Citizens Protest on Banshkhali Killings

Ganosamhati Andolan chief coordinator Zonayed Saki, speaking at the press conference, held at Gonosasthya Nagar Hospital auditorium at Dhanmondi in Dhaka.

At least seven workers were killed and dozens were shot after police opened fire at SS Power 1 Limited, a Chinese and Bangladeshi owned joint venture company. Workers demonstrating for unpaid wages and other benefits on the coal-fired power plant premises at Baroghona under Gandamara of Banshkhali in Chattogram on April 17.

A press conference held at Gonosasthya Nagar Hospital auditorium at Dhanmondi in Dhaka, was organised to deliver the reaction and findings of an eight member civil society delegation led by Gonosasthya Kendra founder Dr. Zafrullah Chowdhury on April 25, which visited the power plant area and talked with the family of affected workers and also with the factory management.

Ganosamhati Andolan chief coordinator Zonayed Saki, who conducted the programme, said that they had found that the police and the thugs of the company were behind the killings.

Transcript of Saki’s talk:

I’ll present a few points in short. On 25th April we arrived in the afternoon in Banshkhali. You all know that on the 17th of April in Banshkhali at the coal fired power plant there was a protest by the workers they had some demands and there was a protest. The police and alongside the police some helmeted thugs opened fire and so far we’ve learnt from mainstream media that seven people have been killed and over a hundred have been injured according to what workers have said through various means. There are about thirty five with bullet injuries in the hospitals. This is what we find out from our own investigations in Chittagong and nearby places in those localities. Talking to those who have been injured and speaking to the families of those who were killed and those injured what we been able to unearth through our visit are things I will place at the table today. Firstly there is a context to this. You probably all know that on the 4th of April 2016 there had been a protest in that area relating to the setting up of this plant. The locals of Gondamara had come out in protest. The protest had taken place because the government and those who are trying to set up the plant, the ones trying to acquire land, had announced that they were going to set up a textile mill and other industries. It was hidden from the locals that there was going to be a coal fired power plant. So this whole thing started with deception and lying. But people found out very quickly that a coal fired power plant was being set up and there was an awareness amongst the people about the harm that could take place through the setting up of a coal fired power plant as there had been a nationwide campaign to stop the power plant in Rampal. The resistance had been led by the National Committee to Protect Oil Gas and Mineral Resources. So the people of Gondamara knew about what had happened to their salt farms, their agricultural land as well as their dwellings and places of worship. Since large swathes of land were going to be taken away, they set up the resistance. In response to that movement the police were brutal and at one stage they fired on the protesters killing four. When even that failed to quell the uprising they then brought in the combined security forces and set up a large camp and through various means of deception and enticement they manage to set up the coal fired power plant which has been going on since then. Again in 2017 the Bangladeshi company S Alam group of which SS power plant, a company named SS corporation is one of their companies, where subsequently there was Chinese investment in the company, and where much work is given to subcontractors, and other forms of investment. These companies then met with the local administration and locals, but then people linked with the government attacked the locals who were protesting, during the meeting, and one local died in that meeting. This is pretty much the background and the local conflict which has been going on for some time. So the entire locality has protested against the setting up of the plant. But those linked with the government and with the company, have not only taken the side of the coal fired power plant, but have made it a regular feature to attack the locals, and kept the conflict alive. Let’s move onto the incident at hand. We found out on the 16th of April or soon afterwards though the conflict had been going on for some time before, the workers had placed several demands the demands were quite everyday demands, in particular, they wanted the backpay for March which they had still not been given, they also placed some new demands since from the 14th of April Ramadan has started so during Ramadan they wanted their working hours to be reduced from 10 to 8 without loss of pay. So they would continue to get paid for 10 hours but get relief for two so they can have Iftar at that time and they wanted to be released early for Jumma prayers on Friday. The toilet situation is horrible. It’s so bad that the workers themselves have insisted that the toilet facilities be improved, so in general they wanted better working conditions and better safety. These demands are very justifiable and everyday demands. Demands relating to their existence.This is something we will all understand and regarding these demands when Dr Zafrullah spoke to the person who is responsible for the project, a former Additional Superintendent of Police, he informed us that they had accepted these demands but news of this acceptance had not reached the workers. Which is why the workers had protested on the 17th. This was the version of the corporations. When we brought this up with the workers they informed us that on the 16th the owners had asked the workers to send five representatives for a meeting with them. They would then bring up these issues and deal with it in written or verbal form. Five representatives had been sent, but the five representatives never returned to the workers by the following morning. The workers still didn’t know where these representatives were. So we could clearly see there was a difference between the two versions. The following morning when the workers came out in protest and took position outside the office, then the owners asked for two more representatives to be sent from each sector for further meetings. The worker said, “first send back the five people already sent.” They would find out what had already been discussed. This led to a heated situation. Following this agitation the representative of the owner told us that the workers had