For years after its founding as a nation, after being the rejected step-sibling of Pakistan in 1971, the People’s Republic of Bangladesh was portrayed as the poster child for global poverty, and indeed, the south Asian nation struggled for decades to feed its hungry masses, 43 percent of whom are under the age of 18.
A long history of droughts and other natural disasters, as well as sporadic periods of political instability and violent conflict only served to exacerbate the country’s fragile economic resilience.
Even after Bangladesh gained its hard-earned independence from Islamabad after a brutal and bloody war against Pakistani forces, the floundering nation was so impoverished that former Beatle George Harrison was moved to produce a concert and album to help feed its starving children.
But with the help of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, Bangladesh has, in the last decade, managed to turn its economic situation around dramatically, and while it is far from being a candidate to join the OECD, the Land of Bengal now boasts one of the most dynamic and promising economies in the region.
And that is precisely the message that Bangladeshi Ambassador to Mexico Supradip Chakma wanted to get across in his country’s 46th Independence Day reception speech last week.
“In these last 46 years, Bangladesh has achieved food security for our people, a population of 160 million people,” he said.
“We do not import a single grain from outside the country now, and we are the second-largest exporter of garments after China.”
(Garments are, in fact, the backbone of the Bangladeshi economy and represent more than 80 percent of the country’s total exports.)
But Chakma pointed out that, in addition to garments and agricultural goods, Bangladesh has recently expanded its international sales portfolio to include medicines and medical equipment, along with other value-added products.
He also noted that the country has reduced its poverty rate from 41 percent to 21 percent in the scope of just 10 years, and both access to and the quality of public education and health services have significantly improved.
All of which is true.
Following the IMF blueprints, Bangladesh has fulfilled almost all of its Millennium Development Goals (eight international objectives for progress established following the 2000 United Nations Millennium Summit to which all U.N. members states at the time committed to help alleviate hunger, promote universal primary education, encourage gender equality, reduce child mortality, improve maternal health, combat AIDS and other diseases, ensure environmental sustainability and develop global partnerships).
And since taking office in 2009, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed has become the darling of the Western free-market business community for managing to keep her country’s growth at a steady six percent annually. (She also has been a strong ally to the West in the war on terrorism.)
But while economic advancement is certainly commendable — and should indeed serve as an incentive for Mexican businessmen to take a fresh look at Bangladesh as a potential trade and investment partner (the underbelly missive of Chakma’s national day discourse) — there is also the issue of democracy and rule of law, both of which have been severely gagged — if not asphyxiated — under Hasina’s strong-arm authoritarianism.
Recent arrests of opposition leaders and the curbing of freedom of the press under the guise of combating terrorism have raised some serious red flags as to the political future of democratic pluralism in Bangladesh.
Hasina is walking a very taut tightrope as she struggles to balance the containment of mounting extremist groups in her country while at the same time maintaining a semblance of secular democratic practices.
And she has good reason to be on the defense against her political opponents, who have, on several occasions, orchestrated assassination attempts on her life and who were behind the 1975 murder of her father and Bangladesh’s founding leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
Politicians in Bangladesh play for keeps, and Hasina — like her arch-nemesis Begum Khaleda Zia — has survived only because she’s been willing to take a strong stance and confront her enemies head on.
But her latest moves to repress free speech and curtail the opposition are moving Bangladesh dangerously close to despotism.
For now, Europe, the United States, India and even China seem to be willing to turn a blind eye to Hasina’s autocratic abuses as a tradeoff for her support in their fight against jihadi extremism and a blossoming economy that beckons in trade and investment.
Economic advances are all well and good, but social and political tensions in Bangladesh are simmering, and could soon come to a boiling point as repressive measures against basic human rights open the door for Islamic extremism to take a foothold.
To paraphrase Teddy Roosevelt, Hasina needs to tread softly and lower her big stick as she maneuvers her way through the complicated landscape of her nation’s escalating political turmoil.
Otherwise, she may find that her foreign allies will eventually decide that the cost of doing business on Hasina’s terms outweigh any benefits economic progress and strategic alliances might represent.
Thérèse Margolis can be contacted at [email protected]