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Last Updated: Thursday, 23 August 2007, 08:33 GMT 09:33 UK
High stakes in Bangladesh protests
By Sabir Mustafa
BBC Bengali service editor

A military vehicle on fire in Dhaka, Bangladesh
There have been violent demonstrations in Dhaka
After violent demonstrations in Bangladesh, the country's military-backed caretaker government has apparently decided to confront and possibly suppress various sections of the population growing more restless by the day.

The caretaker government appears to have come to the conclusion that the demonstrations represented a real challenge to its authority - if not its continued existence.

In unprecedented scenes, soldiers in uniform were seen being chased out of the Dhaka university campus by students. In two days, the myth of the army's omnipotence was all but laid to rest.

In response the government has done what military-led governments in Bangladesh have done in the past: it slapped a curfew on Dhaka and other cities, closed down all major public universities and colleges, and ordered all resident students to leave their dormitories.

Challenges to unelected governments in Bangladesh always originate on campuses, particularly the 86-year-old Dhaka University, often fondly called the Oxford of the East. Such governments always feel getting the students out of the campus is a must to restore peace.

'We are not idiots'

The ferocity of the clashes between students and security forces has sent shockwaves through the establishment. Its initial reaction was to beat a retreat - the government caved in to student demands and agreed to remove an army camp from the campus.

But the eruption of anger did not remain confined to the campus, and violent demonstrations spread to other parts of the city.

Many of these demonstrators were the dirt poor of the city - slum dwellers whose homes had been demolished by the authorities, and street vendors who had been evicted from the street.

"The army chief should resign. They are killing us to keep themselves in power. They think the public are idiots. But we are not idiots. They have come to organise elections, so they should just hold elections and leave", said one irate street vendor.

Fakhruddin Ahmed
Some evil forces used the events on the university campus to spread chaos in many parts of the country
Dr Fakhruddin Ahmed

The government on the other hand has come to the conclusion that this was not a spontaneous outburst of pent-up anger. It claims to have discovered a deep conspiracy behind it all.

"We have information that there is a lot of politics behind this. A lot of money has been spent to organise this," said law minister Mainul Hosein.

"Students' demand to remove the army camp from the campus was met, so these demonstrations are not about students' grievances," he said.

Teachers say there is a much bigger issue at stake here.

'Evil forces'

"Students and ordinary people are demanding an end to the state of emergency, an end to this atmosphere of fear," said Anwar Hossain, secretary general of Dhaka University Teachers Association.

"I am extremely worried to see how detached from reality the law minister is, and how he is unable to comprehend the situation."

But the law minister was not only speaking for himself. The head of the caretaker government, Dr Fakhruddin Ahmed, went on national television to defend his government's decision to clamp down.

"Some evil forces used the events on the university campus to spread chaos in many parts of the country including Dhaka. Under the circumstances, the government has demonstrated extreme patience, and taken some steps to protect the lives and property of people and put an end to illegal activities," he said.

Not everyone is happy to hear the government accuse the demonstrators of being part of a conspiracy.

Students of Dhaka University protest in Dhaka
Students have often protested against unelected governments
"We have seen in the past that whenever people have demanded an end to emergency powers or military rule, autocratic governments have always responded by calling the protesters evil and conspirators," said Nurul Kabir, editor of New Age newspaper.

While many see these demonstrations as simply a manifestation of people's anger at the continued state of emergency, others fear such chaos could be used as an excuse to impose direct military rule.

"Every event and action has consequences, and the consequences can be very serious," said Dr Ali Riaz, head of department of politics and government at Illinois State University.

"Direct military rule would be catastrophic for the country's economy as well as the political process," he said

Others like London-based analyst Abdul Gaffar Chowdhury feel the army should be looking for an honourable "exit route".

'Exit strategy'

"Replacement of the current caretaker government with a broad-based government of national unity would enable the army to make an exit from the current impasse," he said.

But the idea of a government of national unity - with representatives of all political parties - has remained an elusive one.

Few believe that ideologically diverse parties would be able to reach the kind of consensus needed to form such a government.

A more realistic exit strategy for the army would be to lift the ban on political activities and bring forward the date of elections from December 2008 by perhaps a year.

A bus being set on fire in Dhaka, Bangladesh
There are fears of the military taking over power

To many, there could be no better strategy than to hold early elections and handover power to an elected government, with a clear understanding that the anti corruption drive would continue without hindrance.

But with the government seemingly embarking on a policy of containment by force, there is no reason to believe the crisis now gripping Bangladesh is about to end. It may have just started.

The first student demonstrations against the country's last military dictator, General Hussain Muhammad Ershad, took place in January and February of 1983. It took another seven years of agitation and violence before Gen Ershad was finally brought down.

Adding to the mix is a growing fear among many - particularly students and professional groups, that the military has a long-term plan to depoliticise the country, and cement its control over society.

They point out that while politicians are being vilified relentlessly, military men are being appointed to various key institutions. The much-talked about National Security Council with a strong role for the military is close to being formed.

The current student demonstrations may have been the opening shots in another long battle - not to get rid of military rule, but perhaps to prevent one.

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