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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Bangladesh Government, Yunus Talks Making Good Progress


NEGOTIATIONS TO resolve the issue of unceremonious dismissal of Grameen Bank founder Muhammad Yunus progressed towards a "positive direction" with both sides softening their stance for an amicable settlement, a highly placed official source said here today.

"I can tell you this much despite earlier uncertainties, the process is on progress towards honourable solution to the crisis," the official source, familiar with the "compromise process" told PTI preferring anonymity.

He declined to predict when the outcome of the talks could be made public but said both the government and Yunus softened their stance towards reaching an "amicable solution" of the crisis erupted after the removal of 70-year old microcredit pioneer from his Grameen Bank.

His comments came as in a related development the 70-year old microcredit pioneer appeared before a five-member government committee constituted in January this year to "review" the Grameen Bank transactions.

Committee's chair Monwar Ahmed Khan said Yunus told the committee that he now was thinking how he could be associated with the Grameen Bank in an "alternative way" as he joined the meeting with his deputy in the Grameen Bank Nurjahan Begum.

Khan told newsmen that the Nobel Laureate economist informed the committee that despite his plan to retire long ago, he could not quit the micro lending agency which he had founded 30 years ago due to earnest requests of the employees.

"The meeting with committee also discussed about the future of Grameen Bank" which Yunus had founded 30 years ago, he said.

A senior government leader earlier last night said no one sided solution to the issue of Nobel Laureate Professor Muhammad Yunus was possible despite the government's willingness for an "honourable settlement."

"We always wanted an honourable resolution to the issue. But one sided solution to the problem is not possible unless all the sides come forward," local government minister and ruling Awami League's general secretary Syed Ashraful Islam told newsmen last night emerging from a party meeting as approached by newsmen. He declined to elaborate on the issue since the matter was pending for a Supreme Court decision but added that "it was not the government, but Yunus who dragged it to the court."

Islam's comments came amid growing international criticism against Yunus's unceremonious dismissal from the pioneering microfinance bank that he founded three decades ago.

The apex Appellate Division of the Supreme Court yesterday adjourned until April 4 the hearing on Yunus's appeal against his removal from the Grameen Bank amid reports of a negotiation process for an amicable settlement of the issue outside the court.

Despite a green chit issued by Norwegian government reliving him of the allegations, the government formed a five-member "review committee" to examine Grameen Bank transactions but his removal came ahead of the submission of the report by the investigators. The committee chair today told newsmen that they were expected to submit their report in next 10 days to the government.

While, the adjournment visibly allowed both sides to take more time to reach a compromise as insisted by the United States and other major development partners but no progress on the talks was reported by either sides.

Yunus earlier this week told a foreign newspaper he was "not a political threat to anyone" in Bangladesh and would like to resolve issues "if any" with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina as the negotiation process were launched.

"The real issue at stake is the right of the bank's 8.3 million borrowers to control their own financial future or whether they will be forced to cede their control to outside authorities," Yunus said.

Finance Minister AMA Muhith last week said the government looked for ways for an amicable settlement of the Yunus issue as he visibly rallied huge international support behind him since his removal from Grameen Bank last month.

Yunus was fired from his position as the Grameen Bank's managing director last month as the Bangladesh Bank found that his 2,000 appointment as the microlending agency's executive chief was faulty because the central bank's mandatory approval was not obtained at that time.

Amid a massive international and civil society criticism of the decision, the United States last week warned that its relations with Dhaka could be exposed to threats unless Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's government reached a compromise with Yunus.

"If there is no compromise, it will have an effect on our bilateral relations," US Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake told newsmen at the fag end of his five-day visit to Bangladesh when he met Hasina and several other senior government leaders.

Yunus's experiment of poor men's banking earned Bangladesh the repute of being the home of microcredit and himself the Nobel Peace Prize along with his Grameen Bank in 2006.

Analysts earlier said Yunus's troubles stem from 2007 when he announced formation of a political party, an idea that was visibly unwelcome by Hasina and her archrival Khaleda Zia of BNP, while he himself abandoned the idea within months.

But Yunus's removal came as he apparently developed a growing dispute with the ruling Awami League in recent months after a Norwegian TV aired a documentary questioning the transaction of a Norwegian donor fund violating the agreement.

The government has 25 per cent stake in Grameen Bankh that employs 24,000 people, provides collateral-free loans to eight million borrowers, the vast majority from rural areas after detailed talks familiar with the Grameen Bank activities. [ENDS]

Anisur Rahman, is a journalist based in Bangladesh is with official news agency Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha (BSS). He is Bangladesh correspondent for Press Trust of India (PTI).

First published in Outlook magazine, New Delhi, India, March 30, 2011

Sexual abuse, exploitation of children in Bangladesh appalling


Lack of confidence of justice delivery system, sexual abuse and exploitation of children in Bangladesh skip prosecution

CHILDREN IN Bangladesh are highly vulnerable to sexual abuse and exploitation, not only behind the closed doors of brothels but also in households, academic institutions and on the streets, revealed a UNICEF study on Tuesday.

Nearly 50 percent of the girls found engaged in prostitution had been sexually abused before joining the sex trade. The ‘slippery slope’ imagined from sexual abuse to prostitution to trafficking suggests a moral descent.

This study exposes the serious issue of sexual abuse of boys which has failed to be properly recognized in the past. Alarmingly, is that boys are becoming frequent clients of prostitutes.

Poverty-stricken Bangladesh boast of conservative culture, is an overwhelming Sunni Muslim majority where overtly speaking of sex is a social taboo.

The study made it clear that sexual abuse of children and their exploitation in prostitution derives from deep structural and societal problems coming from relationships between adults and children and how gender and sex are understood in a society of socio-economic inequality.

Most child sexual harassment cases in Bangladesh do not go for trial as the victims have no confidence in the justice delivery system. Efforts should be made to increase the number of prosecutions for sexual abuse of girls. Laws exist but the application is difficult, observed social anthropologist Therese Blanchet who conducted the study.

The study reveals that greater attention is given to ‘manage’ the dishonor and minimize social consequences while little support is offered to the traumatized person who is expected to silence her pain.

Despite the cultural limitation, the report recommends to introduce sex education in schools to prevent sexual abuse, stressed the need for strengthen employers’ responsibilities to prevent sexual abuse in the workplace.

Blanchet suggests that girls and adolescents engaged in prostitutions should be carefully looked at to improve ways to ‘recover’ and ‘reintegrate’ them back into the society.

UNICEF works for children's rights, their survival, development and protection calls for coordinated efforts to end both sexual abuse and commercial exploitation of children as child sexual abuse is widely ignored compared to commercial sexual exploitation and child trafficking. [ENDS]

Saleem Samad, an Ashoka Fellow is an award winning investigative journalist based in Bangladesh. He specializes in Jihad, forced migration, good governance and politics. He has recently returned from exile after living in Canada for six years. He could be reached at

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Government opts for respectable exit for Yunus, while global support pours


AT THE time when Bangladesh government softened their reactive mood and have described that the ball is in Nobel laureate Professor Muhammad Yunus court, more global moral support pours in for the pioneer of banking the poor.

Two weeks ago a number of United States Senators and Congressman have expressed their concern over the humiliation faced by the international icon of microfinance.

A week ago Robert Blake, the visiting U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs cautioned that if the Yunus issue remains unresolved, it will impact bilateral relations between Bangladesh and the United States.

The moral supports coincided with Bangladesh Supreme Court on Tuesday adjourned until April 4 the hearing on the petition filed by Muhammad Yunus seeking a stay order on the High Court judgment upholding his dismissal as the Grameen Bank managing director.

The central bank on March 2 removed the Nobel laureate from his position for allegedly flouting rules when he was reappointed in 1999. Yunus filed the petition against the order which the High Court had rejected earlier.

The unceremonious exit of Yunus has invited bricks and bouquets at home and globally. The government is embarrassed by blitzkrieg reaction from the press, politicians, celebrities and development practitioners.

Meantime a number of international microfinance organizations and civil society in Italy, Peru, Philippines and Pakistan have issued statements expressing support in solidarity with Prof. Yunus, founder of Grameen Bank.

