Bangladesh unrest exposes political divide

Saturday’s protests were officially called and led by the Hefazat-e-Islam party – a conservative Muslim party.

Dhaka grinds to a near halt most days now. Protests and counter-protests are the norm.

So most locals here weren’t surprised to hear at Saturday’s huge rally that the same group would enforce a strike on Monday – in response to the transport shutdown on Friday that stopped many of their supporters getting to the capital, Dhaka.

Saturday’s protests were officially called and led by the Hefazat-e-Islam party – a conservative Muslim party which usually resides on the sidelines of politics in Bangladesh.

It is likely however, that most religious Muslim parties took part. Most of the opposition, including the powerful Bangladesh National Party (BNP) lent their support to the march.

Yet, as Bangladesh’s protests are moving in fits and starts, the mood in the capital is one of events working towards a critical mass.

On everyone’s mind is the next War Crimes Trial verdict. A very senior leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami Party, Ghulam Azam, is next to hear his fate.

Jamaat has been calling most of the hartals (strikes) as its top leadership is facing charges at the war tribunal.

An elderly religious figure, he was a leader of Jamaat when the 1971 war of independence against Pakistan took place.

Jamaat sided with Pakistan at the time and Azam is accused of crimes against humanity, but his defence argues that Jamaat was such a tiny political player then that he could not have had the kind of influence over fighters that he is accused of.

Rumours have abounded for weeks about his verdict, which has been pushed back again and again.

The ruling Awami League Party, whose government set up the War Crimes Tribunal, knows they will have to continue with the trials but with most of those accused coming from opposition parties they risk chaos on a scale even Bangladesh has not seen for years.

That is because not only are those accused by the War Crimes Tribunal all from the opposition, but are predominantly from religious parties.

This is making the unrest here all the more nuanced as a reflection of religious tension here currently.

During the civil war, those who sided with Pakistan were largely more conservative religious groups, whereas those who fought for independence stressed at the time the need for a secular constitution which protected the country’s Hindu, Buddhist and Christian minorities.

With elections coming up later this year, and the opposition increasing the pressure for a care-taker government to oversee them, the current government is caught between pushing ahead with their current political agenda and the risk of looking like they are losing control.

So, the unrest over bloggers, the War Crimes Tribunal, and blasphemy is about more than sporadic issues. It questions the very identity of the state and blows open deep divisions equally about the past and the future of Bangladesh.

Yet those unsettled issues are what will continue to drive unrest over the coming weeks and months, as the country lurches on through one of its most challenging years to date.

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