Sunday, September 2, 2007

Remembering August 26, 2006: In Phulbari lives the spirit of liberty

In Phulbari lives the spirit of liberty
The Daily NewAge, March 26, 2007. Dhaka, Bangladesh

The essence of liberty is found in the right to express one’s opinion freely, the right to associate freely and the right to express solidarity with a movement that stands up for one’s rights. The people of Phulbari exercised that right of theirs to conduct a democratic campaign that built up informed public opinion to collectively reject a proposal that they felt were contrary to their interests. Their efforts succeeded, and they proved once again that that the spirit of liberty lives on with the people more than 36 years after the day Bangladesh declared its own independence, writes Tanim Ahmed.

The sleepy town of a nondescript sub-district of northern Bangladesh had become a scene of a large rally of some 70,000 people according to the locals. They came from almost all unions of four adjacent sub-districts, Phulbari, Parbatipur, Birampur and Nawabganj, that would be affected by an open pit coal mine proposed by a little known yet much hyped UK-based mining company, Asia Energy.

An open pit mine would mean dislocation of over 100,000 people—50,000 people according to Asia Energy’s own estimates—including Santals and Mundas—some 2,000 according to Asia Energy. The pit would also gobble up hundreds of graves, places of worship and archaeological sites. The pit and other structures of the coal mine would take up some 5,200 hectares and affect upto 17,000 hectares, almost the size of Sylhet city. The project would add some $700 million to Bangladesh’s economy and generate permanent employment for some 1,100 people. This, the local populace, being the rightful owners of all mineral resources in the area as stipulated by the constitution, decided was just not good enough. They would not let the coal mine project proceed.

On August 26, 2006, the people had come to lay siege on the local offices of the company as a token of protest against the project it had proposed. Even the organisers agree that they had not apprehended it would turn out to be so bloody as it did. In fact many of them perceived it as another statement of protest, as another step towards an eventual showdown, if it ever came to that. As it turned out the Bangladesh Rifles, opened fire on the reasonably peaceful assembly as they approached a bridge over a kilometre away from the site of their siege programme, leaving three killed. The paramilitary forces also charged batons on the rally wounding many. The gunfire had wounded another three critically.

The little town galvanised into a battlefield as the law enforcers foolishly sparked their wrath. The government was compelled to compromise and back down within another four days and an agreement meeting the demands of the people was reached.

As many have pointed out, this movement was not a one-off event but a culmination of a gradual democratic campaign building up informed public opinion across the four sub-districts that would be affected by the coal mine directly—areas that would be swallowed by the open pit over almost 13,000 acres. This campaign had begun much over a year before the law enforcers fired upon the public gathering, almost as soon as Asia Energy began its public activities following their initial survey of assets.

The process
The people of Phulbari took note of the activities of a foreign company sometime in early 2005. There were surveyors noting the number of livestock and poultry of individuals and households, as well as their land. Apparently the people would be given a considerably high amount of money for their land, homestead and livestock. Soon information got around that the UK-based mining company, was looking to set up an open pit coal mine in the area. The implications of a large coal mine were still vague to the conscious quarters of Phulbari when the Phulbari Community Council was established with the assistance of an engineer living abroad in England. It was convened by a former lawmaker of the Jatiya Party, Mohammad Shoeb. The community council never gained much of a currency and was soon overtaken by the Phulbari Protection Committee. It had been decided that the Phulbari municipality chairman would be the convener while the joint convener would be the head of the ruling party’s Phulbari unit. This committee involved all sections of the people including the professional bodies of labourers and workers in Phulbari. While the leftist political parties—Gana Front, Workers Party of Bangladesh and the Communist Party of Bangladesh—were involved at the institutional level, the mainstream parties stayed away although people from those parties were involved in their individual capacities. This was in February 2005.

The leaders of the protection committee began to meet and have internal discussions regarding their course of action and how they would approach the issue. Within almost a month, volunteers began to contact outlying villages in Phulbari as well as other sub-districts. Initially the local leaders of the unions and villages would be contacted for discussions in a bid to convince the local leadership that the mine would be disastrous. The volunteers, activists of the protection committee, pointed out the implications of an open pit coal mine. It also helped since the municipality chairman and the ruling party’s local head were heading the movement at that time.