Mario Baccini MP, President of the Italian Committee for Microcredit, Prof. Luisa Brunori of Bologna University, Sam Daley-Harris and European Member of Parliament Sylvia Cost said Prof Yunus with Grameen Bank have made significant mileage in social development in Bangladesh through microfinance. They are leading actors in the fight against poverty, writes private news agency United News of Bangladesh.

A statement of the Global Center for Development and Democracy (CGDD) and on behalf of President Alejando Toledo of Peru said “our organization, which cares about international development, has been following very closely the developments, and is very much concerned
about the progress which could be lost if the country’s leaders fail to appreciate what makes the Grameen Bank work.”

The statement further said that “If he (Toledo) becomes our next president, we expect to extend microloans to the poorest in our country in order to lift all Peruvians who are living below poverty conditions, out of it.”

Another letter to Prof Yunus from CARD MRI Family of Philippine said “our more than 1.5 million members and clients would like to assure you of our unwavering support to you as the Managing Director of Grameen Bank.”

An open letter from Kashf Foundation of Pakistan said Yunus and Grameen Bank are today global icons and torch-bearers for the mission to eradicate poverty, as well as to provide sustainable choices to poor households across the world.

It said the work of Grameen Bank has been replicated across 100 countries and has benefited over 170 million poor women globally. [ENDS]

Saleem Samad, an Ashoka Fellow is an award winning investigative journalist based in Bangladesh. He specializes in Jihad, forced migration, good governance and politics. He could be reached at

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

After 2009 Bangladesh mutiny, India rallied support for Hasina


U.S. EMBASSY Charge d'Affaires Steven White was surprised when he was called in for a meeting with Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon on the last weekend of February 2009.

That “unusual Saturday meeting” was to discuss the mutiny by troopers of the Bangladesh Rifles a couple of days earlier, and the worry in the Indian government about its implications for the newly elected government of Sheikh Hasina, perceived as being a friend of India.

The cable that was sent on March 2, 2009 (194661: confidential), and accessed by The Hindu through WikiLeaks, details the conversation between the American stand-in envoy and Mr. Menon.

The Bangladesh Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, had telephoned External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee during the mutiny to ask for assistance from the international community but had not been specific about the kind of help she needed. Mr. Mukherjee had offered “to be responsive” if needed.

The Foreign Secretary, Shivshankar Menon, revealed that the Indian government had also rallied London, Beijing and Tokyo.

India had two concerns. One, it feared that the Jamat-e-Islami would exploit the instability resulting from the rebellion to “fish in troubled waters.” The Foreign Secretary described the mutiny as long in the planning. Mr. Menon did not blame the Jamat-e-Islami directly for it, but said the party was disappointed by the results of the December 2008 election, and the steps taken by the new government to counter extremism.

Secondly, it appears India was worried that the mutiny could affect the civilian government's relations with the military.

Mr. Menon expressed concern about the likely effect of the violence on the Army, which had lost several officers while quelling the mutiny. The Foreign Secretary indicated this might lead to trouble for the Hasina government with the Army. He noted that the mutineers had thrown the bodies of military officials into sewers. But he was encouraged that the Army chief was working closely with the government to stabilise the situation.

“Menon appreciated the U.S. statement on the violence and stressed the importance of close coordination and consultation between the U.S. and India as the situation developed. He warned that while the initial violence was over, it would take several days before it was clear what would happen next and that further trouble was possible,” the U.S. official cabled.

A month later, India continued to be worried about the after-effects of the mutiny. On March 26, 2009, the U.S. Embassy in Delhi cabled ( 198952: confidential) that India's main concern was to stabilise Prime Minister Hasina's government.

The Ministry of External Affairs Deputy Secretary told Embassy officials that India was concerned about the possible involvement of “radical forces.”

He related that many of the known culprits in the massacre were recruited under the previous Bangladesh Nationalist Party government and have Jamaat-e-Islami links.

India's concerns appear to have cast a shadow on the Indian Foreign Secretary's visit to Dhaka on April 13 and 14 that year. A day later, he shared with U.S. Ambassador Peter Burleigh his assessment that the situation in Bangladesh was “fragile” following the mutiny.

According to a cable sent on April 16, 2009 from New Delhi ( 202615: confidential) reporting the meeting, Mr. Menon expressed the Indian government's worry that the current environment would allow extremist groups in Bangladesh to destabilise the democratic government and provide them with a “freer hand” to launch attacks in India.

“Pressed by the Ambassador to identify which groups India was concerned about, Mr. Menon said that India's worries extended from political parties like the Jamaat-e-Islami to extremist groups like the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami, Bangadesh (HUJI, B),” the Embassy cabled.

The Indian official told the U.S. Ambassador that even though petty issues often consumed politics in Bangladesh, he was surprised that despite the instability created by the mutiny, “politicians were focused on matters such as Opposition Leader Begum Zia's housing.”

“India was concerned about a sense of drift in the government and [Menon] judged that the government was not functioning in a normal fashion,” the cable said.

This article is a part of the series "The India Cables" based on the US diplomatic cables accessed by The Hindu via Wikileaks.

Nirupama Subramanian, was The Hindu’s correspondent in Pakistan, Sri Lanka was awarded the Prem Bhatia Award

First published in The Hindu, Chennai, India, March 27, 2011

Monday, March 28, 2011

The ‘real’ truth behind Yunus’ Grameen story


THE FEUD in Bangladesh between Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Mohammed Yunus, the founder of the microloan-making Grameen Bank and a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, is being portrayed as a modern-day replay of the famous battle between the wicked Kauravas and the virtuous Pandavas in the "Mahabharata".

The suggestion is that a vindictive prime minister is playing politics in punishing the saintly Yunus, the man who pioneered microfinance, for having threatened to enter politics. Sheikh Hasina is even being compared to Russia's Vladimir Putin in his campaign against the oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

But the Grameen case is more complicated, and carries a moral contrary to what Yunus' wellmanaged public-relations campaign suggests.

First, Sheikh Hasina is no ordinary politician. She is the daughter of the first president of Bangladesh , Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, a charismatic leader often described as the Father of the Nation, who was assassinated in August 1975 by the army.

Hasina won office in 2009 after a landslide victory in an election that was free from fraud. She is also one of the few women to have gained the premiership not by inheriting it, but in her own right, long after her parents and some of her siblings were murdered. Sheikh Hasina escaped the massacre of her family only because she was in Germany at the time. Over many years, she patiently worked her way back into, and to the top of, Bangladeshi politics.

Moreover, Sheikh Hasina has gained political power at the polls in an Islamic country, which is no mean feat for a woman. By getting the US to side with Yunus against the Bangladeshi prime minister, secretary of state Hillary Clinton seems guilty of arrogantly intervening in the domestic affairs of a friendly, democratic government —in direct contradiction of President Barack Obama's preferred modus operandi.

Second, many of those now discounting Sheikh Hasina's credentials are guilty of inflating those of Yunus. Consider the frequent refrain that Yunus is the "pioneer" of the microfinance movement. In fact, the true pioneer of microfinance is a remarkable woman from Ahmedabad , Ela Bhatt, a follower of Gandhi who established SEWA (Self-Employed Women's Association ) as a bank in April 1974, two years before Yunus founded his Grameen Bank Project in Jobra, Bangladesh. [ENDS]

First published in The Times of India, March 27, 2011

Protesting rickshaw drivers rampage city in Bangladesh


RICKSHAW DRIVERS have gone on a rampage in capital Dhaka and vandalized over 100 vehicles during protest against a police decision to make the human-pedaled out of bounds on the city streets.

The angry drivers protested against the city authority’s move to off-limit to rickshaws, in a bid to ease the chronic clogged streets during rush hours.

Morning traffic in the capital came to a halt on Monday during the protest by the half a million three-wheelers rickshaw drivers and owners association.

The sudden enforcement by city authority to off-limit rickshaws in certain city streets caught nearly a million commuters off guard. Thousands of students and others going to workplace were stranded in the streets, when city shuttle buses are inadequate.

Rickshaw-pullers came to the streets in the morning and marched through the city streets demanding withdrawal of the restriction.

Sporting banners, wearing red headbands by agitating rickshaw drivers, the protesters assembled at designated square area from different corners of the city. They argued that making city streets off-limits to rickshaws have affected their meager income, they said and urged the government to cancel the decision.

