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That Gulshan cafe after the carnage

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2016 as it was

It was a mixed bag for Bangladesh in the year gone by. In 2016, there were the usual hopes, accompanied by the traditional fears which have, in recent times, characterised socio-political conditions in the country. Where fears are the point of concern, the assault by Islamist militants on a group of foreigners and Bengali citizens at the Holey Artisan restaurant in the capital’s upscale Gulshan was certainly the worst manifestation of the bad security situation in the country.

The Holey Artisan assault, which left seventeen foreigners plus local citizens murdered by young militants mostly educated at reputed institutions at home and abroad, jolted the government into a state of reality. Yes, reality took over after months of denial. The murder of liberal Bengalis as well as of a Japanese and an Italian had earlier been passed off as incidents of general crime. Not until the Holey Artisan massacre would the authorities wake up to the danger into which Bangladesh appeared to be slipping. The global image of the government was put at risk, a truth which had the authorities scrambling to limit the damage.

Nothing like the Holey Artisan attack, which occurred in July, had ever happened to embarrass and outrage the country. In a large sense, it slowed down the natural flow of the incendiary politics that had traditionally defined the state of conditions in the country. Even so, politics did play its part, with the government remaining busy in consolidating its position, to a point where the political opposition, as represented by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, remained stymied through an inability to mount any effective response to the measures taken to bring it to heel. Among the measures were, of course, certain legal moves, especially those which related to a corruption case involving BNP chairperson and former prime minister Khaleda Zia. Additionally, cases of corruption and tampering with social order kept other opposition politicians busy with the law and the courts – enough to preclude any normal political activities on their part.

Again, the opposition demonstrated a clear inability to take stock of its situation and, in effect, proved unable to reinvent itself. even as the ruling party strengthened its hold on circumstances. It cannot be argued, though, that the ruling Awami League proved itself any better where its own place in national politics was concerned. The year was marked largely by factional feuding, which had a spillover effect as its youth and student wings indulging in violence on the streets. The failure of the law enforcing agencies to take such elements to task revealed the old ugly truth – that followers of ruling parties in Bangladesh continue to enjoy immunity from the law.

Former prime minister Khaleda Zia appears at a special court to contest charges of corruption.
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Despite such hiccups, the Awami League went ahead with its national council in October, an exercise which reconfirmed the fundamental nature of the party as a political organisation working on the basis of democratic aspirations. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, party chief since her return from exile in 1981, was re-elected to her position. The big change came through a replacement of the general secretary as Obaidul Quader took the place of Syed Ashraful Islam. The national council, in effect, was a demonstration of the Awami League’s historical grassroots existence.

In 2016, the government remained focused on the economy. Growth proceeded apace, with businesses enjoying a period of relatively undisturbed stability. Finance Minister AMA Muhith remained confident, remained in charge of the economic restructuring the government had clearly set for itself.  A particular concern for the government was to reassure citizens that things were under control following the $100 million cyber heist of the Bangladesh government’s foreign reserves, from the Federal Reserve in New York. The hacking was discovered to have had roots in the Philippines, but what did come as a shock was the initial silence of Bangladesh Bank once the theft had been discovered. The incident led to the forced departure of the governor of the bank, Atiur Rahman, in March of the year.

On the political scale, the Election Commission, nearing the end of its term, presided over some local elections. The results were mixed, with a growing general impression that the EC was unable to assert itself. Violence also marked most polls. But, again, there were crucial areas, such as the relatively peaceful Narayanganj City Corporation elections, where the ruling party-backed incumbent mayor Selina Hayat Ivy was easily able to beat back a challenge from the opposition BNP. The BNP, it should be noted, had begun to comprehend the need for a return to electoral politics on its part despite its insistence that the ruling party agree to the formation of what it called an election-time government prior to the general election scheduled for early January 2019.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina at the ruling Awami League’s 20th national council.© saiful islam kallol

On the diplomatic front, Bangladesh came under huge pressure from foreign governments and organisations on the issue of the Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution in neighbouring Myanmar. Despite its reluctance to open its borders to allow the Rohingyas to take shelter in the country – as many as 500,000 Rohingyas are already in Bangladesh as a consequence of earlier moves by the Myanmar authorities to push them out of their ancestral homes – the country saw no fewer than 70,000 Rohingyas make their way into its coastal region since the crackdown. In some other instances, the country’s coast guard and navy made sure that boatloads of Rohingyas could not come to shore.

The country’s relations with India continued undisturbed, though it was rather evident that Delhi was not exactly pleased with Dhaka’s increasing economic and defence ties with Beijing. To all intents and purposes, the Bangladesh government clearly was of the view that a nuanced and balanced foreign policy was in order for the country. But where clear attempts were made by foreign powers to undermine or interfere in Bangladesh’s internal affairs, the government’s response was swift and adequate. It made clear its displeasure at Turkish President Recep Tayyep Erdogan’s comments on the war crimes trials in the country. Its response to the Pakistan government’s comments on the trials was also unambiguous, intended to let Islamabad know it would brook no interference in domestic matters.

Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims make perilous journeys in search of safety.© bdnews24.com

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina made a fairly good number of visits abroad as a way of shoring up the country’s links with the international community. Among visitors from abroad was Chinese President Xi Jinping. There were other visitors as well, notably from the European Union, Britain and North America.

In 2016, the state of Bangladesh remained in activist mode, with a government confident in its ability to deliver the goods despite the usual impediments coming in its way. Politics was a pretty quiet affair, with little of the general strikes, work stoppages and street demonstrations which marred civil order in earlier times. The judiciary asserted itself, which was a broad hint of the independence it enjoyed and which independence is increasingly acquiring a larger base in the country. On the aesthetic scale, the arts flourished. Theatre operated at a reasonably high level, though much was yet to be said for the movie industry. Literature, part of Bangladesh’s heritage, flourished, with publishing houses churning out works swiftly lapped up by the reading public.

The year 2016 was, in more ways than one, a relatively tranquil year for the country. Sensibilities were not ruffled overmuch. And sensitivities remained more or less undisturbed. That, ladies and gentleman, is saying a whole lot for a country where politics in recent times has had ramifications not always of the savoury sort.

Syed Badrul Ahsan
is a journalist, author and bdnews24.com columnist