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Political Puppetry Dance in Bangladesh

I was very young when I went to a cultural program with my mother and my brother. We saw “Putul Nach”, or puppetry dance1. It was quite amusing for a 9 year old, and 20 years later, I can still recall how surprised I was to discover that those puppets never actually spoke. Rather, there were people behind the curtain who controlled the movements of the dolls, and they were the ones doing the speaking.

It was amusing for me. I just found it surprising how someone could control the movements of the dolls, even though they were in fact lifeless. I wondered how I would feel if someone tried to control my speech, my movements. The idea did not appeal to me at all, and I concluded that I would never want to become a puppet. I wanted to live my life on my own terms, and to have the right to express my own ideas and beliefs. But I did not know back then that in reality, freedom is not yet a basic right that can be taken for granted. It is still a privilege, especially in a country like mine which is affected by rising religious extremism and a government that tries to silence its critics with all its might. As a Bangladeshi we have two choices in a situation like this; either be a good puppet and go about your life quietly in the hope that nothing bad happens to you or your loved ones, or dare to speak up at your own risk.

20 years later, I am witnessing “Putul Nach” again. But this time, these dolls are not made of cotton, or clothes. The dolls are real humans- people of Bangladesh, particularly those with an opinion or thirst for the truth. And it is our government that is behind the curtain, directing us to speak what they want to hear. The people must do as they say, and if they don’t there is a dragon waiting to punish us. This dragon is called the Digital Security Act, and it is far worse than the ICT 57 Act which was already draconian. It enables the government to suppress its critics skillfully, and it has given religious fundamentalists a powerful new weapon. As a result, many cases have been filed against journalists, activists, freethinkers, and writers over the past few years. Despite concerns raised by the international community, this censorship and the ensuing brutality continues.

However, the political landscape of Bangladesh is not a black and white scenario- there are multiple shades. Speaking up comes at a cost, and puts a label on you which will likely do no justice to your real identity. If you are one of those who actively condemns the rise of Islamic radical groups, then you are likely to be branded a “Nastik” (atheist), a diehard fan of Awami League (the ruling party), or an agent of India- our neighboring country. You will have a harder time if you have declared yourself an atheist, or if you were born into a family practicing Hinduism, or any other faith. As a religious minority, you do not have the right to speak. And what if you are a Muslim and are critical of the ruling party? Then you stand to be be bashed as a supporter of Islamic extremism, or to be branded as a “Jihadi”. If you are a woman, or belong to the LGBTQ community, then there will be even more labels and humiliations that you will have to endure. It may help somewhat if you have support from some groups or alliances, but you can still never take your safety for granted. Never. You are not expected to speak up if you are a Bangladeshi, and if you do, you must speak in favor of those with power.

As a Bangladeshi, you speak up at your own risk.

By: Shucheesmita Simonti

1

 In Bengal, the tradition of puppetry has been traced back to the end of the 14th century. (https://wepa.unima.org/en/danger-putul-nach/)

In Rwanda, a political icon leaves prison with her mouth closed

By Akayezu Muhumuza Valentin
Rwandan Human Rights Activist

On 14th September 2018, the Rwandan Ministers’ Cabinet approved President Kagame’s decision to grant a presidential pardon to the political prisoner Umuhoza Ingabire Victoire. In 2010, Ingabire was nominated by her political party FDU-INKINGi to run in the 2010 presidential elections. At this time, her arrival in Rwanda after several years in exile provoked strong reactions and controversies in the Rwandan political landscape. Her remark at the genocide memorial site in Gisozi turned into accusations of genocide denial. A few days later, the anti-Ingabire campaign began. First, it was the Rwandan Agency of Information that organized a radio debate, mainly focused on Ingabire’s speech at Gisozi memorial site. Many argued that her political aims were provocative and revisionist. Shortly after, all the chambers of parliament called an information hearing to describe the true image of Ingabire.  The conclusions of this session recommended an immediate judicial inquiry to be opened against her. In the same time, during an interview with a Ugandan journalist in Kampala, President Kagame denied the status of politician in Ingabire and qualified her as being the same as Alice Lakwena who founded Lord Resistance Army in northern Uganda. Early this year, asked by a journalist of TV5  why the Rwandan government known for its firm commitment to promote the female promotion threatens women who act in political opposition, the Rwandan Minister of Foreign Affairs replied that not all Rwandan women are saints. She said there are also witches.