Police officer Shibli Noman told online news agency that the irate rickshaw drivers damaged over 50 rickshaws and scores of vehicles causing huge traffic jam.

Rickshaw still remains prime mode of transport in this mega-city. While mass transit remains a far-fetched dream for some 15 million people living in the capital.

Advocates explain that rickshaws as most environment friendly mode of transport, which does not consuming fuel, imported with had-earned foreign currency. [ENDS]

Saleem Samad, an Ashoka Fellow is an award winning investigative journalist based in Bangladesh. He specializes in Jihad, forced migration, good governance and politics. He could be reached at

Bangladesh scientist has breakthrough in burn injury dressing


Photo: Medical scientist Dr Azam Ali celebrates the Bayer Innovation of the Year Award in 2010 award with his colleagues
A BANGLADESH born agro-scientist has invented a bio-based wound dressing, which cures severe wound 40 percent faster than any other conventional medicine currently available on the market.

Dr Azam Ali, who lives in New Zealand has brought good news for the people with severe wound and similar physical injury from acid attack and fire incident.

Ali has invented bio-based materials to create new wound dressing, bone-graft implant products and medical suture technology using wool from New Zealand sheep. He uses low-volume protein sources from the wool to wound dressing and medical devices.

He told the state-run news agency BSS that the new wound dressing dramatically brings down the treatment time while the result is far better than any other existing treatment process as the bio-based wound dressing accelerates wound healing process and tissue growth.

Ali a senior scientist with the AgResearch, a leading research station in New Zealand, believes the new products will have better purpose in treating the acid victims and the people with severe burn injury.

He, however, said the treatment would be costlier than the existing synthetic products, but it would heal the wounds of the acid and burn victims to the extent so they can get back to normal life.

He pointed out that Bangladesh can use shrimp shell instead of wool to produce the same products with similar quality and effectiveness.

'There is lot of shrimp shells available at the industry where shrimp are being processed regularly for either export or domestic use," he quipped.

The scientist sees very bright prospect of using the new product in Bangladesh because of availability of natural raw materials.

Two of his wound-care medical products are now being used at New Zealand hospitals and are approved for use in Australia, United States and the European Union.

The breakthrough innovation of the Bangladeshi scientist won the globally reputed Bayer Innovation of the Year Award in 2010. [ENDS]

Saleem Samad, an Ashoka Fellow is an award winning investigative journalist based in Bangladesh. He specializes in Jihad, forced migration, good governance and politics. He could be reached at

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Yunus Says Borrowers Are Core of Grameen Bank

Photo: Agence France-Presse/Getty Images/Muhammad Yunus, center, outside the high court building in Dhaka where he to contested the decision to remove him from Grameen, March 3, 2011TOM WRIGHT

Bangladeshi Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus is facing challenging times.

ON MARCH 2, Bangladesh's central bank ruled that he must step down as managing director of Grameen Bank, the institution he founded in the 1970s to get small loans to poor farmers without collateral. The success of Grameen won Mr. Yunus international acclaim and helped spawn the global microfinance industry. The bank and Mr. Yunus shared the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize.

But Mr. Yunus is facing pressure at home. Some analysts say Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is angered by Mr. Yunus's move in to politics in 2007, citing an attempt to clean up corruption.

Others say Grameen, with 8.3 million borrowers and scores of other businesses from telecoms to dairy products, has become too powerful in the eyes of Bangladesh's politicians.

In its ruling, the central bank said Grameen had failed to get its approval, as required by the law that formally set up the bank, when it reappointed Mr. Yunus managing director in 1999. A high court upheld the ruling.

Mr. Yunus, who remains at Grameen's helm for now, challenged that decision in the Supreme Court, which is expected to rule by the end of March.

Ms. Hasina, the prime minister, has cashed in on a recent wave of bad publicity for microfinance banks, accusing them publicly in December of "sucking blood" from poor borrowers. The global microfinance industry has faced criticism for doing little to alleviate poverty and saddling rural borrowers with high debts.

Grameen, which is majority-owned by its borrowers, has largely avoided such bad publicity. Support for Mr. Yunus continues to pour in. Robert Blake, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, wound up a trip to Bangladesh this week by urging a compromise over the Grameen standoff. The U.S., he said, was "concerned about the dampening effect this will have on civil society in general and on the integrity and effectiveness of Grameen Bank in particular."

Mr. Yunus, 70 years old, has offered to Bangladesh's finance ministry that he stand down from running operations if he can remain chairman of the board to ensure a smooth transition of leadership. Bangladesh's government has the right to own 25% of Grameen and appoint a nonexecutive chairman under a 1983 special law that turned the lender into a formal bank.

Mr. Yunus answered questions by email from The Wall Street Journal about the rift with the government, what it means for Grameen's future, and plans for succession.

WSJ: What are the risks to Grameen of the current stalemate? What could happen to the bank?
Mr. Yunus: My only concern is for the future of Grameen Bank's 8.3 million borrowers, almost all of whom are low-income rural women. It is for their sake that I have repeatedly urged caution so that the transition to a new managing director can be a smooth process that doesn't create any disturbance or loss of confidence. The real issue at stake is the right of the bank's 8.3 million borrowers to control their own financial future or whether they will be forced to cede their control to outside authorities. Grameen Bank has succeeded due to the fact that it is the borrowers themselves who have been in control of the bank. It is a unique institution. If the borrowers lose control over their own bank, who will look after their interests?

WSJ: How much is politics playing a role in this saga? It seems odd that Sheikh Hasina would see you as a political opponent given that you are not formally in politics.
Mr. Yunus: I have stated many times that I have no political ambitions now and I am sure that the prime minister does not see me as a political threat to her. I am not a political threat to anyone, let alone Sheikh Hasina, twice elected prime minister by the people of Bangladesh, and whose party won a great majority in the last election. But if the PM has any issues with me, either with respect to the operations of Grameen or otherwise, I would be honored to sit with her to find a solution.

WSJ: Is it rather that politicians see Grameen's borrowers as a potential vote bank?
Mr. Yunus: Grameen Bank borrowers are voters like any other citizen in the country. I don't think anyone can influence them to do anything against their own wishes as they are capable enough to take their own decisions.

WSJ: Has the development of Grameen into a major business encompassing cell phones and yogurt helped to create a perception that the bank is a power center in itself and how has that affected relations with the government?
Mr. Yunus: Grameen Bank is a strong financial institution. It is an institution of 8.3 million empowered women and men who together own a thriving bank with $1.4 billon in deposits.
But whatever they are today is because of their hard work and diligence. It is their success. The borrowers of Grameen Bank have proved to the world that they are bankable and creditworthy and capable of controlling a major institution, and they have been the inspiration to millions of people all over the world, so why not a power center.
But whatever I or Grameen Bank has achieved, is the result of the efforts of the borrowers.
Grameen Bank has always been on good terms with the government and has viewed the government as the bank's partner from the start. The government holds a 25% share of the bank, and has always been a strong supporter of the bank in its fight against poverty.
Even the chairman of Grameen Bank is a government appointee, as are two other directors of the board. The relationship has always been a very friendly and cooperative one from both sides.
I don't know why the present crisis could not have been resolved amicably.

WSJ: What is your response to claims that there has been no succession planning at the bank and a number of high-level executives have left.
Mr. Yunus: Grameen Bank's legal framework lays down the method of selecting the managing director of the bank. There is no uncertainty about it? As for some high-level executives leaving, yes, some went on early retirement and some left for other reasons. But this is nothing out of the ordinary. In fact, Grameen has many dedicated high-level executives who have been with the bank for many years and are perfectly capable of taking over the bank's leadership.

First published in The Wall Street Journal, March 24, 2011

Tom Wright is a journalist with The Wall Street Journal. He could be reached at

Friday, March 25, 2011

Bangladesh urge bipartisan initiative to end military coup d’états


PRIME MINISTER Sheikh Hasina on Friday pleads opposition to cooperate in a bid to amend the constitution to plug the holes to discourage coup d’états.

The poverty-stricken nation of 159 million has intermittently been ruled by authoritarian juntas, which retards growth indicators of human development.

The nations two pro-democracy women leaders, who have taken turn to be prime ministers twice have bitter experience with the military juntas, which causes alarm for sustainable democratic progress.

