Police opened fire on a crowd of protesting workers at the construction site of a Chinese-financed power plant in southeastern Bangladesh on Monday, killing at least five people and wounding dozens more.
The police said they were defending themselves against violent protesters who tried to destroy the construction site.
“The agitating laborers set fire to vehicles and other machineries on the site. When policemen on duty tried to control the violence, the protesters surrounded them and attacked them with bricks and stones. Police were caught in a situation like a siege and were forced to respond with gunfire,” said senior officer Anwar Hossain of the Chittagong city police force.
Another police official estimated there were “around 50 policemen deployed at the site, while the protesters who attacked them were over 2,000.” Various sources said between three and six policemen were injured during the encounter.
Voice of America News (VOA) on Monday quoted an anonymous junior officer who said the “police had to take extra precautions” because “there are Chinese nationals working at the under-construction plant.”
Disputes over unpaid wages and working conditions, including complaints about ten-hour workdays and the absence of breaks for Ramadan prayers for Muslim workers, reportedly motivated the demonstrations. Local residents and international environmental activists are also unhappy the project somehow bypassed the normal requirements for an environmental impact study.
Both labor and environmental activists denounced the killing of demonstrators Monday, with the latter noting that since Bangladesh has demanded reparations from the industrialized world for “climate justice,” it should not be working with China to build coal power plants. Despite promises to become “carbon neutral,” China is building hundreds of coal plants across the developing world as part of its Belt and Road infrastructure program.
“The workers should not have even had to protest in the first place — for them to be paid is basic human rights. This is a clear example of how coal is destructive to our lives. These companies not only set us on a path to climate disaster. They also cost the lives of five hardworking men — sons, fathers, brothers to their families. We demand justice for them,” said environmentalist group 350.org.
Two previous protests at the construction site, in 2016 and 2017, also resulted in fatalities from police shootings. Human rights activists told VOA that no one has ever been held accountable for those shootings, and they doubted anyone would be held accountable for the shootings on Monday.
The 1,320-megawatt coal-fired power plant is a joint project between a Bangladeshi company and a Chinese firm called Shandong Electric Power Construction Corporation III. The state power company of Bangladesh is supposed to buy the electricity generated by the power plant.