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Purposeful protests

Purposeful protests

What led to mass protests by students in Bangladesh to put everything to a standstill since July 29 was a road "accident" that killed two and left several injured. Given that buses irresponsibly race from one point to another, that was no surprise. But it was time to say enough was enough. So, the turnout against irresponsible driving and traffic "management" was large and spontaneous. True, the entire city and adjoining areas were paralysed. But the authorities stirred themselves awake to the situation to try and improve road safety for good. Road casualties in Bangladesh have been common enough. More than 3,000 people die in road accidents in the country each year, according to WHO. Despite government warnings to cease demonstrations, student protesters paralysed the capital, with teenagers in school uniforms erecting checkpoints and allowing only emergency vehicles to pass. And while they may be at odds with officials, they have won widespread praise for easing Dhaka's congestion and making drivers, even officials, carry driving licenses. The roads have started to function in a proper and efficient manner. The days-long demonstrations took a violent turn last week when authorities beat protesters with batons and shut down mobile internet connections as the unrest spread beyond the capital. On Saturday, more than 100 people were injured by police, according to local media reports, while a day later, a vehicle carrying US Ambassador Marcia Bernicat was attacked by "armed men." The diplomat was unhurt. The United Nations expressed its concern over the crackdown. "The concerns expressed by youth about road safety are legitimate and a solution is needed for a mega city like Dhaka," the UN resident coordinator in Bangladesh, Mia Seppo, said. Prominent human rights activist and photographer Shahidul Alam was detained at his house on Sunday night after he gave an interview to broadcaster Al Jazeera about the protests, saying that they were driven by "larger" factors than road safety alone. He pointed to "the looting of the banks, the gagging of the media, the extrajudicial killings, disappearings, bribery and corruption," according to the broadcaster's website. Understandably, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has suggested her political rivals were using the protests to whip up public anger against the government ahead of a general election due in December. Hasina, who met with relatives of the two students who were killed earlier this week, urged protesters on Sunday to go home, warning that a "third party" could sabotage the demonstrations. Interestingly, last week, in an attempt to address concerns raised by students, Bangladesh's Cabinet approved new road safety regulations, which include punishing some traffic accident fatalities by death. The unprecedented student protests in Bangladesh were not in vain, after all.

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