Selling Bangladesh

Bangladesh's foreign minister Mahmood Ali has been touring Europe in a bid to overcome perceptions that his four-decade-old country is tumbling into a vortex of factionalism...

Bangladesh's foreign minister Mahmood Ali has been touring Europe in a bid to overcome perceptions that his four-decade-old country is tumbling into a vortex of factionalism

At its birth in 1971, Bangladesh was contemptuously dismissed by Henry Kissinger as a "basket case". Until recently, Bangladesh seemed to defy the expectations of Kissinger and others besides as it built a steady economy and repaired its society. But today, as the country recovers from a bloody election campaign, there are worries about it tottering on the brink of new political mayhem. Should the basket case label be revived?

For Mahmood Ali, such suggestions are almost insulting. Ali, Bangladesh's foreign minister, toured Europe this month, meeting counterparts while promoting trade and investment. Although alarm bells have been raised across Europe and the US over an increasingly divisive political process, Ali insists that the fears about sectarianism have been overblown. "The attempts to destabilise Bangladesh started right after independence," he says. "There are people who raise all kinds of objections. We are not worried about them."

Nonetheless, outsiders - from US Secretary of State John Kerry to Amnesty International - have raised concerns. In January, the country held parliamentary elections marred by violence and boycotts. They were won by the Awami League party, whose leader Sheikh Hasina was re-appointed prime minister. But with fewer than half the 300 parliamentary seats contested, at least 18 people killed on election day and voter turnout reportedly just 20%, it was little surprise that Charu Lata Hogg from London's Chatham House described as "a shambolic exercise".

Now former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia and other leading opposition members are shortly set to go on trial on corruption charges - a process likely to stoke tension further after Ms Zia's BNP boycotted the disputed elections. Meanwhile, the head of Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh's main Islamist party, Motiur Rahman Nizami, has been sentenced to death for arms smuggling, prompting fears of fresh unrest. Another key Jamaat member, Abdul Quader Mollah, has been hanged after the country's International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) convicted him of atrocities during Bangladesh's war of secession from Pakistan in 1971.

This is a tough sell for Mahmood Ali, but he is vehement that the problems have been wildly overblown. "Amnesty are harping on the same tune about capital punishment," he says when challenged about whether the hanging of Abdul Quader Mollah is a political reprisal rather than a belated resolution of war crimes from Bangladesh's independence struggle. "We have been trying to bring them to trial for 40 years," he says. "Bangladesh is a democratic country, a country that won its independence through a war of liberation. We don't need to follow anyone's dictates. We have to find our own equilibrium with all sections of society."

Ali is quick to turn criticism about the tribunals around. He insists they were set up to end the culture of impunity, establish rule of law, and dispense justice to the victims and their families. "The Bangladesh experience should make a compelling case for the travails our people had to endure to secure justice for the mass atrocities suffered in 1971," the minister told a two-day Brussels conference organised to mark the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide.

He certainly has a case when he says that Bangladesh's suffering has been overlooked. As he told the conference, the nine-month war in 1971 saw three million Bengali civilians killed, more than 200,000 women raped, and 10 million people rendered refugees. The current tribunals, he insists, are part of a long overdue redress and closure for victims. As for EU concerns about the death penalty, he points to other countries that don't have such qualms. "What about the United States, what about Japan, what about India? All of them have the death penalty. Every country, every society has to come to terms with its problems in its own way. There is no universal prescription for this," he says.

However, Ali seems to overplay his hand when he selectively quotes a recent European Parliament resolution on Bangladesh that condemned the widespread violence in the run-up to the elections. The minister is fixated with the line calling for groups involved in terrorist acts to be banned, but the resolution also explicitly demands that Sheikh Hasina's government, "immediately halt all repressive methods used by the security forces, including indiscriminate firing with live ammunition and torture in custody, and to release the opposition politicians who have been subjected to arbitrary arrest."

But he is also right to underline that Bangladesh's relations with Europe have other dimensions. The EU is by far Bangladesh's biggest export market and Bangladesh's garment industry is worth some $19 billion-a-year, with 60% of clothes going to Europe. And last year's fire at Rana Plaza- the textile plant that killed more than 1,100 garment workers - has spurred a massive health and safety inspection programme. "It was a huge wake-up call," he says.

Then there is climate change, an issue that particularly affects Bangladesh, as one of the world's most densely populated countries, with its people crammed into a delta of rivers that empties into the Bay of Bengal. The low-lying country is vulnerable to flooding and cyclones and it stands to be badly affected by predicted rises in sea levels. During his Brussels visit, Ali met EU Climate Change Commissioner Connie Hedegaard, who urged Sheikh Hasina to play a leading role in the Climate Change Summit convened by the UN Secretary General in September in New York. "I think it is getting worse for coastal areas. More areas are getting flooded, water is getting undrinkable," Ali says.

Ali is a lively and charming salesman for Bangladesh as it aims to reconnect with the West. But for many, the country has to relocate the peace and stability that has served it so well in recent decades. From the outside, Bangladesh, the eighth most populated country in the world, is still seething with political factionalism, and residue from the toxic feuds between Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia.

Bangladesh has, after all, proved it can outperform expectations, notably cutting the number of its people living in poverty from 63 million in 2000 to 47 million in 2010. It has enjoyed annual growth of 6 to 7 percent in recent years. And it has a good record in many areas like development, infrastructure, health care and the status of women (the country invented microcredit and these tiny loans were targeted at women). So, while democracy in Bangladesh has taken a hit, there is still a chance for it to recover its reputation as a tolerant society within a secular state.


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