broken a few things and had been trying to advance towards the homes where the foreign Chinese workers lived. That was when the police opened fire. On the other hand the workers state that at one stage while this agitation was going on, the police took out petrol from one of their own vehicles and set fire to it. And then they began to spread the message that a police vehicle had been set on fire (by the workers) and that there was a conflict and reinforcement was needed to control the situation. So that more police would come in to control the situation. The workers claim that while the police were doing this, and a heated situation had been created, workers also got angry and did retaliate as a result. After this the police opened fire and the workers claim that people wearing police clothes but different shoes, and the same type of helmets that the workers had been issued, were firing guns. So the workers claim that some company people were dressed up as police and many of them opened fire and till now seven have been killed due to the firing. Though the workers claim, and one of them asserted very forcefully that they were more dead because he himself had seen at least nine or even ten who had been shot and he thought all of them had died. This is the perception of the workers and they also say that several bodies are still missing. When Dr Zafrullah Chowdhury spoke to the Officer in Charge of Banshkhali Police Station who had gone to the location with us, and we said we wanted to talk to them the police said they couldn’t talk to us without permission. In other words their mouth was sealed. The most important statement by the workers (despite what was being said by the owners) was “we had already decided that the Chinese were our ‘mehmans’ (guests), whatever was going to happen would happen between us Bangladeshis and we had had already decided that the foreigners would not be affected in anyway” and they had taken special care so that the Chinese would not be disturbed in any way. So the allegations (of the Chinese being threatened) were completely false. This is what the workers told us. So this is the general situation you know after this the police have filed cases against the workers. Not only that but ranging from Banshkhali to the Chottogram Zilla and divisional police administrators, they have actually said that it was the workers who opened fire and this is how they’ve tried to lay the responsibility upon the workers. They’ve filed cases against unnamed thousands, which has led to rampant harassment and arrests in that place. One other thing that needs to be mentioned is a new situation which has materialised. Bangladesh is helpless against syndicates. We now even have vaccine syndicates. We can see that those who bring in vaccines like the organisation BEXIMCO, their director Salman F Rahman who is also the government’s industry advisor, according to the Foreign Minister, is preventing the government from getting vaccine from other countries, like China, Russia and the USA and blocking the government from signing contracts with these countries. So in as horrifying a situation as a pandemic, where people are dying by the hour, in such a situation, when lives of Bangladeshis need to be protected, at that time, vaccine importers are preventing us from getting vaccine from other sources and you know what a difficult vaccine situation we are in. In our country we now have 1.3/1.4 million people who have taken the first jab, they are not guaranteed a second dose so this is the reality. What we’re trying to say is that we hear about the syndicates when it comes to the bazar. About onions, chillis, rice and lentils syndicate. There you have a syndicate for hiring workers. So workers who come to get employment can’t get hired directly. They have to pay taxes to the local powerbroker, that is they have to pay them before they can get hired. This is one. And since in this project since there is an investment and since a Bangladeshi organisation is the main licensee and in charge, so from that perspective, all workers employed here should be employees of this project. But since there is a Chinese involvement then perhaps showing that as an excuse various contract agencies are given subcontracts who hire workers. So the company is not hiring workers directly. They are giving subcontracts to other companies who in turn are hiring these workers. So many of the rights that workers would normally have, are rights the workers are deprived of as the company law under which these rights are determined, are very difficult to establish as it becomes difficult to ascertain who the owner is. This is a problem that already exists in foreign investments in Bangladesh anyway and has been exploited here as well, but not only that, even the hiring by the subcontractors who are powerful, as part of their power dynamics also use these workers to exert their influence. It is these power brokers who collect taxes from the workers. Now the accusation is, that after this attack, most of the workers will lose their jobs. They will need to be rehired, and they will all have to pay taxes again. They will squeeze the tax out of them. So this is the situation that exists. Today we will end with the observation that we believe that a situation has been created where the normal and quite reasonable demands of the workers which should have been accepted, and the owners should have, after discussing with the workers, tried to resolve this. Instead of doing so they harassed the workers in many ways and the workers became agitated, and rather than allaying these concerns the owners turned the police and their pet armed hooligans on the workers and have killed seven people. The number may be higher, numerous people have been arrested about thirty five are there in various hospitals with bullet wounds that we’ve come to know for sure, through various organisations and citizens of Chottogram. Besides there are over a hundred people who have been injured who we’ve had a chance to talk to. In such a shameful situation, where workers have been shot and killed, to then place the blame on the workers is a typical textbook fascism characteristic that has been established. We have condemned this in the strongest possible terms and we have placed some very specific demands which will be placed in front of you in a little while. For the moment I have placed our core observations to you. Now some of us from the group who visited Banshkhali will be expressing their own observations and then Dr Zafrullah Chowdhury will be giving his speech. A distinguished freedom fighter Ishtiaq Aziz Ulfat will now speak to you.

