“If I can provide food, jobs and health care, that is human rights.”
—–Sheikh Hasina Wajed, Prime Minister of Bangladesh
The above statement by Sheikh Hasina was made in December of 2018 in an interview to the New York Times, just prior to the 11th. Parliamentary election in the country.
This statement, in and of itself, signifies the vast disparity between the Bangladesh of economics and business and the Bangladesh of human rights and the human component.
Sheikh Hasina has undoubtedly done a great deal to advance the country into the the economic powerhouse that it is today. Bangladesh was once one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world, suffering from famine and extreme poverty. The former East Pakistan struggled extensively after its independence from West Pakistan in 1971. It has suffered politically with every incoming government and a series of coups.
The last decade however, under Sheikh Hasina’s leadership, has transformed the country on many fronts. For instance, the percentage of the poverty has decreased from 19 to 9 per cent and the per capita income has has grown exponentially, setting Bangladesh on track to be the world’s 24th largest economy by 2033. Goldman Sachs lists Bangladesh among its “Next 11” (N-11) countries, those that have the potential to become major economies. The country has also championed in women’s empowerment and set a global example.
Economically speaking, this small South Asian country of 170 million people is doing very well and the credit for this economic expansion, to a large extent, particularly within the international community, goes to Sheikh Hasina. So, if all is going so well, what is that problem and why are many Bangladeshis not content, even to the point of being petrified?
In the months before the election was held on December 30, Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League Party went on a an extremely oppressive and authoritarian mission against the general public, the opposition and its supporters. This trend had already began in the past years but in the last 3 years or so, it has increased significantly. The ruling party arrested members of the opposition and its supporters, utilizing violence and threats. The austere Digital Security Act was used extensively as a surveillance method to investigate who is posting anti-government content, leading to arrests.
Leading up to the election, the opposition was not allowed to campaign at all, its members, including the leader, Mrs. Khaleda Zia, were imprisoned and the freedom of speech and free expression, rights which are guaranteed by the constitution of Bangladesh to its people, was grossly violated.
Human rights organizations and the governments of the US, UK, Canada and the EU raised red flags and repeatedly asked the ruling party and the election commission, which is known to be an partial organization, to hold free, fair and democratic elections.
Election day was not what Bangladeshis had expected. Granted, economic growth is paramount, but the infringement of their rights ranks higher on the agenda for most. With one third of the population comprising of youth who are tech savvy, this internet generation is not buying the rhetoric of “the evil opposition” and development in terms of infrastructure. They want the freedom to choose their leaders, to voice their opinions and be heard. This view is mirrored among many across various age groups and social strata.
Post-election, it has become even more evident that the notion of “development” is not exclusive to economical data and production. What the leadership in Bangladesh has been ignoring is that the most substantial element of development is the human factor, the overall happiness factor. Unless credence is given to this reality, elections can be managed to be won at the greatest expense: the hearts of the people.