Features | Politics | South Asia

Asia’s Basket Case

Bangladesh has endured a turbulent past, and faces a far from settled future, argues Tanveer Ahmed.

By Tanveer Ahmed for

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.

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.

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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.

But the mutiny that supposedly ensued from these complaints appeared well-planned and executed, making it difficult to believe that it was a spontaneous outburst of pent-up feelings and suppressed grievances. The most frequently cited theory is that it was a well-calculated move to discredit the security forces of Bangladesh, particularly the army, and undermine the government of Sheikh Hasina, which came to power with  massive popular support, allegedly with the help of the army.

The principal actors behind this conspiracy are said to be extremist religious forces, which have vastly enhanced their influence and power in Bangladesh during the previous regime under Khaleda Zia, of which they were participants in. Some political analysts, especially in India, also see the hands of external forces, particularly the international network of the al-Qaeda and Taliban. The ISI, the intelligence wing of the Pakistan armed forces known for stoking Islamist forces, is also implicated.

Much like in Pakistan, a traditional ‘lite’ version of Islam is giving way to a stark and assertive Wahhabist strain in Bangladesh. As the idea of Pakistan as an Islamic state in the subcontinent comes under strain, it also weakens the nature of a Bangladeshi identity.

But unlike Pakistan, language and not religion is the organising principle of the country. Bangladesh is an ethnically homogeneous country, with a national identity built on a shared history of violent struggle, from rising up against the British and against India to form East Pakistan to the 1971 liberation war against a West Pakistan hell-bent on imposing its Urdu language on the Bengalis.

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But this history of linguistic nationalism is being threatened by growing Islamic extremism. As a poor country that can’t say no to money, Bangladesh has become an ideal place for al-Qaeda affiliates, which, like Westernised NGOs, are filling needs unmet by a weak central government. Islamist orphanages, madrasas and cyclone shelters are mushrooming throughout the country, thanks in part to donations from Saudi Arabia and Bangladeshi workers returning home from the Gulf. The site where weapons were found most recently was both an orphanage and a madrasa funded by a British citizen of Bangladeshi origin.

This extremism is increasingly being blamed for a number of attacks within India, too, co-ordinated by Bangladeshi immigrants. The most recent such attacks were in May 2008, months before the Mumbai massacre. Indian authorities claim the attacks, which took place in the northern Indian city of Jaipur and resulted in 80 deaths, were masterminded by a Bangladeshi Islamist group. There are an estimated 20 million illegal migrants from Bangladesh residing in India and many of them gravitate towards Islamist outfits with undisguised terrorist intentions.

A 2007 publication, Military Inc., by a Pakistani academic based in the US documented the way the Pakistani’s army’s tentacles extend into every part of the population, through its grip on the national economy and corporate life, with generals managing everything from bakeries to banks without any real accountability.

The themes are identical in Bangladesh, whose army shares a colonial history with Pakistan and who fought together for close to a century prior to Bangladeshi independence. The army has ruled the country for 15 years of its existence in between elected governments and Hasina must ensure that the army continues to back the government in the aftermath of the mutiny.

Failure to do so could shove the country further towards radicalism, fuelled by a powerful combination of poverty and imminent environmental catastrophe.

Bangladesh demonstrates how confronting developing-world misery has acquired – in the form of climate change – a powerful new raison d’être, tied to the more fundamental outcry for justice and dignity. But in the meantime, the global financial crises and resultant decline in remittance payments and garment exports – which along with foreign aid power the Bangladesh economy – will strain this dignity to breaking point.

All of which suggests there is a chance this artificial block of territory on the Indian subcontinent could morph again, amid the forces of regional politics, religious extremism and nature itself. Such a transformation could destabilise India, add weight to Islamic extremism in Pakistan and give the world another geopolitical and humanitarian headache of monumental proportions