleviating dangerous driving conditions, but could also lead to broader anti-corruption initiatives that will improve the country as a whole. Meanwhile, the international community should continue to condemn the Bangladeshi government for its attack on peaceful protestors. The United Nations has already issued a statement in support of the students. Finally, should violence escalate or the government refuse to budge, countries should look towards other avenues to put pressure on Bangladeshi officials. This may include anything from official diplomatic pressure to economic sanctions.
Bangladesh’s rising generation has shown that they will no longer tolerate oppressive conditions. The protests are already putting pressure on the government, and despite intense pressure, demonstrations have and will likely continue. Hopefully, these protests may pave the way for a more just, fair Bangladesh.