Tuesday, August 23, 2011

BANGLADESH: Not Yet Shonar Bangla

THE "Voice of Thunder," as it became known in the pre-independence days of Free Bangladesh Radio, rolled across the multitude squatting on the dry yellow grass of the Dacca race course. "If the people of Bangladesh don't want me to contest the elections, then I don't want to sit in the National Assembly. Any one of you can go and sit there instead of me. Shall I contest the election? Should I? If you want me to contest, then raise your hand. Raise both hands to show you want me." Nearly half a million pairs of skinny brown arms shot into the air. "Yes, yes, yes!" shouted the crowd, which had gathered before Sheik Mujibur ("Mujib") Rahman to celebrate the first anniversary of Bangladesh's liberation from Pakistan. "We want you, Bangabandhu."

As Bangabandhu ("Father of the Nation"), Mujib clearly still possesses the image and oratory to move the emotions of his people. Largely because of his personal mystique, his Awami League seems certain to win the first national elections, slated for March 7. Opposition parties, in fact, will probably win only about 50 of the Assembly's 300 seats. But in his reign so far as Prime Minister by acclamation, Mujib has had much less success in moving his country toward internal peace and prosperity. Born in bloodshed, Bangladesh continues to bleed, both literally and metaphorically. Political murders among warring nationalist factions number in the hundreds, and the new nation, with a population of 75 million—it is the eighth largest in the world—suffers from severe problems in food, housing, transportation and industry.

Many of the problems are, of course, legacies of the nine-month civil war, in which West Pakistan tried to smother the independence movement of Bangladesh (then known as East Pakistan). Apart from costing the lives of an estimated 3,000,000 Bengalis, the repression ravaged the countryside. According to a United Nations agency report, more than 4,617,000 houses were completely or partially destroyed in an area roughly the size of Wisconsin. In addition, the country's primitive river and rail transportation systems were mangled, and the jute industry, which had accounted for 90% of East Pakistan's exports, was battered by damage to crops and sabotage to mills.

The depredations of the war are not the only reasons for Bangladesh's slow progress. Jute manufacturing, now running at 25% to 30% of capacity, has been hampered by labor squabbles and by a shortage of professional managers necessary to run the nationalized industry efficiently. Tea production, the nation's second most important industry, is also in trouble because most of the low-grade Bangladesh tea used to be sold in West Pakistan, and alternative markets have not been found. Lack of trade with West Pakistan,* which formerly supplied Bangladesh with many of its manufactured goods, has contributed, along with a shortage of foreign exchange, to acute inflation. Consumer items, from detergents to refrigerators to cigarettes, have trebled in price.

Relief. Things could be worse. After all, the people of Bangladesh have suffered three consecutive years of natural or man-made disasters—a calamitous cyclone in 1970, the civil war in 1971, and a crop-crippling drought this year. That they have not experienced mass starvation is largely due to a massive inpouring of foreign relief, totaling $1.2 billion. The largest contribution, $328 million, comes from the U.S., which has given considerably more than Bangladesh's staunch political allies, India ($258 million) and the Soviet Union ($101 million). Much of the relief has been in the form of food supplies, designed to provide each person with a daily ration of at least 15 ounces. But food remains a major problem, and aid will have to continue next year or millions could indeed starve to death. One factor currently worrying relief officials in Dacca: if and when peace comes to Viet Nam, they told TIME's James Shepherd last week, it could divert aid away from Bangladesh.

In sum, Bangladesh had little reason to enjoy a happy first birthday. If it is not the "basket case" that Henry Kissinger once called it, neither has it become the Shonar Bangla (Golden Bengal) envisioned by Mujib. How much this is the fault of Mujib is a moot question. It is true that he has had little time in which to combat some of Bangladesh's immense problems. Nevertheless, some critics contend that he has wasted some of the time playing the role of popular revolutionary figure (such as personally receiving virtually any of his people who call on him) when he should have been concentrating more on serious matters of state. If, as expected, he is elected in March, Mujib will face a clear test of whether he is not only the father of Bangladesh but also its savior.

* Though Bangladesh and Pakistan do not officially recognize each other yet, some clandestine trade is being conducted in both directions via Singapore.