Asia's Basket Case


Sitting in the shadows of its more prominent neighbours, Bangladesh is known largely as a basket case beset by natural disasters and, more recently, for being on the frontline of the effects of climate change.

The country was once known as East Pakistan, and the most recent mutiny by junior army officers suggests it shares much with its larger cousin-both are fledgling democracies where the army looms large and where there is a rising tide of Islamic extremism.

This mutiny has shined a light on underlying tensions in the impoverished nation, revealing fault lines that threaten to have international repercussions. And the picture was further complicated by the discovery in late March of a weapons cache being stored at an Islamic school, or madrasa, funded by a UK-based charity. The guns and ammunition were found following intensified government pressure on Islamic militants, with the country’s leadership believing the militants may have played a role in the mutiny.

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Bangladesh’s current prime minister is Sheikh Hasina, a daughter of the country’s first prime minister, who came to power after recent elections – the first after several years of a caretaker government. The military was essentially the power behind the caretaker civilian government that was in place from 2006, when the political system appeared on the brink of chaos, with strikes, demonstrations, a spate of killings and a stagnant economy.

Since coming to office, Hasina’s deadliest enemies have been the Islamist militant groups that have put down roots here in recent years and who have been implicated in assassination attempts including a grenade attack during a political meeting in 2004. Indeed, Hasina lost some of her hearing as a result of that attack.

But even without the complication of extremists, the task of governing Bangladesh is arguably one of the toughest political challenges in the world. Its 150 million people are crammed into a tiny area of land, with 70 million of them living on less than US$1 a day. And as the world’s biggest delta, Bangladesh is plagued by floods and cyclones, and the steady poisoning of tens of millions of its people from drinking water contaminated by naturally occurring arsenic. In fact the country’s very existence is threatened if even the more moderate predictions of climate change and rising sea levels occur.

The country was born from the ruins of East Pakistan 35 years ago after a war of independence in which India-backed nationalists – unhappy at being ruled from what was then West Pakistan – fought Islamists loyal to Islamabad. Three million people were slaughtered in eight months before the Pakistanis conceded. Those were the days before international criminal tribunals, and the world left Bangladesh largely alone to heal and rebuild.

Its politics have been shrouded in blood ever since, with coup, counter-coup and brutal assassinations the norm. There was, for example, the cold-blooded murder of the first leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and most of his progeny in their sleep, with his daughter Hasina surviving only because she was overseas visiting her husband. Mujibur’s death casts a shadow to the country’s politics, with the perpetrators remaining unpunished.

In 1980, President Ziaur Rahman, the late husband of the country’s opposition leader, Khaleda Zia, was also killed in a shooting spree, and even now attacks and deaths during political meetings are a regular occurrence. Against this blood-soaked backdrop, the recent mayhem that took place in the army headquarters should therefore be no surprise.

Rank-and-file members of the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR), which is primarily posted to patrol the border, had complained that senior officers were involved in rampant corruption and that they were given little chance to serve in the lucrative UN Peacekeeping Force (Bangladesh provides the most peacekeepers of any country in the world). They were also demanding higher pay, more subsidised food and holidays.

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