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How Bangladesh's LGBT Community Is Dealing with Threats and Machete Attacks

The war on the LGBT community—and free speech in general—in Bangladesh is intensifying with machete attacks from radical Islamists and censorship by the government.
June 2, 2016, 4:00am

Rainbow Rally 2015 in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Photo courtesy of 'Roopbaan'

"People in Dhaka are now saying that Xulhaz made us gay," says the frightened voice across the line. "Xulhaz and Tonoy did not make anyone gay. We are gay because that's the way we were born. There's nothing anti-Bangladeshi or unnatural about being different, but the prejudice is steep."

This is the first time that Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy's friend, who I will not name for his own safety, has lost anyone close to him. It's 2 AM in Dhaka, but he has been unable to sleep properly since Tonoy, an activist, was murdered, alongside former US embassy employee Xulhaz Mannan, by half a dozen machete-wielding extremists in Bangladesh on April 25. The Bangladeshi government claims that the extremists were homegrown, while al Qaeda and ISIS, along with religious extremist groups in Bangladesh, take credit for the dozens of public executions around the country. Extremists have issued warnings that the killings will continue, and that those who report on LGBT issues will be hunted down. Many members of the LGBT community remain in hiding as a result of these attacks, and the prejudice displayed by many of the country's ordinary citizens.


Mannan and Tonoy were both involved in Roopbaan, Bangladesh's only LGBT magazine. Over the last year, Roopbaan became very visible in Bangladesh, starting a nationwide youth leadership program, an online platform, a film festival, and an HIV awareness and testing program called Pink Slip.

"My bosses laugh at the fact that Xulhaz and Tonoy were unmarried. They say the two 'deserved' their fate because they were homosexual. My bosses don't even know that I am gay, and neither does my family," the friend confides. "Imagine having to hide grief like this? Now I have nothing. No life. No future."

Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy and Xulhaz Mannan from the 2015 Rainbow Rally in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The faces of other attendees have been blurred to protect their identities. Photo courtesy of 'Roopbaan'

Since the murders, two terror cells were uncovered, and an alleged killer was arrested. However, for those of us who knew Mannan and Tonoy, memories of traveling freely around Dhaka, eating biryani, playing card games, attending gallery exhibits and classical music concerts, or sitting under the bamboo groves in the botanical garden have become soiled. After the murders, gay friends felt there is little solidarity with their cause within the country. Sometimes, causes like free speech and LGBT rights are derided as being part of a Western hegemony, but this is just muddying the rhetorical waters: Foreign powers do not need to manipulate people into wanting to be able to walk down the street without harassment and speak without being killed.

The double homicide marked the first time in the three-year-long wave of radical Islamist murders that the gay community has been targeted. For those of us who knew the two men, the aftermath has been a reminder of the hierarchies placed on which lives are deemed worthy of mourning in Bangladesh. Vigils were held in Paris, London, and New York after the murders, but none were held in Bangladesh.


When the machete attacks on Bangladeshi intellectuals began three years ago, Bangladeshi authorities were initially silent.

The government only spoke up after the death of blogger Niloy Neel at his home in the fall of 2015. And even then, Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh's prime minister, called the writing of bloggers "filthy words." "You can't attack someone else's religion," warned Hasina. "You'll have to stop doing this. It won't be tolerated if someone else's religious sentiment is hurt."

In this climate, it isn't surprising that the attacks have continued. Just days before the murders of my friends, a university professor with a love of classical music was killed. In quick succession following these murders, a Buddhist monk, a Hindu tailor, and a homeopathic doctor were also hacked to death. After a law student in Bangladesh was murdered this May, the government wondered whether the death could be justified based on the online writings of the student.

These deaths showcase how expendable life remains in the country. Terrorists falsely claiming Islam as their guide cannot be further justified by Bangladesh's government.

"We are being attacked on all sides. Locals are allowing it. Those who condemn the murders are being silenced." —A friend of Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy

Amid this targeting of minorities, Bangladesh's government seems either incapable or unwilling to effectively condemn the murders. Blaming homegrown extremism at the hands of its opposition parties, the government has also vilified the legacies of the murder victims instead.

After Mannan was murdered, US Secretary of State John Kerry shared his security concerns about growing extremism with Sheikh Hasina over the phone. Soon after, US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Nisha Desai Biswal traveled to Bangladesh to discuss security issues, meeting with Bangladesh's Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal. Afterward, Khan was reported as saying, "Our society does not allow any movement that promotes unnatural sex. Writing in favor of it is tantamount to criminal offense as per our law."


This, then, has been the government's response to a murder epidemic: to blame the victim, and legitimize the slurs hurled at marginalized communities.

"The government wants to hold onto its religious base by wrongfully suggesting that we are not Muslim," says one of Roopbaan's co-founders, who, like Tonoy's friend, also wishes to remain anonymous. "This pacifies the extremists and legitimizes the killings.

"Tonoy refused to talk about the threats, although he received dozens of threats," says Tonoy's friend. "Now we are being killed, and talking about how scared we are or writing about it is criminal? We are being attacked on all sides. Locals are allowing it. Those who condemn the murders are being silenced."

These fears are palpable in a country where freedom of speech is increasingly under assault. Recently, Bangladesh's government tightened the noose by announcing that it has proposed plans to create a "Cyber Threat Detection and Response Network." The $19 million scheme, if approved, would promote around-the-clock online surveillance of citizens, effectively allowing the government to block and remove any online content it deems unfit for national viewership.