Bangladesh, a Sunni Muslim majoritarian has a history of military takeovers. Political leaders critique of military regime aspires to seal grab of power through unconstitutional means by ambitious military officers in future.

Prime minister Shiekh Hasina and opposition leader Begum Khaleda Zia were several times put under house arrest, detained, imprisoned and denied public appearance by military juntas. Both the pro-democracy leaders have bitter experience with the military juntas.

The current prime minister is the daughter of Bangladesh founder Shiekh Mujibur Rahman, who was assassinated in a military putsch in 1975. Similarly, opposition leader’s husband and president Ziaur Rahman was also assassinated in a military rebellion in 1981.

The military dictators governed the country for 15 years, since 1975 and again in 2009-2010 explain that the junta primary purpose was to restore democracy, but freezes the constitution, denying fundamental rights of the citizens. Also promises to eradicate corruption which has taken roots in the society.

"A committee has been formed for constitution amendment. Let's work together so that no one can come to power through unconstitutional means," the leader of the House addressed the parliament.

A parliamentary committee will bring recommendations for constitutional amendment after supreme court ruled to restore secularism. The judgment said to got rid of provisions that had allowed religious political parties to prosper and legitimised military dictatorship.

The court verdict also suggested "suitable punishment" to perpetrators who brought military regimes and imposed martial laws, who were dubbed as “extra-constitutional adventurers.” [ENDS]

Saleem Samad, an Ashoka Fellow is an award winning investigative journalist based in Bangladesh. He specializes in Jihad, forced migration, good governance and politics. He could be reached at

Bangladesh: War crimes and misdemeanours

Photo: Bangabir Kadir Siddique executing alleged Razakars at Dhaka Stadium in front of scores of foreign journalists and cheers from onlookers

Justice, reconciliation—or score-settling?

IT IS almost 40 years since Bangladesh’s independence and a year since a war-crimes tribunal set out to try those accused of committing atrocities during the bloodstained conflict that led to it. The tribunal is due to lay formal charges this month or soon after. Dozens of suspects live under travel bans. Even so, the country remains haunted by the terrible memories of war. The tribunal seems unlikely to achieve either justice for the victims or reconciliation for the country.

Bangladesh has said that as many as 3m people died in the conflict, though others put the figure lower. What is certain is that many thousands of civilians were killed in cold blood by members of what was then the West Pakistan army (which later became Pakistan’s army). Bangladesh is seeking to put in the dock not the main perpetrators of the genocide but their local collaborators, who helped identify victims and took part in the killings. Notable among those accused of collaboration are members of an Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami, which formed part of a coalition government with the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) in 2001-06.

During the war, Jamaat’s student wing organised a militia, called Al Badr, to support the West Pakistan army. The party denies any part in the war crimes and its leaders say they were not members of Al Badr. But last August the war-crimes tribunal issued arrest warrants for five party leaders, including two former ministers. They have not been charged with war crimes (they are being held in jail on other counts) and are due to appear before the tribunal next month. Also in the clink and awaiting possible future war-crimes charges is a senior leader of Khaleda Zia’s BNP, now the main opposition. Officials say at least six more Jamaat leaders will be arrested on war-crimes charges, including the 89-year-old Gholam Azom, who led the party in 1971.

Partly because of the political implications, the war-crimes trials have run into trouble before they have even started. Emboldened by an unexpectedly good showing in municipal polls in January, the BNP has stepped up a programme of hartals (protest strikes) against the government. The timing is propitious: for separate reasons, one of the government’s main allies, Mohammad Ershad (a former dictator), has threatened to quit the ruling coalition.

Everyone believes the opposition would scrap the trials if it were to win the next election, which is due in 2013. And if history is any guide, it probably will win: no democratic government in Bangladesh has ever secured a second term. That gives the government less than two years to complete the trials. A formidable task.

The trials have a tiny budget of 100m taka ($1.4m). They are being held under a 1973 law which does not comply with international norms. The local prosecutors are widely seen as weak and inexperienced. In contrast, the defence team includes the counsel for the former Yugoslav president, Slobodan Milosevic, and a defence lawyer from the Special Court for Sierra Leone (which is trying Charles Taylor, Liberia’s former president). The authorities have also denied entry to an American-based lawyer for one of the accused, the BNP’s Salauddin Quader Chowdhury, an adviser to Mrs Zia. His family says he has been tortured while in detention, which the government denies. The tribunal has yet to determine whether foreign lawyers may even appear to plead before it.

The chances that the trials will win international recognition appear slim. Initial enthusiasm for them among foreign governments has worn off. Many Western diplomats think the government has taken to using the courts to pursue rivals and enemies—as many say it did when it insisted recently that Muhammad Yunus, a Nobel laureate, should retire as head of Grameen Bank, a microcredit institution. The war-crimes process was supposed to produce a measure of truth and reconciliation. It has taken an inauspicious turn. [ENDS]

First published in The Economist magazine, London, UK, March 24, 2011

Indian border guard killed, maimed nearly 300 Bangladeshi


THE "TRIGGER happy” Indian border guards have killed and maimed more than 300 Bangladeshi along the international border between two countries, which never had a war.

Home Affairs Minister Ms Sahara Khatun told parliament on Thursday that since January 2009 till March 2011, a total of 136 Bangladeshi have been killed by Indian border forces, while 170 villagers living along the international border suffered bullet wounds.

She told the parliamentarians that the two countries sat in flag meetings several times to defuse the border tensions.
Khatun assured that two Ministry level meetings in last December and January this year in Bangladesh and Indian capitals agreed to zero-killing by Indian border guards (BSF). India vows to rein in 'trigger-happy' soldiers along Bangladesh border.

New York-based Human Rights Watch in December alleged that Indian troops used excessive force at the Bangladesh border. In a report titled "Trigger Happy," the organization charged that the BSF killed people with impunity at the border. HRW said that more than 900 people had been killed over the past 10 years along Bangladesh's western border with India.

The HRW report documented a pattern of abuse by BSF against both Bangladeshi and Indian nationals in the border area of West Bengal state. The abuses include cases of indiscriminate killing and torture.

In a joint memorandum in March, India has agreed to equip its border guards with non-lethal weapons to stop killing unarmed Bangladeshis along its border. [ENDS]

Saleem Samad, an Ashoka Fellow is an award winning investigative journalist based in Bangladesh. He specializes in Jihad, forced migration, good governance and politics. He could be reached at

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Bangladesh yields to international pressure calls for compromise with Yunus


A DAY after US official cautioned Bangladesh, the authority seems to have softened their voice for an acceptable solution to the crisis.

After international leaders mounted diplomatic pressure, the government instead urged Nobel laureate Professor Muhammad Yunus to bring forward a compromise formula. There is no immediate response from Yunus office regarding the somersaulted by the government.

The finance minister AMA Muhith said the ball is in Yunus court, and he has to initiate negotiations with the government for a solution to the ongoing controversy, a statement issued on Wednesday said. "The government is ready for this. But Prof. Yunus will
have to come forward to solve the issue".

It said the senior official’s remark in this regard is very clear and he had conveyed the same the day when US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Robert O Blake, US ambassador to Bangladesh James F Moriarty and former World Bank president James Wolfensohn met Muhith.

The explanation by the government came a day after visiting US assistant secretary of state Robert O Blake said the US-Bangladesh ties would be affected if the issue was not settled in a respectable manner.

Quoting Muhith, the statement signed by Gokul Chand Das, joint secretary of banks and financial institutions department under the finance ministry, said, "We [the government] wanted a respectable solution to this from the beginning and are still looking for ways in this regard."

However the Finance Minister dismissed the news in local media of the Prime Minister’s initiative to reach settlement on the issue of Prof. Yunus.

On Mar 2, Bangladesh Bank ordered the removal of Yunus from the post of managing director of the specialized Grameen Bank, saying that he was long past his retirement age.

Yunus later filed writ petitions challenging the legality of the central bank order, but the High Court rejected his petitions.

Speaking to students, the celebrated micro-finance visionary Prof. Yunus on Wednesday said a line must be drawn between microfinance and non-microfinance organizations to distinguish which are social services and which are money making organizations.

The reason for separation was because of long debate of who is maximizing profit through small loans.