When the Ingabire’s episode of a judicial saga started, the High Court of Rwanda sentenced her to seven years of imprisonment. The sanction was increased by the Supreme Court of Rwanda to 15 years. Recently, the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights issued a verdict confirming serious violations in the Ingabire trial and even recommended the government of Rwanda to compensate her. But it should be noted that the government decided to withdraw from the protocol that grants immediate access to Rwandan citizens to bring an action before this court without the government’s prior approval. The Rwandan Minister of Justice accused this court of being instrumentalized by the genociaries. At the beginning of Ingabire’s trial in the High Court, it was reported that she had addressed a letter asking President Kagame for forgiveness. However, she later denied it. Has she asked pardon again? At this time, nothing was said if she has asked for forgiveness once more!  In practice, among the charges brought against her, the crime of undermining national security excludes her from the persons who could be pardoned by the President of the Republic.

What does her release mean for the political context in Rwanda? Although the decision of the African Court of Human and Peoples’ Rights recognised her profile as a political personality arrested on basis of  her ideas, the Rwandan government did not want to implement it. However, it is quite possible that pressures and other different dynamics pushed the government to find ways to get her out of prison not as a victim of a judicial travesty, but as a convicted person who will no longer be able act on the political scene. In this regard, the liberation of Ingabire shows no sign of democratic progress in Rwanda. The political space in the country remains closed.

#WeWantJustice

Protests led by youth are met with violence;

attempts of dissent are suppressed.

In Bangladesh, mass outrage over two teenagers killed in a road crash escalated into a social movement, with high school students stepping out on the streets, holding placards demanding for road safety and the resignation of the Shipping Minister, Shajahan Khan. Shajahan Khan’s insensitive remarks about the death of the students sparked the outrage. Road safety is a major issue of concern in Bangladesh. Research indicates that last year more than 4200 people lost their lives in road accidents in Bangladesh.

Over the past few days, several images and videos have gone viral on Facebook, which testify to the allegations of brutal violence committed by the police and the Bangladesh Chhatro League (the student wing of the Awami League). BCL has been accused of thrashing and molesting journalists. On Saturday, August 4th, mobile internet was suspended for 24 hours and many complained about a lack of connectivity. Many believe this was done to suppress the dissent, since the issue was not being covered enough by local media and subsequently protesters and supporters of the movement went online to share updates, using Hashtags and tagging international media houses’ social media accounts. Many social media influencers reported that they received thousands of emails and messages from Bangladesh. Some social media influencers, including Drew Binsky, uploaded videos expressing their solidarity and concern.

Shahidul Alam, a renowned photographer and social activist, told Al Jazeera that the movement is not solely being driven by the demand for road safety: other issues too are causing public dissent. The latest update that Shahidul Alam was detained—as reported by Dhaka Tribune—has since been shared by many people on social media. However, according to Dhaka Tribune, the police have denied these allegations. Earlier the same day, Aparajita Sangita, an online activist, was detained but released afterwards—as confirmed from her Facebook account.

We, at the Hague Peace Projects, express our solidarity with the youngsters and condemn the attempt to suppress the voices of dissent through brutal violence, arrest and the suspension of the internet. 

References:

https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/08/bangladesh-officials-restrict-internet-student-protests-180805071428323.html

https://www.dhakatribune.com/bangladesh/2018/08/05/btrc-no-directive-issued-to-suspend-broadband-internet-service

https://bdnews24.com/bangladesh/2018/07/31/minister-shajahan-khan-apologises-for-insensitive-remarks-about-deaths-of-students-in-crash

https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/08/bangladesh-mass-student-protests-deadly-road-accident-180802174519088.html

https://www.dhakatribune.com/bangladesh/dhaka/2018/08/05/photographer-shahidul-alam-picked-up-from-his-home

https://www.facebook.com/drewbinsky/videos/1859932040710383/

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