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Overcrowded Bangladesh acts to stem pre-election violence
The Washington Diplomat / January 2007

By Larry Luxner

Once synonymous with starvation, backwardness and utter despair, Bangladesh has made tremendous strides over the last 10 years and is no longer among the world's poorest nations.

So says Shamsher M. Chowdhury, the country's ambassador to the United States.

"People have changed their perception of Bangladesh. It's been described as a desperately poor country, suffering from one natural disaster after another," he said. "But Bangladesh has done well. We've met a lot of challenges and defied the skeptics in many areas. And we have statistics to prove them."

For instance, Chowdhury told the Diplomat, the number of Bangladeshis living in poverty has shrunk by 9% in the last three years, according to the World Bank. And the literacy rate, while still low by Western standards, has now reached 45%.

"We are the only South Asian country that has achieved gender parity in secondary education," he said. "The number of girls going to school has gone up dramatically."

Yet when it comes to Bangladesh, the one statistic that overshadows all others is population density.

With an estimated 145 million people, Bangladesh now has more inhabitants than Russia and they're all crowded into an area smaller than Wisconsin. That translates into a population density of 2,200 people per square mile the highest on Earth, if you exclude microstates and city-states like Monaco, Hong Kong, Singapore and the Vatican.

"If you were to put so many people in Wisconsin, I think you would have real chaos," he said. "But I make this point just for graphic reality. It is a very big challenge for us."

Another urgent challenge is maintaining Bangladesh's status as one of the world's largest Muslim parliamentary democracies.

On Jan. 23, Bangladeshis will go to the polls in national elections. Vying for 300 seats in Parliament are the country's two main parties: the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, which has been in power for the last five years, and the Awami League, which was in power for the previous five years.

Yet more than 40 people have been killed and scores more injured in pre-election protests leading caretaker President Iajuddin Ahmed on Dec. 10 to deploy army, navy and air force divisions throughout Bangladesh. The police immediately banned gatherings around the presidential palace in Dhaka.

The very next day, four cabinet members of the caretaker government resigned to protest the military deployment, which Ahmed said was necessary "to ensure the security of countrymen and to create a congenial and peaceful atmosphere ahead of polls."

Ever since Bangladesh gained independence from Pakistan in 1971 in a war that cost millions of lives on both sides the military has played a powerful role in this still very poor country. The last large-scale military deployment occurred in October 2002, when the government ordered more than 40,000 soldiers to fight spiraling crime in an 85-day operation. During that time, the army arrested more than 10,000 people, at least 40 of whom died in custody.

In addition, two presidents have lost their lives in military coups.

"The violence preceding the elections is indeed unfortunate, but it's not unique to Bangladesh. You see that in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka," Chowdhury told the Diplomat. "We hope to be able to have violence-free elections in the future. I think everybody should be committed to this. Our political rivalry does take violent forms, which I think must be avoided at any cost."

Human Rights Watch thinks the government may be going too far, however.

"Past experience with Bangladeshi leaders deploying the military gives us serious cause for concern," said Brad Adams, Asia director of the New York-based organization. "Given the military's record of human rights violations, it's crucial that the army follow strict rules limiting the use of force. The army is not trained in policing, and history shows that it abuses people's rights when asked to work as police."

Human Rights Watch said the deployment must be seen in the context of violence and extrajudicial killings by Bangladesh's security forces. Over the past three years, more than 350 people have died in the custody of the police and the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), an elite paramilitary anti-crime and anti-terrorism force. Many deaths resulted from extrajudicial executions. Torture is common and often goes unpunished, the group charges.

Chowdhury, 56, is a career diplomat who has served as his country's ambassador to Sri Lanka, Germany and Vietnam. Prior to his current posting in May 2005, Chowdhury was Bangladesh's foreign secretary. He's also occupied key posts at Bangladeshi missions in Italy, Canada and China.

In 1971, as a soldier during Bangladesh's war with Pakistan, Chowdhury's hip was blown off, so he has an artificial hip. He was eventually given the designation "Bir Bikram" which means "brave man" in Bengali. That explains the "BB" on his business card and all official correspondence.

