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Bangladesh Election Protests Turn Deadly, 18 Killed; Is the Country Nearing Civil War?

Violence continues to consume the streets of Bangladesh as the government decided to push forward with elections despite fierce protest from the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the primary political opposition to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s rule.

At least eighteen died and many more were injured from days of confrontation between protesters and the police. More than 200 polling centers were destroyed by arsonists. Dhaka has been all but shut down now by the police with the government banning the use of motorized vehicles for civilian purposes. Many are expecting the final death toll will be considerably higher than the current estimates.

Bangladesh’s garment industry has also been beleaguered by increasingly deadly demonstrations, prompting many to wonder if the country now teeters on the precipice of civil war. At the very least, the  seemingly intractable unrest has made many anxious that business will eventually begin to suffer. Gazipur, in particular, has been center stage for the persistent political violence that has plagued Bangladesh, the result of a contentious dispute between factory workers and owners over raising the minimum wage. Even after the Bangladesh Ministry of Labor officially signed off on the new minimum wage recommendations from the ad hoc Wage Board, simmering tensions have failed to subside. More than 2,000 garment factory workers took to the streets in Gazipur last month, violently demanding that recently shuttered factories reopen and that wage increases take immediate effect.

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Also, in November, there was a coordinated attack on a car transporting three officials from JHK Trader SRL, a Spanish retailing company. They were part of a three car caravan carrying seven officials in total passing through Dhaka, the nation’s capital, en route to the Wisdom Attires factory in Narayanaganj.

Frightened by the sudden attacks, JHK plans to pull its business from Bangladesh. According to Reaz-Bin Mahmood, vice president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), the climate of fear and insecurity will make it difficult to attract buyers. “We want security for the retailers and brands, in the interests of the garment sector. It will be very difficult to retrieve the work order, as the buyers were scared by the attacks.

The violence is leading many experts to wonder if, rather than bringing a conclusion to civil unrest, the newly minted salary structure will only stoke the embers of further conflict. While a final compromise was reached, both sides expressed some disappointment with the specifics of the deal. In particular, the factory owners only capitulated begrudgingly. Speaking to the AFP, Mahmood said, “We have accepted the wage board decision following the Prime Minister’s request. But it’ll be difficult for many of us to raise the wages, if the Western retailers don’t hike order prices by 10% to 15%.”

And the sources for conflict in Bangladesh are many and deep. Bangladesh is also a country that still struggles with historical wounds, especially the bloody war it fought with Pakistan for its independence in 1971. Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed established an International War Crimes Tribunal to try those who attempted to join the Pakistani army in a ferocious campaign of mass rape and indiscriminate murder. The country remains fractured from the conflict and still mourns the three million who died as a result of it. Just last month, the Bangladesh government executed Abdul Quader Mollah for crimes he allegedly committed during the 1971 war.

The current political struggles have taken on combatively religious tones, opening up a cleavage between those who envision an increasingly secular Bangladesh and those who long for a resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism. Prime Minister Hasina has been a vocal advocate for secularization while the BNP and its closest ideological ally, Jamaat-e-Islami, have backed a religious revival. In more practical terms, the BNP claims Hasina’s tenure illegitimately violates a constitutional requirement that elections be overseen by an interim caretaker government. Osman Faruk, a senior spokesman for BNP, has called the current election “farcical.”