I have visited Bangladesh five times during the past 20 years: the first as Labour’s UK representative at the 50th anniversary of our sister party, the Awami League (AL), currently in government in Dhaka. I have around 15,000-20,000 constituents of Bangladeshi origin.
Bangladesh was born in 1971 following a war of independence. Between 300,000 and three million Bangladeshis died in that war.
Currently, there are trials taking place of some individuals accused of war crimes from this period. There have been death penalties and imprisonments handed down to the first accused, and a number of international organisations have expressed serious concerns about the legal standards being applied. Similarly, there have been criticisms of the government led by Sheikh Hasina. She is the daughter of the “father of the nation” assassinated during the struggle for independence, and has appointed five women as ministers.
Constitutional changes introduced in the run-up to the general elections in January this year caused the main opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), to boycott the election. This has led to calls for a fresh poll, and has undermined the authority of the Bangladeshi government in some international eyes.
The Islamists in Bangladesh (a 99 per cent Muslim country) secured less than 5 per cent at the elections, and the country stands out against the tide of Islam-fascism.
Bangladesh’s recent annual economic growth rate of between 6-8 per cent is impressive. However, the country is one of the poorest and most densely populated in the world, and will suffer more from the rising waters caused by climate change than most regions; and its land mass is smaller than England.
Geopolitically, Bangladesh is a strategic bridge as well as being economically well-placed to take advantage of the opportunities now being presented. The country faces huge challenges internally, with corruption and political stability being the main issues. The grinding poverty endured by tens of millions, and some three million street children, are the government’s main focus. Externally, she is a key political ally, courted by India, China and others. Bangladesh is one of the leading recipients of UK aid, and ties to London are very strong.
The Bangladeshi community in the UK is estimated at about 300,000 and in England, 90 per cent of all our curry restaurants are run by Bangladeshis. In Tower Hamlets – the main home for the Bangladeshis – most of the 45 councillors are from that community, as is the Independent Mayor.
Jim Fitzpatrick is MP for Poplar and Limehouse and vice-chair of the All-Party Group for Bangladesh
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