“We can’t discuss this over the phone” is something I’ve been hearing a lot lately while in Bangladesh. Whether it’s openly talking about the military government, the curfew they have imposed, or the riots that instigated the curfew – people are scared to even talk. I’ve been to Bangladesh many times before – but I’ve never seen people this scared before.
There have been riots, strikes, and curfews in the country before – but there are a few things which make this time different. First, there is no longer a democratically elected government. In the past, one political party topples another (either by force or political pressure) – elections usually follow. But what happens when you topple a military government? No one is really sure.
This time is also different because journalists and foreigners are being targeted. Typically, democratic political parties would want cameras rolling – hoping that the media will sympathize with them and vilify the enemy instead. But, now even the BBC isn’t even safe from being caught by the army. Local journalists haven’t been as lucky – with many being detained and reporting beatings (source).
No one seems to be safe from the government’s eye here. The government’s have accused democratic politicians, foreigners, NGOs, or simply “evil forces” as being responsible for the riots and as justification for continued curfews.
It’s times like this that I’d rather be in South Bend. Aren’t we playing against Georgia Tech this weekend?
This kid is why I am here in Bangladesh. I took this photo six years and one month ago and his face has been stuck in my head ever since. 149 children, out of every 1,000, who are under five years of age die each year in Bangladesh (this number has since lowered to 73 out of a thousand) (source). When I think about that, I wonder, is this kid still alive? Dengue Fever and typhoid – easily (and cheaply) treatable diseases – are big killers in Bangladesh (especially in the cities, where this photo was taken). This kid lived in a slum (aka a “bosti”) surrounded by pools of stagnant water, trash and mosquitoes – all of which raises the odds of contracting such diseases.
Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, author of the book “The End of Poverty”, argues that extreme poverty like the kind faced by this kid can be eliminated in our lifetime. Dr. Sachs was the one who inspired me to put grad school on hold and come to Bangladesh to try and make a difference. But it’s this kid – who happened to walk up to me because he was curious about my camera – who taught me how I can make this difference. This isn’t about ending global poverty, making a statement, or changing the world. If I can make a significant difference in the life of just one person – that’s good enough for me.
As I move around Dhaka during this time of curfews and civil unrest – with photo ID in my pocket, hoping I don’t attract the attention of a soldier at a checkpoint – it’s this kid and others like him that remind me why I’m here.
Fear, uncertainty, and doubt are key elements to any successful military curfew. The goal is to not to intimidate the population with what they know you are doing, but rather make worry about what they are not sure you are doing. With a military imposed media blackout, those tuning into BBC World news for foreign news find that when the story about Dhaka and the Bangladesh military curfew airs – the broadcast suddenly becomes filled with static. Coincidence or intentional? The BBC correspondent – filing his report via cellphone – cuts off in mid-report. Bad connection or was he cut off on purpose? If there is uncertainty and doubt – there is fear. And thus, there is control.
With my previous post, I had hoped that the military had yet to catch up to the internet age. Despite a media blackout and blocking of cellphone calls, I was still able to upload photos to flickr and use gmail and MSN messenger. Today, the internet has slowed to a crawl. The gateway connecting Bangladesh to the internet via transatlantic cables have been shut down. Even with V-Sat backup connections, websites like BBC World News and services such as Gmail, and MSN Messenger fail to load at all. Even Facebook, which has always been reliable, suddenly displays a message reading “Hey, your account is temporarily unavailable due to site maintenance”. Coincidence? Or intentional?
It’s times like this that the freedom enjoyed by Americans and other Western nations is put in perspective. Even with cameras on street corners, warrant-less wiretapping, or other Big Brother-esque infringements – Americans and much of the Western World have much to be grateful for.
There is no universal language like the language of a man holding a gun. Even though I don’t speak the local language very well, I knew exactly what the man in military fatigues was telling me as he pointed to my empty camera bag with one hand and holding his AK-47 in the other. My camera promptly returned to its bag and I was allowed to leave….
After riots broke out in the streets of Dhaka, Bangladesh, the military government imposed a curfew: 8 pm. The photo above was taken with less than an hour before curfew. Those that were not home already were walking, taking rickshaws, and driving to get home before the military clamped down. Perhaps to keep people from organizing or maybe to stop them from finding out just how bad things are – cellphone lines have all been shut down. The local media has also been instructed to no longer discuss the current situation. Foreign media is also having a tough time reporting as their welcome here will be no more warm than when I tried to photograph some of this.
The BBC has done a good job of reporting the situation in Dhaka. But after the cars have stopped burning, after the protesters have gone home, and after the reason for the riot has long been forgotten – the real damage will remain. It’s instability like this that makes Bangladesh a hard place to work, live, and invest. As the curfew was announced, store owners were left scrambling to close early. Wage labourers have lost out on full day’s labour. Goods that were to be exported remain in warehouses. The service industry, a growing industry here in Bangladesh, shuts down as waiters, barbers, rickshaw drivers, and cooks all rush home to avoid trouble.
Economic hardship maybe a reason this riot started – but it’s riots that keep the promise of prosperity out of reach.