The founder of the Grameen Bank said while speaking at a Social Business event at the American International School in the capital Dhaka, "Microfinance is something that works for the people and the whole organization is dedicated for their welfare," said the microcredit guru, adding, "I am not against people doing business. But I will request them not to use the word microcredit when they do other businesses. People might get confused with it." [ENDS]

Saleem Samad, an Ashoka Fellow is an award winning investigative journalist based in Bangladesh. He has recently returned from exile in Canada. He could be reached at

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

BANGLADESH AND PAKISTAN, Flirting with Failure in South Asia

Book: BANGLADESH AND PAKISTAN, Flirting with Failure in South Asia By William B. Milam
Candid Comments by SHAMSHER M. CHOWDHURY, Bir Bikram

AMBASSADOR WILLIAM B. Milam, or Bill Milam as he is popularly called, takes us on a journey in his book through the political evolution in Bangladesh and Pakistan in the period following their break up as one country and the emergence of Bangladesh as an independent state in 1971. Having served as the Ambassador of the United States to both these countries, it would be fair to assume that Ambassador Milam would have had a ringside view to follow developments closely enough to reach the conclusions that he has in his book.
In the words of the author, the book is interspersed with several motifs. Religion is one, and understandably so since it was religion that was the basis for partitioning India after the British Raj ended in 1947. As a corollary to that, culture has been cited as the second motif and history is the third. A recurring motif is the relations of both of these countries with their giant neighbor India. A common element is the role of the military in the political developments in both of the countries.

I will understandably confine my comments to the Bangladesh segments only.

In the case of Bangladesh, Milam believed that with the reintroduction of democratic political civilian led government in early nineteen nineties, the military had retreated to the barracks for good. He was less sure about that in the case of Pakistan. This was the main conclusion when the book was ready for print in early 2007. But events in Bangladesh in January 2007 forced him to change all that and the book needed rewording before it was finally published in 2009.

In the ‘Introduction’ chapter, Milam blames the “poisonous, zero-sum, political culture of the major political forces in Bangladesh that created the opportunity for a return of the military in January 2007, albeit, this time behind a civilian façade. In chapter 6 he details how this zero-sum game was played out in the fifteen plus years of civil political rule since 1991, resulting in a violent and confrontational political culture where the only real losers were the very voters who had entrusted these very politicians with their fate.

In writing for the Pakistani English daily “Daily Times” on January 24th, 2007, Ambassador Milam wondered whether the intervention in Bangladesh on 11th January 2007, would lead the country back from the brink or plunge it in the drink.

As we now see with hindsight, the solution, especially the introduction of a state of emergency and its gross misuse, only served to destroy the very political fabric of the country. Most commentators give the interim government at best a mixed scorecard. All agree it was powerless. The infamous, and abortive, “minus two’ formula and the highly politicized anti-corruption drive were its two most stark failures, not to mention the gross use of physical and mental torture on people under custody in violation of international conventions to which Bangladesh is signatory. They even made “Reform” sound like a dirty word, almost synonymous with collaborating with the enemy. In an attempt to “cleanse” the society of corrupt government and political officials, this government launched the much touted ‘Truth and Accountability Commission’ (Referred to in the book). As events subsequently prove, this was not just a cruel joke; it was a corrupt concept that ran counter to the very fundamental of the country’s Constitution that all citizens are equal in the eyes of the law. Worse, it was an exercise in deception.

In the epilogue, Ambassador Milam characterizes the publishing of a voter list with photos and the issuances of a National Identity Card (NID) as a remarkable achievement of the interim government. On Election Day in December 2008, there appeared, inexplicably, a second voter’s list, without photos whose authenticity is yet to be measured. As regards the NID, fake and counterfeit ones are now increasingly available in the market!
I thought it prudent here to briefly analyze the period of emergency to put things in perspective.

Milam talks at length, and presents his assessments, of personalities whose very names define the political landscape of Bangladesh even long after their violent departure from the scene—Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Ziaur Rahman. Chapters 2 and 3 are dedicated to that, although Pakistan’s Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto is mentioned in details in chapter 2, but only in the context of Pakistan.

In the opening narration of chapter 2, Milam describes Sheikh Mujib and Bhutto as “flawed leaders” with limited intellect or ability to “…anticipate possible future events”……. and they failed to “build upon promising democratic beginnings”. He says that they both assumed leadership in a “burst of expectation and optimism but were unable to cash in on the strong mandate they had to nurture and establish viable democracies.” He calls both of them “historical failures because there own flaws were important contributing factors to the demise of democracy on their watch” in their respective countries.

Talking about the beginning of Bangladesh’ journey as an Independent State following its victory in 1971, Milam mentions the inherent positives the country possessed: a surfeit of good feeling and enthusiasm and a sense of euphoria that helped the early developments like writing a Constitution in a “remarkably short time frame”. Despite the negatives like abject poverty and illiteracy, not to mention the wanton damage caused by the occupying Pakistani Army during the period of the Liberation War, Bangladesh, in the words of Milam, “was relatively fertile soil for democracy” that bestowed on Bangladesh a more advantageous beginning than many newly independent, developing countries. But then he talks of the “surfeit of corruption, venality, self-aggrandizement……” that quickly engulfed the country, exacerbated by the new government’s mismanagement of the economic recovery and “overt favoritism towards its own partisans”. A rather prophetic comment is made by the author in the concluding paragraph on page 30 when he says “The civilian regime took office with overwhelming support, but its hold on the loyalties of most Bangladeshis was dissipated after three years to a point that undemocratic alternatives became attractive as early as 1975.”

Ambassador Milam characterizes Sheikh Mujib’s period of governance as one from ‘Euphoria to Neuralgia’. Mujib is described as the undisputed leader of a new Bangladesh, who was faced with the daunting task of rebuilding a country shattered by the civil war, with a dysfunctional economy and crippled transportation system, severe law and order problems and a population displaced far and wide. As mentioned earlier, the author credits, and rightly so, the government of the day with framing a liberal, democratic Constitution with an independent judiciary for the new country within a short time. But, as mentioned in the book, with increasing political and economic pressure, adherence to liberal constitutionalism and judicial independence broke down by the end of 1974.

In page 34, the author writes about Mujib sinking into “a bog of corruption and ineptitude”. He describes Mujib as a good example of charismatic leaders of independent movements who do not always possess the organizational skills or intellectual flexibility to lead successfully the country their charisma had brought about. The subsequent paragraphs goes into details how this charismatic leader seemed to be “woefully short” of the essential mental agility needed to mold the new country into a viable nation. Milam is particularly critical of the socialistic economic policy pursued by the Awami League government under Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Large scale nationalization of both the manufacturing sector, specially the jute industry, and the service sector, banks and insurance was severely damaging.
The author calls the Parliamentary elections of March 1973 as the “beginning of the end” for Mujib. Till then Sheikh Mujib and his party still enjoyed relative popularity but the accumulating problems had reduced its appeal. Hence the Awami League leaders “couldn’t resist padding the result by blatantly and unnecessarily rigging the polls”. In the words of the author, this exacerbated what had already become ‘widespread and growing popular discontent with Mujib and the League’. Things indeed got worse by the reign of terror launched by the much despised Jatiya Rakhi Bahini.

In the following paragraphs Milam writes how this sense of discontentment continued to grow into widening dissulionment. With the introduction of the one party governance system (BAKSAL) by amending the Constitution to a Presidential one and thereby giving Sheikh Mujib more personal power, “as if lack of power were at the root of his problems, rather than bad policies combined with overt corruption and incompetence” (page 37)………“Bangladesh had been transformed from a democracy into a personal dictatorship by the man who led its independence movement” (page 38).

Milam completes his narrative on this charismatic leader by briefly describing the events of his violent and brutal death, and that of most of his family members, in the early morning of 15th August, 1975. He says “popular esteem for Mujib had fallen so low by then that few lamented this brutal act, but its legacy continues to haunt Bangladeshi politics.”

Chapter 3 of the book is exclusively about Ziaur Rahman and his governance from 1975 to his “untimely” death in 1981; he calls this period “A short lived but fecund era” and he calls Zia’s politics as one of “hope and transition”. The word fecund has been used here to mean ‘very productive, or creative intellectually’.