Following the initial discussion, there would be public campaigns beginning with small group meetings at homesteads or public meetings at local market places. There were also village and union-level committees of the protection committee that would continue with the campaign locally. While public support grew gradually there were also campaigners trying to thwart the activities opposing the open pit mine. Local union members or chairmen, promised with lucrative benefits by representatives of Asia Energy would apparently discourage the locals from taking part in the meetings.

The Phulbari Protection Committee began to bring out a weekly procession within a few months of their public campaign as another tool to increase awareness and build public opinion. It would begin immediately after the evening prayers on Saturday and continue for a good hour or more when the procession made several rounds around the thoroughfares of the town. They would end with public speeches by the organizers. From the very beginning, the procession regularly had about 2,000 participants and often exceeded that. Apparently shops on the main streets would pull down their shutters and suspend business for the hour.

There was a general feeling that the movement had to be strengthened to force the government to speak to the local populace directly. A human chain was organised on July 9, 2005 that turned out to be three kilometres long. A general strike was also called under the banner of the protection committee on August 30, 2005. Only long route buses were allowed to pass through the township. Not a single shop remained open that day and the law enforcement personnel on duty that day could not find a place to drink water, let alone buy food. The success of the programmes were quite demonstrative of the popular support behind the movement. And with each of these programmes, the movement gathered even more support and built even stronger public opinion.

As the movement grew, based on its public support, and gained momentum so did the cracks within the protection committee. Mainstream political leaders and municipality commissioners of Phulbari proposed that the procession be taken out only once in two weeks and later, only once a month. They vocally opposed proposals for tougher programmes and stronger movement.

There was a general sense of apprehension that those representing the establishment might eventually back out when it would really matter for personal gains. Some of them kept insisting that they would use the movement to demand district status for Phulbari and thus the land acquired for the coal mine would be worth much more, which did not go down well since it actually endorsed the open pit coal mine in the area.

Activists initiated contact with, what is now, the National Committee for the Protection of Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources and, Power and Port for leadership. The local chapter of the ‘oil-gas committee’, as it is called locally, was established in September 2005 but activities continued under the banner of the protection committee, ‘so as not to confuse the people’ and divide the forces into two initiatives.

Most of the left leaning politicians, professional bodies as well as general citizens were part of the new initiative and joined it formally. The oil-gas committee also included farmers’ associations, ethnic minority communities—namely Santals and Mundas—and most labour and workers’ associations formally except the bus drivers’ association, which opposed the movement under the leadership of individuals that sought to gain from deals with Asia Energy. This did not go down well with the protection committee, and at one point there were even questions whether the protection committee would ‘endorse’ the oil-gas committee.

It was soon after the establishment of the oil-gas committee that the Department of Environment gave Asia Energy clearance for its proposed open pit mine, which also enjoyed the endorsement of the Upazila Nirbahi Officers (administrative heads of the sub-districts) of the four upazilas. Later, Phulbari withdrew its endorsement through a formal letter.
The National Committee for the Protection of Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources and, Power and Port organised a round table discussion in Dhaka on the coal mine in mid-October and later published a booklet in early November 2005.
It was also at this time that the students of Phulbari, living in Dhaka, organised themselves and set up another platform to resist the Phulbari coal mine. This platform organised several events at Phulbari and Dhaka. Among them was a rally of students and teachers at Phulbari in November that year, which turned out to be a large public rally.

By the beginning of 2006, public opinion was strongly against the open pit coal mine and when in January 2006, a 12-member expert team from the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology visited Barapukuria area close to Phulbari, there was a spontaneous gathering of thousands of people who ended up burning a motorbike of the local ‘collaborators’ who had supported Asia Energy’s proposal.

The oil-gas committee gained acceptance with each programme it organised while the protection committee faded as it kept backing out of programmes and maintained a low profile. The protection committee lost all credibility around February when several leaders came to Dhaka to attend the Bishwa Ijtema and met officials of Asia Energy. While it is unclear about what went on between the parties, people point out that the protection committee became even more allergic to action programmes and were visibly out to thwart the movement. The other activists abandoned any hope they had about the protection committee and went ahead with the programmes singularly under the banner of the oil-gas committee.

