DHAKA, Bangladesh – Opposition activists in Bangladesh clashed with police and ruling party members Sunday on the first day of a four-day general strike amid concerns by businesses that the country will suffer terribly if the ongoing chaos does not immediately stop.
At least one man died and scores were injured across the country as the opposition enforced the strike to force Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to quit and form a caretaker government made up of people from outside of mainstream political parties to oversee an election next year.
The latest spate of violence came after at least 18 people died during similar protests over the last two weeks as the opposition enforced shutdowns totalling 120 hours.
Television stations said a man died Sunday in the southeastern district of Chittagong after picketers attacked an auto-rickshaw he was travelling in.
The latest developments come at a time of deep tension in Bangladesh, a nation struggling to overcome extreme poverty, rancorous politics and a string of horrific accidents linked to the garment industry.
The situation became further complicated when authorities arrested five prominent leaders of the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party on Friday and Saturday.
After the arrests of Moudud Ahmed, M.K. Anwar, Rafiqul Islam Mia, Abdul Awal Mintoo and an aide to opposition leader Khaleda Zia, the opposition increased an already announced 72-hour strike by 12 hours in reply to the government’s crackdown.
All of those who were arrested were sent to jail by a court on Saturday. They will have to stay there at least until Thursday, when the court will hear police charges against them.
Police said they were arrested in two separate cases involving charges of arson, smashing of vehicles and attacking police.
But the opposition says the charges are politically motivated and has vowed to intensify the protests.
Dhaka’s Bengali-language Prothom Alo newspaper reported Sunday that at least 200 vehicles have either been torched or vandalized across the country since Friday in response to the arrests.
Meanwhile, businesses said Bangladesh’s economy could be hit hard as its manufacturing sector could suffer a big blow, especially the garment industry, which earns more than $20 billion a year from exports.
“We are facing huge trouble. How will we do our business if such chaos continues,” said S.M. Mannan Kochi, a vice-president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association.
“We have to confirm our shipment, we have to pay our workers, but nobody is caring about that,” he said.
The garment industry employs more than 3 million workers, mostly women, and most factories are located in the capital, Dhaka, and its surrounding areas, as well as in Chittagong. During any strike, businesses are hugely affected in both Dhaka and Chittagong.
Hasina and Zia, a former prime minister, are the most powerful leaders in Bangladesh and they have alternated as prime minister since 1991.
Hasina wants an all-party government to oversee the next elections, but Zia wants her to resign to pave the way for forming a caretaker government with people from outside of political parties.
The government says it is determined to form an election-time government with other parties if Zia’s party continues to refuse to join.
In addition to the election-related chaos, a war crimes tribunal stemming from Bangladesh’s 1971 war of independence from Pakistan has become another incendiary political issue.