This allocation of resources is misguided, given Bangladesh's more pressing problems—66 percent of the country's girls are married before they reach the age of 18, and poverty is rampant. Sustainable measures to tackle these issues have not been scaled up adequately to create widespread impact: Consider that half of Bangladesh's roughly 163 million are female. This means more than 40 million women are married before they reach 18. Poor feeding practices, alongside teenage pregnancies, arise in intergenerational stunting in a staggering 41 percent of the overall population, across all social demographics. These problems arise even though the government depends heavily on foreign aid and nonprofits to provide basic services such as vaccines, education, and health interventions, and received $2.6 billion in 2013 alone.


Despite this, the plans to monitor content on social media and international sites, under the guise of tackling "cyber crimes," continues, raising concerns. Some believe it to be a ploy by the supposedly liberal Awami League government to curb freedom of speech. Late last year, the government blocked social media sites for 22 days, and in the fall of 2013, YouTube was blocked for several months.

Individuals have been targeted as well. In December 2015, the administrator of a popular satirical Facebook page, "Moja Losss" ("Lost Fun") was arrested for allegedly mocking the government. The arrest came in the form of a raid carried out by Bangladesh's super paramilitary force, AK-47s in hand. Mahfuz Anam, the prominent editor of Bangladesh's largest English daily the Daily Star, was slapped with 79 sedition and defamation charges amounting to an alleged $17 billion, as of February.

Little has been made of social media's instrumental role in aiding growing fanaticism in Bangladesh. Ten days before the murders of Mannan and Tonoy, a Facebook group called "Voice of Bangladesh" promised violence if the LGBT community took part in the annual April New Year's parade.

Citing the Facebook group, police ordered Mannan to stop the community from participating in the national parade. The next day, on April 14, four gay activists were arrested when they did not comply and marched in the rally. Mannan stayed in the police precinct until his friends were released from custody.

"Why should I be scared?" Mannan wrote to me last year. "I'm human, and I cannot hide who I am."

The question as to why Facebook would even allow such a group to exist remains unanswered. Those within the LGBT community in Bangladesh and in West Bengal, repeatedly reported this group to Facebook, but it remains active. (Facebook did not respond to a request for comment.)

Meanwhile, another social media group called "Salauddiner Ghora" ("Salauddiner's Horse"), which is affiliated with extremist groups, released a YouTube video of the gruesome aftermath of Mannan's murder. The video shows Mannan's lifeless body being dragged by curious onlookers outside his home prior to police arrival. Mannan's mother—a severe Alzheimer's patient who was forced to witness the murders—is then seen covering the protruding gray matter, pushing it back into Mannan's head.


This graphic video remains online, even though human rights groups lodged complaints to YouTube. Salauddiner Ghora lauds the public executions on Facebook and Twitter. They have even published faces of the next targets, while suggesting anyone involved in the future killings of "non-believers" will go to heaven for "doing the work of God."

"These pages are in Bengali. Is that the reason why these social media sites haven't responded?" asks Roopbaan's co-founder.

Earlier this week, the original Salauddiner Ghora Facebook group was finally taken down. But, as of Wednesday, a new one has been started.

Following the April arrests, Mannan called for a top-level security meeting with all the leaders and allies of the LGBT community. They began to check in with one another daily. They curtailed going to events at night.

Mannan delivered a last youth leadership lecture on Roopbaan just a week before his murder, in tandem with a photography art exhibit in Dhaka. Unaware that he was being followed around, he took an open rickshaw to his house.

"Just the fact that we were being watched for weeks is chilling," says Roopbaan's co-founder, who was with Mannan at the time. "Despite our fear after the arrests, we spoke normally and had a good time. It was the last time I saw him alive."

"Tonoy's last production was a theatrical representation of Siraj ud-Daulah, the last king of Bengal before the British invaded the country and began colonizing it," says his friend. "He performed it on Saturday. Then Sunday was Tonoy's birthday. He treated his friends for dinner, but he refused to cut a cake because he cut two cakes last year. If we had known it was his last night, we would have stayed with him longer. He was murdered the next day. Now we are scared to visit his grave or reach out to his family."

Despite the murders, the extremism, and the victim-blaming, many in Bangladesh's LGBT community remain committed to furthering the dialogue.

In the last two years, Bangladesh's first lesbian comic book Project Dhee was launched, alongside theatrical performances and art exhibits, poetry anthologies, and a documentary film about the Rainbow Rally, a diversity-promoting New Year's Day celebration started by Mannan. Bangladesh even recognizes "hijras"—a term used in the region to refer to trans people—under the law.


"Why should I be scared?" Mannan wrote to me last year. "I cannot live in fear. I'm human, and I cannot hide who I am."

But the persecution has unquestionably made life harder for many, and resulted in severe chaos.

"There is a lot of misinformation going around. Many [unaffiliated Bangladeshis] who are panicked are claiming affiliations with us so as to receive asylum in countries like Germany. They have never worked directly with anyone in the LGBT community in Dhaka, and it is regrettable that they are taking advantage of this situation," says one of Roopbaan's two surviving co-founders.

"When will the government do something to help us? After we have all been killed?" asks Roopbaan's other surviving co-founder. "We deserve to be protected, not exiled and silenced, alongside remaining voiceless forever."

Raad Rahman is a communications, advocacy, and partnerships specialist who has consulted extensively with human rights organizations in Bangladesh. Follow her on Twitter.