Between March 23 and March 25, the oil-gas committee organised a road march when the organisers addressed public rallies and spoke about the environmental impacts of an open pit coal mine and exposed the lies that Asia Energy had told them. This event played a large role in strengthening public opinion against the coal mines in the localities. The protection committee claimed publicly that the rally, scheduled at the end of the road march was actually a communist programme, implying it did not have much to do with the coal mine. Yet, over 15,000 people attended that rally.

There were a number of other public events till August including the regular processions that continued. There was a procession of women, each carrying a broom, symbolically pledging to sweep Asia Energy and its sympathisers out of Phulbari, if not out of the country. The students organised another gathering of students and teachers which drew crowds from within and outside Phulbari two days before the oil-gas committee was scheduled to lay siege to the Asia Energy offices in Phulbari, which the protection committee declined to endorse despite much persuasion. The programme had originally been initiated by the local activists and was later endorsed by the central committee of the National Committee for the Protection of Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources and, Power and Port.

At that time some quarters of the Phulbari Protection Committee went so far as to file a general diary claiming that they did not have anything to do with the programme and would not be liable for anything untoward that happened.

The showdown
The token programme to lay siege was taken as another event along a long path of increasingly stronger resistance to the open pit coal mine. The event was preceded by three days of relentless campaign in all four upazilas. Megaphones on rickshaws blared through the oddest hours in the villages urging people to come out on the streets in solidarity to the movement and saying ‘no’ to the coal mine. Those advocating the cause of Asia Energy were also active, telling people not to go as there would be mayhem. These collaborators, as they are called, spread the news that there would be violence and those leading the movement would stay behind and put the poor peasants in front as politicians often did.

The organisers brought out a motorbike procession on the evening of August 25, 2006 and went around villages reassuring the people and gearing up their morale. In Hamidpur Union of Phulbari, they broke a water tank that Asia Energy had built across the house of the union council chairman, who sympathised with Asia Energy and thought would become rich if the coal mine went ahead. This action, premeditated as it was, went far in encouraging the masses.
That night, perceiving the public zeal and anger, the organisers decided to change the venue of the public rally since it was too close to the Asia Energy offices and there was a good chance the rally would turn into a mob. They decided that the venue would be at the other end of the town farther away from Asia Energy where processions from unions and municipality wards would join by 2:00pm.

Given that the weather was rather warm, some people would invariably suffer from dehydration and would need medical attention, some might even have to be hospitalised. The organisers set up a medical team to take care of such contingencies. There were even a few trucks to take the sick to hospitals.

Volunteers and organisers went out to the villages by noon to gather public attendance. The general masses came with sticks while the Santals came with their traditional bows and arrows. The entire town had come to a standstill. Shops were closed naturally. No vehicles were allowed to pass through by the time it was afternoon. Law enforcement personnel had been deployed across the town. Processions were still on their way to Phulbari when this 70,000 strong, according to eye witness accounts, procession took to the street and advanced towards a bridge over Chhoto Jamuna, a small tributary of its larger namesake, more than a kilometre away from the intended site of the day’s programme.

On the way the public broke down what Asia Energy purported to call its ‘information centre’ and used as a tool to spread propaganda and misinformation.

Although there had been a scuffle with the law enforcers as they fired tear gas shells at the procession, the organisers brought the situation under control and regrouped near the bridge, deciding against approaching the Asia Energy offices, which were across the bridge, fearing that the public might turn violent. There was a public address where the police and the paramilitary personnel had put up a barricade. The declaration on behalf of the people called for Asia Energy to suspend all its activities immediately since an open pit mine would be disastrous for the entire region. The declaration called on the local populace to socially boycott Asia Energy if it did not abide by the people’s verdict.

The people were called upon not to cooperate with Asia Energy in any way. Vendors were asked not to sell them anything, truck owners were told not to take their goods, rickshaw pullers were told not to take on fares that represented Asia Energy. The day’s programme came to an end at around 4:30pm and the leaders of the movement had begun to move away from the barricades when the paramilitary forces opened fire. Many were hit by the live rounds, three died on the spot, some were crippled for life.

