Friday, 21 January 2011

A final ramble

It seems to me that the opening sentence of almost every blog entry I've written refers to a length of time – sometimes looking back, sometimes looking forward. I suppose it shouldn't shock that, on commencing this final post, I once again feel the urge to talk about time. 4 weeks; one month ago today; the end of last year; All ways of expressing the same thing – the length of time since I arrived home from Amar Sonar Bangladesh.

Naturally, as I no longer live amongst the madness, I have no stories about cockroaches, discrimination, electricity, CNG drives/near death experiences, humidity or being bullied by an elephant. Instead I guess this post should be deeper, more personal, an opportunity to come to terms with a change in me caused by my travels from Drumshanbo to Satkhira to Drumshanbo again.

And yet, I have little interest in doing so. This blog has certainly drifted at times to my ramblings about the ups and downs of being a volunteer but right now I have little to report on that level. In fact the only thing to report is the concretisation of my views about global development.

As many of you know, we in Ireland are today fully consumed by political uncertainty, economic crisis, the worst effects of capitalism and the Rubber-bandits ( – check this out for some special Irish pisstaking). In such a climate, it has obviously been difficult to share my experiences of development with friends, family and strangers without getting the feeling that what I was talking about was, to those worried about mortgage repayments, cuts in disability support or unemployment, somewhat irrelevent.

And yet, I am absolutely convinced that experiences from the developing world are more relevant to the developed world today than ever before. If one looks at the causes of the crisis in Ireland - laissez faire capitalism, the politics of civil war, a lack of decentralisation, the damaging effect of cultural homogeneity, the corrupt power of elites, the absence of a separation of powers, democratic deficit, waste within the public sector, the marginalisation of dissent, the stereotyping of the poor, a disregard for climate change, the crisis on the left – one can clearly see the correspondence with factors holding back development in places like Bangladesh.

And herein, lies a point which I felt before I left in January 2010 but which I am certain of today: despite being so incredibly far away from places like Bangladesh (geographically, socially, culturally and level of development) I know that we, in western societies, are much much closer to our sisters and brothers in those developing countries than we dare admit. And I don't point this out for the sake of cultural enrichment but out of necessity.

The interdependence of countries today was once and for all proven in the most recent economic and global food crisis. And yet, many states still continue to go it alone; to adopt policies and make decisions which are simply unsustainable and inequitable on a global level. The challenge for development activists and the peoples of developing countries in this regard is clear: to get the people of developed countries to realize that their futures, their successes,their liberties, their jobs, their happiness are inherently linked to the local, national and global standards and policies on trade, investments, banking, the environment, human rights and democracy. It is my honest view following a year in Bangladesh and 4weeks in Europe that true sustainable development cannot be acheived nationally without sustainable development everywhere.

So that's it. I had hoped that 'Bangladeshi Times' would give readers a window into the situation in Bangladesh from the perspective of global interdependence. I didn't always manage to stay on that track, but, in any case, I've greatly enjoyed blogging through crazy, difficult, lonely, sad reflective and wonderful,moments...thank you for sharing those moments with me.

Bhalo thaken, Stay well.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Searching for Identity

Last week I travelled to the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), the home of the majority of Bangladesh’s Indigenous Communities. I followed this up by celebrating Cow Killing Eid with some colleagues and neighbours, i.e. members of the majority Muslim Bengali population. Both were extremely enjoyable but they also served to highlight something which I’ve been thinking for a long time: that Bangladesh as a State, is greatly confused about its raison d’etre and its identity.

The Chittagong Hill Tracts

The CHT is pretty much the only area of Bangladesh with hills (slideshow in the sidebar). From the two days I spent there, I reckon it’s also the only place here that is reasonably quiet, clean and culturally diverse (there are 12 languages spoken there). The indigenous peoples are Christian, Buddhist and (I think) Hindu. Right now, however; Muslim Bengalis make up 50% of the area’s population in large part due to a government policy resettling landless Bengalis on land which legally belonged to the indigenous peoples. This policy as well as the creation of a hydro-electo power plant which led to the flooding of hundreds of acres of indigenous community lands (round of applause for US AID), created an atmosphere of oppression and caused the local communities to fight for the autonomy required to protect their cultures and for the settling of land disputes which go back fifty years. In 1997 a peace accord was signed but with little sign of its implementation, the area remains highly militarised. Some living in the Hills spoke of the belief that the military were involved in some of the violence which kicked off last February; that their presence increases the tension between communities and that the reason behind their continued presence is political i.e. Bangladesh government (regardless of the party) desperately needs to keep the oversized and very powerful military happy and thus must keep them busy and well paid. This is not some conspiracy theory but a matter which greatly hinders the development of many post-war, post-independence states.

