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B'desh protests deter political peace chances

Written by: Staff

Dhaka, May 12: Political conflict is no stranger to Bangladesh, but a new wave of people's protests in the impoverished South Asian nation poses a threat to stability, diplomats and analysts say.

They say the country's forever inimical political parties are trying to use popular anger at high prices and low availability of drinking water, diesel and electricity against each other, leaving the nation rudderless and its economy slowing down.

Protests are taking place almost every day and at least 20 people have been killed and hundreds injured in clashes between demonstrators and police and pro-government activists.

''The people's anger coupled with political feuds are pushing the country into the doldrums ahead of parliamentary elections next January,'' said an Asian diplomat in Dhaka.

A European diplomat added: ''Bangladesh is growing at 6 per cent but it could be growing at 10 per cent (if there was political peace),'' referring to the country's annual gross domestic product growth.

''Acrimonious politics never helps stability or business confidence. This, coupled with poor state governance and corruption, is having a detrimental impact on the economy.'' The ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the main opposition Awami League have long been at loggerheads for years.

They came together in 1990 to oust military ruler General Hossain Mohammad Ershad, but now their leaders, Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia and opposition chief Sheikh Hasina, don't even talk to each other.

''Like in any democracy, often the best way forward is one of finding consensus on issues of national interest, such as the delivery of a successful election in which the result is accepted by all,'' one diplomat said.

Both the BNP and the Awami League have won power in elections after Ershad's ouster, but the losing party has invariably questioned the outcome and led street protests against the verdict.

The current wave of protests comes after Khaleda's government enjoyed rare success in battling Islamic militants. Islamists from two outlawed groups killed at last 30 people and wounded 150 in countrywide bombings since August 2005, but are now effectively tamed as their top leaders have been arrested.

But the protests have been relentless and more lie ahead. An opposition alliance led by Hasina has called for a siege of power supply offices on May 14, then a siege of election commission offices on May 18 and a siege of the capital Dhaka on June 5.

The ruling party has accused the opposition of inciting the protests while it itself has been charged with attacking protesters.

But despite the threat to stability, few see the possibility of Bangladesh turning out like Nepal, another country in the region battered by poverty and poor governance. A Maoist insurgency there has killed over 13,000 people in the past decade, although a new government in Kathmandu is making efforts to bring the rebels into the mainstream.

''Bangladesh is quite different from Nepal,'' said a Western diplomat. ''Despite unending enmity and mutual mistrust, political leaders and people here respect democracy and care for it,'' she added.

Still, there is danger, others say.

''Politicians should learn to get around the mess,'' said Bangladeshi economist Anu Muhammad. ''Our people really don't break the law unless they run out of patience.'' But the politicians show no signs of changing.

''We will force the government into conceding to our proposals for electoral reforms through street agitation,'' Awami League general secretary Abdul Jalil said late yesterday.

His party and its allies earlier rejected a government offer to settle the matter through a dialogue -- because the BNP wanted to include its Islamic partners in the talks.


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