List from Hell, we are on it!
[dropcap]U[/dropcap]ntitled Happy New Year; you are damned! I am looking out onto the beautiful town of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, apparently the best small town in the world. I was still recovering from the merry making by the boisterous crowd on the plaza the night before as we collectively brought in the New Year. I was hopeful that 2014 will bring us little people prosperity (The Spanish New Year’s greeting is Prospero Ano Nuevo) and Bangladesh will take steps towards stability and peace after a year of turmoil, carnage and mayhem.Fat chance! The first link I opened in 2014 was from Foreign Policy (FP) Magazine. The article was titled “Next year’s Wars – Ten conflicts that threaten the global stability in 2014”. FP is a wonky magazine that competes with Foreign Affairs Magazine and is targeted towards the movers and shakers on a global scale. This happens to be one of the more important magazines and they have a thoughtful and well researched views on things. So, they have come with a list of about 10 places that will have bad juju in 2014.
Bangladesh is in the sixth spot after such luminaries as Syria, Iraq, Libya, Central African Republic and Sudan. People in Bangladesh have known since the beginning of 2013 that things are spinning out of control but now even the wonky international analytical communities are noticing. They have zeroed in on the deep dysfunction between the two Begums. The FP notes that the Begums have managed to bring the country on the verge of destruction based on their personal animosity and hatred of each other. Nothing they do are rational. One wants to cram down a one-party election and other wants to boycott the polls. The FP notes “A boycott would deepen the crisis and lead to more deadly violence. Merely postponing polls — as some have suggested — without a roadmap for how to hold credible elections in the future is also not the solution. There is deep animosity between the heads of the AL and BNP, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, who have been swapping power since 1991. A phone call between them in October 2013 — reportedly their first conversation in over a decade — quickly deteriorated into barbs about each other’s mental health.”
How did we get here? This is a country that have brought countless millions out of poverty in the past 15 years, this is a country that is full of entrepreneurial zeal like very few others, this is a country that has an enviable education system (albeit uneven) and this a country that has fought a vicious enemy at its birth and won the right to a better place in blood and tears. How does the country that has so much promise become part of a Death Watch by FP? I think you can answer that with two names, Hasina and Khaleda. These two women have taken their personal insecurities and hatred for each other and turned the country into an inferno.
In 2011 right after the Awami League managed to junk the caretaker government mechanism through a high sounding but hollow 15th amendment, I was talking politics with a friend. He asserted that there will be no elections under the changes made by AL government and the Army will come back to power with their minus 2 solution. He thought Khaleda was too hateful and also she has tried to rig the elections herself. So, there is little faith that Hasina will do the right thing. It is probably a good guess that Hasina will tinker with the elections no matter what, even if there is an empty field to run.
Bangladesh’s economic advancement is under threat. The sharks are circling the bloody waters and the two Begums are bleeding the country and egging on the sharks. In the last week of last year I saw two little noticed items in The Wall Street Journal; first item said the US has restored GSP (Generalized System of Preferences) for Pakistan and the second item said India had a 33% rise in its textile and garment order book due to political turmoil in nearby Bangladesh. I have been watching in great despair the fast unravelling of the Bangladesh economy, and the backward march of the society as whole. These two news items simply fortified my fears and loathing! Mind you, I have nothing against India; Pakistan, well maybe that is for another time. But, these two countries are Bangladesh’s economic rivals and little bit of changes in one country effects the other greatly. I was wondering if I was seeing the beginning of the end for Bangladesh’s hugely successful garment export sector.
No, you say! I say, I hope you are right but hope is not reality, at least most of the time. There has been a steady drumbeat of bad news and events from Bangladesh. First the fires in various garment factories including Tazreen garments, then the collapse of Rana Plaza, then the revocation of GSP by the US and finally the unending slow motion destruction of the nation each and every day by the lootings, the burnings and killings that do not seem to abate. Most of the acts of destruction is perpetrated by some ordinary Bengalis and not some alien force as some of us would want to believe.
The destruction of the economy, the burnings of garment factories are all tied to an unmitigated race to power. Why so much hunger for power? Power at the cost of the country and its people! I suggest it is because great economic benefits accrue to the ruling Begum and her clan, no matter which Begum it might be. The Economist wrote in the Banyan column on January 3, 2014, “It does not help the BNP’s case that their most recent stint in power made the country look like a kleptocracy. But the AL’s cronies have not been sitting idle either. Financial statements published by the election commission show that the income of one of Sheikh Hasina’s nephews rose 330 times since 2008 (and one of her cousins made off with a nice a two-digit multiple of growth in his reported wealth). After failing to keep the commission from publishing the statements, the prime minister redefined what she considers her “family”. It now excludes greedy nephews and cousins.”
The Prime Minister’s son Sajeeb Wazed wrote an opinion piece in bdnews24.com asking people to vote. He says the elections under Khaleda and Hasina are not equal. Khaleda has shown that she will rig elections. The problem is that the PM has not had an opportunity to have national elections under her rule so the argument is quite strange. The signs tell us that things will be weird indeed. Of the 92 million eligible voters maybe 40 million will show up under the heavy patronage and GOTV (Get Out The Vote) campaigns that are the hallmark of elections in rural Bangladesh. The BNP is busy burning down schools, local community centres and other polling stations. But, the guess is that the show will go on. We will have Hasina as Prime Minister after January 5th. But, the bet is that it will be short lived. One year at the outside before the regime collapses on its own weight of corruption and nepotism and the pressure from the BNP and business sector.
Back to the Foreign Policy (FP) list of ten wars in the next year. I think we can avoid the fate and get off the Death Watch list if and only if the people around two Begums are willing to take some risks and are willing to make sweeping changes. The fact is that the AL has blundered its way into a cul-de-sac. First by creating a flawed court to try the Razakars and then insisting on election without the Caretaker element. Khaleda lost the moral high ground by pushing the country to the brink by holding strikes and hartals so that the economy is in jeopardy. There cannot be a future unless there is well documented and agreed upon roadmap.
I think we all know what the solution is. No matter how much Sajeeb Wazed pontificates these elections will not be viewed as valid by the people, the country and the world. The question is who will put the bell on the cat’s neck?
In any event let us hope that the FP list is just a wonky little intellectual exercise and not the heralding of the beginning of the end of a vibrant economy.
Kayes Ahmed lives in Boulder, Colorado, USA with his three dogs. He runs a small yet global apparel and design business based in Boulder.