On the eve of my departure from Bangladesh, I want to jot down some items I have learned from this 10-day visit.
Starting with the Beatles.
Whenever I had some time to read, I picked up any book available on Bangladesh’s history, especially about its struggle for independence. One item that caught my eye is George Harrison’s benefit concert for Bangladesh, together with Ravi Shankar. I remember that concert, but have not associated it with the struggle for independence of Bangladesh.
In fact, this visit is a lesson in acquiring perspectives. Many Filipinos, especially some politicians, use Bangladesh as a reference country to warn against sinking lower on the international totem pole of development. But even a rapid review of its history since independence in 1971 should lead to a more sympathetic understanding of the daunting obstacles it has faced, and a sobering lesson on the impact of realpolitik on the fortunes of a nation and its people.
The vulnerability of Bangladesh to periodic flooding is clearly an important factor in its relative underdevelopment. But my hosts remind me that realpolitik, both national and global, have been even bigger factors. They cite the thesis of Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen that famine is not primarily due to shortage, but shortage of information and transport, and wrong policies. By the way, Amartya Sen has his roots in Bangladesh, though his family migrated to India.
I was shocked to hear that during World War II, around 4 million died of starvation in what is now Bangladesh (then part of the greater British colonay that stretched from India to Burma). And the reason was that the British command had calculated that they couldn’t make a stand on the plains against the Japanese forces advancing through Burma. So they withdrew to the hills and implemented a “scorched earth” policy to deny food supplies to the Japanese, by burning and destroying all transport facilities. There was food, but people couldn’t get to them. Ironically, the Japanese didn’t even make it to the plains of Bangladesh, since they got stuck in the jungles of Burma.
In the war of independence against Pakistan, another 3 million are estimated to have died, many of them in rather brutal fashion. Arround 10 million fled to safety across the border to India. That must have been the time that George Harrison held his benefit concert. But I and my generation were in the midst of the “First Quarter Storm” and its aftermath, and don’t recall the link to Bangladesh.
This afternoon, a student of film director Tanvir Mokammel brought me to the museum of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the father of Bangladesh independence and its first prime minister. The visit added another perspective to the country’s present problems. In 1975, barely four years after independence Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was murdered in his own house (the bloodstains on the stairs can be seen under their glass cover), together with his wife and all his children. Only his two daughters escaped, because they happened to be in Germany.
That ushered in a series of authoritarian rule, coups and counter-coups, with brief intervals of relatively democratic rule.
Again, most Filipino activists of my generation have no recollection of these crucial events in Bangladesh’s history. In 1975 I was one of the thousands in prison, and Philippine political energies were focused on the resistance to the Marcos dictatorship.
In our conversations, Tanvir added further perspectives. Kissinger and Nixon did not look favorably on Bangladesh’s independence, since they were engaged in opening relations with China, and Pakistan was supportive of this effort. Even when the struggle for independence succeeded, Kissinger never looked kindly on Bangladesh and Sheikh Rahman. He is the source of the pejorative label attached to Bangladesh as “a bottomless basket case.”
Over dinner tonight, we exchanged views on another perspective that applies to both our countries. Bangladesh has pioneered the concept of a “caretaker government,” headed by the Chief Justice, that handles the election period, so that the incumbent government whose term is ending does not enjoy undue advantage. The first few years, it worked well, according to Tanvir. Then later governments spoiled the idea by partisan appointments not just to the post of Chief Justice but even those next in line.
Two years ago, the military intervened to depose the ruling party on grounds of blatant corruption and bad governance, and installed a civilian caretaker government. By and large, the Bangladeshis I have met are positive about the caretaker government. In fact they worry about what will happen after the scheduled national elections on December 28, and the return of the traditional politicians. But they also hope (and pray) that the reforms the caretake government has instituted will make the elections and its results better than the previous ones.
This time, Philippine activists may find it worth our while to watch out for what happens in Bangladesh.
For Bangladeshis who want to keep their hopes alive, the Beatles’ song that should resonate is “Let It Be.”
But I told Tanvir, the tag line that I prefer for the Philippines is “We Deserve Better.”