Turmoil between political leaders has harmed Bangladesh’s people

The quickest way to grasp the nastiness of Bangladesh’s season of political turmoil is to visit the high dependency unit at Dhaka Medical College Hospital.

This is the ward for burn victims from roadside firebomb attacks, collateral damage from the long battle between Bangladesh’s “two ladies,” as the country’s two most important political leaders are known. On a recent morning, Mohammad Nazmul Mollah looked down the row of beds at three men who had been riding beside him in a truck, after unloading a shipment of sand, when a firebomb thrown by a protester smashed through the windshield.

Mr. Mollah, 25, was the lucky one, having jumped out the passenger-side window so quickly that his worst injuries were fractures to bones and kneecaps. The eight men to his right were unlucky: five died, and others came out with seared tracheas, faces stripped of skin, eyelids swollen to slits. Asked what he would say to the country’s political leaders, he spoke dully.

Sheikh Hasina, left, after elections that were boycotted by Begum Khaleda Zia and the opposition. For 20 years, control has been largely in the hands of one of the two women.

“They are killing ordinary people,” he said. “They are killing their own brothers.”

There are few in Bangladesh who do not sound exhausted this spring. The country was thrust into disarray in January, when the opposition leader Khaleda Zia declared an indefinite campaign of strikes and transport blockades, hoping to pressure her rival, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, into holding new national elections. Yet if Mrs. Zia was expecting compromise, none came.

Political tension relaxed in recent weeks, and life has largely returned to normal on Dhaka’s streets, but there is no long-term solution in sight. Among those watching closely were the country’s leaders of industry.

A World Bank report released on Sunday showed that Bangladesh’s economy lost $2.2 billion, or around 1 percent of gross domestic product, as a result of 62 days of political unrest this year. The report said the country’s economic growth rate would be 5.6 percent this fiscal year — compared with 6.6 percent the bank had predicted before the strikes began.

“How long can you remain resilient if day after day, year after year, you keep hurting industry?” Zahid Hussain, lead economist in the World Bank’s Dhaka office, said in an interview. “Eventually the ability to recoup is affected.”

The violence can be traced to nationwide elections in January 2014, which set off a battle of wills between the two ladies.

Mrs. Zia, a former prime minister whose Bangladesh Nationalist Party, or B.N.P., leads a 20-party opposition alliance, threatened to boycott the polls, suggesting that they would be rigged in the government’s favor. Mrs. Hasina called her bluff and held an election that excluded the alliance, issuing vague promises of repeat elections in the coming months. This January, after a year of waiting, Mrs. Zia declared an indefinite protest campaign.

More than 100 Bangladeshis have died, and many more have been horribly injured, in roadside bombings. By blocking highways, often violently, the protesters targeted the weakest link in the supply chain. The government has responded with increasingly harsh measures, and many of Mrs. Zia’s party leaders either have been arrested or are in hiding. B.N.P. officials deny responsibility for the violence but say they had no option besides blockades and strikes.

“I saw the agonies of the burned people, their maimed bodies, the smell of burning flesh,” acknowledged Mahbubur Rahman, a retired army general and member of the B.N.P.’s national standing committee. “But what we say is that the government is not allowing us to talk. Not allowing us to assemble. Not allowing us to protest, to make our news. In this situation, where the democratic rights are denied, what else can we do?”

The campaign hurt the entire country: students whose schools shut down before examinations; farmers who watched their crops rot; tourist resorts reporting near-total vacancy. But no sector matters as much as the garment industry, which accounts for 80 percent of Bangladesh’s exports and faces stiff competition from factories in Cambodia and Vietnam.

Shabbir Mahmood, who has two plants that employ 820 workers, felt the damage immediately.

Of the four companies that regularly give him orders, two canceled their January buying visits out of security concerns. Orders for February and March fell to half the plants’ capacity, leaving him no choice but to furlough workers. This made it all the more vital to guarantee prompt deliveries for his remaining buyers.

Yet he did not have the heart to order terrified drivers to haul goods to the nearest port in Chittagong, a 160-mile journey that takes six hours under normal circumstances.

“They came to me and said, ‘Sir, how will we drive? How will we go across the road if they try throwing bombs?’ ” Mr. Mahmood said, and he shrugged. “I can give them money, but I cannot give them their lives back.” In the end, he paid out of pocket to send two or three shipments by air.

Mr. Mahmood has delayed the planned fall opening of a third factory, this one to employ 2,000 workers; if the strikes continue, he will delay again. Though manufacturers have lobbied both Mrs. Zia and Mrs. Hasina to pursue a negotiated settlement for the sake of the economy, he said, they have had no success.

“Who will care? The government will not care,” Mr. Mahmood said. “Textile people always tell them this, but they do not care.”

Government officials, and some economists, say the economy is resilient enough to weather moderate political strife, and note that the biggest garment businesses managed to move their cargo to port in a timely fashion through the worst violence, in January and February.

Still, the disruptions have compounded problems that resulted from the 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory on the outskirts of Dhaka, which claimed more than 1,100 lives. Factories are straining to comply with new safety and wage standards, and to rebuild investor confidence in Bangladesh. If the turmoil resumes in the second quarter, forecasters with the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association say, exports could fall 25 to 30 percent starting in May.

Khurrum Siddique, director of Simco Dresses Ltd., a manufacturer based in a suburb north of Dhaka, described the political uncertainty as “a disaster, a man-made disaster.” He said his company was reconsidering plans for investment this year.

“We have no ethnic, linguistic or sectarian problems in Bangladesh, especially compared to Pakistan or India,” Mr. Siddique said. “I don’t understand why this issue can’t be solved over a cup of tea.”

For garment workers, a large number of them women, the stakes are also high. In the Mirpur neighborhood of Dhaka, where workers sleep five to a rented room, many are already complaining of lost overtime, saying their workday now ends around 4 or 5 p.m. instead of 9 or 10. This is no small matter, since rent and food eat up nearly all of their base monthly pay of around 6,000 taka, or about $77.

Ask what they would do if manufacturers began laying off workers, and the answer is sobering. Most were landless villagers, and workers said they would have few options beyond day labor for 50 taka, or about 65 cents, a day. Women in the villages rarely bring in income, so they are heavily reliant on their husbands, and many say they would not consider returning until they could open their own businesses.

“If I go back to the village with empty hands, with no savings, it would be the worst thing in my life,” said Momena Akhter, 30.

One of her neighbors, Mahmuda Khatun, 55, said she had no doubt who would be to blame if the industry entered a downturn. “The government is responsible for all these things,” Ms. Khatun said, a fist planted on her hip. “I will tell them: You are responsible. I will blame them. I will say it is because of you that all of this is happening.”

– Ellen Barry, New York Times