Desperate measures

Updated: Aug 31 2007, 04:32am hrs
After three days of violent clashes in Dhaka and other cities, Bangladeshs army-backed government imposed an indefinite curfew on August 22 in six cities. It has shut down the mobile-phone network, and all educational institutions are closed until further notice. The violence erupted on the campus of Dhaka University and soon spread to most university towns. The spark was a seemingly petty incident on August 20, when soldiers beat up several students protesting against the presence of the army at a football match on campus. The ensuing rioting forced the army to pull out of the campus.

By the middle of the week, the riots had left one person dead and hundreds injured. The students burnt effigies of the army chief, Moeen U Ahmed, and blocked transport links between Dhaka and the northern city of Rajshahi. They are calling for an end to emergency rule and a return to democracy.

Bangladesh has recently been battered by devastating floods. Rising prices are adding to ordinary peoples woes. But the uprising is the most serious threat yet to the army and the civilian front it installed in January.

The downfall of two previous military governments was triggered by student protests. This time there is nothing to replace the regime. The political parties and the countrys democratic institutions are in a shambles. For its part, the government fears retribution by members of the former political class, most of whom are in jail. Lifting the emergency is a wholly unattractive option for the generals.

The curfew comes two weeks after a senior member of the interim government admitted that it would not be able to complete its task of preparing for fair elections until the end of the period it has allotted itselfby the end of 2008. But he said structures would be put in place to make its efforts irreversible. In practice, this means the formation of a National Security Council to entrench the armys political role.

The fear must be that the civil unrest, not yet joined by Bangladeshs gagged political parties, will embolden army hardliners. Meanwhile the presidency, the only civilian constitutional post left, at least on paper, will be vacated in two weeks, when the term of Iajuddin Ahmed runs out. It seems unlikely the job will go to a democrat.

The Economist Newspaper Limited 2007