The Other Tahrir - Bangladeshi Youth Take Protest Global

The Other Tahrir - Bangladeshi Youth Take Protest Global

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Long seen as avowedly apolitical, youth in Bangladesh today are cleansing the nation of the sins of their forebears stemming from the country’s genocidal 1971 war for independence from Pakistan. And they are taking their movement global.

On March 24, people will gather in 40 cities -- including 20 in the United States -- spread across 11 countries around the world in solidarity with a cause you’ve probable never heard of. From Helsinki to Sydney, Los Angeles to New York, Cape Town to Fukuoka, this is a rare simultaneous show of support by a single ethnic group.

But first, some background.

A large, predominantly Muslim country’s youth pours out onto the streets to occupy a public square and make known their demands. The crowd – at times swelling to over 100,000 -- remains for 17 days and nights continuously. There is no violence, as women and men, their toddlers in tow, demonstrate together, rare in a Muslim country.

No, this is not Egypt’s Tahrir Square.

It all began on Feb. 5 in Shahbag Square, a neighborhood in the capital Dhaka. On that day, the country’s International Crimes Tribunal – set up in 2008 to prosecute those charged with crimes against humanity during the 1971 conflict -- convicted longtime politician Abdul Qader Mollahh. Charged with the deaths of 350 people, Mollah was handed a life sentence.

Young Bangladeshis, leery of the often-light sentences handed down to convicted political leaders, called for the death penalty. They also demanded that the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami party, which opposed Bangladesh’s break from Pakistan, be banned. Mollah served as the party’s assistant secretary general. Many young Bangladeshis today feel the party continues to harbor war criminals such as Mollah.

Shahbag leaders have given the government until March 26 to comply with their demands.

Aggrieved youth immediately began to voice their frustrations with the ruling through a popular social media network. Soon after the first of what would become a tide of protestors, some with shirts bearing images of Mollah with a noose around his neck, began to file into Shahbag Square.

The nation sat transfixed as students, teachers, musicians and writers banned together under the slogan Shadharon Jonogon, or “ordinary people.”

This unprecedented and spontaneous outpouring of political sentiment by the young generation in Bangladesh – long thought alienated by the rampant corruption of local politicians -- in rejection of Islamic extremism affirms the deeply humanistic and pluralistic values of Bangla-speaking people worldwide.

It also puts my generation to shame.

The battle lines following Bangladesh’s bloody liberation war, which claimed some three million lives, could not have been more clearly drawn: secular, democratic forces, along with the overwhelming majority of the population, were for independence, while Islamists and other sectarian parties collaborated with the Pakistani occupation forces, whose war crimes included mass murder and horrific crimes of rape.

Yet after independence, these same individuals and their supporters were rehabilitated with remarkable alacrity. How on earth did we let it happen? With their protests, today’s youth are righting that historic wrong.

And their spirit has struck a chord with Bangladeshis abroad. All told, Bangladeshis in 123 cities around the world have expressed solidarity with the youth in Shahbag.

Come March 24, Shahbag Abroad, a loose-knit group of expatriate Bangladeshis from countries as far apart as the U.S., South Africa, Finland, South Korea and Australia will offer a unified statement in show of their support for the youth of Shahbag Square, who inspired us all.

Ashfaque Swapan is a reporter with India West and a media volunteer with Shahbag Abroad. More information on the group can be found at http://shahbag/info