“There is a problem with your paperwork,” he said, after consulting in Bangla with his fellow workers. At that moment I was seated in a chair on the opposite side of the overburdened desk of an immigration official at the Bangladesh/India border. “What sort of problem?” I asked. “You see there is not the appropriate stamp on this card,” he responds, “We can let you through, but it will cost money to send your documents to Dhaka be fixed – 5,000 taka.”
While I didn’t have 5,000 taka (approximately $75 USD) on my person, the border official didn’t object when I emptied my wallet for him. Nor did he provide me a receipt to document the “fee” that I had just successfully paid. Unfortunately, according to my Bangladeshi friends and colleagues, this “fee” is certainly nothing uncommon as people attempt to navigate the bureaucracy of Bangladesh.
Lately there is a lot of talk about corruption, especially around Dhaka. I’ve taken to reading the newspapers in the morning and each and every day there are more reports of this official who has been arrested by the Rapid Action Battalion (Rab, a military entity), another who has been tried by the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC), and yet others who are surrounded by rumors of their bad deeds and resigning from their posts.
In fact, the entire purpose of the military-backed caretaker government- who has held power under the authority of emergency rule since January 11th- is to address the corruption that has gripped the nation in a vice and lined the pockets of its most unscrupulous bureaucrats.
Most Bangladeshis say that sacrificing democracy is a price that they are willing to pay in order for change to take root. “While I am suffering,” my friend asserts, “it will be better for our country in the long term.”
The suffering that he notes rises out of the very real negative changes that are taking place in the midst of anti-corruption drives: the price of basic goods is skyrocketing and unemployment is staying high. In fact, this morning’s paper was abuzz with news that the caretaker government will take steps to ban the export of Hilsa fish, a popular and quintessentially Bangladeshi food, in order to ensure that there would be enough of a supply to meet demand in local markets. The story in the next column was titled “Fertiliser hungry farmers ransack UNO office,” detailing angry farmers who rallied against the improper distribution of a critical feature of their livelihoods.
It seems to be an indication of the current political situation in Bangladesh that corruption is so in the lime light. Certainly corruption of those in power has a long and vigorous history in Bangladesh. In the wake of the country’s independence of the early 1970’s, “rather than peace, the guardians of ‘law and order’ had brought extortion, banditry, and terror.”* While the terror may have subsided in many ways, the extortion and banditry continue to impact the lives of people in Bangladesh on a daily basis- and it both saddens and infuriates me to have witnessed it first hand.
The questions that continue to haunt me are these: if the caretaker government fails and corruption continues, is the price of democracy still an appropriate price for Bangladesh to pay? If the anti-corruption drives fail, who will be held accountable? Will the same rationale lead to the ouster of another democratic government in the future? If it does, where will that leave Bangladesh?
*Hartmann and Boyce, “A Quiet Violence: View from a Bangladesh Village,” Dhaka, Bangladesh: University Press Limited. Pg. 242.
Posted By Caitlin Burnett
Posted Jul 5th, 2007