Huge crowds swarmed the streets of Bangladeshi cities on Wednesday to demand Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s resignation and fresh elections, with public anger mounting over rising food and fuel costs.
Opposition allies staged rallies in Dhaka and nine other cities — the latest of several demonstrations in recent months that have occasionally been quelled by violence.
Bangladesh is one of the fastest-growing economies in Asia, but rising global food and fuel costs linked to the war in Ukraine forced Hasina’s government last year to impose lengthy power cuts and expand food handouts to the poor.
Several people were injured in the central city of Faridpur when supporters of the ruling Awami League attacked protesters while brandishing sticks and hurling Molotov cocktails.
“The time to cling to power by force is over,” senior Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) leader Mirza Abbas said at a sit-in outside party headquarters in the capital.
“Let a neutral government hold an election.” Police estimated up to 50,000 people were present in the crowd addressed by Abbas, who was released from prison on Monday a month after a sweeping crackdown on opposition activists.
BNP officials said hundreds of thousands had turned up in Dhaka alone, with thousands more joining sister rallies around the country.
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“Living costs have always been a headache,” university student Abu Nayem said.
“The government might not have a problem with this, but people like me are dying. I came to protest this careless apathy.” The Bangladeshi taka has depreciated by up to 25 per cent, driving up the cost of food imports and making life harder for the country’s poorest citizens.
Police said at least four people were wounded in the Faridpur clashes.
“We fired rubber bullets to bring the situation under control,” a senior city police officer said.
Shama Obaed, a BNP leader at the Faridpur rally, said that at least 100 people were wounded and more than 30 had been detained. The Awami League held a much smaller counter-protest in Dhaka to support Hasina, who has rejected calls for her departure.
“Extremists are gathering in one place to topple us from power,” she told supporters at a small gathering on Tuesday.
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“Don’t think that the party will fall down if it is shaken. Things are not that easy.” Western governments and the United Nations have expressed concerns over the political climate in Bangladesh, where Hasina’s party dominates the legislature and runs it virtually as a rubber stamp.
Two-time premier Khaleda Zia, the BNP chairperson and Hasina’s long-term rival for power, is effectively under house arrest after a conviction on graft charges.
Washington levelled sanctions against top security officers in December 2021 over their roles in hundreds of enforced disappearances and thousands of extrajudicial killings.
Hasina’s government denies it was behind any enforced disappearance of opposition supporters and leaders, and says many criminals were killed during gunfights with officers.