As Bangladesh steps further into the 21st century, its leaders find their plates increasingly full of new challenges. The country's geography puts it at the sharp edge of countries affected by climate change. Meanwhile, with an ever-growing and increasingly young population, the balance must be struck between the politics of the electoral cycle and the street, secularism and Islamism, and the calls for justice left over from the country's bloody birth.
Elections and their Aftermath
Politics in Bangladesh can frequently look to the outside as something of a zero-sum game, with the rival leaders Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League (AL) and Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) carrying on the struggles led by their fathers – both prime ministers in their time – in a winner takes all contest.
This battle was seen most clearly in the 2014 election, which was fought on the street as much at the ballot box. The poll was the most violent in the country's history, with many left dead and the BNP choosing to boycott the election altogether. Sheikh Hasina was duly returned to power, but with a mandate in which only half the parliamentary seats were contested. The BNP called rolling protests to demand fresh elections and a caretaker government, but has found itself both increasingly marginalised on the street through its violent acts, and under pressure from a government that has seemed intent on clamping down on legitimate political opposition.
War Crimes Tribunal
In 2010, Sheikh Hasina sanctioned the establishment of a special tribunal to try a handful of key suspects charged with crimes against humanity, allegedly committed during the 1971 Liberation War by collaborators of the Pakistani regime. Several leading establishment figures had been granted immunity by previous administrations, for the sake of political stability, but calls to both tackle the political culture of impunity and heal the still-open wounds of 1971 had grown ever louder.
Leading figures of the Jamaat-e-Islami party, Bangladesh's largest Islamist party, were put on trial and convicted, with several subsequently executed. In 2015, the highest-profile convictions were of Jamaat's Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid, and Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury, a leading light in the BNP. Although the judicial process was much criticised by Amnesty International, both were swiftly hanged after leave to appeal their convictions was refused. Although mostly popular with the country at large, the focus on certain parties has led some observers to worry that the hoped-for reconciliation brought about by the tribunals may unwittingly sow the seeds for future division.
Attacks on Secularism
Many secular writers had led the calls for the war crimes tribunals, but in seeking justice they have found themselves increasingly under attack. So-called 'free thinkers' have been repeatedly targeted for violent attacks by Islamists, and in 2015 five writers and one publisher were murdered in Dhaka, with others attacked with machetes. The focus on the internet as an outlet for secular writing has led to the popular perception of the term 'blogger' being equated with 'atheism'.
Despite secularism being officially enshrined in the Bangladeshi constitution, writers have faced as much official criticism for public stances on subjects like atheism as they have benefited from protection from further attacks. At the same time, the murder in late 2015 of two foreigners living and working in Dhaka raised the political temperature even higher, when the killings were claimed by a Bangladeshi offshoot of Islamic State.
Economy and Environment
While its recent political scene has been as troubled as ever, Bangladesh’s economy continues to grow at between 5% and 6%. Some major development projects are in the pipeline, including big investments in transport infrastructure, particularly in Dhaka. The garment assembly business remains a key part of the economy, with moves to clean up industrial practices and workers' conditions after the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse that killed over 1100 people.
The economy may be growing at an impressive rate, but in a country that is the most densely populated of any large nation, millions still face harsh challenges. Bangladesh is particularly prone to climate change – melting glaciers in the Himalayas bring increased flooding, while increasingly unpredictable storms in the Bay of Bengal hit the low-lying coast hard. Salination of land and drinking water is causing many farmers to abandon their land and move to Dhaka, a city whose over-burdened infrastructure is already prone to both seasonal floods and drinking water shortages.