The drive of destiny
Humphrey Hawksley lauds the achievements of a nation that has surmounted huge obstacles – but must not lose momentum in the face of ongoing challenges
Bangladesh was born out of a war of such dreadful suffering that it inspired George Harrison’s chart-topping song, in which helamented,‘Bangladesh, Bangladesh, Where so many people are dying fast, And it sure looks like a mess, I’ve never seen such distress.’
Among bloodshed and starvation, America branded this new nation a ‘basket case’.
To a million-strong audience at Dhaka’s Ramna Race Course, Bangladesh’s founding father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman vividly advocated his vision of freedom on March 7 1971. But achieving the dream that went with independence was an impossible call – at least in the short term.
Within a few years, Rahman was murdered, and the military controlled the country for the next 15 years. The last of the corrupt army leaders, Hussain Muhammad Ershad, was overthrown by street protests in December 1990.
Ershad was a pro-American Cold War dictator like several Asian rulers of that era, when superpower rivalry stunted any chance of real development.
Yet, spool forward 30 years and we find Bangladesh cited for its high performing economy,which outpaces those of its South Asian neighbours and many other developing countries.
At the same time, it is praised for quietly pursuing policies that are placing it on the right side of history.
Citing its own experience with racist and ethnic oppression, Bangladesh has taken in a million Rohingya refugees fleeing the Myanmar dictatorship next door.
Despite plots and threats, the country has avoided being defined by the American-led War on Terror that rocked much of the Islamic world, particularly Pakistan. Ninety per cent of its 170 million population is Muslim, yet its founding vision as a secular state remains.
In the coming decades, as rising sea levels are forecast to claim swathes of territory, Bangladeshi scientists and engineers are among those pioneering solutions and ways forward.
It has encouraged manufacturing investment, creating, among other sectors, a flourishing garment industry.
Living on political and geographical faultlines, Bangladesh finds itself once again being drawn towards a superpower struggle and is attempting a fine balancing act between competing geopolitical forces.
The government is resetting the manner in which it deals with India, Japan and Western governments, while allowing China a share of influence. It is here, at this level of global interaction, that Bangladesh is asking tough questions about itself and its values.
To win through, it needs to remain situationally aware, while keeping its own sense of self-destiny and refusing to buckle in the face of threats.
A recent case in point is its swift rebuttal when Beijing warned of ‘substantial damage’ should Bangladesh openly side with US-led Indo-Pacific alliances set up to contain Chinese expansion. Bangladesh foreign minister AK Abdul Momen immediately clarified: ‘We are an independent and sovereign state. We decide our own foreign policy.’
In those few words, Bangladesh was underlining that gone are the days when it was a begging bowl needing money. Diminishing, too, is its willingness to accept unfiltered sermons from faraway capitals on how to govern, whether they be Washington, London or Beijing.
The current era is not one in which Bangladesh seeks guidance from foreign powers. It is a time when the nation is drawing on its own reserves and experience,and asking something of itself.
Nevertheless, the government does need to keep a close eye on Western criticism that Bangladesh is sliding towards authoritarianism.
Allegations are that power is increasingly concentrated in the hands of the Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, daughter of Bangladesh’s founding father, who has been in office since 2009. Her ruling party dominates parliament with growing influence in the civilian administration and security agencies, which are meant to be neutral and free of political partisanship.
The argument is valid because this is exactly the path that nations tread when emerging from poverty, conflict and dictatorship. Corruption, vested interests, military opposition, weak civil institutions, insurgencies and pressure from foreign powers are part and parcel of challenges facing developing societies.
Success or failure depends on how Bangladesh rides over these bumps in the road.
The key is to focus on elements that increase and disperse wealth, educate the young and build infrastructure such as hospitals, schools and roads. The more a population is educated and experiences higher standards of living, the more it will trust its government.
Temptations to achieve short-term political gain through strong-arm government or religious control should be firmly locked into boxes because they will divert energy from long-term goals.
Amid talk of a new Cold War, such a path would open up Bangladesh to risks because it stands in the crosshairs of the deepening debate about authoritarianism and democracy.
There is a mass of evidence to show that the more any society relies on dictatorial methods or restrictive religion to stay afloat, the narrower its ideas, creativity and initiatives. We also know too well that when the Western concept of democracy is injected too quickly, societies can fall into conflict and unrest.
In its half-century of existence, Bangladesh has become a flagship role model of development. It has shone a spotlight on the very difficult challenges all societies have to tackle as they modernise. It has shown how it is possible to overcome obstacles and move forward.
That is no mean feat.
When he gave his historic Ramna Race Course speech, Sheikh Rahman could have had no idea of the decades of struggle Bangladesh would face to get to where it is now. But his words still resonate today:‘We cannot afford to lose our momentum. Keep the movement and the struggle alive because if we fall back they will come down hard upon us.’
The circumstances and immediate goals are different. But the words are as pertinent as they were then.Independence and freedom are never won overnight. The campaign in Bangladesh is far from over.
Humphrey Hawksley is moderator of The Democracy Forum debates and a former BBC Asia correspondent. His latest book is Asian Waters: The Struggle Over the Indo-Pacific and the Challenge to American Power