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[Politics] In Dhaka, a prime minister’s ‘vendetta’ is shaping politics

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At its grand opening last June, Bangladesh’s prime minister, Sheikh Hasina Wazed, referred to the new Padma Bridge as a symbol of national pride and self-reliance. Fighter jets flew overhead leaving vapour trails in the colours of the national flag, as thousands watched from the banks of the Padma river, the main channel of the Ganges in Bangladesh. Helicopters buzzed overhead, towing banners with the slogans “A dream come true” and “Hail Bengal”, while the prime minister became the first person to pay a toll on the 6km bridge, the longest in Bangladesh.

Dressed in an elegant, flowing sari and sunglasses, Sheikh Hasina applied a manicured hand to a white button and, as sparklers flared, a red curtain lifted slowly to reveal a mural of her and her late father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who led the country to independence in 1971. Invoking his memory, she told the crowd that “Bangabandhu”, as he was known, “made us learn to stand with dignity and pride”. She spoke of the challenges of building a bridge over a river with the second strongest current after the Amazon. “Bangladesh never backed down and never will,” she declared of the $3.6bn project. The country had been forced to finance it on its own after the World Bank withdrew its backing 10 years earlier.

The prime minister’s remarks took on a more menacing tone when she appeared to directly target Bangladesh’s most prominent private citizen, Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus. Now 82, Yunus is credited with pioneering microfinance, an idea that has lifted hundreds of thousands worldwide out of poverty. His Grameen Bank has foreign supporters ranging from Hillary Clinton to Jennifer Lopez. Referring to the “local MD of a bank with a strong western link” who had “developed an enmity with the government”, Sheikh Hasina told her audience that he “took out his anger” on the bridge plan, causing the World Bank to back out by making a false allegation of corruption involving the government. (When the Washington lender declined to loan the project money in 2012, it cited corruption concerns.)

    Yunus went unnamed, but Bangladeshis had no doubt who she was talking about. Sheikh Hasina, who at 75 is more or less Yunus’s contemporary, has in the past repeatedly referred to the economist as a “bloodsucker” of the poor. Nor was it the first time she had aired allegations that he engineered the World Bank’s pull-out. Her invective has ramped up lately, however, and on at least one occasion been laced with what sounded like a violent threat.

In a speech in May, which mentioned Yunus by name, Sheikh Hasina said he should be “plunged into the Padma river twice”. Addressing a meeting of her party, the Awami League, which her father co-founded in 1949 then led during Bangladesh’s struggle for independence, she added, “He should be just plunged in a bit and pulled out so he doesn’t die, and then pulled up on to the bridge. That perhaps will teach him a lesson.”

Observers of Bangladeshi politics see the speeches as a significant moment and an early warning that the country is sailing into choppier political waters ahead of a general election this year. Bangladesh, with more than 160 million residents, is one of the world’s most populous countries. Not long ago, it was also among the poorest, until a successful garment industry transformed it into one of the world’s leading clothing exporters. But Covid-19 and the spike in the price of imported energy since the war in Ukraine have threatened to reverse some of these gains, as has a darkening political atmosphere which, democracy campaigners say, is making Sheikh Hasina’s Bangladesh an increasingly repressive place.

Today, getting a visa to report here as a foreign journalist is difficult. Government officials are keenly sensitive to criticism. But late last year, I obtained an invitation to cover “Made in Bangladesh Week 2022”, a trade event. Bangladeshi politics was not on the agenda during the day, when government officials escorted me in a van to interview other government officials and industry bosses.

After hours, though, the feud involving the prime minister and Yunus, which has resurfaced periodically over the years, was the talk of Dhaka’s local and diplomatic elites. Several Bangladeshis I spoke to called it a “vendetta”, though most did not want to be quoted or even meet in person for fear of attracting the attention of Bangladesh’s security services or causing trouble for their co-workers.

Sheikh Hasina, who won office in 2014 and 2018 after elections that some eyewitnesses described as fraudulent, will soon face voters again. But this time the economy, fuelled almost entirely by clothing production and remittances from Bangladeshis working overseas, is slowing. Her government faces pressure from its donor countries, including the United States, to run a fairer vote.


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Member -> Moderator -> Super Moderator -> Supervisor -> Ex-Staff (Absent) -> Supervisor ->  Administrator -> Ex-Staff  ->  Administrator

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