A Tad Too Slow

Liberalism in Bangladesh: A Commentary

Bangladesh is a country which was initially part of British colonization, later India, and then Pakistan finally becoming an independent nation after fighting a liberation war against Pakistan in 1971. Even though the early signs had glimpses of Bangladesh becoming a liberal country, unfortunately this never materialized. Progress towards liberalism is happening, but the pace is a tad too slow.

The market economy is where Bangladesh is the most liberal. The free market has become the economic system dominating the world after the collapse of socialism in the Soviet Union and other East European countries. The economic system of Bangladesh after liberation was neither capitalist nor socialist, and the market system was introduced only later.

Free trade agreements with the neighbors and other Western countries have helped Bangladesh enter the international market and earn foreign exchange thereby expanding the economic base. The country pursues export-oriented industrialization in textiles, shipbuilding and other sectors and achieved over 6% annual growth over the past ten years. The country has a healthy economic outlook with huge potentials. Export oriented industries and foreign direct investments provide employment for many Bangladeshis. The market economy gives freedom of choice to consumers to buy local or foreign goods. Bangladesh has a huge potential for e-commerce; adoption of advanced technologies will attract foreign e-commerce players to compete against the local businesses.

Secular on Paper Only

Human rights are where Bangladesh failed to establish a liberal standpoint. Bangladesh, a secular country on paper, is dominated by Islam. Talking about Islam, criticism or even a simple pun are “taboo”.  This is exploited by various Islamist groups. In the cities, you may find people from different religions celebrate their religious ceremonies together. In the outskirts, people following Islam oppressing and assaulting people from other minor religions is a common scenario.

Bloggers who talk against Islam and the current government have been killed by extremist Islamist groups or detained by the police. Bangladesh has witnessed a spate of violent attacks against secular bloggers, academics, gay rights activists, foreigners, and members of religious minorities in 2016.

Some “keyboard warriors” have the tendency to exercise their freedom of expression in a rather explicit manner using abusive language, which ignites unrest. Although the government is doing a fairly decent job providing the basic needs of all people in Bangladesh good education, healthcare, employment, and decent living conditions remain very much centered in the capital Dhaka. Sexual harassment and domestic violence are part of the daily lives of women; the frequency is so high that most of them don’t even make it to the news.

Governance is at a moderate level in Bangladesh in terms of a liberal perspective. Bangladesh is a democratic country, which was once ruled by the military and once by an autocrat. The citizens of Bangladesh are left with only two political parties which are large enough to run the country, the other political parties are too small and weak. The current ruling party has dismantled their strongest opposition in such a way, that they won the last National Elections without any competition. Most of the influential opposition leaders are behind bars or have fled the country as there were cases filed against them for corruption, war crimes, treason etc.

Politics at the rural level is much worse as there local leaders have the tendency to eliminate opposition leaders whenever they are in power.

The citizens of Bangladesh have a very high tolerance level; they don’t react or protest against wrongdoings until - and unless - they themselves are personally affected. The lack of proactive action encourages influential circles to continue their illegal activities. The implementation of the Right to Information Act (RTI) of 2009 has changed the scenario: Now the people can raise questions against any government bodies, and the government bodies are bound by law to answer. RTI has encouraged citizen participation, transparency and accountability in the government

A Late Adapter

Digital Transformation is one of the most highlighted liberal topics in Bangladesh at the moment. In the National Elections of 2008, the current ruling party used Vision 2021: Digital Bangladesh as their political manifesto. With the establishment of a2i (Access to Information), the government is trying to facilitate the process of transforming the government bodies from an analog system to digital. Many government services are now available online and easily accessible to a larger number of citizens. Reports suggest that digital technologies has boosted development by accelerating growth, creating more jobs, and helping deliver better public services.

The biggest stumbling block to receive maximum development benefits from using these technologies is that not everyone in Bangladesh has access to these technologies yet. Even though some150 million Bangladeshis use mobile phones the country still has the fifth highest number of people not yet connected to the internet. Bangladesh has always been late adopting new ideas. A country which has always been a follower by nature, behaves in a rigid manner when a change is about to happen. Bangladesh, where secularism is subservient to Islam, needs the youth to be more liberal in accepting the changes for their own good and for the betterment of the country.

It’s time we start thinking in a broader context and opt out from the old methods to learn and apply the best practices. A change to a liberal Bangladesh will take considerable time, but it is happening and will have a positive impact within the country and beyond.

Omar Mostafiz FNF Bangladesh

Omar Mostafiz

Omar Mostafiz is the Project Executive of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF) in Bangladesh. In this commentary, he is sharing his personal thoughts.