Is Bangladesh The Next Ukraine?


As the world watches the conflict in Ukraine, it is timely to remember a country that was born out of similar events: Bangladesh.

Aside from the odd test match or occasional flood, Bangladesh is generally absent from the Western media's focus.

A rare exception came in mid-2013 when a garment factory collapsed in Dhaka and took the lives of 1129 people. Following the immediate outpouring of sorrow from the media came the politics – after all, these garments were being made for Western consumers — and talk of boycotting clothing companies that used Bangladesh sweatshops arose.

But the general lack of interest in the young nation has translated into an absence of knowledge among the Australian population. Growing up in Australia, it made more sense for me to identify as Indian than to confuse others and tell them I’m from Bangladesh.

Yet despite its geographical size, Bangladesh is not the minor player in world politics it is perceived to be, and it's history and politics are relevant, even to Australians.

Bangladesh has the eighth largest population in the world, 150 million, making it one of the largest Muslim populations. It is second only to China in textile manufacturing, and one of the largest producers and exporters of agricultural goods.

It's also a nation that borders India, a nuclear power, and is in perpetual standoff with Pakistan, another nuclear power, which plays host to Taliban militants, who also fight in Afghanistan. The butterfly effect exists, at least in global politics.

And right now, Bangladesh's political system is in turmoil. The centre-right opposition, the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), boycotted recent elections due to the centre-left government’s (the Awami League) refusal to allow a caretaker government to hold the elections. This occurred concurrently with general strikes called by Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), the pro-Pakistani Islamist party that is in alliance with the BNP. Both oppose the ongoing trials and executions of those who collaborated with Pakistan during the Bangladesh Liberation War, some of whom were in leadership positions within JI.

These violent tensions are reminiscent of the sectarian and secular violence that plague the Middle East. A war would be disastrous, and ignorance in the media will lead to an ignorant population, as it did during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

A poor understanding of Bangladesh's situation already has already allowed the West to turn a blind eye to one of the worst mass killings of the 20th century.

Though the figures are contested, the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War saw up to 3,000,000 Bangladeshi casualties, tens of millions of internally displaced peoples and refugees, and hundreds of thousands of war rapes, making it one of the largest genocides since the Holocaust.

It was the United States, alongside China, who backed Pakistan in its war against Bangladesh, which drew support from the Soviet Union and India. Aside from the Concert for Bangladesh, there was no mass solidarity movement of the kind seen during the Vietnam War. Ultimately, what was a major incident during the Cold War is remembered — if at all — as Western complicity in genocide, the United States opposing secular self-determination, and apathy from most of our population.

If conflict were to break out in Bangladesh again, the flow on effect could be huge. Refugees would flock to India, a situation that would likely provoke Hindu nationalists and strain Indian civil society, as happened in Jordan and Lebanon after Palestinians were expelled from their homeland.

Furthermore, and closer to home, a refugee crisis could emerge. The misunderstanding of local push factors is already a problem in the coverage of the asylum seeker issue in Australia, demonstrated by the lack of attention given to the persecution faced by Hazaras in Afghanistan. Our current lack of interest in Bangladesh would likely see more of the same.

But war is a distant concern, unlike the possibility of industrial stoppages that would greatly affect international finance, and the threat of global warming flooding massive sections of the nation. These are issues that would directly affect Australia, and without an informed media there is a risk of xenophobia and racism.

Events abroad are often reinterpreted to fit a framework that asserts our own importance. It’s why we spoke of Twitter when we reported the Arab Spring, and now, in Ukraine, the events are narrated as the pro-EU, pro-democracy movement fighting against Putin and Russian imperialism.

Never mind the large swathes of Islamists in Syria and Egypt, and ignore the extreme far-right organisations leading the Euromaidan protests. Likewise, never mind the self-organised industrial actions in Bangladesh, composed primarily of women, which have stopped the nation and won an almost doubling of their wages.

This is not a call for intervention, but the opposite. An informed population is unlikely to repeat the mistakes of the past. Colonisation of South Asia, the backing of genocide during the Liberation War, and continued economic exploitation of Bangladesh have all led to a nation continually on the verge of implosion.

We can do little to help, but educating ourselves on the situation and holding our political leaders and financial system to account would be a step in the right direction.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.