Sebastião Salgado in conversation with Shahidul Alam

Keeping in line with the month’s theme ‘Art as Witness’, MAP in association with the Bangalore International Centre (BIC), brought together two exemplary photographers of social action and change, Sebastião Salgado and Shahidul Alam, in a webinar hosted on 27 June. Moderated by Nathaniel Gaskell, the discussion centred on the photographic journeys of the acclaimed Brazilian and Bangladeshi photographers, and elaborated on the power of photography to catalyse social change. Through an unveiling of their personal journeys and experiences, the discussion also highlighted the positive influence of activism and the use of one’s voice against oppression.

‘All that I have left of him’

“I was tasked with looking after him for 54 years. Now God has taken over that role” said writer Mushtaq Ahmed’s mother. A dignified woman, she spoke in a quiet controlled manner. Occasionally her voice would break, but she contained herself. Refusing to give in to grief. Mushtaq’s dad broke down more openly. He sobbed as he spoke of his children. Of Mushtaq’s farm, of his love of photography. Of Mushtaq’s sister who had been a student in the school my mother had founded. “Can I show you his camera?” he asked me. He gingerly brought over the DSLR camera with a 70-300 mm lens and placed it in front of me. Mushtaq’s wife Lipa, brought out the memory cards and the battery. They were placed in front of me on the dining table, almost as an offering. As I held the camera, Lipa quipped, “the camera was my shotin” (the other wife). “He loved it more than he loved me.”

Mushtaq Ahmed’s camera
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On Life in Prison

Channel 4:

An acclaimed photographer who spent more than a hundred days in prison in Bangladesh claims he was tortured by security forces. Shahidul Alam was jailed after giving an interview in which he accused the Bangladeshi government of corruption and intimidation.

While behind bars, Mr Alam says he was blindfolded, shackled and threatened with waterboarding. Our Chief Correspondent Alex Thomson has been speaking to him.

I didn’t eat the bananas!

I ALWAYS take a window seat on day flights. The ‘fasten seatbelt’ sign is my cue to peer into the watery landscape that the plane flies over before it lands in Dhaka. Few things give me more pleasure than the sound of the wheels touching land. This Antaeus-like effect only works on home soil. It’s knowing I’m back in Bangladesh which gives that warm inner feeling. Grounded in Dhaka for nearly a year due to COVID-19, I miss those landings.

As I sift through stories on international media, stories about Bangladesh are the ones I home in on. Sadly, they are often stories of natural disasters or the impending damage due to climate change. Stories about corruption, or our migrant workers being mistreated are sad, but as a journalist, these are stories I cannot avoid reading or reporting on. One hopes that by shedding light on such injustice, one can help shape a better future for my countryfolk. Some stories, like a cricket win, or a Pathshala student winning a major photography award bring a smile. A one-hour documentary on Bangladesh on Al Jazeera was a big deal. The trailer suggested it was a dark story, but still I waited eagerly.

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The Tide Will Turn amongst “Best Art Books of 2020” list by New York Times.

THE TIDE WILL TURN’ By Shahidul Alam; edited by Vijay Prashad (Steidl). The eminent Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam was jailed for more than three months in 2018 for denouncing the repression of protesters. Released after a mobilization of local and foreign support, he reflects here on his prison experience and a life of fighting for justice (for laborers, survivors of gender violence, Indigenous groups, and others) through image and deed. Some of his finest pictures illustrate the text, as do his selections of noteworthy images by other Bangladeshi photographers. Solidarity and integrity reign, along with tenacious optimism, expressed in a heartfelt exchange of letters with the writer-activist Arundhati Roy. (Read about his current exhibition.)

