Bangladesh students 'united with the people'


By Sean Healy

"The primary thing that Bangladesh students are demanding is a pro-people education policy" Ziaul Haque Zia, president of Students Unity of Bangladesh (SUB) told Resistance. Zia is visiting Australia. "The government is following the opposite policy: one of corporatisation and privatisation of education", he said.

There have been nine private universities established since 1992, catering to more than 20,000 students. Tuition fees are so high, around US$4000 a year (the per capita income of Bangladesh is $240), that only the very wealthy can attend.

Meanwhile, public universities are starved of funds and resources. Each year, 200,000 students graduate from senior high schools, but public universities can admit only 20,000. The rest must either pay private tuition fees or try their luck in the even more cash-starved college sector.

To address this massive problem, the student movement is demanding that the Bangladesh federal government increase education funding to 25% of the national budget. This campaign involves students in high schools, universities and colleges, as well as non-students. Large rallies have been held against the finance minister and other government figures.

On June 6, 2000 Dhaka University students marched on the parliament building, only to be stopped by hundreds of riot police.

In 1998, 16% of the budget went to education but, as a result of the student campaign, the education budget was increased, though only by 1.4%.

The Bangladesh student movement has a very militant history, with SUB often at the forefront. Students were among the firmest supporters of independence from Pakistan in the liberation war of 1971. The war began with a Pakistan army bombardment of Dhaka University on March 25, 1971, which killed thousands of people. The war was to claim 3 million lives before Pakistan admitted defeat and allowed independence.

Students were also a big part of the resistance to military rule in Bangladesh, which lasted from 1975 until 1979 (under martial law), from 1979 to 1982 (under a military-backed "civilian" president) and then from 1982 to 1990 (again under martial law).

The SUB was formed on December 6, 1980, through the unification of four progressive student organisations. Since then, SUB has united with five student organisations and today is the largest left-wing student organisation, with 82,000 members.

SUB sees itself not just as a student organisation but also as part of the people's movement. SUB has protested alongside many other organisations against nuclear proliferation by India and Pakistan. It has been part of the mass demonstrations against state terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism.

"SUB's main slogan is 'be united with the toiling people'. We don't think it is possible to have a pro-people education policy if there is not a major change to the existing society", Zia told Resistance. SUB maintains close relations with many mass organisations of farmers, rural workers, landless people, women, industrial workers, unemployed youth and the Workers' Party of Bangladesh, the country's largest communist party.

SUB also has strong international links with organisations in the Indian subcontinent and, through the Asian Students' Association, with students across Asia.

"We in Bangladesh want to stand in solidarity with all of those who are oppressed and exploited by imperialism around the world. We think the student community should have unity with each other. Only together can we be pioneers of an exploitation-free society", Zia said.