Bangladeshi students stand on a road amid teargas during clashes with police in the protest in Dhaka on August 5, 2018, after the death of two students in a road accident. Photo: AFP / Munir Uz Zaman
Bangladeshi students stand on a road amid teargas during clashes with police in the protest in Dhaka on August 5, 2018, after the death of two students in a road accident. Photo: AFP / Munir Uz Zaman

Tens of thousands of teenagers crippled various major cities of Bangladesh for three days in a row in protests against the country’s lawless transportation sector. The movement started when two students were killed by a commercial bus allegedly owned and operated by a relative of a government minister.

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Shahzahan Khan, the minister in question, didn’t help the government’s cause when he callously told the protesters via a press conference that in other countries such as India even if large numbers of people die in road accidents, no one make such protests. Such unapologetic remarks fueled the anger of the students and pushed the movement over a tipping point, as more and more protesters flooded the country’s streets.

This leaderless, spontaneous movement, mostly participated in by students in their mid-teens, has quickly morphed into one of Bangladesh’s, and perhaps the world’s, most potent street outbursts of juveniles demanding justice.

Bangladeshi social media are flooded with images and videos of the teen revolution, where juveniles wearing school uniforms are seen occupying major thoroughfares  and controlling vehicular movements of Dhaka, which besides being the nation’s capital also happens to be the world’s most densely populated city, with 44,000 people per square kilometer.

Vandals, vigilantes and law enforcers

Although there have been several reports of vandalism, where teenagers set fire to or smashed windshields of public transportation vehicles, the young revolutionaries for the most part have played the role of vigilantes, taking upon themselves the responsibility of checking drivers’ licenses, registration papers, and enforcement of traffic laws in Dhaka’s dysfunctional road transportation system.

One widely shared video on the social media showed teens apprehending a police vehicle whose driver could not produce his license. In another viral video, several hundred teens are seen swarming around a police vehicle inside of which they allegedly found marijuana – which of course could have been the result of the cops merely returning from a narcotics raid.

In another popular video, the students are seen catching a minivan belonging to a major TV station, with journalists sitting inside, whose driver failed to produce his license when the throng of a few hundred student protesters demanded the document from the driver.

One of Bangladesh’s most powerful ministers, Tofael Ahmed, is seen stranded in a melee with about 50 teenagers in another video, where the minister’s official vehicle was driving on the wrong side of the road – a common practice enjoyed by the people of power in Bangladesh as they try to ply through Dhaka’s notoriously slow rush-hour traffic.

In many instances, the students have used profanity-laden placards and signs, befitting their frustration and disrespect toward the ruling elites and law enforcement, both of which are accused of being corrupt, inept, and complicit with the criminal syndicates widely believed to run the country’s transportation businesses.

However, the profane frustrations of the teenagers are better appreciated when videos are taken into consideration that clearly show police, along with pro-government thugs, ganging up as a team with sticks and rods with the intention of beating up the juvenile protesters.

In a disturbing press release, the Asian Human Rights Commission accused the Bangladeshi government of hiding the actual death toll from the bus accident to suppress popular dissent. The AHRC stated that at least four more students were taken to a military hospital in Dhaka, three of whom have been confirmed dead, while one was on life support. The AHRC alleged that the government was not allowing access to these injured children to their families, “with false assurances that they are receiving treatment at the Intensive Care Unit” of the army hospital.

The latest teen revolution a mere sequel

The current teen revolution is not organized by any particular group, nor is it taking place in a void. The teenagers’ spontaneous protests demanding justice for the tragic death of students in a road accident is taking place at a time when their seniors, that is, undergraduate students of Bangladeshi universities, are at loggerheads with the country’s government over the reform of job quotas reserved for children and grandchildren of “freedom fighters” – those who took part in Bangladesh’s liberation war against Pakistan some 47 years ago.

Currently 52% of all government jobs are filled by people enjoying various types of quotas in Bangladesh, most of which are reserved for the relatives of freedom fighters, whereas only 48% are filled by merit-based entrance exams.

Opponents of the existing quota system allege that the freedom-fighter quotas are used as an instrument by the current Bangladeshi government to flood the country’s civil administration with its political loyalists.

Over the last several months, there were numerous incidents where peaceful quota protesters were mercilessly beaten by government-backed hooligans and police, like the incident shown in the video below.

YouTube video

The oppression of peaceful protesters reached such levels of cruelty that in one other shocking viral video a quota-reform protester was even  seen being beaten by a hammer on his head and his body by pro-government thugs in broad daylight.

Several Western governments, including the United States and Germany, have issued statements condemning such attacks on peaceful protesters.

What’s behind these recurring youth movements?

Dhaka ranked 137 out of 140 in the 2016 Global Livability Survey, which is part of the quality-of-life report issued annually by the Economist Intelligence Unit. With the 137th slot, Dhaka barely edged past Nigeria’s Lagos, Libya’s Tripoli and war-ravaged Syria’s Damascus, the last three cities in the list. Furthermore, Dhaka’s infrastructure rating was the worst of any city in the survey.

The National Committee to Protect Shipping, Roads and Railways, a private research group in Bangladesh, estimates that more than 4,200 pedestrians were killed in road accidents in the country in 2017, which was a 25% increase from 2016.

Such lack of overall livability, a corrupt transport system, and worsening incidence of traffic-related fatalities coincided with Bangladesh’s gradual plunge into one-party totalitarianism over the last 10 years.

According to research conducted this year by Germany’s Bertelsmann Foundation, which ranks countries based on prevalence of authoritarianism, Bangladesh, along with Lebanon, Mozambique, Nicaragua and Uganda, are now considered to be “new autocracies.”

“Due to the worsened quality of elections, [Bangladesh], the formerly fifth-largest democracy, is classified as an autocracy again,” the report by the Bertelsmann Foundation said recently. The current Bangladeshi government is in its second five-year term, after securing an opposition-less election victory in 2014.

Under such an authoritarian backdrop, Bangladesh is experiencing repeated clashes of interest between the government and various interest groups, including the country’s youth.

Minor issues, which in a rules-based system of representative governance would have been tackled efficiently and peacefully by local authorities, are now flaring up regularly because of a simmering undercurrent of hostility toward the authoritarian government felt by the general population.

As Bangladesh becomes increasingly autocratic and repressive, such protestation may only manifest with frequent recurrence, as the country’s polity becomes increasingly hopeless and desperate for change.

Shafquat Rabbee

Shafquat Rabbee writes on global economy and geopolitics. He teaches at the College of Business, University of Dallas, Texas. He is an alumnus of Cornell University and the University of Miami. He can be found on Twitter @srabbee.

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