Talking of how Ziaur Rahman was thrust into the leadership in Bangladesh following the chaotic period caused by military attempts to govern following Sheikh Mujib’s assassination in 1975, Milam states one of Zia’s early acts after he became Chief Martial Law Administrator was to rescind Mujib’s one party system. As Zia slowly but surely consolidated his power and “enhanced his already widespread popularity”, he set about traveling all over the country mingling with the common people in a “new and unprecedented form of politicking” spreading “offer of hope for a better future”.

Like other military rulers in South Asia, and elsewhere, before and after him, Zia “developed political ambitions and much of Bangladesh supported those aspirations as the first ray of optimism in their hard-scrabble lives’. Milam describes Ziaur Rahman becoming President in April 1977 as “a reflection of his immense popularity with the public”.

Milam talks at some length on ‘Zia’s fledging democracy’ and says President Zia’s economic and social programmes ‘laid the basis of a far-reaching social revolution’ which continued to build momentum, and no government, no matter how autocratic, “could have halted this revolution….” The economy was progressing and social development was approaching “take off”.

In page 61, Bill Milam talks of Zia’s killing and says the “hope for democracy dies with him”. However, Milam is critical of Zia’s inability as President to strengthen institutions that underpin a democratic system and he set in motion some trends that undermine it like “acquiescence to corruption as a way to buy off potential enemies”…and he had not “set up a mechanism for the automatic and peaceful transfer of power”.

In the closing parts of his narratives on this ‘extraordinarily popular’ man, Ambassador Milam tries to fathom the ‘Enigma of Ziaur Rahman’. On the one hand he was a military leader, a national hero, (he was the first to announce the formation of provisional government of Bangladesh from a radio station in Chittagong in March, 1971, page 35), and yet one “who returned his country to civilian rule and to civilian dominated two party electoral democracy” and “whether that was by design or default shall never be known”. One thing seemed clear to the author that Zia was “a pragmatic nationalist” and that was his main —- maybe his only —– principle. He used democratic processes to wield political power but doubts he believed in them. He used corruption to ensure loyalty but was incorruptible himself. He also discarded some of the important principles for which he had fought a bloody war of separation from Pakistan, to which Zia’s response was a typical combination of pragmatism and political vision —– a desire “to unite and integrate the entire population of Bangladesh into a national identity” (page 67). The iconic Nelson Mandela once said—it’s not always about principles, its how you use your position to face the bigger national challenge (my quote, as paraphrased).

Milam describes Zia’s political legacy as a mixed one. Among his most positive bequests to the nation was the reintroduction of the multiparty political system that had “withered under Mujib …. And Zia restored stability to Bangladesh when it appeared to be on the path towards catastrophic and chaotic failure”. “More than stability, he seems to have brought hope back to a beleaguered population, as disillusioned as he was by the near anarchy that obtained in the final months of Mujib’s democratic experiment”. But his political legacy involved an authoritarian system of almost personal rule. While this might be justified because of “his success in bringing the country back from the brink”, it was liable to misuse by less scrupulous politicians. Milam describes Zia as also being honest and trustworthy. He adds “Zia laid the basis for durable and robust democracy that must develop if Bangladesh is to continue its progress as a leader in social development among both the Third World and the Muslim world”.

A telling tribute to Ziaur Rahman comes in page 69 of the book: “It’s hard to imagine what would have happened to Bangladesh had Ziaur Rahman been assassinated in 1975 instead of 1981. A failed state on the model of Afghanistan or Liberia might well have resulted. Zia saved Bangladesh from that fate”.
Chapter 6 lists the destructive and destabilizing nature of confrontational politics practiced by the two major political parties when they alternated in government and in opposition between 1991 and 2006. Governance worsened with each successive government and corruption and sycophancy gripped almost every organ of the state. They both failed to live up to the people’s expectations.

But Bangladesh had a democracy to talk about and it was in transition. Besides, the social and economic indices were much better than countries in similar positions. There was very tangible success in the area of Primary and Secondary education and gender parity was achieved at the secondary level. Employment opportunities for women had overtaken even some developed countries.

In the context of Bangladeshi political leaders, Bill Milam in his book has implied that power, or more power, does not always help one to succeed in governing: people give you that power anyway when they repose their trust and faith in you. It’s how you reward that trust with conviction and through your efforts to reach out to them, to touch them and respond to their ethos that makes the difference between success and failure.

Politicians and political leaders, present and of the future, of all hue and political observers would be well advised to read, and more importantly study, Ambassador Bill Milam’s book. It’s instructive and yet not prescriptive. Importantly, it is candid. [ENDS]

The author of this piece is a decorated freedom fighter and former Foreign Secretary and Ambassador/High Commissioner of Bangladesh to Sri Lanka, Germany, Vietnam and the United States

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Nobel laureate Yunus unceremonious exit will affect US-Bangladesh

President Obama highest award for Prof. Yunus

BANGLADESH HAS been overwhelmed by influential statements and foreign visitors expressing concern over the sacking of Nobel laureate Professor Muhammad Yunus as head of the pioneering Grameen Bank that he founded nearly three decades ago.

The government is embarrassed when visitors in the Bangladesh capital calls on prime minister, ministers and senior officials and challenges the authority for humiliating exit of Yunus from the village bank, which empowered nearly eight million rural women.

Robert Blake, the visiting US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, has on Tuesday cautioned that if the Yunus issue remains unresolved, it will impact on bilateral relations between Bangladesh and the USA.

Bangladesh media interprets that the US official fresh remark shifting from “should” to “must” on Yunus issue stink of a thinly veiled threat, writes online news agency

However, Foreign Minister Dipu Moni scoffed off speculation and said the bilateral relations will continue to remain warm. She understands that Bangladesh is currently USA 64th largest trading partner with US $4.2 billion in total trade during 2008. The USA merchandise goods trade deficit with Bangladesh was US $3.5 billion.

Responding to questions whether the US position on the Yunus issue tantamount to interference in the internal affairs of Bangladesh, Blake said Yunus recipient of American Presidential Medal of Freedom and a Congressional Gold Medal, is widely respected in the United States, with a positive reputation in the USA among many Congressmen, members of the Bangladesh Congressional Caucus, President Barack Obama and Secretary Hillary Clinton.

The US state department official said Prof Yunus has brought great honor to Bangladesh, and reasserted that the United States has been “deeply troubled” by the difficulties he is currently facing.

Earlier six influential US Senators Richard Durbin, Sherrod Brown, Michael Bennet, John Boozman, Rush Holt and Michael Enzi sent a letter on Monday and asked prime minister Sheikh Hasina to treat the Nobel laureate with dignity and respect.

Also five bipartisan US Senators Richard Durbin, Sherrod Brown, Michael Bennett, Michael Enzi, and John Boozman, plus Congressman Rush Holt and Thaddeus G. McCotter said they “are troubled by what appears to have been a months-long effort on the part of the Bangladeshi government to discredit Professor Yunus and remove him as Managing Director while increasing government influence at Grameen Bank.”

US Representative Thaddeus G. McCotter warned that this crisis “would severely and adversely affect the cordial relations between Bangladesh and the United States.”

Visiting former World Bank president James D Wolfensohn, also founder member of the “Friends of Grameen” has been understood as final attempt to negotiate a settlement in the conflict between the government and 70-year old Yunus.

The “Friends of Grameen”, an international pressure group whose founder members also include former president of Ireland Mary Robinson, and former Costa Rica president Óscar Arias, also a Nobel peace prize winner, believe that the ‘continued attacks against the Grameen Bank and Yunus have been carried out for political reasons.’

Earlier this month, the Bangladesh Bank issued an order seeking the removal of Yunus from his position as the managing director of the Grameen Bank. The matter is currently before the superior court which last week adjourned proceedings for two weeks.

Meanwhile, the appellate division of the Bangladesh Supreme Court last Wednesday adjourned for two weeks after an initial hearing into Prof. Yunus’ appeal of the government-controlled central bank ruling that he must give up his post because the 70-year-old Nobel Laureate has passed the sporadically enforced public sector retirement age of 60.

