A harder line appears to be emerging in Bangladesh, as violence continues with the transport blockade called by the 20-party coalition led by the Bangladesh National Party (BNP).
The blockade started a month ago, protesting the first anniversary of the elections in Bangladesh on Jan. 5. So far, more than 50 people are dead and hundreds injured. Buses and trucks have been burned and economic losses continue to mount.
Separately, BNP launched a three-day nationwide shut down on Sunday, which was subsequently extended to last until Thursday.
Economists in Dhaka estimate that the transport sector has suffered heavy losses, and that the garment industry, which accounts for 80 percent of the country’s exports, has lost an estimated $60 million in the last two weeks.
Bangladesh is the second-largest apparel exporter in the world, after China. The $24.5 billion export sector also provides employment to more than 4.4 million workers, mostly women.
On Wednesday, police officials charged Khaleda Zia, chairwoman of the BNP, with instigating the firebombing of a bus in which seven people were killed on Tuesday. Earlier in the week, another complaint was filed in the metropolitan court alleging that Zia had “masterminded” the killing of 42 people, which her aides instigated. The incidents prompted a judge to order police to investigate.
This adds to numerous other cases pending against the opposition leader, who had been prime minister three times.
Amidst the confusing political situation, Marcia Stephens Bloom Bernicat, the new U.S. ambassador to Bangladesh, presented her credentials to President Mohammed Abdul Hamid at a ceremony in Dhaka on Wednesday. She succeeds former ambassador Dan Mozena.
At the ceremony, she conveyed to the president her intention “to promote a Bangladesh that is secure and tolerant, moving toward its goal of middle-income status.”
However, a statement issued by the BNP joint secretary on Wednesday indicated how difficult this might be in the immediate future, revealing the intention to keep the movement on until “the government quits and announces to arrange a free, fair and participatory election.”
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government appears to have no such plans. She has stated her own intention to bring peace to the country, at any cost.
“It’s a kind of low level war of attrition and patience and staying power of who will survive,” Ahsan Mansur, executive director of the Policy Research Institute (PRI), observed.
Speaking about the impact of the protests on the business community, Mansur said: “Well, what else can they do? They have approached both the leaders but nothing of substance came out of it. They can get around the transport problems by paying for security, but on the global level, it is really a perception problem. Do the buyers want to take a chance with Bangladesh?”
He said that if the buyers lost interest in Bangladesh, “it would be a hard war to fight.”
“At this time it is more a fight against loss of potential orders — the real loss would be over the long term if the perception overtakes the situation,” he said.
Yet it has been apparent, and proven, as Mansur noted, that the garment industry in Bangladesh has survived worse. In 2013, as pre-election violence resulted in almost 100 days of political agitation and shutdowns, the industry managed to hold its own.
“The garment industry has been very resilient. They have shown that they can manage even in very difficult situations,” he said.
After the collapse of Rana Plaza in April 2013, when 1,133 garment workers were killed as the eight-story building collapsed, world attention was drawn to the industry in Bangladesh. As European and American retailers and brands came together to establish safety measures in the factories over the last 20 months, the industry in Bangladesh found a different kind of reassurance — with investment and commitment of millions of dollars by international agencies as well as by global brands and retailers. In exchange, factory owners have been working to incorporate safety requirements for the factories as well as provide training on safety features for their workers.
Despite this reassurance of continuing business from global brands and retailers, leaders of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association are concerned.
Exports to the U.S., for example, were down last year, by 3.2 percent from January to November, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Commerce. Apparel exports from Bangladesh to the U.S. were $4.64 billion in this time period.
Referring to the loss in business over the last year, Atiqul Islam, president of the BGMEA, said that buyers have been cautious about placing orders with factories in shares buildings, resulting in the slowdown of exports from Bangladesh.
“But it is the current political deadlock that will harm exports the most,” he said.
“We continue to suffer losses in terms of transport — road transport and railroad transport are not safe anymore,” said Mohammad Hatem, vice-president of the Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BKMEA). He said there was a need for a special law to protect the apparel industry.
Leaders from both organizations joined hands with several other groups to protest the continuing violence last week, and have been calling on the leaders of the political parties to negotiate and arrive at an urgent consensus.