Friday, January 23, 2015


No country in the world has suffered more poverty, famine, corruption and political turmoil, including numerous military coups, than Bangladesh, and that in little more than half a century of existence.

It was originally founded as East Pakistan, when the British Raj came to an end in 1948 and the Hindus and Moslems, despite Ghandhi's aspirations, were unable and unwilling to live in peace and harmony together. But how can you have a single country divided in two states that are separated by a thousand miles of a third state? Which one holds the seat of government? And what happens to the other, which is bound to become secondary? The very idea was unrealistic, and so it proved. 

Within months the Awami League had formed, to campaign for autonomy, or even full independence, for the east. The west, which held the reins of power, refused even to acknowledge the possibility. Then, in 1970, the League, led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, won an overwhelming election victory which the government in West Pakistan refused to recognise. Riots followed, and then a cyclone which killed half a million people. Sheikh Rahman was arrested by forces sent from the west, which led to the League declaring independence unilaterally. The Indian government supported the east when the west sent its troops to prevent independence, leaving ten million Bangladeshis in flight to Indian exile. 

The west was defeated, and Bangladesh came into existence, under Sheikh Rahman, but from the outset Bangladesh was doomed and destined to be a failed state, and not for human reasons either. If there is a God, and to most Bangladeshis that means al-Lah, then he needs to do more work on his supposedly intelligent design. Most of the country is situated on the deltas of very large rivers which flow down from the Himalayas and flood the plains annually; the Ganges in particular flows into the Jamuna, the principal tributary of the Brahmaputra, and then joins the Meghna before the three eventually spill into the Bay of Bengal; spill may not be the appropriate word however, for most of the spillage happens long before the rivers reach the sea. In 1974, with the new country barely established, severe flooding wiped out the grain crop, killing tens of thousands and leaving behind a terrible famine; the first of many states of emergency were declared. In 1998 the same again, only far worse, with more than two-thirds of the country's land mass under water.

Floods are the natural disaster, but the desire of humanity for power, as always, is the real disaster. Sheikh Rahman was assassinated in a military coup in 1975, which introduced martial law and banned trades unions. General Ziaur Rahman, who led that coup, was himself assassinated in a coup by Abdus Sattar in 1981, but he was then ousted by General Ershad in 1982, who stepped down after mass protests in 1990, found himself convicted and jailed for corruption and illegal possession of weapons in 1991, replaced by Ziaur Rahman's widow, whose appointment as Prime Minister (the position of President having been rendered largely ceremonial by constitutional reform) was greeted by a new wave of cyclones, far more devastating than riots, floods or military coups...and on the saga runs, the military mostly stepping back from government in the 1990s, the Bangladeshi National Party and the Awami League alternately holding power in what is slowly emerging as a two-party democracy.

If the floods and cyclones were not bad enough, and the human politics even worse, the sheer size of the population - the eighth largest in the world, 170 million in a land the size of Greece (which has just 10 million) and Nicaragua (which has 5 million), and the state of Iowa (which has 3 million) - would suggest that economic progress are not going to be easy, and that poverty and unemployment are likely to remain, in the understatement of the economic observers, "deep and widespread". Much work is being done to reduce over-population, as well as in health and education, but the only jobs are in agriculture, weather-permitting, or as out-source workers for American and European manufacturers, which is little better than enslavement. And of course, if global warming raises sea levels by even as little as a few feet, most of Bangladesh will disappear under water quicker than the Florida Keys or the Dutch fjords.

The recent garment factory collapse rather summed up the dire state of this nation, which in the end is little more than a sweat-shop for the affluent West. On the positive side there is Muhammad Yunus, the founder of the Grameen Bank, for which he won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize; the rare event of a bank more interested in the needs of those who can’t really afford to bank there than in the hedge-funds it can use to protect its immoral lendings, and the cash bonuses it can pay itself each time it fails.

Marks For: 3

Marks Against: 9

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