In another front, Mozammel Babu, a columnist and businessman close to the government, who has recently been involved in setting up a ‘loose group of about 500 people’ called the “Friends of Bangladesh” to try and counter the influence of international pressure relating to Yunus along with other issues, reacted and remarked, ‘This is aggression from the west in the name of Dr Yunus on a sovereign country in applying the law of the land.’ [ENDS]

Saleem Samad, an Ashoka Fellow is a leading investigative journalist in Bangladesh. He could be reached at

Bangladesh at the crossroads


IT IS winter and Dhaka is full of lights. Shaheed Minar, the memorial commemorating the Language Movement that led to the independence of Bangladesh, glows a bright orange. In the posh neighbourhoods of Gulshan and Baridhara, entire apartment buildings are illuminated to celebrate winter weddings, but these are overshadowed by the bright lights of new shopping malls. This is the city into which I have just landed – lit up, hopeful and humming with electricity.

I am a sheeter pakhi – a bird who has flown east for the winter. Every year I travel home to visit my family and reconnect with Bangladesh. There’s something about this country that inspires a deep longing, and whenever I am pulled back, I come home to take stock. This year, on Bangladesh’s 40th anniversary, I ponder the great changes that have occurred here, ponder the brightness and vitality of a country that no one expected would succeed. But succeed it has. Its dramatic transformations – imperfect, yet to be fully realised – are testament to the resilience of its people, and to the great power of democracy that is hard-won and home-grown.

As always happens when I land in Dhaka, I am immediately struck by the sense that something exciting is about to happen. In early February, the city is abuzz with anticipation because the ICC Cricket World Cup will kick off at the Mirpur Stadium in just a few weeks. People are scrambling for tickets. Municipal elections mean that every available intersection and telephone pole and exposed brick wall is festooned with political posters and slogans.

This year the agents of change seem to have raised their voices, and I realise something has shifted in the tone of the country. The stakes are higher, people are restless, poised for even greater transformation. In the meantime, the things that are difficult – that make you avert your eyes – are as apparent as ever. The city is full to bursting, and everywhere there are signs that the changes have not reached everyone: not the children picking through rubbish heaps on the side of the road, not the women who cook dinner over roadside ditches, thin sheets of blue plastic the only thing between them and the bitter winter evenings.

Bangladesh was born out of a brutal war of secession from Pakistan in 1971. During those nine months, the Pakistani army conducted a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing, killing up to three million civilians and forcing as many as 10 million into exile in neighbouring India. Two days before the war ended, knowing they were on the brink of defeat, the retreating army assassinated hundreds of academics, physicians, artists and journalists in order to give the yet-to-be-born country as little chance of surviving as possible. The new prime minister, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was welcomed by a population on the brink of famine. These are the factors that led Henry Kissinger to peer into the newborn country’s cot and declare it a basket case.

Since independence, instability has pervaded the political climate. Sheikh Mujibur was killed in 1975, along with 19 others, including 16 members of his family. Less than a decade later, his successor, General Zia, was also assassinated. Coups and counter-coups were followed by the long military rule of Hossain Muhammad Ershad.
And yet, somewhere along the way, the tide turned for Bangladesh. In 1990, a popular movement for democracy, not unlike those we’ve seen recently in Tunisia and Egypt, ousted Ershad’s nine-year-old dictatorship. Since then, aside from a brief period of army-backed civilian rule, power has been handed back and forth peacefully between Mujibur’s party, the Awami League (led by his daughter, Sheikh Hasina Wajed) and General Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist party (led by his wife, Khaleda Zia), in a series of increasingly transparent national elections.

Now, four decades into nationhood, there are many things to celebrate in Bangladesh. The economy has enjoyed 5-6 per cent growth for the past three years. The ready-made garments industry is thriving, surpassed globally only by China and Turkey. And last October, Bangladesh was given an award for the strides it has made towards reaching the UN millennium goals in health (notably, in reducing child mortality rates), education and women’s rights.

Perhaps even more importantly, there are strong movements to restore Bangladesh to its secular roots. Last year, the High Court and Supreme Courts banned fatwas and legally returned Bangladesh to its founding status as a secular republic. Later this year, a war crimes tribunal will begin trying the men who collaborated with the Pakistani army during the Bangladesh genocide. For the past 40 years, politicians have been bragging about their past as war criminals, daring any government to put them on trial. If the tribunal is a success, this culture of impunity may finally come to an end.

This is not to say that all is well. Bangladesh has a well-documented history of corruption at all levels of political and civil administration. Opposition forces are often brutally suppressed, and there has been a systematic abandonment of ethnic and religious minorities. Every day, troubling stories emerge about the excesses of the Rapid Action Battalion, the paramilitary police in charge of law and order and anti-terrorism.

Perhaps the blackest cloud on the horizon is the threat of climate change. If forecasts prove to be accurate, Bangladesh’s coastal lands will be under water in 40 years, creating a historically unprecedented refugee crisis. Already, half-a-million people migrate to Dhaka every year because their rural homes have become uninhabitable due to flooding. For the rest of the world, climate change is a distant fear; in Bangladesh it has already arrived, devastating families and landscapes. Perhaps this accounts for the frantic urgency in the air: we know that we are running out of time.

So which way is the country going? Towards progress or peril? Either way, the story lies outside the city. Although Dhaka is the beating heart of the nation, everything that makes Bangladesh what it is lies in the countryside. So, I have decided to travel to Gazipur, 45km north of the capital, to get a taste of what is happening outside the bubbling chaos of the metropolis.

It is March 19 1971. Knowing they are about to be attacked by the occupation forces of the Pakistani army, the people of Joydevpur (now part of Gazipur district) begin building a barricade on the railway line that connects the capital city to the army cantonment nearby. They use sandbags, bricks and felled trees. They work all day. Then they wait for the army to arrive, and when – finally – it does, a hail of bullets lands on the crowd. Four young men are killed, and dozens wounded, but the cache of arms that is on its way to the city is halted 45km north of its destination. Officially, the war of independence has not yet begun, but for the people of this district, a small but significant victory has already been won. For the duration of the nine-month war that ensues, the slogan “Follow the path of Joydevpur, liberate Bangladesh” is shouted from all corners of the country.

Forty years later, I have come to this district to see whether this spirit of the frontier, of being ahead of the rest of the nation, survives among these people. Somewhere between Uttara and Tongi the buildings get shorter and narrower, the malls become shops, the boutiques are replaced by shops selling toilets and basins; then there are vegetable markets and stalls with hanging cuts of meat, and in the narrow gaps between them I catch a glimpse of the fields beyond. Past Tongi, I reach the Chowrasta roundabout. In the middle is a white stone statue of a soldier, marking the place where the barricade was built, and where those four boys were killed.

My ancestral village, Dhanikhola, is several hours north of here, in a district called Mymensingh. My paternal grandfather was the first member of his family to leave the village, get an education, and practise law in Calcutta. He went on to become a journalist, and later a politician, finally settling with his wife and five sons in Dhaka. After the war, my father left Bangladesh for a job with the United Nations. These generational migrations, from village to city, from city across the seas, made my peripatetic, writerly life possible. The other branches of the family remain in that little village, fishermen and farmers and shopkeepers. We spend weekends in Dhanikhola sometimes, fishing in the pond and petting the stray goats, and I am always struck by the great twists of fate that came together to make me a visitor, rather than a resident, of that little village.

Gazipur, by contrast, is half-city, half-country. Brand-new factories cluster along the main road, advertising steel sheeting or textiles. Shops cram into every available space. Turn a corner and you will happen upon the startling green of the winter harvest, of men bending over paddy fields with nothing for tools but their bare hands. The region encapsulates the contrasts of Bangladesh: the old and the new, the agricultural economy and the manufacturing, the poor and the recently rich. Among the mud and straw houses, there are new houses of brick and cement, and behind these are farmers, and rice fields, and stories of beauty, and memories of pain.

My host in Gazipur is Jimi, a community organiser who has worked in the district for over a decade. Her NGO is housed in a squat, one-storey building with a tiny kitchen. Women of different ages, some carrying small children, crowd the balcony, waiting to go inside. Jimi greets me warmly, but doesn’t linger, and soon I am perched in a corner while she asks each woman in turn about her case. They begin by talking about their husbands and in-laws. One woman says her husband has demanded she give him 100,000 taka (£870) or he will divorce her. Jimi listens patiently. There’s another girl whose in-laws threw her out of the house when she couldn’t bear a son. No one uses the word hit or beat. “If you look behind,” a young woman named Rehana tells me, “you find sadness.”

