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Another View of Bangladesh from America

Dr. Richard L. Benkin writes from USA 

In recent years, Americans have heard a lot about how the rest of the world perceives us and more importantly what the implications of that perception might be for us.  Such discussions often present us with an important moral decision.  Is the perception’s root cause an important moral issue, and we are willing—even proud—to suffer the negative consequences?  Or does the perception require us to re-think our position?  Bangladeshis might consider the same dilemma.

Bangladesh’s international image has taken a beating lately.  In November, the European Parliament passed a scathing human rights resolution criticizing Bangladesh with words like “deplores” and “strongly condemns.”  The usually mild body also referred to a resolution critical of Bangladesh passed by the UN in October.  Also in November, the US Congress introduced a resolution critical of Bangladesh and calling for all charges against Weekly Blitz editor Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury to be dropped—a call echoed by the EU resolution that called Shoaib’s persecution “particularly shocking.”  In Australia, Canada, and several other countries, legislators and other officials have questioned their countries’ relationship with an “increasingly radical” Bangladesh.

So what?  What does it matter if Americans, Czechs, or Australians have concerns about Bangladesh?  Since Americans, Czechs, and Australians do not vote in Bangladeshi elections, perhaps nothing; but perhaps a great deal.  Last week, Weekly Blitz online reported that a “large number of international buyers from United States and Europe [are] canceling orders for readymade garments.”  The cancellations are hitting a range of Bangladeshi manufacturers, as buyers fear that political instability will prevent timely deliveries.  The affected manufacturers have been forced to lay off half their personnel.  Blitz also reports that the Dhaka office of Wal-Mart is not placing any fresh orders, something manufacturers described as “crucial.”  More crucial is that Wal-Mart and the other buyers are not about to suspend their business operations until Bangladesh gets its political act together.  They will seek other suppliers who no doubt will try to keep that market share beyond this initial stop-gap measure, perhaps even making it a condition of the sale.

Complaints that such actions linking a resumption of aid or trade to reform are an affront to Bangladeshi sovereignty are misguided.  Just as Bangladesh is sovereign, so are the donor nations.  American, Canadian, and British taxpayers have every right to decide which countries should receive their money as they had in withholding their money from a Hamas-ruled Palestinian Authority.  Similarly, businesses must be concerned about where they can get a reliable supply of whatever it is they are selling.  Otherwise, they are being irresponsible toward their shareholders and employees.  With so much at stake and elections looming next month, it is germane to ask who is acting in the best interests of the Bangladeshi people.  Three themes underlie this growing international condemnation, and only by addressing these concerns will Bangladesh turn the tide.

Bangladesh’s sad record of frequent attacks on journalists, religious minorities, and dissidents:  While noted time and again during the BNP’s tenure, the charge has grown in seriousness. The Choudhury case has highlighted gaps between what the government says and what is happening in reality.  It has given the matter a human face and focus that eventually will be extended to other victims.  Shoaib is the one victim mentioned by name in the US Congress and European Parliament resolutions and in speeches Australian, Canadian, and other legislators.  Government miscalculations and missteps made it seem either dishonest or captive of the radical parties.  Relative silence by a supposedly independent Bangladeshi press has called into question the reality of press freedom in Bangladesh.  The Caretaker Government continues to press the admittedly false case, and concern about Shoaib and the general state of rights in Bangladesh continues to grow.

Growing realization world wide that radical Islamists have significant control over Bangladeshi institutions and influence in society:  The resolutions mentioned above all voice this concern.  The previous government’s continuous denials ring hollow in most world capitals.  While denying Islamist influence, BNP leaders would express reticence to take certain actions (in the Choudhury case and elsewhere) because they feared the radicals’ reaction.  Many people fear Islamist influence electoral gains and are concerned that the BNP solidified their relationship with the radical parties in their coalition.  Actions like naming a bridge after the terrorist group, Hezbollah, at a time when it was being roundly condemned even in the Arab world, made Bangladesh seem more like terror-supporting Iran than the moderate state it claims to be.  The BNP’s willingness to partner with parties committed to imposing Sharia on all Bangladeshis—including the approximately 25 million non-Muslims—gives more cause for concern among those nations who are committed to fighting radical Islam.

Political instability:  It is not political turmoil alone that fuels concerns by buyers and donor nations but the fact that the major parties seem willing to scuttle the political process in order to maintain their individual power bases.  That is why hopes by some that the opposition Awami League proved hollow especially with news coming out of Dhaka on December 1.  Reports describe “a rampage” by Awami League attorneys.  They stormed courtrooms and the Chief Justice’s office, destroying furnishings and vehicles.  Other justices, “apprehensive” for their safety, sought cover in locked rooms or were secreted away by police.  And all of this was done because the AL disagreed with the court’s decision.  Please spare us the explanations justifying the barbarous actions on the basis of the decision’s importance.  When the US Supreme Court ruled in 2000 that George W. Bush had been elected President, Democrats were incensed.  Some of them cried foul and believed the election had been stolen.  But they did not physically attack the Supreme Court or oppose the system that defeated them.  They placed the nation over party.  Last week’s sorry spectacle indicates that the AL is more committed to its party power base than to a functioning Bangladeshi justice system.  This is the same AL that continually threatens to abandon Bangladesh’s electoral system; that is on record as willing to scuttle the transition government and the upcoming elections alike so long as negotiations do not produce decisions to its liking.  The chaos it supports will be little comfort to international buyers and human rights advocates; little comfort to international coalitions dedicated to preventing radical takeovers, since chaos plays exactly into the radicals’ hands and opens the door for them to claim that only their iron hand offers the stability.

So, which party is likely to stop the economic bleeding that threatens Bangladeshis?  Which party is likely to offer hope for preventing an Islamist takeover?  Which party is likely to take a strong stand for justice and for the rule of law?  Neither it seems—at least not by themselves.  Both major parties have preferred to form alliances with radical parties rather than place the good of the nation above the good of party.  Both major parties have been willing to participate in the current chaos rather than put the good of the nation above the good of party.

The party that will win the respect of the international community, including donor nations and international commerce is that party which joins its erstwhile rivals in a grand coalition that indeed does place the good of the nation over the good of party.  Whether either the BNP or the AL is capable of rising above their members’ personal interests and their traditional animosities and make such a bold move for the good of the nation will be clear in the coming months.

Posted on 06 Dec 2006 by Root

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