Bangladesh: The Quest For Freedom Continues

Female voters with children stand in a queue at a voting centre in Dhaka

Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself.
—-Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

by Sabria Chowdhury Balland  12 January 2019

Bangladesh held its 11th. Parliamentary election on 30 December 2018. To rephrase, “election” was the name given to this event, the layout of which was at least over one year in the making.

In February of 2018, the head of the leading opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (the BNP), Mrs. Khaleda Zia was imprisoned on charges of corruption. For those who know Bangladesh politics, the amount for which Mrs. Zia has been accused of misappropriating is paltry in comparison to many other politicians, making it evident that her imprisonment was not really about corruption but rather politically motivated. It was about clearing the path and setting the stage for cementing the autocracy which had already taken shape.

The leader of the ruling party, the Awami League (the AL) and the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina Wajed is the daughter of the founding father of Bangladesh. He was one of the most prominent figures who stood up to the oppression of West Pakistan (currently Pakistan) over East Pakistan (present-day Bangladesh). An extremely talented orator, he gave the oppressed Bengalis the hope to dream of an independent nation where democracy, freedom of speech and freedom of choice were to triumph over a repressive, disconnected government.

Bangladesh was born in 1971 on the premise of this freedom. Through its often turbulent political history, this small South Asian country of 170 million people has become an economic powerhouse. It is currently the second largest economy in South Asia. However, this has come at a considerable price.

Members of the opposition party and their supporters are regularly arrested and tortured. Many were victims of arson caused by Sheikh Hasina’s ruling party, the Awami League’s thugs. One of the most horrifying accounts of the AL’s atrocities occurred on election day when a rural woman went to vote and was told by the AL representatives that she had to vote for their party. She refused and admitted she would be voting for the opposition. She was threatened and later raped and beaten by the AL representatives. Not a word of acknowledgment, empathy or financial assistance came from Sheikh Hasina or her party members.

Countless accounts of such extreme violence, even on an innocent student movement have occurred time and time again. The strategy of the AL government has always been to sweep the growing problems of authoritarianism in the country under the rug and to an extent, it has unfortunately succeeded. The rising economic figures have been a dominant eye wash globally for Sheikh Hasina and AL and a strategy which has paid off. Despite all the reports of human rights abuses over the years, Hasina continues to manage foreign investments and aid packages such as the 200 billion pounds sterling aid package promised by the UK just days after the disastrous election. Just how much of this aid package will be utilized for aid remains to be seen.

At home, to her fellow citizens, Sheikh Hasina artfully plays the victim card as the daughter of the martyred Father Of The Nation, skilfully ignoring that the fight for an independent Bangladesh in 1971 was precisely for independence. Hundreds of thousands of people gave their lives for the freedom of speech, the freedom of choice in governance, for freedom, period. To suppress that quest for freedom, as she did in the farcical election last week, in which the nation was terrorized into voting for the AL or to not vote at all will be a monumental error. It must also be mentioned here that the majority of the ballot boxes were already stuffed with AL ballots the night before the election. Sadly for the ruling party, there have been countless accounts, many with video footage, to prove this fact.

A week after this farce, Sheikh Hasina and her parties are the self-proclaimed victors and Bangladesh a one-party autocratic government. Post-election, there is a reshuffling of the cabinet with cabinet members being chosen only from the mainstream AL party and not even any allied parties, thus further locking in the autocracy. There are promises of further incredible economic growth: roads, bridges, highways, 5G internet, the list goes on. But, there is a problem. There were 100 million voters, a third of them were first-time young voters who have, time and time again, been cheated and violated of their fundamental democratic rights, a common occurrence which they were dreaming of changing on December 30. They saw the light at the end of the tunnel just as their ancestors had done 47 years ago. That hope, that choice, and that right were stolen from them in a ruthless and conniving manner.

The quote by Dr. Martin Luther King has been proven correct time and time again throughout history. Logic dictates that it will ring true once again in Bangladesh. It is just a matter of time.


  1. I am one of those many Indian Army officers, who took part in the Bangladesh Liberation War. I have fair amount of knowledge about the country and some of the East Pakistani baggage it carried with liberation as Bangladesh!
    Khaleda Zia served as the Prime Minister of Bangladesh from 1991 to 1996, and again from 2001 to 2006. She was the first woman in the country’s history and second in the Muslim majority countries after Benazir Bhutto to head a democratic government as prime minister. She was the First Lady of Bangladesh during the presidency of her husband General Ziaur Rehman n February 2018; Zia was jailed for five years for corruption. She was found guilty of embezzling the funds for an orphanage trust set up when she was prime minister. As per Bangladesh’s Constitution, a person sentenced to imprisonment for two years or above for a criminal offence cannot take part in an election unless five years have elapsed since his/her release. The 73-year-old ex-premier is currently serving jail terms in two graft cases involving charities named after her slain husband Ziaur Rahman for embezzling 21 million Bangladeshi Taka (USD 252,504) in foreign donations meant for the Trust. She has been in custody since February 8, when Dhaka Special Court convicted her in the Zia Orphanage Trust graft case and sentenced her to five years of imprisonment. The High Court doubled her jail term to 10 years.
    Khaleda Zia and her party BNP have been visibly anti-India despite the fact without India’s military intervention independence for Bangladesh was a pipe dream compared to its rival political rival, Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League party. The BNP and India have an immense trust deficit, owing to the party’s track record of anti-India posturing and supporting and harbouring anti-India elements. It has also incurred the wrath of the Indian establishment for partnering with the right wing radical Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), which has been very vocal with its pro-Pakistan rhetoric and its open opposition to liberals and seculars. She at one time was closer to Pakistan forgetting atrocities, arsons and rapes inflicted by the Pakistani Army against Bengalis of the then East Pakistan from whose clutches India’s military intervention gave birth to Bangladesh whose President was her late husband General Ziaur Rehman & she twice the Prime Minister!
    Sabria Chowdhury Balland, an ardent Bangladeshi settled in the US and whose great admirer I am, must realize that in a emerging democratic country where criminality and corruption are twin enemies, must realize likes of Khaleda Zia who is totally corrupt with many corruption and criminal cases filed against her and her exiled son Tariq Rahman living in London. I feel courts and present Government in Bangladesh are right in curbing freedom of press and other democratic rights of corrupt and criminal politicians taking Bangladesh for ransom.

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