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Friday, October 26, 2007

Bengali Tales (revised)

Dear All,

Bangladesh, Land of the Bengalis, should theoretically be a country we Singaporeans are familiar with, given the proximity and the many historical links as former parts of the British Empire in Asia. However, few of us have any notion of what this country is like except for the many massive famines, natural disasters or seemingly endless political instability that plague this country. In a perverse way, many Bangladeshis, whose relatives work in the construction grounds and clean the streets of Singapore, know so much more about Singapore than we know about their country.

The first meaningful conversation I had with a local was with Bashar, who is the "Canteen Manager" of a café I stepped into on my first morning in Dhaka. Upon learning I was from Singapore, he exclaimed using the most classic Singaporean Hokkien expletives that expressed the speaker's desire to do something nasty to the addressee's mother, "Kan Ni Na Chao Ji Bai, Welcome to Dhaka!" Bashar said he missed Singapore where he worked for 4 years in the 1990s – he liked the orderliness, the law and order, safe environment, clean air and the opportunity to make good money. He would love to return to Singapore if he could. He asked if my company needed any staff, be it a foreman, a clerk, a cleaner, or in his words, anything. Thrusting into my palm his name card, he asked me to contact him once I return to Singapore.

Poor Bangladesh…since independence after a bloody war against oppressive Pakistan in 1971, the country has remained poverty stricken. Indeed, everytime I told a Bangladeshi that theirs was a beautiful land, the response was inevitably, "but we are a poor country." More than 10 million Bangladeshis work overseas, and millions of rural people are underemployed. Poverty drives more and more people into the cities. Dhaka, a city of merely 1 million in 1971, is today a crowded, polluted metropolis of at least 12 million, perhaps 15 million. Motor vehicles drove wildly as if there was no tomorrow, loud relentless horning, countless rickshaws and screaming street vendors – all the madness of this city almost drove me crazy on my first day here.

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I visited the Liberation War Museum, a fascinating place about the long forgotten conflict that led to the independence of Bangladesh from Pakistan, the latter an unnatural state with two distinct and separate parts formed from the Muslim regions of the British Indian Empire. Driven by the desire for equal recognition of Bengali, which was also the language of choice of Tagore, the great 19th century Bengali poet and novelist who won the Nobel Prize for Literature, the Bangladeshi people struggled against their West Pakistani rulers. Despite accounting for more than 50% of the then Pakistani population, the Bangladeshis never quite commanded their own destiny. In fact, whenever a Bangladeshi party won the elections, the Pakistani Army staged a coup to set aside the electoral result.

It was 1971's electoral victory by Sheikh Mujib, Father of the Bangladesh, which sparked off a massive genocidal crackdown by the Pakistani Army. Intellectuals and the academia were arrested and murdered in cold blood, while whole massacres were committed at the halls and dorms of Dhaka University. Sheikh Mujib was arrested by the Pakistanis while Ziaur Rahman, an officer in the East Pakistan Rifles, declared the independence of the People's Republic of Bangladesh from a radio station in Chittagong. A guerilla war began and before long, the Indian Army and the Bangladeshi guerillas drove Pakistani forces into surrender, but not before many – some said as high as 3 million people - died in this bloody conflict. It was amazing how the thirst for power and greed drives people to commit atrocities. It was also mind-boggling how the generals of Pakistanis could ever imagine they could lord over what was not a small minority group but the largest ethnic group of their country.

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Dhaka had just celebrated the Durja Puja when I arrived. This is a colorful festival that celebrated Goddess Durja's victory over Mahishasura, the green skin buffalo demon. Legend says Mahishasura had conquered the heavens with his army of demons and so the Great Hindu Gods created Durja to battle him. Eventually, Mahishasura was defeated after an epic battle during which the demon changed his form between human, buffalo and the elephant. Just before his demise, the demon agreed to be slaughtered by the goddess provided that he was to be worshipped together with her. The goddess agreed, and so all images of Durja showed her spearing gruesome-looking Mahishasura which was beneath her feet.

I walked through dilapidated Old Dhaka adorned with bright coloured bulbs and banners celebrating Durja Puja; the smell of rotting rubbish in the air together with the aroma of burning incense; the deafening horning of the rickshaws, and mosque imams calling the faithful for afternoon prayers alternating with the loud beating drums from the Hindu temples. Welcome to Dhaka. You may love it, hate it but never indifferent. This is an intense city, whether in terms of smell, noise and sights.

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Independent Bangladesh's first decade was one of chaos and disillusionment; and of coups and counter-coups. After the euphoria of victory over Pakistan, Sheikh Mujib soon followed the footsteps of many Third World strongmen, that of self-glorification, elimination of political opposition and one party rule. In 1975,

In 1975, Sheikh Mujib was murdered at home by a group of dissenting army officers, together with his wife, three sons and other family retainers. Two daughters were spared only because they were overseas – including Sheikh Hasina who later served as Prime Minister. After a series of coups and counter-coups, Ziaur Rahman came to power in 1976, only to be assassinated in an attempted coup in 1981. What a blood-stained history!

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I got onto Mahsud, a wheel steamer constructed in 1928 in the shipyards of Calcutta, through the waterways of Bangladesh. This was a different world away from the madness that was Dhaka. This was the land of peaceful farmers and fishermen, green paddy fields, serene villages and the timelessness that had long disappeared in many parts of the world. There was even the occasional pink Ganges dolphin leaping out of the river, which to me was all the more remarkable as I recalled recent reports confirming the extinction of the Yangtze Dolphin of China, the victim of overfishing, poaching and pollution.

