Villagers vs. Bangladeshi army

It’s pretty hard to know exactly what’s happening (partly because I’m in the US trying to figure out what’s going on on the other side of the planet) in Bangladesh, but the last few days I’ve been struck by a pretty spectacular fight of villagers protesting against army acquisition of their lands on the cheap.

Here’s what I’ve been able to gather from the various news reports. The Bangladeshi army is attempting to acquire some 5,000 bighas of land (a Bangladeshi bigha = 1600 square yards) for an army housing project in Narayanganj.

In response, villagers organized under two unions (Kayetpara and Rupganj unions) protested the army’s maneuver to coerce people into selling their land on the cheap to the army. The army has set up provisional housing in nearby villages and has been sending agents to pressure locals into selling their land for a fraction of their market value and preventing the locals from registering their land (which would offer them some limited legal protections against coercion). At least one report reveals inconsistencies in the Army’s claims that it is working by the books: the state minister of housing claims that the developers have not followed proper procedures, which include seeking the approval of local officials and submitting layouts of the development.

Some 7000 demonstrators came out to block the road to the proposed housing project by constructing a barricade. After a stand-off of several hours, the police and the Rapid Action Battalion were sent in to tear down the barricade and remove the protesters. They lobbed tear gas and charged the protesters with batons. 10 of the protesters were shot with live ammunition, 50 others were wounded. Law enforcement officials deny firing on the protesters (which makes one wonder how they were shot); several eyewitnesses have the police firing upwards of 150 rounds.

Almost immediately after, protesters descended on one of the provisional army housing camps at Musuri and set it on fire. Military personnel there had to be evacuated by helicopter.

The Bangladeshi Army has been predictably dumbfounded, as they claim that they have had several reasonable discussions with the locals to let them know that the housing plan is “completely run by the personal fund of the army members” and there was no attempt by the army to coerce people into selling their land. In the Army’s mind, the protesters were egged on by outside agitators who have been spreading “hostile and fearful” rumors. The ruling Awami League saw this as an opportunity to blame its primary rival, the Bangladeshi National Party, and its leader, Khaleda Zia, insinuating that the real reason for the protests is a recent ruling by the Bangladeshi Supreme Court asking her to vacate her cantonment home. This of course allows the Awami League the ability to play the victim and repeat its pleas for calm, all the while ensuring that the Army’s plans move forward apace. Incidentally, some villagers have identified the Awami League’s Golam Dastagir Gazi as instrumental in helping the Army purchase land on the cheap.