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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Time to retake the Latin exam

The British government shows some determination to address its lack of commitment to Latin America

They say Latin is a dead language. Sometimes it seems that many in different British governments have believed Latin America is dead too. The visit of the British Minister for Latin America to Bolivia from 26-27 July went almost unnoticed in the UK press. The BBC had one online page of coverage of the trip; a YouTube video Jeremy Browne, the Liberal Democrat MP with responsibility for Latin America, put online had only been viewed 42 times by the time this blog was published.

In November, the Foreign Secretary made this speech about the relationship between the UK and Latin America. He was right that Britons have played a role in forging Brazilian and Uruguayan independence and being the first European nation to recognise Mexico. Welshmen took football to Argentina. Cornishmen helped develop the Mexican silver mines.

But it seems that there has been an invisible colonial barrier barring the UK from closer relations with the region; a whispered admission that this was Spain and Portugal’s domain. Africa and the sub-continent have received far greater attention from the UK, mainly owing to the colonial links. Millions across India, Pakistan and sub-Saharan Africa speak English. Charities and aid workers regularly channel their efforts (rightfully) on the many social, political and medical needs of these nations but Latin America also needs support. And the UK can help the region in a different way.

It need not abandon Uganda or Bangladesh but the old colonial frontiers that stood are long gone. New-age imperialism is booming. China has already muscled in on the old UK ground: Beijing is a massive investor in many African countries now, often exchanging construction workers and architects for coal. India is turning into a global power capable of looking after itself. South Africa has now joined Brazil, Russia, India and China in their strong, emerging-powers BRICS bloc.

Latin America is full of successful, healthy and democratic countries. Mexico, Argentina and Brazil are in the G20. The region does not need stabilising support but it would welcome closer trade and investment links. As Mr Hague noted in his speech “We export over three times more to Ireland than we do to the whole of Latin America”. That needs addressing fast. China is becoming the dominant power in Africa. As Brazil outgrows Latin America and sets its sights on global ambitions, the UK would do worse then re-focusing a little of its ring-fenced international development budget and a lot of its trade desires on Latin America.

Reporting the dead: Part One

The Press Emblem Campaign (PEC) has published its end-of-year report and it does not make easy reading for journalists. This is the first part of a two-part blogpost analysing the data.

In 2010, 105 journalists were killed. Since 2006, 529 have died. The risky countries are not surprising. However, there are different reasons for the dangers faced by reporters and cameramen out on the roads.

There are two main sets of figures the PEC has released: this blogpost will look at this year’s figures and the next blogpost will analyse the global total of journalists’ deaths since 2006.

  • 2010 – Death toll: 105

a) The five most deadly countries in the last year

1 = Mexico and Pakistan 14 dead in both

With more than 3,000 people killed in Ciudad Juarez, a northern border town, this year alone, it is no great shock that the ‘war on drugs’ has claimed journalists’ lives in Mexico. The reporting of drugs deals and violence is often accompanied by death threats and in September the newspaper ‘El Diario de Juarez’ published a frank editorial to the gangs titled ‘What do you want from us?’ and agreed to print what the gangs wanted after one of its photographers was shot dead.

More than 3,000 died in violence in Pakistan last year. Militancy, tribal wars, US drone strikes and the Pakistani armed forces’ battles against Taliban insurgents have contributed to the rising deaths. Journalists covering the militancy have been shot as political, religious and international tensions grow.

3. Honduras 9

Since the 2009 coup, which installed Porfirio Lobo as the new premier, politically-motivated murders have been on the rise. In addition, the contagion of Mexico’s ‘war on drugs’ has spread to the country and that has caused further problems for journalists in the field.

4. Iraq 8

US combat operations ceased in Iraq this year but thousands of troops are still in the country training troops and aiding stabilisation policies. The insurgency has claimed 8 journalists’ lives this year alone.

5. The Philippines 6

Religious conflict in the mainly-Muslim south and the ferocious and deadly politics, where ethnicity, party allegiances, family ties and religion meet in a lethal mix, have created an unstable environment in which to report.

b) The deadliest nations in the rest of the world

Africa (14): Nigeria 4, Somalia 3, Angola 2, Uganda 2, Cameroon 1, DRC 1, Rwanda 1

Asia (16): Indonesia 3, Nepal 3, Afghanistan 2, Thailand 2, India 2, Bangladesh 1, Yemen 1, Israel/Gaza 1, Lebanon 1

Europe (11): Russia 5, Belarus 1, Bulgaria 1, Cyprus 1, Greece 1, Ukraine 1, Turkey 1

Latin America (13): Colombia 4, Brazil 4, Venezuela 2, Argentina 1, Ecuador 1, Guatemala 1