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Bangladeshis march for Gaza

A report from Dhaka

Ganesh Lal reported briefly on May 4 from Dhaka, Bangladesh and followed up soon after to provide context. Today (May 9), organizers plan to march to the U.S. embassy.

Yesterday we marched again. From Shahbag to Shahid Minar and back, blocking traffic (with police cooperation) waving Palestinian flags, raising slogans against the genocide in Gaza and for a Free, Free Palestine. Speakers earlier (at a stage and everything–very professionally organized) condemned U.S. imperialism in no uncertain terms, while singers and musicians sang of the spirit of struggle, of intifada. Kids sat on the ground in front of the stage, producing artwork inspired by the struggle for a free Palestine.

Artistic installations, posters, banners, and music accompanied the protesters, as did a watchful contingent of Dhaka police, for whom it appeared to be another humdrum routine assignment.

I estimate some three hundred or more people, many of them leading members of people’s movements, student groups, and cultural fronts were led from the front by the Palestine Solidarity Committee.

There are many reasons why one might expect Bangladeshis to have come out in massive numbers to show their support for Gaza. The memory of their own liberation war of 1971, and of the racist and genocidal campaign waged by the (then West) Pakistani military, is still fresh. Moreover, Sheikh Hasina’s government has actively supported the Palestinian cause in the UN, and any expressions of solidarity with Gaza would no doubt be approved or even lauded by the government. Yet, we have seen no mass mobilizations for Gaza in this Muslim-dominated country. There have been several vigils, rallies, and marches, but rarely more than a few hundred strong. Why is this?

Wide shot of a street rally, from behind a crowd mostly seated on plastic chairs. Toward the front, children are bent over artwork they are creating, and beyond that is a speakers’ table, draped in red and gold, with a wide banner behind. Most of the banner is in Bengali, with “Stop genocide. Ceasefire in Gaza now,” in English.
The rally on May 3. “Kids sat on the ground in front of the stage, producing artwork inspired by the struggle for a free Palestine.” Image by the author.

The context

In January this year, Bangladesh emerged from another flawed election with relative calm on the streets; the opposition still reeling from debilitating repression they faced in the months preceding the election. The ruling Awami League (AL) government had refused to concede opposition demands that elections be held under a neutral caretaker government. Opposition parties boycotted the polls, as they had done in 2014 and 2019. In response, the ruling party put up “dummy candidates” (the words of the Prime Minister herself) from within its own ranks to make it look like an election. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has now been in office for fifteen years straight.

The post-election chaos and violence between the ruling party and the opposition that people expected didn’t materialize. Instead, there was the spectacle of infighting among the newly “Independent” electeds and their former party comrades. Some had lost their seats, they claimed, in unfair polls. Others, who had won, now refused to bow to their erstwhile party leaders.

The main opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), a conservative party led by Khalida Zia, is in disarray, but has also tarnished its image by its over-reliance on U.S. support in the pre-election season. Even as the U.S. armed and funded Israel’s genocidal campaign, through the fall of 2023, American officials continued to lecture other countries on democratic norms and respect for human rights. In the months leading up to Bangladesh’s elections in January this year, the U.S. imposed visa restrictions on some individuals of the ruling party, and repeatedly called for free and fair elections, echoing the demands of BNP and other opposition parties. Yet, within weeks after the polls, the U.S. endorsed the election and went back to normal relations with the Bangladeshi state. In retrospect, we can see that the Americans were hedging their bets; as soon as it became clear that the incumbent regime had things under control following the polls, the U.S. went back to the status quo. The European Union and other international bodies soon followed suit.

Having sought U.S. and European pressure to change the status quo, the BNP and other opposition parties likely found it difficult to openly criticize U.S. policy; hence the silence around Gaza. Many are concerned that the U. S. will retaliate against them by imposing visa restrictions and the like.

In addition, among at least some sections of the middle classes, there is the perception that Gaza is an “Islamist” issue. This surprising phenomenon, in a Muslim-dominated society, is not hard to understand considering how the AL has managed to stay in power despite significant grassroots opposition. A dispensation that justifies its continued authoritarianism on the grounds that it is a secular regime holding off radical Islamists relies on Islamophobic tropes that date back to the 9/11 attacks and the so-called “war on terror.” This posture seems to resonate with middle-class civil society types, who are then reluctant to speak out for Gaza for fear of emboldening religious extremists or worse yet, being labelled Islamist.

Many are also scared to join protests because of the history of street violence that has marked political mobilizations in recent years. The violence may be caused by the police or agents provocateurs, but it is also often caused by the protesters themselves, provoking a reaction from the state to draw attention to their cause. Either way, it serves as a deterrent to effective mobilization of civil society.

Two young men march with painted banners. On the left, the banner shows an octopus in an “Uncle Sam” hat astride the Earth, which has lettering saying “Down with U.S. imperialism. SPB.” The banner on the right shows a child facing incoming bullets and bombs and holding a sign that reads “Stop war now.”
Marchers on May 3. SPB is the Socialist Party of Bangladesh, (Bangladesh Samajtantrik Dal, commonly known as Bashod). It is one of two parties that identify as socialist. Image by the author.

Nevertheless, as the crisis in Gaza worsens, many are no doubt looking for some way to express their grief and outrage. Many have participated in the marches and vigils so far; the temporary feeling of community tempered by the nagging sense that these are symbolic and don’t have much of an impact.

On May 9, there will be a protest march to the U.S. embassy—the first attempt to rally there. It is likely that the march will be stopped at some distance from the embassy. In that sense, this march too will be largely symbolic; however, it presents us with an opportunity to speak directly at those who should be held accountable: the current U. S. government.

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