However, one should not forget, that it was the lack of economic prosperity that had preserved this land in a time wrap. Corruption, economic mismanagement and misrule meant that the country continues to rely on a fleet of 1920's steamers to connect its many towns and villages scattered across the delta land, in an era where many Asian countries have built modern airports, multiple lane motorways and huge bridges to bring together disparate parts.

In the last one year, the military had intervened in this country to steer the country away from the political stalemate caused by the country's top two rival political parties - the Awami League, run by Sheikh Hasina, surviving daughter of Sheikh Mujib, and Bangladesh Nationalist Party, run by Begum Khaleda, widow of Ziaur Rahman. Both politicians and their supporters, all seen as outrageously corrupt during the years they were in power, are now in jail awaiting trial, whilst a technocrat caretaker government, headed by a "Chief Advisor", is in power. It remains to be seen if they would be successful but I wish them luck. Bangladesh obviously deserves better.

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The Grameen Bank and its founder, Muhammad Yunus, are the pride of Bangladesh. They were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006, for their success in pioneering microcredit in Bangladesh and elsewhere. By lending small sums of money to desperately poor people and encouraging repayment through innovative loan structures, such as lending to women who are members of a small group that forms a social support as well as behavior pressure group, Grameen Bank has succeeded in improving the standards of living of social groups once deemed unbankable. The Bank also draws up social codes of bahaviour and principles designed to be pro-growth. Here are some of them:

16 Decisions
We shall follow and advance the four principles of Grameen Bank: Discipline, Unity, Courage and Hard work – in all walks of our lives.
Prosperity we shall bring to our families.
We shall not live in dilapidated houses. We shall repair our houses and work towards constructing new houses at the earliest.
We shall grow vegetables all the year round. We shall eat plenty of them and sell the surplus.
During the plantation seasons, we shall plant as many seedlings as possible.
We shall plan to keep our families small. We shall minimize our expenditures. We shall look after our health.
We shall educate our children and ensure that they can earn to pay for their education.
We shall always keep our children and the environment clean.
We shall build and use pit-latrines.
We shall drink water from tubewells. If it is not available, we shall boil water or use alum.
We shall not take any dowry at our sons' weddings, neither shall we give any dowry at our daughter's wedding. We shall keep our centre free from the curse of dowry. We shall not practice child marriage.
We shall not inflict any injustice on anyone, neither shall we allow anyone to do so.
We shall collectively undertake bigger investments for higher incomes.
We shall always be ready to help each other. If anyone is in difficulty, we shall all help him or her.
If we come to know of any breach of discipline in any centre, we shall all go there and help restore discipline.
We shall take part in all social activities collectively.

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From Khulna in the southwest, I visited Bagerhat, an UNESCO World Heritage City. In the 15th century, Khan Jahan Ali, a Turkic warlord cum Sufi mystic, set up a mini state in this region, where he built monumental mosques and madrasahs. Today, some of these remain and have been declared world heritage. I walked through the dilapidated, almost deserted halls of the sixty-domed mosque and scanned the lake outside the pilgrimage shrine of Khan Jahan Ali for the legendary crocodiles (they say the crocodiles would come if summoned by the caretaker of the Khan Jahan Ali's shrine). Bangladesh is a country of some pleasant though not spectacular sights. However, it attracts few tourists and many who come here are greeted by mounds of rubbish, endless roads of potholes, and quite simply, the appalling lack of basic tourism infrastructure. The country continues to rely on inward remittances from its citizens who work overseas and earnings from sale of garment to the West, which now comes under threat from more efficient Chinese producers.

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I took the late night bus to Chittagong, the nation's second largest city and most important seaport. This was perhaps the dirtiest city I have ever seen. Piles of rotting rubbish were everywhere, even in the city centre, with huge scavenger birds and crows making further mess of the refuse in the unhealthy humid tropical heat. Chittagong's citizens appeared nonchalant to the dirt and firth around them. Child beggars pulled the sleeves of passersby, and their older, legless colleagues, for lack of a better term, dragged themselves on the pedestrian walks, loudly chiding others for the lack of sympathy.

I sought refuge at the Commonwealth War Cemetery, the cleanest place in the city. Over 700 Commonwealth soldiers killed in the WWII Burma war theatre were buried here. Among the largest contingents were British and Indian forces but there were also large number of West and East African soldiers. In a month's time, I would be in Nagaland in India, on the border with Myanmar, which also play host to a Commonwealth war cemetery.

Tomorrow, I head for the Chittagong Hill Tracts, a mountainous region to the east of Chittagong, on the border with Myanmar. The indigenous people of this region are Buddhist and animist tribes which have closer links to the Burmese and other Southeast Asian peoples. Photos of these peoples at Chittagong Ethnographic Museum revealed that they looked Mongoloid or East Asian in appearance, and that the local tribal kings wore headdress which to me looked very Burmese. A low key insurgency has been going on in the tribal regions where the tribes were unhappy with the influx of Muslim Bangladeshis and the huge dam project that had flooded their tribal ancestral homeland. As a result, all tourists need permit to enter the Hill Tracts, and no mobile and internet connection is available so as to deny communication links to the "terrorists", as the Bangladeshi government calls the insurgents.

So, this is what I have done so far. On Tuesday 20 October, I will fly to Kathmandu, Nepal.

Till then, good bye.


Wee Cheng
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