In the op-ed, “Bangladesh Papering Over The Cracks At Home And Abroad,” (Nov. 1) writer Chloe Durham makes factual errors regarding Bangladesh’s 2018 election and mischaracterizes elements of Bangladesh’s civil society and media freedoms.
Contrary to Ms. Durham’s claim, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League did not win “96% of the vote.” Rather, the Awami League received 76% of the vote cast. A simple Google search would have saved Ms. Durham from this mistake.
Bangladesh is a democracy of 165 million people with more than 100 million eligible voters. Its most recent election was fair, free and remarkably peaceful given the country’s often violent political history. It is a testament to the preparedness of the governing Awami League that fewer than 20 people were killed. It’s worth noting that the victims were members of the Awami League who were killed by opposition Bangladeshi Nationalist Party.
International observers from India, the largest democracy in the world, and the Islamic Organization for Cooperation have said that the voting in 2018 was peaceful and fair. Bangladeshis were not intimidated into voting for the Prime Minister’s Awami League. Rather, law enforcement authorities appropriately mitigated pre-election violence waged by the opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, to ensure a peaceful and fair vote.
As a result of the peaceful election environment, 80 percent of voters turned out on election day. It strains credulity to think that 80 percent of voters turned out while simultaneously being suppressed. In the end, a substantial majority of voters backed the party led by Prime Minister Hasina because the party had brought economic opportunity and growth on a scale not even imagined until recent years. This outcome was telegraphed well in advance by polls conducted by the U.S.’s respected Democracy International and by Bangladesh’s Research and Development Center.
Ms. Durham also misrepresents the massive humanitarian effort Bangladesh has undertaken on behalf of the more than one million Rohingya refugees being sheltered in Bangladesh. Ms. Durham criticizes Bangladesh for building a new, safe and stable facility to voluntarily relocate up to 100,000 Rohingya refugees on Bhashan Char, an island near Bangladesh’s Bay of Bengal coastline. Contrary to Ms. Durham’s assertion, every effort to guard against cyclones has been taken. To guard against storm surges, the government has built earthen berms 8 feet high and 8 miles long around the facility. The shelters are built of brick with metal roofs. There will be hospitals, schools, playgrounds and prayer houses. Many Rohingya refugees have rightfully rejoiced over the planned relocation to the well-developed island.
The article also mischaracterizes the arrest of photojournalist Shahidul Alam. Alam has long expressed his dissenting opinions as is the right of all Bangladeshis. Police arrested him because his latest pronouncements included false claims about students’ deaths that incited violence and led to injuries and an attack on the governing party’s headquarters. In the U.S., it’s illegal to yell fire in a theater when there is no fire. Mr. Alam did the equivalent in Dhaka and was appropriately charged with a crime.
Bangladesh has a vibrant and free press. Its 20 national newspapers and 3,025 registered newspapers across the country frequently criticize the government. Bangladesh has one state-owned television channel, but 33 others that are privately owned and often criticize the government. The same diversity of views can be found in more than 2,000 independently run news sites online.
Finally, it should relieve Ms. Durham to know that the Digital Security Act has been thoroughly reworked since 2017. The government does not want to silence or impede the media. In addition, the government believes that it must protect its citizens from digital extortion, blackmail and cyberbullying while opening the way for minority voices to be heard. The new Digital Security Act helps the government do all of this.
*Mohammad Ziauddin, Ambassador of Bangladesh to the U.S., Washington D.C.