Silence and self-censorship persist in Bangladesh after Dec 30 polls

Yashab Rahman

As the dust settles on the Awami League’s landslide victory in the December 30 polls – where the party secured an unprecedented 288 out of 298 seats – the people of Bangladesh look towards the future with bated breath. In view of both allegations of vote rigging and praise from foreign powers, the 2018 election could go on to be a watershed moment for Bangladesh and its future. For now though, many people believe they have not spoken.

“I have no hopes,” quipped Saad Adnan, who’s pursuing a PhD at the University of Washington, Seattle. Adnan had just returned to the country to exercise his franchise. What he saw, however, has left him with nothing to look forward to. Asked why he felt that way, Adnan shrugged his shoulders and smiled. The message was clear: the lesser said, the better. This seemed to be the prevailing sentiment in a country where the leader, armed with a handful of laws to silence dissenting voices, has morphed from being The Mother of Humanity to She-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.

Even before the elections, the extent of paranoia the government had spread was evident, especially in social media circles. In 2017, Dhaka ranked second among the cities with the highest number of active Facebook users by We Are Social and Hootsuite. With around 22 million active users, the city made up around 1.1 percent of the social media giant’s user base across the world.

In the days leading up the election, however, Facebook usage fell dramatically. Fiber@Home, one of the leading international internet gateway operators in the country, found that Facebook usage had fallen by 30 percent in only one month. Whereas in October, Facebook data usage was around 28 Gigabits per second (Gbps), it fell to around 18 Gbps by December 16, 14 days before the election.  “People might be nervous to comment on or like [things on Facebook] and [are] avoiding using Facebook before the election,” Sumon Ahmed, chief technology officer of the organisation, told The Daily Star, the leading English-language newspaper in the country.

The nervousness is still palpable. Babul Ahmed, a tea stall owner in the capital’s busy Mohammadpur residential area is testament to that.  Always ready with a broken-toothed smile, his disposition rapidly changes at the mention of politics. “I don’t have anything to say about elections. I went and I voted. And that’s that,” he said, when asked about the polls.

“I remember the times in 1975. I remember them well. It seems those times have returned,” the 76-year-old said. His sentiments were echoed by 55-year-old Parveen Rahman, a homemaker. “I wanted to vote for ‘boat’

[the Awami League symbol]

. But the night before elections, a few men came to our neighbour’s house and banged on his door.

“They kept yelling for Naim. They said he was a Jamaat sympathiser and he would pay. After they left, the police came and they began doing the same thing.” Parveen said this one single moment made it clear to her that even the police were working to spread fear among the opposition. Who did Parveen vote for in the end? “I did not vote for boat,” she said when asked, without mentioning anything else.

Looking at the current situation though, it would be unfair to say the Awami League does not enjoy support; in fact, a number of quarters root for them. “This is the government that recognised our citizenship and gave us the right to vote for the first time in our history. I voted for them again and would again,” said Shehzadi Begum, an Urdu-speaking Bangladeshi.

Cast off as ‘Stranded Pakistanis’ after the independence war ended, these minority members languished in refugee camps until a caretaker government recognised them as citizens in 2008. Afterwards, it was the Awami League that began to woo them for the first time, a fact the community has yet to forget. Although, it must be stated that opposition to the party is also seen among the group.

Elsewhere, Hannan, a shop-owner in the city’s Dhanmondi district, was also reluctant to speak about the elections. But he voiced his opinion when it came to the road ahead. “This government has done a lot of great things. Personally for me, I have run this shop for 20 years but before this government, I never had to pay VAT or any such tax. Now I do,” he said. “I just hope the money is used. Corruption is the one thing I want stopped. Go to any government bank and see the line for those paying their taxes. They are long every day. We are doing our part. We hope the government does too.” During the unveiling of the Awami League’s manifesto this election, one of their key areas of focus was elimination of corruption.

At the time, Sheikh Hasina, the party chief, showed awareness of the problems within her party, in terms of graft.  She appealed to the voters to view the mistakes she and her party colleagues made since taking office in 2009 with “kindness” and elect her party yet again.

“To err is human. My colleagues and I might have made mistakes while performing our duties. I, on behalf of myself and my party, fervently request the countrymen to look kindly on our mistakes,” she said. However, such promises had been made before. Back in 2008, when the party returned to power, it had pledged to appoint an ombudsman, publish the wealth statements and sources of income of the prime minister, politicians and their close relatives every year. However, those promises never came to fruition. This time around some citizens are optimistic.  But it seems many are resigned to their fates.  And the election, praised internationally, has yet to find the same credibility back home, where it should really matter.

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