Country profile: Bangladesh
Country profile: Bangladesh
Bangladesh is one of the world’s most densely populated countries, with its people crammed into a delta of rivers that empties into the Bay of Bengal.
Poverty is deep and widespread; almost half of the population live on less than one dollar a day. However, Bangladesh has reduced population growth and improved health and education.
The major employer is agriculture, but it is unable to meet the demand for jobs. Thus many Bangladeshis – in common with citizens from other countries in the region – seek work abroad, sometimes illegally. The country is trying to diversify its economy, with industrial development a priority. Overseas investors have pumped money into manufacturing and the energy sector.
Onshore and offshore gas reserves hold out some chance of future prosperity. There has been a debate about whether the reserves should be kept for domestic use or exported. Some international energy companies are involved in the gas sector.
Formerly East Pakistan, Bangladesh came into being only in 1971, when the two parts of Pakistan split after a bitter civil war which drew in neighbouring India.
Bangladesh spent 15 years under military rule and, although democracy was restored in 1990, the political scene remains volatile.
Analysts say the antagonism between the Awami League, which governed until July 2001, and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party reflects personal animosity between their leaders rather than substantial ideological differences.
Political tensions have spilled over into violence; hundreds of people have been killed in recent years. Attacks have targeted opposition rallies and public gatherings. Senior opposition figures have also been targeted.
Concern has grown about religious extremism in the traditionally moderate and tolerant country, which found apparent form in a string of bomb attacks in August 2005. The government, which long denied that it had a problem with militants, has outlawed two fringe Islamic organisations.
Bangladesh has been criticised for its human rights record, with particular concern about assaults on women and allegations that police use torture against those in custody.
The low-lying country is vulnerable to flooding and cyclones and it stands to be badly affected by predicted rises in sea levels.
President: Iajuddin Ahmed
Head of interim government: Fakhruddin Ahmed
Dr Fakhruddin Ahmed, a former head of the central bank, took over as head of the interim government in January 2007.
It has the backing of the military, but Dr Ahmed said it is his administration which is in charge.
The interim government has promised to clean up corruption before the elections, and has set up fast-track courts to prosecute dozens of high profile political figures.
It has also tried to exclude the country’s two leading women from politics arguing that the presence of the two party leaders was stopping it from carrying out constitutional reforms.
Widespread violence between supporters of the two women led to the cancellation of January’s general election and the imposition of a state of emergency.
The caretaker authority replaced Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia at the end of her five-year mandate in October 2006.
Bangladesh introduced the caretaker system in 1991 after military president Hossain Mohammad Ershad was toppled through a people’s uprising led jointly by Khaleda and Sheikh Hasina, who now heads the main opposition party, the Awami League.
The system, designed to prevent ruling parties from rigging polls, is considered to have worked generally well in three elections.
Leading women in politics
Politics has been dominated by arch-enemies Begum Khaleda Zia, the chief of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), and Sheikh Hasina, leader of the Awami League.
Politics has remained virtually frozen under the state of emergency imposed in January. But several small parties have emerged, aiming to offer a third force in the country’s traditionally confrontational politics. Some analysts say no other party or alliance is strong enough to defeat Awami League or BNP in the coming polls if the two women remain at the helm.
Hasina was prime minister from 1996 to 2001.
The hostility between the women stems in part from differences over who played a greater role in the country’s independence struggle – Hasina’s father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, or Khaleda’s husband, General Ziaur Rahman.
After independence from Pakistan in 1971, Mujib was named father of the nation in the country’s 1972 constitution.
But when Khaleda assumed power in 1991 her party pushed the idea that her husband was an equally key player in the independence struggle.
Khaleda’s government amended the constitution in 2004 to delete the reference that Mujib was the father of the nation.
Khaleda and Hasina sank their differences when military ruler Hossain Mohammad Ershad was in power from 1982 to 1990. The two cooperated in the movement to oust Ershad.
But their alliance ended with Ershad’s departure and they have been uncompromising rivals ever since on a range of issues.
Hasina accuses Khaleda’s BNP and its Islamic allies with links to outlawed Islamist groups blamed for a series of bomb attacks in 2007.
Khaleda says Hasina’s statements amount to treason.
Hasina escaped an assassination attempt in August 2004 when grenades exploded at a rally she was addressing. Twenty-three people were killed in the attack, which the Awami League said could be linked to parties in the ruling coalition.
The main broadcasters – Radio Bangladesh and Bangladesh Television (BTV) – are state-owned and favourable to the government. Little coverage is given to the political opposition, except in the run-up to general elections when a caretaker government takes control.
TV dominates media usage, especially in the cities. BTV is the sole terrestrial TV channel. Popular satellite and cable channels include ATN, Channel i, NTV, RTV, Channel One, BanglaVision and Boishakhi. The advent of these private broadcasters has had little impact in rural areas.
Foreign, especially Indian, TV stations have gained large audiences in Dhaka and other cities.
State-run radio covers almost the entire country. BBC World Service programmes in English and Bengali are broadcast on 100 MHz FM in Dhaka.
Bangladeshi newspapers are diverse, outspoken and privately-owned. The print media are privately owned and there is a strong tradition of owner-editorship. English-language titles appeal mainly to an educated urban readership.
The constitution guarantees press freedom, but journalists are subject to regular harassment from the police and political activists. The government exercises a degree of control through the placement of official advertising.
Media rights organisation Reporters Without Borders has accused the army of targeting journalists, who it says face arrest, maltreatment and censorship.
There were 450,000 internet users in Bangladesh by September 2007 – 0.3% of the population (ITU figure).