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Struggling with unfinished business in Bangladesh

Last week the citizens of Bangladesh took to the polls. Well, some of them did. More than 20 people died as election officials tried to conduct an election in the face of a powerful boycott.

Now, despite the overwhelming victory of the Awami League-led coalition, the credibility of the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has taken a blow. Mass protests, led by her rival Begum Khaleda Zia, show no signs of abating in a country that seems to be wasting one of its few good periods of economic growth.

Bangladesh's history is surprisingly rooted in bouts of immense violence.

In 1947, there was a double partition as the state of Bengal itself split into two, Muslim majority East Bengal forming part of Pakistan, while Hindu majority West Bengal became a state in India. The run-up to this saw brutal communal clashes between Hindus and Muslims with an estimated 10,000-15,000 losing their lives in the Great Calcutta Killings and the Noakhali Riots alone.

After independence, the eastern part of Pakistan found itself largely submitting to the will of the West, with almost all national power concentrated in the Karachi-Lahore axis. Things came to a head in 1971 when Bengali leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman led his Awami League to a large win in elections, but West Pakistan leaders refused to accept him.

Bangladesh's War of Liberation in that year was another bloody affair in which troops loyal to West Pakistan and Bengali militia opposed to Mujibur killed hundreds of thousands of civilians in what the Awami League still deems a genocide. A lopsided confrontation was only resolved when India entered the fray and East Pakistan became independent as Bangladesh.

I remember my friend Pronab Saha, whose family subsequently left the country, describing how his parents as Hindus had no choice but to flee their homes. His mother, eight months pregnant at the time, had to go many kilometres on foot to the Indian border.

It didn't end there. In August 1975, after four years of Mujibur's rule, he and most family members were slaughtered in a coup, although crucially, his daughter Sheikh Hasina survived. There then followed a number of bloody counter-coups before General Ziaur Rahman, popularly known as Zia, took control.

And yes, Zia himself was slain in 1981 in another coup which eventually resulted in General Hussain Ershad ruling Bangladesh until the restoration of democracy.

Fast-forward to 2014 and many of the old issues remain. Hasina and Zia's widow are the two main rivals, in some way functioning as proxies for the legacy of former rulers. To complete the circle, Ershad's wife Raushan is leading the Jatiya Party, which now forms the parliamentary opposition to Sheikh Hasina.

Many of the old players are still present with Hasina's government behind the recent trials and executions of some of those guilty of atrocities during the 1971 troubles.

At the same time, there seems to be a reluctance to let any new faces in. Grameen Bank founder Muhammad Yunus, who has done more for Bangladesh than most with a micro-credit system that helps the hardcore poor, floated the idea of entering the political fray and was swiftly hounded out of it with death threats and trumped-up charges.

Two Bangladeshi acquaintances of mine have given up on finding a way out of the chaos. To them, Malaysia is a land of promise. Dillo used to sweep and mop floors and clean drains but now he has his own business, handling cleaning contracts for a number of condos. Hussein cites the case of his brother-in-law who came to Malaysia in 1998, and now has three convenience stores.

Talking to people, not just from Bangladesh but Indonesia, Nepal and the Philippines too, the common thread among those who have come to Malaysia is a lack of faith in political leaders from all sides back home.

Fighting the same battles with no end in sight just leads to a gridlock that brings everybody down. Bangladesh has enough problems dealing with frequent natural disasters and a population explosion. Maybe, it's time for all sides to sit down, talk and then walk away.


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