Uncertain horizons

Courier Briefing
Thursday, December 31st, 2015

Looking back on a year that left us wondering.


Every year leaves behind its abiding feeling, and 2015’s was one of uncertainty. That was the principal ingredient of national life in Bangladesh throughout the year, beyond the usual mix of good and bad news. The continuation of the blogger killings, with the murder of writer Avijit Roy as he left February’s annual Ekushey Boi Mela one evening, got the ball rolling early in that direction. Their progressive frequency throughout the year was compounded by the spate of lawlessness unleashed during the latter half of the year in the name of jihadi terrorism. Of particular concern was, is, the connection being made to the Middle East death cult, the so-called Islamic State or IS, ISIL, Daesh, you can have your pick, – in relation to the apparently jihadi attacks, that so disturbed us in how it grew to try to sow unprecedented discord between the different strands of Islam practised here in Bangladesh, with attacks on the minority Shia and Ahmadiyya sects.


In keeping with its uncertain character, the links drawn to IS remained tenuous at best, despite the entry that appeared in the terrorist franchise’s monthly glossy, Dabiq, about the revival of jihad in Bengal taking place under their auspices. The police investigations, as was feared, failed to inspire the confidence of the public, or confirm the ruling party’s claims that some of the attacks, particularly the killings of two foreigners within a week as September gave way to October, were the work of their political opposition.


There was uncertainty in the government’s response, that extended to a ban on the wildly popular social networking site, Facebook, as a measure to disrupt the jihadists. It was never likely to work, and it didn’t, but we were left even more bewildered when once it came back, the only one the law-enforcers nabbed was one of the administrators for the page of the widely liked activist-satirists, Moja Losss? The arrest was made under Section 54 of the ICT Act, that carries an unusually general specification for the activities that may fall under it as criminal. In the context of the generally shrinking space for freedom of speech, it doesn’t bode well for the future.


One of the causes the Moja Losss? picked up on that drew people in droves to ‘like’ their page was to identify and bring to book the perpetrators of wanton sexual harassment on the Dhaka University campus during the Bengali New Year celebrations. Many of the culprits were caught on CCTV footage released by the police, and although the law-enforcers themselves proved helpless to identify let alone catch any of the culprits themselves, the Moja Losss? crew managed to match many of the faces caught in the footage with their respective Facebook profiles. Embarrassingly for the government, most of them proved to be members of the ruling party’s student front, the Bangladesh Chhatra League. The irreverent attitude of the page often managed to get under the skin of many, but the subsequent crackdown on it probably owed more to their endeavours in relation to the Pahela Boisakh sexual offenders than anything else they managed to get involved in. A pity, really, since this society could probably do with some more of the kind of irreverence displayed by Moja Losss? to shake things up a bit, especially in relation to offences such as the sexual harassment faced by women in public spaces. Many of these continue to take place in plain view, only we seem to be wilfully blind to their occurrence. Moja Losss? was often guilty of exposing this casual hypocrisy on our part.


In terms of the economy, there was quite a lot of good news. Growth proved robust, although still below potential. Uncertainty will have figured heavily in the phenomenon whereby the level of private investment in the economy remains static, leading to a pile-up of cash in the form of excess liquidity in the banking sector. The country continued to perform well in a variety of social indicators, with average life expectancy, long held to be an indicator of prosperity, now close to 71 years. Work meanwhile commenced in earnest towards building the long-cherished Padma Bridge, the lack of which continues to rank as one of the biggest impediments to the inclusive growth of the economy encompassing the country’s regions, particularly the south-west, and without which many other projects in the pipeline, such as a deep seaport off the south-west coast, fail to make sound economic sense. Having lost a number of years mired in a corruption saga with the World Bank, the government finally decided to go it alone in financing the bridge, and although the ruling party is wont to take credit for this, what shouldn’t be lost upon us is the fact that the present arrangement is not basically desirable.


The plight of migrants fleeing persecution would have disturbed consciences around the world in 2015, but while the case of those fleeing the diabolical conditions in the Middle East dominated, we shouldn’t forget the increased frequency of tragedies in the waters of South East Asia, for which Bangladesh too was a staging post. Bangladeshis found themselves embroiled in the crisis in one of two roles: i) the victims, as some of the so-called “boat people” trying to make it to Thailand or Malaysia but ending up in remote mass graves in the outer regions of those countries happened to be Bangladeshis fleeing poverty and ii) the villains, as many of the human trafficking rackets base their operations out of Bangladesh, or happen to be Bangladeshi themselves. When things came to a head, the government launched a crackdown against them, but if there has been a regression in the number of people risking their lives in this manner, it is mainly due to the somewhat more serious campaign being carried out by the Thai government to root out this disturbing phenomenon.


If there was an unblemished bright spot for the country throughout the year, it would have to be the performance of the national cricket team, especially in the one-day format under the lion-hearted leadership of Mashrafe bin Mortaza. The Tigers started the year on a roll, having completed a whitewash of Zimbabwe, but it was really during the World Cup that they matured into a team that looked like it belonged on the biggest stage. A surfeit of bad luck cost them the quarter-final against India, but the way the Tigers picked themselves up to subsequently whitewash Pakistan, avenge the loss against India with a series win, and then humble South Africa in consecutive home series left millions of Bangladeshis overjoyed, and established cricket as the single-greatest force for unifying the nation in a positive sense. Despite not being part of the squad for the World Cup, a series of eye-catching performances against India, South Africa, and in the third edition of the BPL that took place towards the end of the year, 2015 will long be remembered as the year a lanky left-arm fast bowler from Satkhira, Mustafizur Rahman, broke into the scene. Especially if he ends up doing justice to the prodigious talent he displayed almost whenever he played.


The year was set to close, barring the revelry-always-coated-with-uncertainty of the 31st, with elections to some 234 Pourashavas, the elected bodies that govern 323 of the 334 metropolitan areas of Bangladesh. Voting had just closed as Dhaka Courier went to press this week. But by the time we hit the stands, the country will have a better idea of whether the election proved credible, or was a repeat of the highly-charged mayoral elections that were held for the city corporations in Dhaka and Chittagong earlier in the year, that descended into farce on polling day. The early reports indicated a massive win for the Awami League, with the BNP facing a shutout, but the results have been marred by instances of the polling centres being captured by the ruling party cadres, ballot-box stuffing, and violence that left at least one person killed. It could have served as a handy way to settle the argument between the out-of-parliament opposition BNP and ruling party Awami League, on which of them is carrying on with the support of the public. Instead, we’re left still wondering. It’s been that kind of year you see.

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