The full list

As Mujib Watches Helplessly

I entered the giant graveyard. It was quiet except for my own footsteps but, in my head, I could hear the screams. Rows of blackened sewing machines, still in orderly lines, reinforced the sense that I was looking at tombstones. There were no flowers here. No epitaphs. No mourners.

Stitched photo of burnt remains of Tazreen Fashions. Photo Shahidul Alam

A fire had raged through the Tazreen Fashions garment factory in Ashulia on 24 November 2012. Workers stationed on the building’s third and fourth floors had rushed to the exits, only to find them locked, a regular practice in many Bangladeshi garment factories. Fires and worker deaths were, sadly, all-too-common. The owners justified the locking of the doors as a ‘security measure’ but workers were effectively prisoners during working hours. As the heat and smoke built up, the panic-stricken labourers, who were unable to break down the iron gates, rushed to the windows and somehow managed to remove the metal grills. It was a long way down, but one by one they jumped. Some screamed with pain as they fell; others were silent. Each landed with a dull thud, their bodies crumpled on the uneven ground below. Possible death was still a better choice than certain death. And some did survive.

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International Press Freedom Awards

CPJ is honored to present its 2020 International Press Freedom Award to Bangladeshi journalist Shahidul Alam.

Alam is a renowned photojournalist and commenter, and the founder of the Bangladeshi multimedia training organization the Pathshala Media Institute and the Drik Picture Library Ltd. He also co-founded the photo agency Majority World and the Chobi Mela Festival, a pioneering photography festival in Bangladesh. His photographs of life in Bangladesh, as well as of protests and the environment, are well known in his country and around the world.

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Upholding the Moral Compass

First published in The New Age

Barrister Rafiq Ul Haque in his home in Purana Paltan. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

The boat was headed North from Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong island. It was 1986, and the big outflow of Bangladeshi migrants hadn’t really begun. The last thing I expected as I headed to Kowloon was Bangla being spoken. Curious, I approached the distinguished looking gentleman and introduced myself. I had been away for twelve years and didn’t even recognise the name Rafique Ul Haque. He didn’t let on that he was a celebrated lawyer, but I had enough wits around me to work out that a Bangladeshi lawyer meeting a client in Hong Kong, had to be rather good. It was much later that I found out that the man I had been speaking to was a class friend of the former president of India Pranab Mukherjee and had stayed at the same Baker Hostel in Kolkata where Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had been. I was on a judging assignment, and I introduced him to my fellow jury members, the Indian photographer Raghu Rai, the Malaysian photographer Eric Peris and Wee Beng Huat, the photo editor of the Singaporean Newspaper, The Straits Times. Neither of us knew then that he was a close family friend. His wife, Dr Farida Haque worked with my father professor Kazi Abul Monsur who was then director of the Public Health Institute. She was also his former student. Both Rafique Bhai’s family and mine were ‘doctor’ families. We had joked that had we become doctors we would have run out of patients in the family. Rafique Bhai had retained his familial leanings by establishing the Shishu Hospital, the Ad-Din Hospital and a cancer hospital that was close to completion when we last met. Having bequeathed all his property except the family home to these institutions, he had told his lawyer son, ‘I’ve given you a decent education. You earn your keep’.

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Who lives, who dies, who decides?

The Councillor of 26 No Ward of Dhaka South City Corporation, Mr Hasibur Rahman Manik who led a ruling party procession to the venue to disrupt a peaceful performance by Drik Picture Library at Raju Bhaskorjo at the Dhaka University on 4th September 2020, Drik’s 31st Anniversary. © Habibul Haque/Drik

‘PAPA, are you crying?’ were the last words popular Awami League councillor Akramul Haque’s daughter had said to him. The family then heard the gunshots. The groan. Then more shots. The sounds, recorded on their phone, and later released to the media, reverberated across paddy fields, along the undulating Chittagong Hill Tracts, across swampy marshlands, on the waves of the Padma and Jamuna, in fancy apartments of Gulshan and Baridhara, and now in the cantonment. It reaffirmed what we all knew, and what the government has consistently denied. That it was the law enforcing agencies of our country, rather than the courts, who decide whether a citizen should live or die.

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