Killing and Eating those cows!

Returning to the plain lands, Eid fever had begun in Dhaka: temporary cattle and goat markets were established all over the city; cow shit decorated the pavements and men with goats risked their lives crossing some of Dhaka’s mental roads! Generally, each family (in Bangladeshi terms this means the wider family so about ten-twenty people) will kill a cow and/or a few goats as a sacrifice to Allah in order to have some kind of redemption. I arrived in Satkhira on Eid Morning and though I missed the hour’s prayer, at 10am I headed off with a colleague to witness the cow killing itself. In true Bangladeshi style, I had eaten three breakfasts in three different houses each consisting of different types of rice puddings and noodles, before even catching a glimpse of our soon to be main course. I don’t need to go into the details of the surprisingly quick and humane slaughter as you’ll get a fair idea from the photos, but there are a couple of important details: the person who kills the animal must be a religious leader. The family can keep 30% for themselves, offer 30% for the local poor and give 30% to their neighbours. Later that afternoon, having completed the cooking, I was invited to four more houses this time to eat beef or mutton only. Needless to say by 9 o’clock I was very must like a beached whale.

The link between both of these experiences is not that obvious and in truth it’s just a way of bringing up an issue I’ve been thinking about for a long time: identity.

From great ideas to contradictory implementation

Bangladesh came into existence in 1971 following a liberation war against Pakistan which had its roots in the language movement. The language movement itself was led by, from my limited knowledge, a more liberal community of students and professors embodied by the institution which is Dhaka University. The crux of their gripe with Pakistan was that they did not like the official status of Urdu to the detriment of Bangla nor did they accept the imposition of a theocratic system on their ‘people’ and finally they could not accept the false autonomy which Pakistan was granting them. The Liberation War therefore was a fight for self determination, for the protection of identity and also for the protection of fundamental liberties.

And yet, the war istelf and its aftermath seem to me to prove that there was and remains little common understanding on what identity it was they were fighting for. Firstly, the genocide by the Pakistani Army was carried out with the help of extremist Bangladeshi Muslims (many of whom will hopefully be convicted in the coming months) and focussed specifically on the Bangladeshi Hindu Communities. Secondly, while the peoples of the CHT certainly fought against the Pakistani army, from some conversations I’ve had, it seems unlikely that they did so united around some fundamental belief in a non-communal independent state. It is indeed more likely that they fought with whoever they felt might guarantee them a better deal. Thirdly, the naming of the country automatically promotes one people over the others as the constitution also goes on to do, namely those for whom Bangla is their mother tongue. Fourthly, the constitution fails to recognize the specific indigenous community rights. Fifthly, a reference to Allah in the Preamble as well as crazy amendments by various governments and generals thereafter, shows that there was and remains very little freedom of religion in the 95% Muslim country. Finally, the contradictions of fighting a war on the basis of cultural freedom only to impose a single culture on all are painfully obvious and yet the country’s mistreatment of its indigenous peoples has yet to be resolved.

For me, it all goes back to big ideas by a small number of people and the fight for the freedom of identity and personality in East Pakistan. The Dhaka University Elite at the time of the language movement were perhaps wonderfully liberal free thinking people, and no doubt brave human rights activists. But only fearful Bangladeshis can believe that these elite represented the entire population. There was no agreement in 1970 on the identity which a new independent state would take on and there is still no agreement today. But this is a challenge which the peoples of Bangladesh will have to face up to if they are ever to live together in harmony and discover what it is that brings them all together. Whatever that is, it’s not one religion, it’s not one culture and it’s certainly not one languag