Sunday, October 16, 2011

Grandmotherly Bangladesh Leader Unfazed by Problems at Home

Photo: Mary Altaffer/Associated Press:  Sheikh Hasina Wazed with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the United Nations headquarters.


RICK GLADSTONE

While Bangladesh’s prime minister has been attending the United Nations this week, stock market investors back home rioted over steep losses, the police arrested hundreds of Islamist protesters and the main political opposition party threatened a general strike for Saturday, when it is her turn to speak at the annual General Assembly.

The prime minister, Sheikh Hasina Wazed, appeared unfazed.

A stern grandmother figure with a calm voice and cool gray eyes, Mrs. Hasina, who turns 64 this month, has survived far worse in her rollercoaster political career in Bangladesh, one of the world’s most impoverished countries, with a history of political chaos and military interventions over much of the 40 years since it won independence from Pakistan.

Her father was Bangladesh’s most important independence leader. He, her mother and three brothers were assassinated at home by gunmen in 1975. Mrs. Hasina, a career politician herself, has been the target of multiple assassination attempts. She suffered hearing damage because of an explosion from a grenade meant to kill her in 2004. She is no stranger to house arrest, prison and conspiracy plots. In 2009, two months into her current term as prime minister, she faced a bloody revolt by border guards in her own military.

Today, she says, Bangladesh, a Muslim-majority nation of 150 million, is far more stable, and support for secular democracy has taken hold. “We are doing well,” she said in an interview at her hotel, dressed in the customary Bengali sari that covers her head, with a portrait of her father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, on the wall behind her.

In December 2008, after the last military emergency was lifted, Mrs. Hasina’s political party, the Awami League, swept to power in parliamentary elections, with a large majority over the rival Bangladesh Nationalist Party. “We had a great victory,” she said.

Her government has been criticized, however, for failing to curb abuses by the police and the military, in particular an elite anticrime force known as the Rapid Action Battalion. Last May, Human Rights Watch said the force had killed nearly 200 people since January 2009.

Mrs. Hasina has also been criticized for government intimidation of Bangladeshi journalists who report unfavorable news. “Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government has a record of not tolerating criticism from the media,” Bob Dietz, the Asia program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said when a Dhaka news editor was arrested this summer after reporting on government corruption.

At the same time, Bangladesh under Mrs. Hasina has achieved one of the strongest economic growth rates, 6 percent annually, despite the global recession. She has sought to nurture friendly relations with Pakistan and India, her mutually suspicious, nuclear-armed neighbors. She has promoted education, health care and political empowerment for women. And she has enforced a zero-tolerance policy toward the type of violent religious extremism that, she says, was permitted by the BNP when it was in power.

“Our position is very clear — we will not allow terrorist activities in our country,” she said. “Our people are against this. That is why they voted for us.”

On Wednesday, when President Obama greeted Mrs. Hasina at a General Assembly reception, he said, “You and your government are doing an excellent job in empowering women and countering terrorism,” according to members of the Bangladesh delegation who were present. Mr. Obama also accepted her invitation to visit Bangladesh.

In a speech earlier in the week at the Asia Society in New York, Mrs. Hasina extolled the advantages of investing in Bangladesh, enumerating its rising-star status in appraisals by Citigroup, Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan. “We are pleased that our efforts to become an investment-friendly country are slowly being recognized,” she said.

In the interview, she showed little concern about a stock-market riot in Dhaka, the capital, a few days earlier, when investors unhappy over sharp price drops smashed cars and torched tires near the stock exchange. Nor did she seem concerned about the BNP’s latest general strike threat, nor about a police crackdown on protesters angered over the prosecution of senior officials of Jamaat-e-Islami, the country’s largest Islamist religious party, by a tribunal investigating atrocities carried out in the country’s independence struggle in 1971.

“The police had to take action,” she said, not seeming to give it a further thought.

Her demeanor turned a bit testier, however, when asked about her relationship with Muhammad Yunus, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and the founder of Grameen Bank, a pioneer of microfinance — the granting of tiny loans to the poor.

She and Mr. Yunus, once close colleagues, had a falling out in 2010 after negative publicity from a Norwegian documentary that accused Mr. Yunus of improperly moving a $100 million donation from Norway to an affiliate. The money was re-transferred afterward and Mr. Yunus was never accused of wrongdoing.

But scrutiny of him and of Grameen in the Bangladeshi media intensified as a result. Mrs. Hasina said Mr. Yunus had violated other banking rules, and that many Grameen loan recipients, meanwhile, were unable to pay off loans. She has accused him of “sucking blood from the poor in the name of poverty alleviation,” which he denies.

Last April, Mr. Yunus lost a legal battle in the Bangladesh courts to retain his job as managing director of the bank, and has criticized Mrs. Hasina and other Bangladeshi politicians.

Mrs. Hasina was unapologetic and said the law had taken its course.

“The courts went against him,” Mrs. Hasina said. “Why he’s blaming me, I don’t know.”

First published in The New York Times, United States, September 23, 2011