Dhaka, Bangladesh – Rafiqul Islam joined tens of thousands of opposition supporters in the capital Dhaka after travelling nearly 200km (124 miles) from the southern coastal district of Noakhali. But he had to fake his identity to evade detention ahead of the anti-government rally on Saturday.
The police in the South Asian nation had arrested hundreds of supporters from the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which had called for the rally to protest against price rises and demand the resignation of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
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“I had deleted my messenger and logged into a second Facebook account in my phone. We were told by the central command of our party to do so to reach Dhaka without getting arrested or harassed,” Islam, a grassroots-level activist of BNP, told Al Jazeera,
“It apparently worked,” Islam said as he was standing amid a sea of people at Golapbagh field in central Dhaka on Saturday morning. It was BNP’s last of a series of rallies organised across the country in the past weeks to demand new elections under a neutral caretaker government.
From the Dhaka rally, BNP’s top leadership renewed that call along with the demands for withdrawals of cases against its party chief Khaleda Zia and her son Tarique Rahman — both of whom were charged and convicted in what the party says are “politically motivated cases”.
All seven BNP legislators announced their resignations from the current parliament in protest against what they said was the “illegal” government led by the ruling Awami League (AL) party.
Hasina, in power since 2009, is accused of having two national elections stained by opposition boycotts and electoral malpractices under her watch. Her government’s heavy-handed approaches to suppress political opposition and dissenters have also attracted severe criticism from human rights activists and independent observers.
The BNP claims more than 180,000 legal cases have been filed against four million of its members in the last decade. At the same time, at least 600 party members have been abducted, and about 3,000 were victims of extrajudicial killings at the hands of authorities, the party says.
The opposition leaders also accused the government of cracking down on its supporters to impede mass turnouts in their recent rallies.
At least 2,000 party activists and leaders were arrested just days before the Dhaka rally, the BNP said. Two of its top leaders, including the party’s de facto chief and general secretary Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, were also arrested and sent to jail on Friday.
The police said 500 people were arrested in the wake of opposition-led protests on Wednesday that turned deadly. Security forces in the capital Dhaka also fired rubber bullets and tear gas into a crowd of thousands of BNP supporters preparing for the December 10 rally.
‘Fight for survival’
The government on Saturday deployed more than 30,000 law enforcement personnel in the capital while ruling party leaders and AL activists took to the streets and different entry points in Dhaka, with the apparent aim of preventing the movement of BNP supporters, Al Jazeera has learned.
Additional Commissioner of Dhaka Metropolitan Police Hafiz Akter told Al Jazeera that police had strengthened surveillance to thwart potential chaos in the city.
“Our interest is to protect common people from any harm,” he said. Asked about the presence of AL activists alongside the police, Akter said: “Any political party can have people on the street as long as it doesn’t cause a public nuisance.”
These actions, however, did not deter tens of thousands like Islam from reaching Dhaka to protest against what they call “an autocratic and repressive regime” that has been in power “without people’s mandate”.
As well as deleting his Messenger account and altering his Facebook profile, Islam said he was able to pass the police checkpoints and enter Dhaka by presenting himself as an everyday person going about their business.
Monsur Jilani came to Saturday’s rally from the southeastern district of Cumilla. A BNP district-level leader, Jilani has served nearly seven months in jail in two stints in the past three years.
“My only fault was that I supported the BNP. The local police raided my house and brought false charges against me. Many BNP other activists in my area have been charged in a similar manner,” Jilani told Al Jazeera, “It’s our fight for survival now. This fascist Hasina regime has to go.”
Poet and writer Kazi Abdullah Yusuf joined the protest, frustrated by the culture of fear under the Hasina government. More than 2,000 people have been jailed in the last two years under the “Digital Security Act”, which the United Nations has said “imposes harsh punishments for a wide range of acts that are not clearly defined”.
“I voted for Hasina in 2009 but she has turned into an autocratic ruler. We don’t have freedom of expression anymore and it’s stifling,” Yusuf said.
He added that the skyrocketing prices of essential items, fuel price hikes and power cuts compelled him to protest against the government.
“The Awami League government has long been saying that it has ushered us into a new era of development. The truth is, I am finding it very difficult to make ends meet now,” he said.
Until recently, Bangladesh’s thriving export sector — more than 80 percent of which is dependent on ready-made garment products — helped cushion the country’s economy from global volatility.
High energy prices triggered by the Russia-Ukraine war have significantly reduced its export orders from Western countries while at the same time massively devaluing the local currency against the US dollar. The country’s forex reserves have dropped to an alarming $26.3bn — sufficient for little more than three months’ worth of imports — from $45.5bn just a year earlier.
To ease the further strain on the dwindling forex reserves, the Hasina government in August raised fuel prices by 40-50 percent across the board. The hikes have had a domino effect on other essentials, including edible oils, rice, eggs and vegetables, all of which now cost 20-30 percent more. Public bus fares — used by millions — have also risen by as much as 22 percent.
This has angered Bangladeshis and many of them have taken to social media or the streets to express their frustration.
The BNP, which has been sidelined by Hasina for years, seems to have successfully managed to channel people’s anger against soaring prices.
People’s mounting discontent
Ali Riaz, a distinguished professor of politics and government at Illinois State University in the US, said the BNP had sensed an opportunity to make a political comeback after years of repression, as the development narrative pedalled by the Hasina government seems to be on the wane.
“It [development narrative] was hollow from the beginning and numbers never added up really,” Riaz said.
He added that the huge turnouts in all BNP rallies thus reflect not only support for the party but also “a serious discontent among common citizens about the state of economy and governance”.
In the past few months, news about large-scale corruption in the country’s banks and vast capital flights by people associated with the ruling party have surfaced in the media.
“The cronyism created strata of beneficiaries while a large segment of society continues to suffer with no end in sight,” said Riaz.
Besides, a large segment of Bangladeshis seems to be pushed to the brink, he said. “They would like to have an environment where they can express their views, freely participate in demonstrations, cast their votes, but most importantly have a government which is accountable to them and offers economic opportunities to survive,” he said.
Australia-based Bangladeshi economist Jyoti Rahman accused the government of mishandling the economy.
“Policymakers have made matters worse with parallel exchange rates, lack of transparency around reserves data, and capped interest rates,” he said.
He fears that with the Taka, the Bangladeshi currency, expected to depreciate further against the US dollar, remittances from overseas — the second biggest source of foreign currency — are likely to dry up, accelerating a financial crisis.