Posted by: John Elliott | May 20, 2008

Bangladesh waits for political stability – and tourists

“Visit Bangladesh before the tourists come” says a poster at Dhaka airport. It is the slogan of the Bangladesh tourist association and it’s not much of a come-on, but it is apt. Who could contemplate going on holiday to one of the world’s poorest countries, known less for sunny beaches than for devastating coastal cyclones, growing Islamic fundamentalism, and instability?

The answer, now, is me. Tempted there last week to stay with a friend working in Dhaka, the capital, I found that, though unsure of where it is heading politically and economically, Bangladesh is even more welcoming than India where I live. It has magnificent scenery and a thriving modern art scene.

untitled by Mahmudul Haq

untitled by Mahmudul Haq

Alongside devastating poverty, Dhaka is full of prosperous garment exporters who double (everyone assumes through massive money laundering) as real estate developers. There was general agreement that investment had slumped since a military-controlled caretaker government ousted the country’s appalling politicians in January 2007 and declared a state of emergency – but not about why.

“The government has tightened up on investment regulations and it’s more difficult now for the businessmen to bring in funds,” said a veteran expatriate. “The government is so corrupt that it’s impossible to do business here so I’m going back to the U.S.,” said a rich garment and real estate businessman, less plausibly, but very revealingly.

The generals took control so quietly 16 months ago that western countries ignored what was basically a military coup, hoping it would led to better government than two warring political begums, Sheikh Hasina Wajed of the Awami League and Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, had provided in the previous 20 years, when both had been prime ministers.

across to Meghalaya, north-east India

across to Meghalaya, north-east India

So low-key was the takeover that The Economist ran an article headed “The coup that dare not speak its name.” Gradually the generals got tougher, locking up the two begums on corruption charges, but failing either to send them into exile or mount viable legal cases against them. Earlier this month, formal legal charges were brought against Zia and other officials, for alleged corruption on gas exploration contracts awarded in 2001 to Niko Resources Ltd (NKO.TO), a Canadian oil exploration firm.

Now there is a growing food crisis, which was started by floods and a crippling cyclone last year and is now being fuelled by escalation in global prices for rice – the staple diet for at least a third of Bangladeshi’s 160 million population. Inevitably the generals are being blamed, and the politicians are saying they would have managed things better.

Calls are growing for the political leaders to be released from jail so they can participate in delayed elections that have been promised for December. It is beginning to look as if this will be yet another example – seen recently in Pakistan – of military leaders failing to change the democratic landscape and, consequently, having to hand control back to the same political leaders whose earlier shambles provoked the military intervention.

In 1971, when Bangladesh won independence from Pakistan, Henry Kissinger famously said “the place is and always will be a basket case.” He now avoids questions about that petulant remark, made at a time when the U.S. had been opposing the independence, but he must know that he was wrong – even though the country’s development has been stymied for decades by the warring political parties and an interfering military.

Now there is so much potential just waiting for positive and sustained political leadership. There is the highly successful garment industry and large coal and natural gas reserves. Then there is low-cost tourism, as well as a thriving modern art scene in Dhaka that has developed separately from the more prosperous art market in India’s neighboring state of West Bengal.

Modern Bangladeshi artists focus on strongly colored abstracts and landscapes because of a taboo on idolatry that leads them to avoid portraying people’s bodies and faces. Their prices are much lower than those in India because there are very few rich Bangladeshis living abroad to escalate prices in international markets, and works by well-known artists can be bought for $1,500 or less.

tea gardens near Sylhet

tea gardens near Sylhet

I went to the tea estates area in the north-east, on the border with the Indian state of Meghalaya. This is near the city of Sylhet, which has grown prosperous (and ugly) because it has for several decades provided Britain with most of its curry house owners and cooks.

I stayed in one of the Bangladesh’s first resorts, in the middle of rolling hills covered with tea plantations near the Surma River that flows from India through Bangladesh into the Bay of Bengal. Here there were plenty of opportunities for hiking and biking and boating on the Surma up to the Indian border – an area waiting for the tourists that are yet to come.

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