Bangladesh stress

A devastating building collapse, deadly religious reforms protests, an ongoing war crimes tribunal and a lethal cyclone: the South Asian country is being hit hard

Unsurprisingly, Bangladesh was leading the news on the morning of Thursday 16 May, and this time the story was the moving to safety of one million people in response to the chaos that Cyclone Mahasen could bring. The little Bay of Bengal state has been a regular contributor to the news agenda in recent weeks. And although there seems to be a new story coming out of the country almost daily, each tale is linked by the themes of death and destruction.

Today, the south-eastern coasts have been hit by the storm, with local media reporting the deaths of five people so far. Flooding, high winds, storm surges and the destruction of flimsy homes in low-lying areas are all major threats to life. The United Nations says up to 4.1m people could be affected by Mahasen, with nearly 4,000 already displaced in Sri Lanka.

Three weeks ago, the major national story from Bangladesh would go on to dominate international headlines through the end of April and into the start of May. The Rana Plaza building collapsed in the Savar suburb of the capital, Dhaka. 1,127 people died after the eight-storey complex of factories housing clothes manufacturers, other shops and a bank gave way on 24 April.

The industrial disaster, the world’s deadliest since the Bhopal gas leak in India in 1984, sparked massive protests in Bangladesh and criticism from abroad over workers’ pay, working conditions, minimum wage policies and the ethics of Western clothes companies locating their mass manufacturing operations in countries with such poor health and safety at work records. Tomorrow, more than 300 clothes factories will re-open across the nation; authorities shut down the factories indefinitely following worker unrest in the Ashulia industrial belt.

11 days after the factory collapse, as many as 50 people were killed in Dhaka and many more elsewhere in the country, in clashes between police and hardline Islamists demanding religious reforms, such as the death penalty for anyone who insults the Prophet Mohammed.

Hundreds of thousands of protesters marched in the capital to drive home their message but the stone-throwing demonstrators were met by police firing tear gas and rubber bullets. Bangladesh was formed as a secular state, and secularism still forms a large part of national Bengali ideology, but the radical Islamist group, Hefajat-e-Islam, wants the implementation of a 13-point list of new policies which includes a ban on men and women interacting freely in public.

Where the ultimate penalty is being used at the moment is in the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT), a court set up in 2010 to try people suspected of war crimes during Bangladesh’s 1971 war of independence. Last week, Mohammad Kamaruzzaman, was found guilty of genocide and the torture of unarmed civilians during the war and was sentenced to death. The 61-year-old was high up in the Jamaat-e-Islami party that opposed Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan.

By themselves, and almost inevitably, a building collapse and a cyclone will cause loss of life. What sadly increases the likelihood of those numbers of deaths being higher in Bangladesh are two major factors. Firstly, the lack of infrastructure and development in areas that are most at risk from natural disasters such as Mahasen. And secondly, the shocking lack of accountability from both the construction and clothing industries over ensuring that the buildings that are built are not only safe structurally but also house labourers who have had secure working conditions safeguarded.

It is laudable that Bangladeshis are able to hold protests in the street to show their feelings about a particular policy. What is also good to see is that there has been equal appetite amongst the population to demonstrate on both sides of the debate about the place of Islam in the country and the bloody history of the war of independence. On one hand are the protests in favour of new, stricter Islamist policies. And on the other are demonstrations calling for capital punishment to be handed down by judges for those people convicted of committing human rights abuses during the war (a conflict that ended with secularism and democracy being enshrined in the new nation’s first constitution).

Bangladesh may be a small country but it is a busy one, with a population of more than 150m. It is a delta nation prone to flooding, located on the cyclone path. It has an enormous clothing industry, but one where working conditions are not safe. It may be a small country, and while it is troubled in the industrial sector, it manages to be a vociferous Muslim nation while not being a vehemently religious one. It is just a shame that not a week seems to go by at the moment without a new, deadly story emerging from the country at the top of the Bay of Bengal.

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