The top U.N. official in Bangladesh voiced concern Tuesday about violence at political rallies, as the U.S. State Department said it hoped to see a high turnout and free and fair elections in the South Asian country.
Foreign officials are taking note of the tense political climate in Bangladesh as the main opposition party attracts tens of thousands of people to weekly rallies. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party and its supporters are demanding that the Awami League government step aside and allow a neutral caretaker administration to oversee the next election, expected by January 2024.
“People have been injured over the last months … people have also been killed; so obviously we are concerned,” Gwyn Lewis, the U.N. resident coordinator in Bangladesh, told reporters gathered at the National Press Club on Tuesday.
Lewis said United Nations officials have had discussions with the government, including the Ministry of Home Affairs and security agencies.
“Protests and rallies are part of democracy and it should be respected,” she said.
Earlier this week, dozens of people were reported injured in two incidents of violence related to politics in Bangladesh.
In Kishoreganj district, some 65 miles north of Dhaka, at least 31 people, including 11 police officers, were injured during a clash between BNP supporters and crowd-control police as the BNP staged a demonstration, officials said. Also on Monday, 15 more people were reported injured in a clash between BNP and Awami League supporters in Jhenaidah district, some 120 miles west of the Bangladeshi capital.
The Awami government, led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, has been in power uninterrupted since January 2009. The BNP accuses it of massive vote tampering in the last general election.
Lewis made the comments a day after U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price responded to a question about conditions for political rallies in Bangladesh.
“With respect to the political process and the next election in Bangladesh, we hope for a robust civic participation, and the people of Bangladesh ultimately will be able to choose their own government through free and fair elections,” Price told a press briefing in Washington on Monday.
“We urge the Government of Bangladesh to create a safe environment for people to peacefully assemble and to voice their concerns, and relatedly, for opposition parties to campaign without facing intimidation and repression.”
During a visit to Dhaka on Sunday, Afreen Akhter, the State Department’s assistant deputy secretary for South and Central Asia, said the U.S. was working with Bangladeshi civil society actors to ensure that the next general election, expected to be held by January 2024, be fair.
Akhter made the remark after meeting with Bangladesh Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen, according to the Daily Star newspaper.
‘The people will vote for me again’
“We are not worried by comments of concern and advice on how the next general elections should take place. Our party chief and head of the government herself has assured that the next general elections will be free and fair,” Momen’s boss, Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen, told BenarNews on Tuesday.
“Our leader’s position is [this]: ‘I have brought huge development in Bangladesh; I have changed the face of Bangladesh. The people will vote for me again. I would rather not stay in power if they do not vote for me even after doing so much work,’’’ Momen said, quoting Hasina.
He said foreign diplomats had their own agendas and national interests in mind in making such comments.
“They want to keep Bangladesh under pressure. They issue such comments ahead of the elections as the government shows more flexibility in an election year,” Momen said.
As for the concerns expressed by the U.N. official, “Many NGOs in Bangladesh provide the U.N. with wrong and untrue information and it is regrettable that U.N. officials entertain the journalists with wrong information,” Momen alleged.
Zahir Uddin Swapon, who serves as chief press officer for the BNP, said Lewis had accurately spoken about the sentiments of Bangladeshis.
“The government has damaged the culture of healthy democratic practices and the constitutional rule, destroyed the electoral system and snatched all civil rights. Violence may erupt in such situations,” he told BenarNews.
“A general election acceptable to all parties through reforming the electoral system can save the country from violence. Only then we can restore constitutional rule,” he said.
BNP began holding weekly rallies on Oct. 12. The party plans to keep holding such rallies through Dec. 10 – which marks Human Rights Day around the world.
The opposition party is calling for the ruling Awami League to restore an election-time non-party caretaker government system and dissolve parliament heading into the vote, BNP Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir said last week.
Shantanu Majumder, a political science professor at Dhaka University, question how Lewis had described the situation in the country.
“The political violence and situation have not deteriorated to the extent that the U.N. resident coordinator should use the word ‘concern.’ I would prefer using the word ‘uneasiness’ about Bangladesh’s current political situation,” he told
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