When they come to the centre, Jimi helps them to find jobs and negotiate with their families. If they want a separation or a divorce, she arranges legal advice. She has persuaded the local police to intervene when she encounters a woman in imminent danger, but the key to change, she tells me, is finding jobs for the women. Rehana works at a beauty parlour down the road. Another girl in a black hijab with perfectly groomed eyebrows tells me she has refused to marry; she wants to save up and start her own business.

One of the biggest changes in Bangladesh in the past four decades has been the degree to which women have become the wage earners in their families. Some 97 per cent of borrowers from Grameen Bank’s microcredit schemes, which lends small sums of money to the poorest of the poor, are women. The other sea change has been prompted by the ready-made garments industry, which employs 3 million people, the majority women. Wake up early enough in Dhaka and you can see the factory workers – colourful lines of young women walking along the footpaths.

Jimi takes me to the village of Burulia, a 10-minute drive from her office, to meet a former freedom fighter called Yusuf Ali Sarkar. His house is at the end of a thin, paved road, beside a grove of sesame trees. At the turning we see a lone man knee-deep in a ditch. He is shovelling, the muscles on his back and arms sharply defined. He doesn’t look up as we walk past. We enter Yusuf’s compound and find him dressed simply in a half-sleeved shirt, but when he sees the photographer he quickly goes inside to put on his jacket and watch. As soon as we sit down, he starts telling us about the barricade on the railway line. The young Yusuf was shot in the thigh that day and taken to hospital, where the doctors declared him dead. But he survived, spending the rest of the war training for battle and hiding arms in his house. His wife of 40 years – a plump, round-faced woman in a shalwaar kameez – speaks up. When war broke out, Rokeya Begum was newly married and three months pregnant. “But I wasn’t afraid of the military,” she says. At school, she was used to doing sports. “Now I’m a retired teacher, but I can still beat anyone at jump-rope.” Yusuf and Rokeya laugh together. They have been married for longer than the life of Bangladesh. The country is only five years older than me. Its grey hairs have not yet begun to show.

When the war ended in December 1971, only five people in the village had ever gone to school. Now Yusuf’s daughter is a lawyer. The family are looking for a bride for their son. “I want a praying girl,” Rokeya tells me. They show me around their property, a neat compound with an internal courtyard. Yusuf points to several buildings in mid-construction. “We’re making a market here,” he points, “and that’s my chicken farm.” Although his home is simple, he is a very rich man: land prices in the area have doubled every year for five years.

As we leave Yusuf’s compound we pass the market he’s building. There do not appear to be any shops, only a small tea stall. An old woman hovers over a stove, stirring a vat of milky tea. She waves. In the distance, past the paved road, lie a few plots of paddy. When we pass him again, the man who was digging is fully underground, the ditch now as deep as he is tall. He is shrouded in loneliness, a checked cloth wrapped around his head.

“This is our migrant worker training centre,” Yusuf says, pointing to an empty building. The building is shut, because jobs abroad have temporarily dried up – a consequence of the global recession. Still, it is the ambition of many young men to travel abroad and work in the construction industry. Along with the garment industry, the bulk of Bangladesh’s economy rests on the money that the six million migrant workers in the Middle East and Asia send home. These remittances are estimated at $10bn a year.

Our final stop is a women’s community meeting in a neighbouring village. A group of about 30 women are sitting on a large jute mat. They are all married. I ask them how things have changed in Gazipur. They tell me that most of them did not get an education, but that their children – girls and boys – are enrolled in school. “Also,” one of them calls out, “our husbands help out a bit more.” “Does your husband cook?” I ask, and hear her gasp.

Back at Jimi’s centre we eat lunch and meet some local politicians. Salma and Sabiha look like they could be sisters, both tall and heavy, with deep, bellowing laughs. Salma tells me that when she hears of a wedding taking place in the neighbourhood, she makes it her job to find out how old the girl is. If she is underage, Salma goes to the police headquarters, fetches an officer, and shows up at the wedding to stop the ceremony. She has stopped many illegal marriages, she says proudly – sometimes even after the guests have arrived and the bride is about to be given away. “As long as I live,” she shout-announces, “no underage girl is ever getting married in this district!”

I leave Gazipur on a high, feeling a sense of protean possibility, Salma’s proclamation ringing in my ears. It is easy, in moments like this, to ignore the other things I know about the country: the punishing inequalities, the deep strain of authoritarianism that runs through the political system. Instead I say to myself: damn you, Henry Kissinger, for calling my country a basket case.

And then I hear about the case of Mosammet Hena. Mosammet was a 14-year-old girl who was whipped for allegedly having a relationship with a married man. The village cleric who ordered the fatwa against her did not believe Mosammet’s claim that she was raped by her cousin. He sentenced both Mosammet and her cousin to 100 lashes. The cousin – a known rapist who had married one of his former victims – ran away before his punishment was meted out. Mosammet had no such luck. Two days later, she died in hospital.

There are two countries here: the country I saw in Gazipur, and another country, a shadowy other. There is no way to get a definitive answer about which of these two faces of Bangladesh is the real one. Like any country, it is complex, it has its beauties and its ugliness, but I am struggling to get my head around the extremes it seems to straddle.

Debopriyo Bhattacharya is one of Bangladesh’s finest economists, and a fellow at the Centre for Policy Dialogue, the leading liberal think tank. Debopriyo can’t tell me if what I saw in Gazipur was an illusion, but he can tell me that the fundamentals of the country have shifted. In 1971, Bangladesh was an agricultural, aid-dependent nation with an exploding population and almost no infrastructure. It took 20 years for the nation’s farmers to dramatically alter Bangladesh’s food output, and although the population has doubled, the agricultural sector is now keeping up with its demands. And despite the political instability, there has been a consistent and determined investment in education. The shiny billboards, the swanky factories along the Tongi highway are a result of that. “The fact is,” he says, “Bangladesh has proven its social, economic and political viability. We proved that we have something to contribute.”

Progress, however, is fragile. If I needed a reminder it comes with the government’s attack on Mohammad Yunus, the Nobel Laureate and pioneer of microcredit. He, along with others in microfinance institutions, stood accused by the prime minister of “sucking blood from the poor”. A targeted campaign is launched to oust him from his position at the Grameen Bank, which he founded. There is reason to believe the motive is political. Yunus launched his own party in 2007, and though he subsequently withdrew from politics, he has been viewed as a threat and potential rival to the establishment. By the time I return to London, Yunus will have been sacked as MD at Grameen. The photographs flooding the airwaves and the internet will show him looking perplexed and deeply wounded. What sort of country vilifies its most devoted and faithful ally?

Now, on the 40th anniversary of its birth, if anyone asks me which of these countries is the real Bangladesh, I would have to answer that they both are. It is the country of Jimi, who fiercely protects her small community, and the country of Mosammet Hena, who was whipped for being raped. It is the country that has gone from famine to microcredit to mobile phones, a country whose citizens travel the four corners of the world and send their money home, a country that has overturned years of dictatorship and yet cannot free itself entirely from autocracy. And yes, it is also a country where the floodwaters have yet to come, and if the land goes underwater, there will be no rice to till, no water to drink.

It is time to go. At the airport, I wave goodbye to my parents, promising to see them in a few months when they visit me in London. My mother cries. Two weeks or two years, she always cries. All around us, behind the steel bars that keep the visitors from the passengers, women in cheap saris and rubber sandals sob quietly into their hands. They clutch their husbands and sons, then push them away gently. There will be no summer visits, only a patchy phone call every once in a while, and, perhaps in five, 10 years, a voyage home.

Soon after I return to London, the World Cup kicks off in Dhaka. Bangladesh lose to India, and are then humiliated by the West Indies. The West Indies’ team bus is stoned, when angry locals mistake it for the home team’s bus. A week later, there is a nail biting win for Bangladesh against England. The port city of Chittagong is closed for several hours as people dance in the streets. And so it goes, up and down. Coaster, roll on. Watching the games, I remember Debopriyo’s parting words: “We’re a 747 sitting on the tarmac,” he said. “Engine is running. We just need a runway.” [ENDS]

First published in Financial Times, London, March 18 2011

Tahmima Anam is Bangladesh born writer. Her first novel "A Golden Age" was the best seller. Her second novel, ‘The Good Muslim’, is published by Canongate on May 19