Sunday, February 21, 2010

Bangladesh - when two tribes go to war...

Bangladeshi politics is dominated by two political parties, the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. Such a two-party system is, in itself, not unusual. However, the divide between the two parties is based on the relationship between two men, both of them dead, and is the cause of genuine and sustained hostility, up to and including violence and murder.

The Awami League is the older of the two, founded in 1949 and, amongst its key players was Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, a persistent thorn in the side of the Pakistani government, and a passionate believer in greater autonomy for the Bengali community who made up most of the population of what was then East Pakistan. He spent most of the following years in prison, gaining a reputation as an inspiration for the freedom movement.

After the 1971 war, when Indian forces supported an uprising of Bengali troops, Bangladesh became an independent state, and he was named as its first Prime Minister, going on to become the country's President in 1975. And that is where the second man, General Ziaur Rahman, enters the story.

In August 1975, a successful military coup took place, led by General Zia, during which Sheikh Mujibur, his wife, three sons and other family members, were murdered in his home. The ensuing military dictatorship lasted for four years before elections were finally held.

In that election, a new political party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, designed to be a platform for General Zia, made its electoral debut. Politics could not have been more personal, with one party mourning the loss of its leader, competing against a party led by his effective assassin. But fate had another twist in store for Bangladesh.

In 1981, in an abortive military coup, General Zia was assassinated and Bangladeshi politics entered a new phase, with two political parties, led by the widows of their founders, opposing a military-led government, distrustful of each other. And, astonishingly, following the resumption of democracy, the two women, Sheikh Hasina and Begum Khaleda, still lead their respective parties to this day.

As a result, the emnity between the two parties is as strong as ever, with the older members of the leadership couching everything in terms of 1975 and 1981, whilst a younger  generation strive to move the debate on. When power changes hands, bridges, airports and other public facilities are renamed to suit the history of the new ruling party and snub the outgoing one. It might be said that the people of Bangladesh have other priorities...

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