Archive for the 'Dhaka' Category



The suspension of politics in Bangladesh – the end of freedom?

On Sunday Fakhruddin Ahmed, the Chief Advisor to Bangladesh’s ‘interim’ military-technocratic administration came to Sylhet. He declared that the administration was directly accountable to the people, and was a constitutional government as it had assumed office taking the oath on the Constitution. He went on to say that his government wanted real democracy, adding that a peaceful atmosphere and social stability were the pre-requisites for holding free, fair and credible elections.

This is all utter nonsense, and I’m disappointed that I was in the office and unable to witness his statements myself.

These are the facts about the political situation in Bangladesh at the moment:

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Bangladesh Death Trap – updated

The same day I wrote my last post about the total disregard for health and safety in Bangladesh, I got a text from Tom saying he had just witnessed a big road accident.

At a very busy T-junction, with no traffic lights, the policemen on duty had all failed to communicate with each other and had somehow managed to signal all of the traffic forwards in to a three-way collision.

What is more shocking is that the news didn’t suprise or shock me for a second. It’s just typical for Bangladesh.

I used to watch with my housemates ‘America’s Wildest Police Chases’ or something similar every Sunday night. ‘Normal Driving in Bangladesh’ would be an international smash hit follow up (no pun intended).

Bangladesh Death Trap?

I’m in Dhaka at the moment, as I had a meeting at VSO office. Coming to Dhaka is always an ordeal, because the journey from Sylhet to Dhaka by bus takes about four and a half hours to go nearly 250 miles, and then the four mile  journey from the bus station in Dhaka to the office takes about two hours.

I’ve written before about how the traffic in Bangladesh, Dhaka especially, must be the worst in the world. Not only is there utter gridlock, but when you add the heat, noise and pollution it’s just hell. This time I ended up walking the last mile, at one point my taxi driver had the time to switch the engine off, go and have a cup of tea from a road-side stand, and a cigarette, and we still hadn’t even moved an inch.

To compound the problem, Bangladeshi drivers have seemingly no regard for safety, and so the obvious problem is that not only are accidents extremely likely, if and when they do occur, the chances of an ambulance reaching you within an hour is…well, forget it.

And on Sunday, the lethal cocktail of non-existent emergency services and a gridlocked road network finally exploded in to public consciousness.

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‘The greatest game’: Bangladeshi politics, the story so far

I haven’t been posting about every latest political development here because I never intended that to be the purpose of this blog – and working a six day week and doing other things means I don’t have as much time as I’d like; just keeping up with the news is hard enough.

But I do find the ever-changing situation fascinating, and I think for anyone who’s studied or had an interest in politics, what’s happening here is…in a word, spectacular.

On the Drishtipat blog, an excellent, short but thorough round-up has been published, including some eye-watering examples of gross corruption, and some photos which really do tell a thousand words. Check it out here.

The cost of corruption in Bangladesh

Of all the issues currently affecting Bangladesh, the most talked about, most contentious, and perhaps most important is the endemic, institutional corruption in the country, and how to get rid of it.

I could link to a hundred blog-postings, op/eds and articles on corruption, but they tend to repeat themselves, and I fear – given the very nature of corruption as a concept – that people will be writing many more thousands of essays on corruption in Bangladesh long after I leave the country.

The essential point is that Bangladesh over the last five years has been shown to be the most corrupt country in the world. Causes of this corruption can be attributed to base human greed, exacerbated by the economic, social and political conditions of the country over the last thirty years that have allowed human greed to flourish unchecked. And of course the worst aspect of corruption is that it reproduces and replicates; the worse the corruption is, the greater the economic, social and political problems become, and the more attractive corruption practice is as a relief – for those able to take advantage. And so this downward spiral has continued throughout the life of Bangladesh, made worse by the false democratic legitimisation of the last 15 years.

And the result is happening now, with a State of Emergency, a military/technocratic interim administration running the country, no sign of elections on the horizon, and essential political freedoms banned. The reformed Anti-Corruption Commission has just issued a list of 50 high profile politicians, who have to go to the ACC in person and declare their suspiciously obtained property, or else it will be confiscated. They’ve had their fun, and now they and the rest of the country are paying the price.

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Yunus enters politics, and is wrong

On Sunday Professor Yunus, the 2006 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and consequently seen by the people here as both their pride and saviour, finally decided to get his hands dirty and enter politics.

 

Over the last four months it has struck me as strange that the Nobel Peace Prize recipient should travel the world receiving accolades and free dinners whilst back home his country falls to pieces, but I suppose he’s decided that now is the time to actually do some peace-keeping.

 

He’s chosen his moment well, because currently, with no legal government, all political protests banned, some fundamental human rights suspended, he can enter the political vacuum and fill it with his beaming smile, use his moral authority to force the interim military-backed administration to hold elections at some point this year (which otherwise would not be likely), and win with a landslide. Easy.

 

Of course, I only want Bangladesh to develop as a country, with a legitimate democratic government that rules in the best interests of the people with their consent. This is what Yunus might be able to achieve. But he would achieve it in a most unusual fashion, and is starting from the wrong position.

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The Sundarbans

This is the story of my trip to the Sundarbans jungle, annotated with photos taken by Tom Wipperman and Georgia Newsam. You can go straight to the photo page here. Or read on…

When I discovered I was coming to Bangladesh, in terms of the environment my first mental images were ‘floods’, ‘rice’ and ‘tigers’. To turn those visions in to reality – the first two are easy, they come to you. But you’ve got to go on a quest to find a Royal Bengal Tiger.

If you want to see them in their natural habitat, then you need to go to the Sundarbans – a littoral mangrove forest that covers around 3600 sq km of Bangladesh, right along the South West coast of the country, and then another 2500 sq km of India. About a third of the Sundarbans is covered by water; it’s essentially a giant flood plain that serves as crucial protection for Bangladesh against tidal surges, typhoons and other surges of natural energy. The Himalayas finally drain off through the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers of India here in to the Bay of Bengal, and the mixture of mountain silt and tidal sea-water has created fluctuating levels of salinity which in turn has resulted in a unique ecological balance.

Therefore you can enter an environment like no other on the earth. A wildlife sanctuary since 1966, and a World Heritage site since 1997, the Sundarbans is a haven for the natural world in Bangladesh; almost the only part of this densely populated country where you can be surrounded by life and none of it human.

It’s a maze of rivers, channels and tiny tributaries though, and not the kind of place one can explore armed with a good picnic and a pedalo. Luckily for me, one of VSO’s partner NGOs operates an ‘eco-tour’ of the Sundarbans, so nine of us set off on December 29th for five days of cruising through the deltas. We boarded our little boat in the early evening at Khulna, the nearest big city to the Sundarbans. It was small but snug, and we were soon eating the first of many huge meals out on deck and chugging along the river in to the night.

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