Bangladesh strikes take toll on economy and universities

Video rental stores in Dacca have been swamped in the last few days. Expatriates and wealthy Bangladeshis are stocking up supplies for yet another national strike, which began Wednesday morning and is to run until tonight. What began in November as an apparently effective tactic by the country's 30 or more opposition parties to weaken the government of President Hussain Muhammed Ershad is now being greeted by the general Bangladeshi public with muffled groans.

National strikes - or hartals, as they're called in Bangla - mean closing down all businesses and schools and forbidding almost all vehicles from the roads for anywhere from 24 to 72 hours - or more.

The goal is to force President Ershad out of office, by showing that he has no control over the country. But this tool of dissent has become blunted by overuse, and now even those Bangladeshis who favor the opposition complain they are losing business from the strikes.

A report released last week by Dacca's Chamber of Commerce and Industry estimates that Bangladesh's economy has lost more than $283 million from 17 days of strikes in November and December. This represents a gross domestic product (GDP) loss of 1.7 percent.

By itself, this would already be a severe blow to an economy that is marginal at best. But this loss comes on top of an additional estimated 3.16 percent GDP loss from the record floods in August and September. The total loss is more than an average year's entire GDP growth.

With this in mind, many Bangladeshis - from the middle classes in Dacca to the poor in small towns - are beginning to see the strikes more as a nuisance than as a way of improving their lot. Many say they observe the strikes mainly out of fear of having bricks thrown at them or their vehicles if they don't.

Students and teachers are concerned strikes could further disrupt an educational system already wracked by disruptions. After 50 days of closure, following demonstrations in November, Dacca University reopened last Saturday, and other universities are following suit. But many universities are already two or three years behind in graduating their students.

In a rally at Dacca University last Saturday, University Vice-Chancellor Abdul Mannan warned that the country was going to lose a generation of intellectuals through the university system's inability to graduate students on time. Since 1980, he said, Dacca University has been closed for more than four and a half years.

The opposition - especially the two main opposition parties - have issued statements calling for a boycott of ``farcical'' elections. The current strike coincides with the days that candidates must file to participate in the Feb. 28 election - which Ershad called after he dissolved Parliament in December.

In a political system where many say graft is common, it is assumed that whoever is in power at the time of an election will win. But opposition efforts are prompting cynicism from intellectuals and apathy from much of the countryside. They question how the opposition will fulfill its promise of restoring democracy if Ershad ever does step down - which he shows no intention of doing. They also question whether opposition parties represent any change for the nation's people - 90 percent of whom are poor and rurally based.

As one Bangladeshi aid worker charged, ``It's not even a question of improving rights for the rural poor. What the opposition is really saying is, Ershad's party has already had its turn to make its bundle off of bribes and payoffs. Now it's their turn.''

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