President Hussain Mohammed Ershad threatened Friday to get tough with opposition protesters if they continue “purposeless and aimless” street demonstrations against him.
“We are not going to tolerate any more of this nonsense,” Ershad told a group of foreign reporters here. “We are going to stop it.”
At least six people have died in rioting in the Bangladesh capital since Tuesday, when the opposition began its “Siege of Dhaka” aimed at forcing Ershad to resign.
Opposition leaders have called for nationwide strikes to continue today and Sunday. After Friday prayer meetings at the central Baitul Mukkaram mosque here, in which religious leaders called for the removal of the “new pharaoh” (Ershad), several hundred demonstrators defied government bans against assembly and marched through the streets.
“We pray for the souls of those who were killed by the government oppressors,” Mulana Akundullaman Hazmi told the crowd. “Oh, Allah, please punish the new pharaohs. Drive the oppressors out of the country.”
There are 20 active opposition parties in Bangladesh, ranging from Communist labor organizations to fundamentalist Muslim sects. Ershad has put the leaders of the two largest opposition parties, Hasina Wajed of the Awami League and Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh National Party, under house arrest.
Ershad did not specify Friday what actions he plans to take if opposition protests continue in the city, and he did not rule out declaring a curfew and calling in the 80,000-man army to restore order. Crowds of protesters have been much smaller than opposition leaders hoped, but they have been able to disrupt normal business through a series of strikes and confrontations with police.
Ershad worried Friday that continued demonstrations might upset potential foreign investors. “They (the protesters) are ruining the atmosphere for foreign investment,” he complained.
One of the world’s poorest countries, Bangladesh is heavily dependent on more than $2 billion a year in foreign aid for its survival. The aid accounts for more than 40% of the government’s income and 90% of its development budget.
Ershad has opened the economy and offered concessionary terms to attract foreign businesses.
“We must create jobs for our people, otherwise we will be destroyed by social unrest,” he said. “But every day is a damn strike.
“Everybody is asking me to get tough with these people,” Ershad said. “I can be tough. I have to protect the security of the people.”
Despite his strong rhetoric, the president did not appear overly fearful for his future. When he met with reporters Friday morning, he had just completed nine holes of golf and was still wearing his Italian golfing shirt and had a red towel stuck in his back pocket.