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Bangladesh is keeping afloat as it rides a storm

Bangladesh is a young nation, recently celebrating its 50th-year golden jubilee in 2021. It is a country moving forward with aplomb. But it has not been easy. Genocide, floods, assassinations, famine, and radical Islamists trying for a violent revolution have attempted to derail progress. Foreign interference has unfortunately been a feature that has plagued political life. Bangladesh has faced it all, dealt with it, and has become more resilient as a result. It has taken courage and strong leadership. Bangladesh’s leaders had a vision and stayed the course. They have not done this alone. Bangladesh has friends and backers across the world. The recent rise in disinformation and deliberate distortions is threatening to tarnish a nation that has been ticking all the right boxes on human development and economic progress.

Bangladesh was born out of the horrors of the Liberation War in 1971. Independence came at a price. Pakistan and its radical Islamist partners decimated the country. It could have been averted if arrogant Pakistani figures such as Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto had allowed Sheikh Mujibur Rahman to form a government. But Pakistan refused to allow democracy to run its course because they had a hatred for the Bengali people and their culture. They were seen as too Hindu by Pakistan’s rulers in the West. Pakistan was never going to let them have power after the 1970 general election. Jihad was their weapon. The crisis ended up with 10 million refugees, 3 million dead, and hundreds of thousands of women were raped. The United Nations and other global agencies had to set up emergency late-stage abortion clinics to deal with the aftermath. Communalism is another area that is plaguing Bangladesh. Radicals and strongmen are making the lives of minorities hell. Bangladesh is trying to quash it, but without a firm hand in policing. It’s becoming impossible. The threat of US sanctions is having a detrimental effect on law and order.

Bangladesh was ravaged during the Liberation War; I have spoken to people who travelled through the country after the war. They said it was a “literal hellscape.” Everything with value had been deliberately destroyed. Everything had been hit with either artillery fire, machine guns, or razed to the ground. Bangladesh as a new nation had a challenging time rebuilding and rehabilitating society. After the carnage and the dust had finally settled, Bangladesh was left as the second-poorest nation on earth.

Decades later, Bangladesh is a nation often nicknamed “the little engine that could” because of its sheer determination to overcome the odds. That nickname did stick, but now people talk of an Asian Tiger and a future economic powerhouse. Bangladesh has been keen to keep Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s mantra, “Friendship towards all, malice towards none,” as its foreign policy guide. It has stretched into the economy too. Bangladesh’s consistent economic growth of around 6% per year has astounded and excited economists and global leaders. This economic growth and focus on meeting United Nations development targets have transformed Bangladesh’s society for the better. It deserves every plaudit.

Bangladesh was founded to be a beacon of light in the world. It is not perfect, but its values and constitution reflect a nation that wants to do the best for all its people.

Unfortunately, Bangladesh is currently shouldering the burden of the world’s largest refugee population of over 1 million Rohingya. In 2017, the Rohingya people fled persecution in neighbouring Myanmar. Bangladesh opened its heart and arms to shelter them. The international community is not doing enough to provide support. This dreadful situation is also being abused by Human Rights Defenders. Somehow, they have managed to put the onus on Bangladesh for the crimes of the Tatmadaw and Myanmar’s feckless politicians. Something is obviously amiss. Washington’s attack dogs are barking.

To counter the distortions, Bangladesh needs to tell its remarkable story. Bangladesh needs to take countries' concerns on human rights and democracy seriously but also be bold enough to challenge them.

It is not surprising that Bangladesh has often struggled to make its voice heard. People are refusing to read past the headlines. We all know The Economist and Al-Jazeera have been working hard to poison the well since the war crimes tribunals were started in Bangladesh. The unsubstantiated claim by The Economist said, “Ever since 2008, when the Awami League, helped by bags of Indian cash and advice, triumphed in general elections in Bangladesh,” was most probably designed to create a volatile political situation in the country. Playing to radicals in Bangladesh who see India as a threat rather than a regional partner and friend to the nation. The publication, famous for its anonymous writers and lacking bylines, has never apologized for the smear or provided any real defence. Freedom of expression shouldn’t include lying. The Economist’s behaviour hardly sets a good example. But that’s the environment Bangladesh is operating in.

An example of curious behaviour towards Bangladesh by the USA was at the height of the US-led-Global War on Terrorism. In 2015, Pakistan’s diplomats in Dhaka were caught providing logistical and financial support to al-Qaeda affiliates. These radical groups were targeting secularists, progressives, and members of the gay community in Bangladesh. Instead of global condemnation of Pakistan’s behaviour, Bangladesh was singled out by the United States for not providing enough protection for the victims. Leaving many in Bangladesh to seek partners elsewhere. There is a genuine trust deficit. That trust needs to be rebuilt with the United States and Europe. But that will come with time and growing confidence in Bangladesh.

Bangladesh has not been able to counter these narratives properly because every time it tries to provide context, people have already moved on. This has shown a lack of respect. It also has a caustic effect on the body politic in Bangladesh where political battles are often fought in London and Washington DC rather than Dhaka. We can all claim breaches of Vienna’s Diplomatic Conventions, but the reality is in a globalized world. We are all in each other’s business. My belief is this dangerous and disrespectful trend in South Asia by Western governments has added to dysfunctional and violent politics in Bangladesh. If the US, and others, had sanctioned BNP leaders for the Hawa Bhaban plot, where they used Osama bin Laden’s HUJI group to kill their political opposition while in power, perhaps we would not be seeing the BNP run by Zoom sessions from London. The BNP would have licked their wounds and reformed. It is a complicated and exhausting situation. It needs to be rectified.

We have also seen foreign lobbying distorting Bangladesh’s outstanding successes on the international stage. The BNP has been posing as Human Rights Defenders in a bid to garner international support for their push against the Bangladesh government. Qatar’s Al-Jazeera is at the heart of it, fanning the flames and distorting the global discourse.

Bangladesh does have human rights and policing issues; that's true. But lobbyists are making out that Bangladesh is akin to North Korea. It is simply a false comparison. But the deliberate distortion by foreign lobbyists and lawyers does need to be challenged. It is scaring off international investors, and North American and European politicians are being pulled into false and distorted narratives.

52 years into its independence, Bangladesh has many things to celebrate. The country is well-placed to strive for a poverty-free and advanced economy by 2041. The challenges are steep but not insurmountable. Bangladesh already has a history that shows how strong leadership, sound policymaking, and determined efforts can take the country forward. The ethos of equity and justice, the underlying principles and values of the Liberation War, ought to be the guiding principles for its upcoming journey into becoming a nation that will help shape and dominate South Asia and beyond.

We all want free and fair elections in Bangladesh. We want politics to be a conflict of ideas, not bloody battles on the streets. It will take a national, regional, and international conversations to get there. I am confident Bangladesh will be able to achieve this. They have kicked down or jumped over every single hurdle in their path so far. Fixing the body politic is a massive task. The USA is still reeling from the Trump years. Liberals screeched that democracy was over in America. It is not. We all have challenges. Bangladesh is no different. Bangladesh should be given the respect it has worked hard for and deserves. That requires reading past the headlines. Celebrate the values we share. So, focus on strengths and values, not the messy mechanics of a young democracy. If anyone wants to interfere in Bangladesh’s affairs, make sure you have read its history.


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