ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
In the capital of Bangladesh, thousands of students have been marching in the streets to demand safer roads. They've also set up checkpoints to enforce traffic laws that drivers in the city of Dhaka often ignore. The protests are an embarrassment for the ruling party in Bangladesh, and some government supporters have attacked the students manning these ad hoc traffic checkpoints. We talked to one student activist at Dhaka University and granted her anonymity because she's afraid of reprisals for speaking to the press.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Any bus can just run over us. Like, if the roads are not safe for us, if the government can't ensure the security of your life, then what can you expect from this government? So we were angered, and we were afraid.
SHAPIRO: New York Times reporter Maria Abi-Habib has been covering this story and joins us now. Welcome.
MARIA ABI-HABIB: Thank you for having me.
SHAPIRO: How did these protests start?
ABI-HABIB: So these protests started last Sunday, July 29, when two teenagers were killed when they were run over by a bus that was actually racing another bus to make it to the bus stop so that they could pick up the passengers first and collect their fares first. And this is a pretty common occurrence in Bangladesh, where dozens of private bus companies operate and are connected to politicians. So oftentimes they'll run people over and the police will let them go for a bribe, and off they go scot-free.
So teenagers at several middle schools and high schools had decided that enough was enough. They were sick of the lack of repercussions when it comes to breaking, you know, common traffic laws. And also, it's a protest that's not just about traffic laws. It's actually kind of mushroomed into just lack of rule of law and accountability and corruption throughout Bangladesh.
SHAPIRO: And so these young teenagers set up traffic stops in the road. And did drivers actually respect them?
ABI-HABIB: Yeah. They were forced to. They were forced to because there were thousands of teenagers on the streets. And if you didn't stop at the checkpoint, you weren't really going to be able to go anywhere because you had, you know, children from 12 to 18 basically surrounding your car.
SHAPIRO: So you said that these protests have mushroomed from concerns about traffic to something larger. What actually are the students asking for right now?
ABI-HABIB: At the very beginning they said, we want death penalty for the two racing drivers that killed the two students and wounded 12 others. And we want the traffic laws to be actually enforced. And so what the government did yesterday in a very desperate attempt to put a damper on their protests was increase the maximum sentence for those who commit fatal traffic accidents from I think three to five years. That didn't really help.
But what the government also did that really scared protesters from going onto the streets today was that they really cracked down in a large way. They had civilians that were connected to the Awami League, which is the governing party, go out onto the streets on Saturday and back up the police to attack the students. And that's when the university students decided to join in. And then you saw this just explosion of violence on Sunday and Monday.
SHAPIRO: So how does this end?
ABI-HABIB: Well, it seems like it's maybe petering out. The major crackdown that happened has made lots of people scared. And then there's also been this very big brother-type atmosphere that the government has instilled within the middle schools and high schools where they basically told the teachers, write down the names of any students who don't show up to class. And lots of middle school and high school students didn't take to the streets on Monday and Tuesday because they were too afraid to.
SHAPIRO: So it sounds like this really hopeful moment of young people taking matters into their own hands has deteriorated into something much more depressing and familiar.
ABI-HABIB: Yeah, basically. It seems like nothing's been resolved. And people are going to just wait until the elections in December.
SHAPIRO: That's Maria Abi-Habib of The New York Times speaking with us about the protests in Bangladesh. Thanks so much.
ABI-HABIB: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.