Testing times lie ahead

Bangladesh is on a roll; its progress looks unstoppable. Last month, it launched its first ever commercial satellite, Bangabandhu-1, from the Kennedy Space Centre in the United States of America. In March, it successfully met the criteria of the United Nations Committee for Development Policy to graduate from a 'least developed country' to a 'developing country'. By 2041, it will become a 'developed' country, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed has promised.

By SONIA SARKAR
  • Published 27.06.18
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Bangladesh is on a roll; its progress looks unstoppable. Last month, it launched its first ever commercial satellite, Bangabandhu-1, from the Kennedy Space Centre in the United States of America. In March, it successfully met the criteria of the United Nations Committee for Development Policy to graduate from a 'least developed country' to a 'developing country'. By 2041, it will become a 'developed' country, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed has promised.

Now, let us do a reality check. To be called 'developing', Bangladesh needs to keep this pace of development for the next six years. The UN will give this status finally in 2024, once satisfied. That is not all. Last year, in a report, the Food and Agricultural Organization, the World Food Programme and the World Health Organization revealed that the number of malnourished people in Bangladesh has increased by 7,00,000 over the last 10 years. The report also stated that, as of 2017, at least 2.5 crore people in Bangladesh are malnourished - among the highest in the world.

The strength of any country's economy can be fathomed by the performance of its banking sector. Here, too, the picture is not promising enough. The amount of non-performing and default loans are on the rise and both State-owned and private banks in Bangladesh are facing a capital deficit. A section of private banks, which mostly got licences with the help of political lobbying, have been accused of money laundering.

These facts, of course, do not figure in Wajed's speeches when she flaunts the development card at rallies, ahead of the parliamentary polls in December. She even attributes the development to the 'people' of Bangladesh, whom she calls her main 'strength'. What she has failed to understand is that, besides development, the 'people' want democracy in the country. The bitter truth is democracy has been deeply compromised during her rule or, at least, the international markers indicate so. In the Transformation Index released in March, the Germany-based Bertelsmann Stiftung criticized Bangladesh for not meeting minimum standards of democracy.

Enforced disappearances, torture and forced detention of political opponents, former diplomats, rights activists and journalists are the new norm in Bangladesh. Last year, the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances called upon Bangladesh to act immediately to halt the increasing numbers of enforced disappearances in the country. Random arrests to maintain 'law and order' are common. Last month, at least 124 suspected drug peddlers were killed in reported gunfights with law enforcement agencies over a fortnight. The US ambassador to Bangladesh, Marcia Stephens Bloom Bernicat, called on the Awami League-led government to bring the kingpins behind drug peddling to justice without killing. She said that "in a democracy, everyone has the right to due process of law".

Earlier this year, university students demanding quota reforms in government jobs also faced detention and arrest. In Parliament, the agriculture minister, Matia Chowdhury, even labelled the protesters as the children of war criminals. In February, the Asian Legal Resource Centre, a Hong Kong-based rights organization, noted that custodial "torture has been institutionalised in Bangladesh".

Curiously, Wajed, who has been called 'Mother of Humanity' by the Western press for giving shelter to lakhs of persecuted Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, shies away from answering questions on human rights violations under her rule. A journalist was stopped from asking questions on these issues at a press meet during her visit to London in April. But she answered gladly questions on Bangladesh's 'progress and prospects'. The message was clear. Her priority is development, democracy can come later.

Like 2014, this time again, Wajed and her party, the Awami League, want to win unopposed. Such is the desperation to come back to power that the party general secretary, Obaidul Quader, recently went ahead to say, "Victory in the upcoming general elections for Awami League is merely a formality."

Interestingly, foreign diplomats in Dhaka have taken note of the desperation; they have been repeatedly urging the Awami League government to conduct free and fair elections. They have also asked the election commission to take measures to avoid the boycotts and violence that marred the 2014 elections. Unfortunately, the independence of the commission has been questioned too, and there are reasons for it. During the presidential elections in February, the law minister, Anisul Huq, announced the poll date two days before the EC could formally do it. Soon after, the election commissioner, K.M. Nurul Huda, had to admit the commission is working to regain the trust of the people.

December shall clearly be a testing time for the election commission. But the people of Bangladesh are in a fix too. They do not know if their vote can restore democracy or if they shall have to make do with Wajed's idea of development for the third time in a row.