DHAKA, Bangladesh — Thousands of students paralyzed parts of Bangladesh’s capital on Sunday to protest the country’s abysmal road safety conditions. Teenagers dressed in school uniforms erected checkpoints across the city, forcing the police and government ministers to observe traffic laws that are otherwise poorly enforced.
The protests in Dhaka, the capital, have entered their second week with no signs of abating, with demonstrators demanding justice after two students were killed and 12 others wounded when a bus plowed into a bus stop on July 29.
The driver had lost control of his vehicle while racing another bus to pick up passengers, a common occurrence in Bangladesh, where dozens of poorly regulated private transportation companies vie for customers. Nearly 7,400 people died in traffic accidents across Bangladesh last year, with 16,100 others injured.
The protests intensified on Sunday when university students joined the middle and high school students who have led the movement so far. The newcomers joined in solidarity after a pro-government student union joined the police’s ranks and clashed with protesters on Saturday, wounding dozens.
That violence continued on Sunday, when the student union returned to the streets to support the police, who used tear gas and batons to subdue protesters. Armed with scraps of metal and thick, gnarled tree branches, pro-government student protesters attacked and wounded five photojournalists, including a photographer from The Associated Press. At least 200 people have been wounded in the protests.
The demonstrations have been leaderless so far, with students gathering at their schools or universities in the morning before funneling out onto the street to block roads and erect makeshift checkpoints around their respective institutions. Bus operators across the country shut down long-distance routes this week in response.
On some days the protests have attracted up to 15,000 students, with parents leaving work to join their children and restaurants offering free food to demonstrators.
The students’ ability to organize and to enforce poorly obeyed laws has embarrassed the governing party, the Awami League, as it heads into elections in December.
Students responsible for checkpoints have forced the police and government officials to provide driver’s licenses and car registration. They have also helped ease street congestion by forcing Dhaka’s drivers — notorious for driving on the wrong side of the road or skipping traffic lines — to obey laws.
“If children like us can establish discipline in traffic management, why can’t the traffic police do it?” said Tameem Dari Khan, who recently graduated from high school and is waiting to attend university. “It’s because they get bribes. They are not interested to check properly, so they can get some illegal benefit.”
On Thursday, students asked a police sergeant on a motorcycle to show his license, which he refused to do. When the sergeant slapped a young boy, the students attacked him and set fire to his motorcycle.
Despite that episode, most interactions at student-run checkpoints have been peaceful. A government minister traveling in his motorcade was stopped at a checkpoint last week, and was then forced to ride with his security detail after his chauffeur failed to produce a driver’s license. Students have turned over unlicensed drivers to the police.
Although the government was reluctant to use violence at the start of the protests, the police’s violent turn this weekend may encourage more students to come out, observers said. The governing party has also blamed the opposition for stoking protests.
On Sunday, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan praised the patience displayed by the police, but added that law enforcement officers would not continue to “sit idle and watch.”
“We will go for tough action if the limit is crossed,” he said.
For many, the protests are about much more than the country’s hazardous road conditions. They also symbolize the poor governance and corruption across Bangladesh.
The student movement has demanded that the death penalty be imposed on the driver who careered into the bus stop at full speed on July 29, and that the government enforce more rigorous traffic laws.
Shipping Minister Shajahan Khan mocked the protesters during a news conference last week. Pointing out that a recent bus crash in neighboring India had killed 30 passengers, he said that “they don’t complain about it as we do.”
Mr. Khan is also the head of Bangladesh’s powerful transportation lobby, which activists say is a conflict of interest.
The transportation sector has long operated above the law, with powerful officials either owning private bus companies or relying on its workers for political support. By bribing officials, transportation companies obtain driver’s licenses for employees, who are often first-time drivers. They also bribe the police to get out of deadly accidents or allow their decrepit buses to continue along commuter routes.
“The transportation sector is absolutely corrupt,” said Iftekharuzzaman, who goes by one name and is the executive director of Transparency International, Bangladesh.
Internet speeds for mobile phones were also lowered over the weekend, preventing protesters from uploading pictures and video of their demonstrations to social media or the messaging service WhatsApp.
The student protesters accused the government of blocking free speech. But the telecommunication minister, Mustafa Jabbar, said in an interview that a technical issue had prevented mobile providers from offering faster connections.
Other officials said the mobile internet speeds had been purposefully slowed after rumors that the Awami League party detained, killed and raped several demonstrators at one of their offices in Dhaka.
The rumors quickly spread on social media and escalated violence across the capital on Saturday afternoon, culminating when several thousand students marched on the Awami League office. But they found no evidence that protesters had been unlawfully detained there and publicly denounced the rumors as false, tamping down protesters’ rage.
“I think mobile operators’ problems have come as blessings for all of us — otherwise we would get more rumors by now,” said Mr. Jabbar, the telecommunications minister.
If the government is behind the move to slow the country’s internet, Bangladesh would be the third South Asian country in recent months that has tried to harness the power of social media to prevent violent protests from escalating.
In India, a recent spate of lynchings fueled by false rumors spread on WhatsApp led the messaging service to limit users’ ability to forward messages. The Sri Lankan authorities blocked Facebook in February after false rumors led to violence against the country’s minority Muslim population.
Orignially published in NYT.