Thursday, May 05, 2005

That's what we all say: Leave us alone, we are doing great !

What a great piece of article Philip Browning has written in International Herald Tribune. It's rocking to say the least ! Read the article and the rest- it's brilliant !!

Not doing badly, thank you

Philip Browning

DHAKA, Bangladesh Is Bangladesh a successful low-income democracy or a failing state? A secular Muslim exemplar or a fundamentalist seedbed? A liberal society, or one beset by corruption and political violence? A crucial component of South Asian geopolitics, or a weak and irrelevant adjunct to India?

All these descriptions contain elements of truth - except irrelevance. Bangladesh matters not just because it has 130 million people, mostly Muslim, or because it is the most densely populated country on earth, but because its Bengali identity makes it the most homogenous nation on the subcontinent.

The country's image has suffered from an upsurge of violence. In February a senior but uncontroversial opposition party figure, A.M.S. Kibria, was killed in a bomb blast. Last August the opposition Awami League leader, Sheik Hasina, escaped from a bomb attack that killed several supporters.

Concern is growing that a democratic system that has enabled three elections and two changes of government since the overthrow of the military in 1991 will be endangered if one party or the other refuses to accept its conventions and institutions. Opposition boycotts of Parliament, and the use of strikes and street demonstrations to harry the government, have long been part of politics as Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, widow of one assassinated president, has battled former Prime Minister Hasina, daughter of another.

Hasina is currently threatening to boycott the next election, expected by early 2007, unless rules for a caretaker administration to oversee the elections - which the Awami League once supported - are changed. The Awami League fears it cannot win while the BNP maintains its alliance with Muslim parties, which command 10 percent of the vote.

Apart from divergent attitudes toward India and the history of the birth of Bangladesh, the parties are divided not by ideology but by a contest for the spoils of office. That is normal in democratic politics, but it has been taken to extremes here.

The politicization of administrative posts sharpens the battle for spoils and contributes to much corruption and big delays in project implementation. Both parties have a tendency, when out of office, to take their grievances to an international audience - which, together with Indian propaganda, has helped earn the nation a much-exaggerated reputation for religious extremism.
It is hard to know whether either party could hold together without its hereditary leader, and there is reasonable concern that however damaging their mutual antipathy, the alternatives to them might be either a return of the military - currently busy with lucrative UN peacekeeping duties - or the rise of the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami, a part of the BNP-led governing alliance.

While the main parties are firmly secularist, the Jamaat is using its swing position effectively to acquire more influence in government than its numbers suggest. The Jamaat has not pressed an Islamic agenda too overtly, but its ministers have acquired a reputation for being competent and uncorrupt, which could serve it well if disillusion with the major parties spreads.

It is all too easy, however, to overemphasize the dangers of radical Islam here. As in India, there is little history of Islamic violence - more of leftist violence and general political thuggery. The bedrock identity of Bangladesh is being Bengali first, Muslim second. Surrounded by non-Muslim states and far from the Middle East, Bangladesh is closer in spirit to Southeast Asia than to Pakistan or the Arab world. Instances of intolerance are the exception not the rule and have been widely condemned by the news media.

Meanwhile there are also some positive signs. Although a crackdown on organized crime has led to human rights abuses and killings of alleged thugs in "crossfires" by the new, quasi military Rapid Action Battalion, it has been popular and crime has decreased. The news media remain very free and the economy continues to chalk up 5 percent annual growth despite natural calamities, the inefficiencies of the government and the obstructions of business and trade unions with political links.

Aid dependence has fallen steadily and nongovernmental organizations continue to play a major role in compensating for official failures. The overall standard of governance leaves much to be desired but compares favorably with that of at least four of the five Indian states with which Bangladesh shares its border. Despite recent blemishes, the country's record of communal peace is far better than that of India. The elite is probably still capable of enough compromises to prevent it from breaking down.

Politics in Bangladesh does give slightly more cause for concern than a couple of years ago. The prime minister could make an extra effort to fight the enemies of pluralism and secularism, to tone down anti-India rhetoric - which contributes to domestic tensions and incites New Delhi to play its own politics here - and to rein in the money politics of her party, whose joint senior secretary is her son Tarique.

But the bottom line is that Bangladesh remains, with some blemishes, a plural, secular, open and democratic nation whose virtues are seldom credited and whose problems stem in part from the electoral arithmetic and financing needs of party politics.


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