New Internationalist

Shahidul Alam

Issue 279

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A state of danger

This is Shahidul Alam's inside story, in words and pictures, of the intense struggle against repression which has been raging in Bangladesh, unnoticed by the Western media. Resistance work there is dangerous - photographers and journalists are regularly attacked and arrested.

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In the beginning there was light. One of the climactic moments from Begum Khaleda Zia's victorious election campaign in 1991. Hope burgeons as Bangladesh launches into a rare free and fair election. The latest in a series of military-backed dictators, Hussain Mohammad Ershad, had finally been ousted two months before following an intensive three-year campaign for democracy.

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But the optimism is short-lived. Demonstrators take to the streets when the Government allies with the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islam, whose leaders aided the Pakistani Army's genocide of Bangladeshis in 1971. Under the watchful eye of authority, children of that war's martyrs demand the trial of the war criminals.
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Women feel they have most to lose if the Islamic fundamentalists gain ground. On International Women's Day in 1994 Shamima Nazneed enacts a play by Tagore (Stri'r Potro, 'The Wife's Letter') which shows the oppressive influence of the family.

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The Government becomes increasingly repressive and starts to rig by-elections, leading all opposition parties to resign from Parliament. A general election is called and there is a brutal clampdown on dissent. This student is arrested on 31 January 1996 in a police swoop on a mainly Hindu hall of Dhaka University - he screams out to friends from the prison van.

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Resistance hits the streets.

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The opposition boycott of the election is complete: polling stations stand idle. Yet the Government reports a huge turnout of voters and a landslide victory. The contrast with the last election is painful as heavy security cordons guard Khaleda Zia while she addresses her followers. She is just visible over their shoulders in the centre, aloof and distant heir to an autocratic tradition.

An old friend of the NI, Shahidul Alam is guiding light of Drik, a remarkable photographic agency in Dhaka.

Full text of the article, A State of Danger


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This article was originally published in issue 279

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New Internationalist Magazine Issue 436

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