Politics, politics…

I feel like I haven’t been to work much lately…  In fact, thanks to some pretty energetic hartals and riots, and because my office is close to the centre of the city where the action is, I’ve been working from home since the start of the year.

It’s all thanks to the anniversary of last year’s elections on the 4th of Jan. The ‘victorious’ Awami League has commemorated their ‘win’ by calling it a national day of ‘Victory for Democracy’. The understandably miffed BNP opposition (headed up by Khaleda Zia) is calling it the ‘Killing of Democracy Day’. It’s all a bit out of hand and everyone’s very upset.

Here’s just a little taste of what’s been going on: The BNP wanted to have a rally objecting to the day…

BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia this afternoon announced an indefinite countrywide blockade to protest government restriction on 20-party rally.

“The programme will continue until my further instruction. We will set the next course of action at an appropriate time,” she said while speaking to journalists after law enforcers barred her from getting out of her Gulshan office this afternoon.

Here’s how a friend of mine described it (far more witty than I could muster):

Current state of play in Bangladesh in the two days since I returned to work… Opposition party threatens blockade of Dhaka. Police form actual blockade of Dhaka in order to prevent threatened blockade from occurring. Dhaka still blockaded. Opposition leader blockaded in her office for several days after police and 16 trucks filled with construction materials mysteriously appear outside the front gate, blockading all exits. Announces indefinite country-wide blockade as retaliation for personal blockade. International NGOs blockade themselves in hotels in order to keep safe from the impending blockade in response to the blockade which prevented the original planned blockade. My home and office are unaffected by the blockade so I’m effectively blockaded-in with work in response to the blockade, which others are unable to do because of the blockade.

It’s really worth reading the whole story. Cos, y’know. Bangladesh.

When the city grinds to a halt: hartals

Today is my first real (multiple-day) hartal. It’s a bit of a specialty item in Bangladesh – a kind of Strike to End All Strikes: not only do the people protesting take the day off, but they make sure everyone else does, too. A spot of rioting and violence spilling through the streets of all the major cities ensures that people take precautions and stay close to home, avoiding major public spaces like universities and main roads. In case anyone wanted to try their luck and go about business as normal, there’s a built-in way of ensuring the country shuts down: protesters will deliberately target anyone who hasn’t followed their instructions to strike. It’s not fun to openly defy groups of young men with cricket bats and guns, so most workplaces shut down or ask people to work from home. … (Which is what I’m taking a break from doing right now).

Delwar Hossain Sayedee leaving court in February 2013

Sayedee leaving court in February 2013

Most of the hartals revolve around some kind of political conflict, and today’s is no different. Delwar Hossain Sayedee (the leader of Jamaat-e-Islami – or Jamaat for short,  Bangladesh’s very own ‘Islamist’ political party), who was sentenced to death for war crimes in February last year, has had his appeal heard in the Supreme Court and a reduced sentence of life imprisonment has been handed down. Jamaat supporters were all ready to be fired up about him losing his appeal and organised a strike against the decision. Of course he didn’t lose – but who wants to waste all that pent-up outrage and poster paint? The hartal went ahead anyway, and protesters are demanding his release.

(Not to make light of a serious subject, but I googled Sayedee and this is what came up.)

dark syeedi of the moon

A protester demanding the death penalty

A protester demanding the death penalty

Sayedee, along with 7 other Jamaat compatriots, is accused of mass killings, rapes and other atrocities that occurred during the 1971 War of Independence (fought with what is now Pakistan). This sounds like it could be apolitical but Jamaat is allied to the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), one of the two major political parties, and the International Crimes Tribunal was set up to target key Jamaat players by Sheikh Hasina (leader of the BNP’s opposition and current incumbent party, the Awami League), when she came to power in 2010. Jamaat supporters claim that the trials are political witch-hunts to undermine the power of the BNP opposition, and have been following the trials closely, shutting down the country with hartals whenever there is a major event in court. Protesters have also come out in objection to Sayedee’s sentence being commuted. It’s all a bit heated.

Anyway, while the student wing of Jamaat throw bricks and tip over a few cars, the upshot for most people is a few days of being indoors. Cars aren’t allowed on the streets so people who need to move around in safe areas tend to go short distances on rickshaws – I’ve been getting around on my bike. Many expat friends work in NGOs in the Gulshan-Banani-Baridhara ‘bubble’ which is basically unaffected, except for the eerie (but pleasant) absence of cars, so for them it’s work as usual. My workplace, CARE, is in Kawran Bazar, which is much closer to Old Dhaka and the courts, so we are staying out for the way for now (the CARE security manager has urged all to remain ‘vigilant and watchful’). I’m holed up in the Australian Club with a bacon and egg roll and a large pot of tea. Things could be worse.

Vote for Mr Pineapple!

How to vote Pineapple

How to vote Pineapple

A friend of mine’s Dad is in politics, and he’s been campaigning for a local (state-level) election.

I asked what the pineapple was for: apparently here each candidate is allocated a symbol by the electoral committee – horse, pen, rose, cricket bat, pineapple – and they have to campaign on that symbol. I feel sorry for whoever gets the pig.

When voters get to the booths there are no names and no parties listed – just pictures of the symbols. So the campaign on these leaflets is literally, ‘vote for the pineapple!’

I asked if this is to help illiterate people vote and my friend shrugged and said, ‘I don’t think so. Maybe. It’s just how we’ve always done it here’.

Despite the opposition’s slogan that ‘the pineapple is rotten’, Mr Pineapple won his seat in a landslide.

It’s happening!

So, it’s been months since my interview and even since I got offered the assignment, but all that’s been up in the air thanks to the Bangladeshi non-election and all the crazy that’s been happening because of it… Will they let us go? Won’t they?

Today I got the email all-clear from AYAD HQ. All I have to say right now is this:



52 days and counting!