Bangladesh’s opposition vowed on Friday to push ahead with a mass march on Dhaka this weekend that is aimed at scuppering a January 5 general election, despite a police ban.
The opposition, which is boycotting the elections, has been predicting that up to a million people will descend on the capital in this Sunday’s protest and persuade Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to call off the polls.
Amid fears that the rally would become a focal point for more unrest after what has already been the deadliest year for political violence in the country’s history, police said they would not sanction the so-called ‘March for Democracy’.
“We have not given permission to the BNP (Bangladesh Nationalist Party) rally as we have intelligence that sabotage may occur,” police spokesman Monirul Islam said.
“The programme will not be allowed because of public safety.”
But the announcement drew a defiant response from BNP leader Khaleda Zia who urged supporters to defy the ban.
“I hope you will join our gathering, and defy all the obstacles that are being placed in our way, so that we can save democracy,” Zia said in a video message shortly after the police announcement.
“Our protests will continue until the government is ousted.”
However Zia did voice doubts that she would be able to take part in the protest herself, with supporters accusing the authorities of keeping her under de facto house arrest since Wednesday.
Appeal to supporters
The two-times former prime minister said she was appealing to supporters to join the march “even if I cannot stay with you”.
Zia has previously said that she wants to lead the rally, describing it as an opportunity “to say ‘no’ to these farcical elections” a week before polling takes place.
Although police deny Zia is under house arrest, they do acknowledge that reinforcements have been posted outside her home in an upmarket district of Dhaka to “enhance security”.
However members of her party say they have been unable to get access to the home and at least two supporters who have tried have been arrested.
Zia’s party has organised a series of crippling national strikes and transport blockades in recent weeks in a bid to halt the elections.
The strikes have done further damage to an economy already reeling from the impact on the crucial garment sector from a factory collapse in April which sparked widespread industrial unrest.
As well as the BNP, 20 other parties have announced they are boycotting the January 5 election, fearing the result will be rigged.
The parties have been demanding that Hasina stands down and allows a neutral caretaker government to oversee the polls as in previous contests, but she has refused to yield.
Since January, Bangladesh has been hit by the bloodiest bout of political violence since the former East Pakistan broke away from Islamabad after a brutal civil war in 1971.
At least 273 people have died in clashes across the country, both in protest at the elections and death sentences handed to Islamist leaders who were convicted for crimes dating back to the independence war.
A policeman and a hotel employee were the latest to die in the violence, with the constable succumbing to a bomb attack overnight and the civilian in burn injuries in hospitals in Dhaka on Friday, police inspector Mozammel Haq said.
With Hasina’s Awami League certain of victory, the elections are seen as likely to widen the political divide in a country which has endured nearly two dozen coups in its short history.
The credibility of the polls has been further undermined by the refusal of foreign countries and organisations to send observers, but Hasina has insisted that they will go ahead regardless.
“There is no power which can stop the elections,” she said in a campaign rally on Thursday.
Bangladesh is the world’s eighth most populous country with a population of 153 million and one of the poorest in Asia.