News from Bangladesh

Unrest continues across Bangladesh, with widespread strikes and the mass revolt against an attempt by a British company to begin destructive open cast mining in Phulbari.

Submitted by Red Marriott on August 30, 2006

Picture - Monday, Phulbari in Dinajpur: protesters set fire to furniture of the British company Asia Energy in protest at the killing of demonstrators by security forces.

News from Bangladesh
- garment unrest continues and British company is attacked in mass regional revolt over opencast mine

In the capital, Dhaka, the unrest continues. In the garment industry there are ongoing clashes almost daily; regular walkouts by workers protesting conditions, strikers marching to other factories calling out fellow workers, workplace occupations, employers' lockouts, bosses' property regularly attacked. Workers also often block main roads and clash with police and army. Much of this is fuelled by disputes over unpaid back pay and also the failure by the bosses' federation to implement most of the concessions agreed after the major revolt of May/June, continuing on a lesser scale to the present (see previous libcom news article).

Two weeks ago;

"At least 50 people were injured as police clashed with several thousand garment workers blockading the city's Airport Road yesterday demanding a pay rise and end to 'inhuman treatment'.

The demonstrations by the workers of four garment units of NASA Group went on for three and a half hours at Khilkhet intersection, forcing hundreds of vehicles to be stranded on either direction along the busy thoroughfare during the morning rush hour.

Vehicular movements came to a standstill on the road stretching from Mohakhali to Khilkhet while on the other side, thousands of commuters from Uttara and beyond were stuck in a miles-long tailback from 8:30am till 12 noon.

As the police clubbed the demonstrators to clear the road, a clash broke out between them and the garment workers. At least 10 teargas shells were fired to disperse the agitators who retaliated by throwing stones at the policemen.

The garment workers also damaged around 20 vehicles during the demonstration that escalated into a pitched battle leaving 50 of them injured." (Daily Star, 15/Aug/06)

There have also been struggles elsewhere; strikes in the river transport and sugar and jute mill sectors. Teachers have been on strike over employment conditions and for a living wage. Rumours circulate around the country; of recent workers' uprisings involving thousands in different areas, but all news has been censored.

In Phulbari, 217 miles (350 kilometres) north of the capital, Dhaka, there has been major resistance in the last few days to an opencast mining project that would forcibly resettle up to 100,000 people (though the mining company claims only 40, ooo). This would include thousands of indigenous people, mainly Santal. At least five people were killed and about 50 injured as police and Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) opened fire on demonstrators advancing towards the office of the British-owned Asia Energy Corporation (Bangladesh) Pvt Ltd in Dinajpur.

"Thousands of demonstrators, mainly farmers and indigenous people including women armed with bows and arrows and sticks, joined the protest apprehending massive eviction and loss of farmland that might be caused by the implementation of the Phulbari Coalmine Project."(New Age)

A 14-party oppositon coalition are conducting negotiations with the government in an attempt to control the movement, but the mass activity that has seized the town appears to have a strong autonomous element to it. Rail and road links with the rest of the country are blocked. On Monday the troops withdrew, as did Asia Energy staff, and the town fell into the hands of thousands of protesters who ransacked the company offices.

"Boiling with anger after Saturday’s police firing which left 5 people dead and scores injured, the locals carried out arson attacks on at least six houses and business establishments belonging to ‘dalals’ (collaborators) of the British company, torching and ransacking whatever they found there. The police in riot gear looked on in silence as over 30,000 farmers, indigenous people and petty traders staged demonstrations all day on Monday..." (New Age)

A general strike and regular street demonstrations in the town continue.