The organisers had not quite expected such a turn of events and were caught completely unawares. There was little that the local leadership could do by way of providing direction to the people in a concerted and coordinated manner as they themselves were scattered. This was perhaps the only time that the leadership seemed to waver and the people went about not knowing what to do. The paramilitary personnel and the police officials patrolled the streets and raided the houses of a number of the noted leaders of the movement.

The resistance
The next morning, while there was an unofficial section 144 in vogue preventing public gathering, leaders began to get together bands of men solely through their individual initiatives and attempted to bring out processions. The paramilitary men went into alleys and by-lanes giving chase and beat up the people ruthlessly. Their charge became so brutal that at one point there was an announcement at a mosque in Jolapara urging everyone, including women, to come out on the streets and stand their ground. As always the law enforcers resorting to brutal repression and the violence only strengthened the will of the local populace and worsened a volatile situation.

Among the first women to come out was one Nurunnahar, with a machete in her hand. The law enforcers severely beat several women that was broadcast in the media repeatedly and sparked the rest of Phulbari to come out. Soon a human sea took to the streets and not a soul remained indoors. The entire populace of the township enforced a spontaneous general strike bringing the little town to a standstill. Long route vehicles avoided the route coming to Dhaka while the law enforcement agencies could not find a place to drink water, buy food or even rest. They became so desperate that some broke into restaurants and eateries and looted whatever they could find there. Some had even taken away the handles of tube-wells so that no one got a drink. General citizens refused to give water to the law enforcers in fear of reprisals, which the leaders later assured would not happen but cautioned that they not given anything more than just water. Faced with mass resistance the paramilitary forces had to be withdrawn the next day while the police stood guard. The leaders of the movement declined to sit with the local authorities and insisted that appropriate authorities with clear mandate to negotiate from the central authorities be sent to sit with them.

The social boycott that the rally had called for the previous day had actually begun much before it was called for. The local construction workers’ union declined to work for Asia Energy when they sought to build model accommodations of the township that it would set up. Workers had to be brought in from Dinajpur, for almost double pay. The BDR personnel on the other hand had to bring their food from their nearby camp as nothing was available for four days. Even the kitchen markets were closed and opened only for two hours in the morning.

Rightly perceiving that the times were especially hard for labourers and workers who lived from hand to mouth, the communities of Phulbari took up initiatives on their own to ensure that the poor did not starve. The first two days that Phulbari enforced the general strike people collected rice and lentils and cooked khichuri that was distributed en masse. For the next two days they distributed some 2,200 kilograms of rice to the poor households. As with any other programme or initiative of the people’s movement the donations were voluntary and both in kind and in cash.

As public opinion grew across the country sympathising with the people of Phulbari and their cause the main political opposition extended their support to the movement and called a country-wide daylong general strike on August 30.
During this time the local authorities tried to arrive at a negotiated settlement but would not visit Phulbari for the talks under the circumstances as the leadership had suddenly demanded. It was finally decided that the two parties would sit somewhere within the proposed area of the coal mine but far enough to be safe from the wrath of Phulbari’s citizens.

Given the urgency of the matter, the central authorities charged the mayor of Rajshahi city and a deputy minister to negotiate a deal with the people of Phulbari. The central member secretary of the National Committee for the Protection of Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources and, Power and Port signed the agreement on behalf of the people. The negotiations took place at the auditorium of the Parbatipur municipal corporation. Every demand of the people was agreed to.
The people of Phulbari celebrated their well deserved victory through the night resolving to stand up in future if need be.

As it stands today
The member secretary of the Phulbari unit of the National Committee for the Protection of Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources and, Power and Port, S. M. Nuruzzaman, was picked up by the joint forces on February 11 and beaten up severely. He was made to get down from the military vehicle and beaten several times at different spots on his way to the local police station. He was released on bail late evening the following day. When Nuruzzaman reached Phulbari at around 11:00pm on the night of February 12 from Dinajpur jail, several hundred men and women lined up on both sides of the highway to welcome him home. There were already plans underway to enforce another string of general strikes demanding his release from jail. The local camp of the military has been withdrawn since.

Nuruzzaman was taken two more times to an army camp at Barapukuria on the nights of March 18 and March 19, when senior military officials enquired after the coal mine and its implications. While people are apprehensive of what the future holds given the current government’s indications and suggestions that Asia Energy might in fact resume its activities, their resolve to stand up and resist remains.

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