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.

Living on a prayer

Trying to balance religion and politics in West Africa can be a hard game to play

France has been accused of stoking up religious tensions with its recent decision to ban full-face covering garments, such as the Muslim niqab and burka. However, in its former African colonial heartland, religion and the state are managing to carve a delicate balancing act.

The Francophone countries of West Africa tend to have huge Muslim populations. But in Mali, for example, Barcelona FC shirt-wearing men and bare-ankled women abound. Beer is brewed and drunk. Secularism dominates the constitutions of countries such as Niger, Senegal and Burkina Faso.

Far from the Maghreb and the Middle East, it seems that the customs and animism of the area has infused with Islam to breed a slightly different take on the faith. However, the people still faithfully queue outside the vast, mud Mosques on Fridays. There are millions of Christians also living in the area, although they are more numerous in Anglophone states such as Ghana and Nigeria.

There are exceptions, of course. The civil conflict in Ivory Coast, although primarily based on politics, had strong religious undercurrents. Laurent Gbagbo, the deposed former president, is a Catholic and his internationally-endorsed successor, Alassane Ouattara, is a Muslim.

Nigeria held the first-round of a presidential election on Saturday 16 April. According to exit polls, it seems that incumbent (Christian southerner) Goodluck Jonathan will head to a run-off against his main rival Muhammadu Buhari (Muslim northerner).

It is a country with a bloody record when it comes to religious and political balance. Recent years have seen regular fighting and hundreds of deaths in the central prefectures where the Muslim and Christian populations meet. There is a growing Islamist insurgency calling for sharia law to be imposed in the north. The radical group Boko Haram shot dead two people on Friday 15, the day before the presidential polls opened.

Nigeria has a rough agreement to rotate the presidency between the largely Muslim north and the mainly Christian south, although when Mr Jonathan assumed the presidential office last year on the death of his northern predecessor Umaru Yar’Adua that cycle was broken.

The balance of the stability of the region depends on similar domestic accords. Yet if such agreements can be broken without provoking resultant religious fury then the region will have be able to look forward again.

The region’s capability to forge nations out of the bubbling and potentially venomous cauldron of post-colonialism, animism, Christianity, Islam, strongmen and dictators, developing democracies, oil and cocoa, deserts and droughts, rivers and floods and linguistic differences must be lauded and the nations must strive towards growing co-operation and confidence in one of the main areas they have had some success and are trying to improve at the moment: balancing religion and politics.