The property of those who have collaborated with the mining interests has been extensively targetted;

"People from different neighbourhoods of Phulbari and surrounding villages started pouring into the town since early in the morning.
They cut off the upazila town from the rest of the country by felling tress, electric poles, putting up barricade on a bridge and burning spent tyres and wood.
A 15,000-strong mob first attacked an oil mill owned by Hamidpur union parishad chairman [i.e. chair of a local administrative council], Anwar Ali, at about 11:00 am, threw everything out on the street and set them on fire. One and a half hours later they attacked the house-cum-office of one Bulbul Chowdhury, burning three motorbikes, two refrigerators, 15 bicycles and other valuables.
An information centre of Asian Energy and some other shops in the town were also damaged and set ablaze till 3:00pm. The angry mob turned down the request of deputy commissioner of Dinajpur, Tahsinur Rahman, thana nirbahi officer and police officials to show restraint.
‘We would beat them to death if they are captured,’ one of the demonstrators yelled. ‘These people are helping (Asia Energy) to realise their ill-motive,’ the youth said.
Meanwhile, people accused by the locals of helping Asian Energy to go ahead with their plan have fled the town."(New Age)

London-based Asia Energy have agreed a contract with the government to mine the 570 million tons of coal in the area over a 30 year period. 70% of Bangladesh remains without electricity yet the company website says the projected 15 million tons of coal mined per year will be "mostly ... export coal." . They claim on their website to be "Making natural resources work for the people of Bangladesh"; clearly the locals do not see the trashing of their environment or eviction from their lands in such a rosy light and have shown admirable resistance . Offers of compensation, including cash and colour TVs, have been rejected. The indigenous peoples are at a particular disadvantage in this respect, as their relationship to the land means they have no title deeds to prove any private 'ownership'.

The company's latest website statement also claims, in an attempt to reassure investors;

"Asia Energy PLC said today preparations for its Phulbari Coal Project in Northwest Bangladesh would continue in the aftermath of last weekend’s violent protests. "We are continuing to work positively with the Government of Bangladesh to make this project a success," said Asia Energy Chief Executive Steve Bywater. "The Government has assured us that it remains committed to the project." (

This is a major project, with investment of £700 million ($1.1billion). But the class struggle is proving a tough obstacle. With the present level of resistance, one would expect either an eventual compromise solution negotiated by the politicians claiming to represent the movement (who are using the issue to damage their political rivals but would undoubtedly also grab such foreign investment if they held power) - or a bloody repression. But with the present mood in Bangladesh, the authorities appear to have realised the danger of such a move and, for the moment, have ordered restraint from the security forces.

On Tuesday there was a nationwide strike in solidarity with the Phulbari resistance. Yesterday (Weds) there was rioting in Dhaka, as hundreds of students clashed with cops. One cop died from a heart attack after receiving a head wound from a thrown brick. These protests are reported to have been organised by the main opposition party, the Awami League, who are attempting to use popular protests to destabilise the government to further their own political ambitions. How cynical this is becomes obvious when one bears in mind that it was the Awami League that granted the Phulbari mining licence when it was last in government. It is sometimes hard to measure from this distance the exact meaning of strikes and other events in Bangladesh; some strikes are called by opposition parties simply as a means to damage their political rivals in power, with little motive to advance workers' conditions. But the sheer scale and explosive spontaneity of recent events such as the garment workers' and Phulbari revolts suggest a strong autonomous current of class struggle emerging among workers earning some of the lowest wages in the world.

From the north east of the country, there are more "rumours of trouble, probably at the main University there... where a student was murdered by cops in cold blood and the students blame the Vice Chancellor of the University for it." Students have repeatedly clashed with senior management and security staff and damaged campus property. "There are rumours of another worker uprising. Nothing confirmed. Rumours are cheap and plenty these days."

There is an air of expectation hanging over Bangladesh - many feel that events are moving towards something decisive. Whether a bigger workers uprising and/or a bloody coup, none can tell.

Many thanks to R for the info.

Those who would like to express their feelings to the mining company can do so here;
Asia Energy
2nd Floor, Foxglove House
166 - 168 Piccadilly
tel: + 44 (0)20 7290 1630
fax: +44 (0)20 7290 1631
Or can send e-mail from here;

RM, 31st Aug 2006