DHAKA, Bangladesh — The government halted bus, train and ferry boat service into Dhaka, closed universities and invoked laws against public assembly Monday on the eve of an opposition effort to force the resignation of President Hussain Mohammed Ershad.
Ershad said the steps taken by the government, including the preventive arrest of more than 1,400 people and the deployment of thousands of riot police, are necessary because the opposition's planned "siege of Dhaka" is unconstitutional.
"I can meet this challenge," Ershad, an army general who came to power in 1982 after a coup, was quoted as saying. "I am a military man, and I know the meaning of the word siege. "
According to organizers of the demonstration, at least 50,000 protesters have filtered into the city despite the government's efforts. They vowed to bring government to a halt today.
"We will paralyze the government," opposition leader Hassina Wajed said.
Wajed, who heads the Awami League, said that some 5,000 people have been arrested by the government to prevent the confrontation.
Monday afternoon, a few hundred demonstrators affiliated with the opposition Bangladesh National Party clashed with police near Dhaka University. National Party leader Khaleda Zia said that she and about 100 other demonstrators were injured in the clash.
The activity planned for today is the latest--and is expected to be the largest--in a series of anti-government protests that began last summer. The movement was given strength recently when Wajed and Zia united their forces against Ershad. Zia is the widow of President Ziaur Rahman, who was assassinated in 1981. Wajed is the daughter of President Mujibur Rahman, the founder of Bangladesh, who was assassinated in 1975.
Since it achieved independence from Pakistan in 1971, impoverished, overpopulated Bangladesh--100 million people crowded into an area the size of Wisconsin--has been buffeted by political and natural turmoil, assassinations and coups, floods and cyclones, leaving the country dependent on foreign aid, of which it receives more than $2 billion a year.
In the five years of Ershad's rule, Bangladesh has had steady if unspectacular growth--about 4% a year. At the same time, Ershad has undertaken to reform the economy, and among other things he has returned many government-run industries to private ownership.
But Ershad's opponents contend that his government is rife with corruption.
"Corruption is indigenous in Bangladesh," a Western diplomat said Monday. "It is endemic, like worms."
Opposition leaders also contend that the government continues to be dependent on a small group of generals and that this prevents it from ending its instability.
"We want to stop the killing-conspiracy politics of Bangladesh," Wajed said Monday. "Since 1975, every change has been by bullet, not by ballot."
In the last two years, Ershad has made an effort to move the country toward civilian rule. In May, 1986, there were parliamentary elections, and one of the two main opposition parties--the Awami League--took part, although a majority of the seats went to Ershad's Jatiya (National Volunteer) Party.
Five months later there was a much-criticized presidential election that pitted Ershad against 11 obscure opponents. Ershad won.
The latest series of opposition protests started after a budget debate in Parliament. In July a strike was called by the Awami League, and 12 people were killed when police opened fire.
This set off a series of demonstrations planned to culminate with the "siege of Dhaka." It was to have taken place in October, but September floods forced a one-month delay.
After the floods, Ershad turned out the army's 80,000 men to help in the relief effort, and some of the steam that had built up over the summer went out of the opposition movement.
"The siege was intended to be the culmination of a series of demonstrations," a Western diplomat said, "but somehow the people's hearts don't seem to be in it now."
As a result, what had appeared to be a serious threat to the government is now being seen as a possible government victory.