Sunday, November 23, 2008

Layman's Perspective: Lolitics in Bangladesh

Looking at it at face value, we've had a handful of leaders over the years. H.M. Ershad (who was a president), K. Zia, S. Hasina, (who were prime ministers) and now F. Ahmed (who is a chief adviser; not a politician, but a bureaucrat).

Personally, I will look upon the 2 years of F. Ahmed's premiership with somewhat fond memories. Okay, not exactly fond, but memories accompanied with less dread. He brought some measure of control back to a country on the brink of losing it, he managed a powerful cyclone excellently (just look at how a comparable cyclone that hit Myanmar a few months later caused human suffering an order of magnitude higher than Bangladesh's), coordinated a nation-wide food response which helped the people of Bangladesh cope with hunger where other countries at a similar level of development (like Haiti or Pakistan) suffered much more than we did. And he was erudite, and spoke good English.

K. Zia speaks terrible English, and somewhat faltering Bengali. More seriously, though, she has no personal credentials apart from being the wife of a former dictator (who engaged in wanton political assassinations during his regime and then was eventually assassinated himself). She is only barely educated, and that may be okay for the United States of America, but it shouldn't be for us! (Okay, after suffering 8 years of Dubya, we have a right to poke fun at this. Electing Barack doesn't exonerate you people all of a sudden!)

S. Hasina, though, goes around as an opposition party leader around the world, to the United States, and accuses the incumbents of terrorism. This reflects the psychology of Bangladeshi politics: whatever it takes to win, even if it means blackening the name of your country to others. Even as an opposition party leader, you're still representing Bangladesh when you go abroad. She, however, didn't get the memo.

In all fairness, though, the BNP-Jamaat alliance has engaged in terrorism. And S. Hasina has been a victim of them. The 5-year BNP-Jamaat term has set a dangerous precedent for subsequent elected governments: winning an election gives you the right to attempt to systematically eradicate the opposition.

These two women, though, are two sides of the same coin. In all their time in power, they've enacted many laws for the protection of women's rights, but very little by way of real empowerment has come to women. A woman construction worker, today, in Bangladesh, earns half what a man earns. For the same, back-breaking work.

Acid attacks continue, and very little by way of resolution of these cases ever occur in courts, with few proper public trials to serve as proper deterrents, although these cases cannot be that difficult to solve. The friends of the perpetrators would no doubt be privy to the details of the relationship between the young lady and the criminal in question. We're a country of romantics, after all. It's all poetry, flowers, hugs and kisses until the aqueous hydrogen-sulfate hits the wall.

In the three terms these two women have exchanged the seat of power, the issue of young beggar girls in the streets of Dhaka, sexually, physically, emotionally abused by callous passers-by, by drug-peddlers, by the elements of the variable summer-winter weather, have all largely been ignored.

The last time I went to Bangladesh, I saw with my very own eyes a young girl carrying a baby in a posture in which any other baby would not be able to keep quiet, much less sleep. It was very obviously drugged to sleep, begging in the streets. In the rain. And these two women have done nothing for them.

So we may be able to claim that we elected a woman as a premiere, but it's really not done much at all for people on the ground.

F. Ahmed, on the other hand, is well-spoken and very presentable, but he sounds like an autocrat in all his speeches abroad, by highlighting the pitfalls of an "imperfect union" like his address at the UN General Assembly last year. I think he's a little bit flustered at the negative response of a military-backed caretaker government having to take power in Bangladesh, so when he is abroad, his agenda is dominated by why the military has to settle matters in a country that has been making inroads in consistent civilian rule. All the Western countries collectively went *gasp* when the civilians couldn't settle the issues amicably. But that's not his fault. Politically-speaking, nothing is ever his fault; he's a career bureaucrat, for goodness sake, and he wasn't elected. He deserves some slack, and although he has decidedly underperformed, he has been less bad than the others.

Even a shallow analysis will give the following grade to Bangladeshi politics: fail. This "state of emergency" is the longest running imposition of martial law in a South Asian country since partition. It's unacceptable, but it's not the CTG's (Caretake Government) fault. It's S. Hasina's fault, and K. Zia's fault, because they were too busy inciting riots and fixing elections, that the military had to take over. They were only filling a vacuum created by the incompetent civilians. The CTG has been a force of stability in some ways, like how the Taleban was before they got bombed back to the Stone Age. Not exactly an ideal solution, but at least you can go to and from work to feed the family.

But we really do take things too personally in the sub-continent (and Asia in general). If an employee hands in his resignation, it's all cuss words and "you ingrate" and "how could you stab me in the back." Seriously, boss. It's nothing personal, this is just business. After these politicians cuss each other up in parliament, they should be able to go home, chillax with their families and watch Bohu Brihi. But no, they're in this fight to annihilate each other with ridiculous ideological banter and hyperbole.

Our devotion to our political parties is almost religious, anybody that changes parties is labeled a turncoat, an unacceptable apostasy. Well, I think for a democracy to function, the electorate has to be swingers. It's like Keynes famously noted (roughly paraphrased): "If the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?"

W's worldview is wrong. (paraphrased) "This is a president that believes on Wednesday, what he believed on Monday, no matter what happened on Tuesday," said Stephen Colbert at the White House Correspondents Dinner. We need to foster more rational thought in our country, through education and free speech. And then, perhaps, we will be able to achieve "a more perfect union."


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I write essays in my spare time on things that are important to me. The ones that I feel are any good, or make any sense, I put them up here. :)