Chowdhury spends his days meeting with members of Congress, addressing think tanks and giving speeches at universities all over the country. While at his desk, he also keeps one eye peeled to the news headlines on Bangladeshi TV.

On Nov. 29, Chowdhury hosted an interfaith Thanksgiving dinner for about 150 people; attendees included the ambassadors of Algeria, Brunei, Iraq and Jordan; also on hand were Muslim imams, Catholic priests and two rabbis from Washington's Jewish community.

Chowdhury said that to the best of his knowledge, it was the first time that any predominantly Muslim nation had hosted such an event in Washington.

"We are a very pluralistic society," he said. "Even though we are 85% Muslim, all the Hindu, Christian and Buddhist holy days are official holidays in Bangladesh. Religious freedom is enshrined in our constitution."

He added: "Our relations with the United States are very warm, very friendly. On the political front, we are partners in the fight against terrorism. The U.S. government says we have done very well in fighting extremism. President Bush himself wrote a letter in January to our prime minister, saying the U.S. would continue to cooperate with Bangladesh, but at the same time, that we must remain vigilant against terrorist groups.

"It is true that people on the street have reservations about the war in Iraq. They do not feel comfortable with the thought of a foreign power trying to change things. This is very much a part of our psyche. But on the whole, people have great regard for the people of the United States. Our friendship is deep-rooted, American diplomats in Bangladesh are extremely popular, and there's never been an attack on U.S. property in Bangladesh."

Despite its overwhelming population problems, Bangladesh currently supports refugees from two other countries: Pakistan and Burma (now known as Myanmar).

"When we became Bangladesh in 1971, we had more than 300,000 Biharis who wanted to go back to Pakistan. About 300,000 of them are still living in camps," he said. "We hope the Pakistani government will take them back. It seems they don't these people."

In addition, he said, about 300,000 Burmese refugees crossed the border into Bangladesh about 10 years ago, fleeing insurgencies back home. Most have gone back, though some 20,000 still remain in Bangladesh. Their current status is uncertain.

Even though Bangladeshis squeeze by with a per-capita income of only $500 a year, Chowdhury says real progress is being made in the fight against poverty.

"At the time of our birth in 1971, Bangladesh had roughly 75 million people, and we had to import almost 40% of our total food requirements. But today, we import some food only as a buffer stock, and by and large, we produce enough to feed our people. That is by any standard a major achievement."

He added: "In 1974, [former Secretary of State] Henry Kissinger made the distasteful comment that Bangladesh is a bottomless basket-case. That has been proven totally wrong. We have become almost self-sufficient. We have a huge export base now, and this year we are hoping to export $10 billion worth of goods."

Much of that is in the form of shirts, pants, baseball caps and underwear produced in large factories on contract for buyers such as Wal-Mart. Many workers earn the official minimum wage of 930 taka per month, equivalent to $14.

In 2005, Bangladeshi factories shipped 786 million garments to the United States, with a wholesale value of $2.4 billion. This was expected to rise to over one billion garments to the United States this year, which amounts to over three garments for every American man, woman and child.

In terms of volume, Bangladesh is the third-largest exporter of apparel to the United States, following only China and Mexico. If the current 23% annual growth rate continues, Bangladesh will surpass Mexico in 2007.

Another key source of foreign exchange for Bangladesh is remittances.

This year, those remittances are expected to reach $4 billion, of which about 75% comes from Bangladeshi laborers working in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. Much of the remainder is sent by an estimated 400,000 Bangladeshi nationals living in the United States, primarily in the New York metropolitan area.

One very hopeful development is the enormous popularity of microcredits. Earlier this year, Muhammad Yunus of Bangladesh and the Grameen Bank which he founded were jointly awarded the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize. The bank is a pioneer of microcredit lending schemes for the poor, especially women, in Bangladesh.

"There's no denying that we still have huge challenges ahead of us, and we are in no way complacent," Chowdhury said. "But if we can remain on course in our social and economic development, I think we should soon be able to stand on our own two feet."

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