With Bangladesh’s parliamentary elections date inching closer with each passing day, deadly protests by opposition parties demanding the Prime Minister’s resignation have rocked the country. The main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), whose top leaders are either jailed or in exile, has already said it will boycott the polls if Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina does not resign and transfer power to a non-partisan caretaker government to oversee the general election.
Meanwhile, Shahriar Alam, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, People’s Republic of Bangladesh, and bigwig of Awami League party, in exclusive conversation with Times Network, traded guns on the principal oppositon party (Bangladesh Nationalist Party) for deadly protests across nation.
Question: Your elections are coming. And there’s a lot of violence, buses are burning, trucks are burning. This has to stop…
Shahriar Alam: Definitely. This is not unexpected. The BNP (The Bangladesh Nationalist Party, the principal opposition party) and the Jamaat did this in 2014 and 2008. They are responsible. We’re better prepared this time. As a result, the damage is less, but marginally less. They’ve tried their best, and the real election period is yet to begin; another six weeks to go. They have killed policemen. They have attacked police hospitals. They have burnt ambulances, buses and trucks. Their only objective is to destroy and put on hold to the hard earned democratic forces in the country, led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. She became prime minister in 1996 and came back in 2009. We are mindful; our political activists, the law enforcement agencies and intelligence officers. They have made a lot of sacrifices.
We will not allow them to do what they did in 2014 and 2018. The vigilance is improving and the levels of violence are coming down. The people are getting into election mode. See… today some people have called for a hartal and you can hear traffic noises. The people have rejected it.
Question: Sheikh Hasina remains a popular leader, but there seems to be problems at lower levels. Do you see changes being made before the elections?
Shahriar Alam: I am one of the 350 MPs. So, I am not in a position to judge anyone’s performance. I am sure not everyone’s performance is equal and this is the time to take stock, look at the balance sheet and I am sure the party will decide. Sheikh Hasina is the leader of the parliamentary party and her choices have largely been successful. I must remind you of the conduct of our MPs. There is a lot less corruption, there is no corruption, no allegation against ministers. Sheikh Hasina has reached a certain level; it’s difficult to challenge or have an argument about her (work). You simply cannot… her struggle… her journey. Has any leader today lost her entire family (except a sister) to assassins? All in one evening, one night. Name me a female leader in a Muslim majority country who has been so successful. Name me a country where the prime minister is a woman as is the leader of the opposition and the Speaker and people are happy? Name me a country, a developing country that has completed a multibillion dollar project without external finance? We have built the Padma bridge. We are only the 33rd country in the world to build a nuclear power plant. We are confident and even those countries sometimes critical of us know what it is like to run a country. In areas like climate change, women’s empowerment, poverty alleviation and the World Health Organisation…it looks and sounds incomplete without Sheikh Hasina.
We are not considered a less developed country; we are still a LDC, but I would like to remind everyone that in terms of per capita and GDP, we are one of the best in the region. The forecast suggests that we will continue to do better in the coming days. We have a fantastic future ahead of us and we don’t want any force, domestic or foreign, to try and put a halt to it. We are leaders, we represent Sheikh Hasina and we are united behind her.
Question: There’s been a lot of talk in the West about your elections. Also, how do you see India’s role?
Shahriar Alam: We pursue a policy of non-interference. We except our friends, neighbours and everyone else, including those across the Atlantic to refrain from interfering in domestic affairs. We have communicated that to their capitals. They said they don’t take sides, but what we said is that it was and still is the aspiration of the founding father of Bangladesh, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and his daughter, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to give voting rights to the people of Bangladesh.
That’s what she did in 1996 and while coming back a second time in 2009, she made sure everyone had a photo ID. It’s our aspiration, it’s our journey, it’s not for any colonial power to tell us, to remind us. We appreciate India’s stance. In the USA, we see every day, BNP and Jamaat supported media and with all due respect to the media, paid journalists— in fact they are not journalists, they are BNP activists… We have hard evidence that we have passed on to the State Department about the person asking questions or rather, leading questions trying to compel the State Department spokesperson to say something against Bangladesh. And in recent times, he’s getting tired and puzzled. He’s said he doesn’t want to take more questions and he doesn’t want to say anything that’s seen as interference. He’s said he hoped the election will be participatory and free and fair. That’s our commitment. There’s no difference in that. There were cases where we thought that their diplomats were crossing limits. We have exchanged information and ideas and had meetings. It’s all in the past now and we’re confident that there will be no interference.
Question: Another term is coming up. What are the expectations? What are you planning if you’re elected? Assuming you win, what are you looking at in terms of your ties with India?
Shahriar Alam: You have been here for three decades, maybe even four decades. You have seen Bangladesh. When we first met ten years ago, Dhaka was very different, Bangladesh was very different. When you land in Dhaka, you can take the expressway, you can take the Japanese built metro railway. Deep sea ports are being built; there’s a new terminal. There are other major projects, mega projects. There’s Cox’s Bazar. The British failed to build a railway link between Dhaka and Yangon. There was a famous multimodal journey people used to make to get from Kolkata to Yangon. There were films made about it, Uttam Kumar, the great actor in Tollywood, was in them. There was no connectivity. It was bus, motor launch and so on. Now, we are connecting Kolkata to Yangon. Picture that. Think of what it was like in 1947. Sheikh Hasina has done something leading engineers could not do, what great powers could not do. Look at the Padma bridge. Without any commitment from foreign institutions or the ADB or Japan, we built a mighty bridge of 6.5 km using our own finances. We are at a different level already. The confidence is high. There are challenges. There will be challenges. It isn’t an easy region. It isn’t an easy country. Our journey has been phenomenal. It has given us confidence. It has led to a lot of aspirations. It has encouraged us, but no one can meet the expectations of the people except Sheikh Hasina. We have to do more. Bangladesh is set to become a higher income country. Bangladesh is set to become a larger economy; it is already the 35th. We are looking at the difficult issues, like women’s empowerment. We’ll work towards religious harmony, fight climate change, deprivation, fundamentalism and xenophobia.