For too many years in the existence of our country we looked back into the year and said that we were glad it was behind us.
Perhaps not this year. Because, most of our past years we have gone through political turmoil, terrorism, or havocs either natural or man-made.
For a large part of our history we have been tackling political vicissitudes of different kinds starting with the demise of democracy followed by uniformed men foisting upon us their versions of politics. We would then see our masses rise in upheaval against oligarchical governments and bring back democracy.
But even those changes did not bring about any substantial improvement in our national politics. We would continue to see partisan politics ride over national interests, rivalry for power replace respect for democracy, and finally, see the demise of decency in politics.
Blockades and powerplay
Only three years ago, about this time, the country had gone through one of the most destructive stages of its politics. Good sense and moral values gave way to wanton display of muscle power -- the streets became battlegrounds for the government and its opposition parties, turning the common man into a hostage to the ongoing fights between these two opposing forces.
The intransigence shown on both sides amazed the average citizen as it seemed as though nothing mattered to the political contestants except power, and how to either cling to it or snatch it away.
While businesses were ruined by ceaseless strikes, there seemed to be no interest among the political adversaries to bring a voice of reason to all the madness. It appeared that the whole country was headed to a precipice of no return.
Yet, the country survived those ordeals just as it had survived natural disasters of flood, hurricane, and drought.
It survived that period of manmade disaster and political catastrophe. This is no thanks to the sanity of our politics (which sounds like an oxymoron), but for the resilience of our people who have the capacity to absorb such disruptions, and the ability to bounce back after a disaster.
It is partly because of our people’s unwillingness to submit to political blackmail (strikes, blockades, etc), and partly due to the sheer need to carry on with their livelihood, that led the country back to normalcy. But it is also the general change in people’s attitude to help themselves without waiting for the government that also brought the country back on track.
People were not willing to be victims of political shenanigans and hooliganism. They learned enough from the political anarchy and street fights of the last decade that they have nothing to gain from these fights.
To succeed in the next decade we need to build on the positives that have happened and give our people what they deserve, which are: Good governance, rule of law, and safety and security of life and property
When terror took hold
Unfortunately, in the last few years we not only had to go through political turmoil, we also suffered periods of terror that were unleashed in the country by religious zealots and acolytes of a dreadful ideology that has spread fear inside and outside the country.
A series of killings that were initially attributed by the government to political opposition despite ample evidence of growing militancy in the country, culminated in a harrowing case of terrorism at an upscale restaurant in Gulshan.
These incidents put the country on the terror-watch list, putting domestic political turmoil in the back burner temporarily.
When we look back on the past year, we have to review it from the above perspectives. We did not have any significant political agitation or any serious threat to the existing order. Most importantly, we did not have a major terror attack like in 2016.
In fact, it was a relatively placid year but for the large scale influx of Rohingya refugees. But that is an ordeal created entirely by forces beyond our control, much like a natural disaster. As we look back into the year that has passed there are three things over which we need to ponder.
First, is the absence of political agitation good for the country or it is a warning of more ominous things to come? Second, does the absence of any incidence of terrorism signify that we have successfully eradicated religious militancy from the country? And third, can we really solve the Rohingya refugee problem in the coming year and will they return voluntarily?
Opposition is fundamental to democracy, along with the right of every citizen to participate in the governance of the country.
What makes for a good democracy
As such, the nature of an opposition party is to dispute a government’s policy, and to present alternative policies to the electorate. Political agitation happens when the opposition tries to propagate its views to people in defiance of the government. Absence of such agitation indicates two things; either the opposition is too weak to organise or the opposition has been stifled by the government. Both are harmful in a country that wants to establish democracy.
Our law enforcement agencies may have done a marvelous job preventing incidents of terrorism, but that should not be a source of complacence.
Looking at the world incidents of militancy and terrorism, there are enough reasons to believe that Bangladesh will not remain immune from such incidents in the future.
There are people and organisations in Bangladesh that are actively proselytising and recruiting people into their cause and ideology. They can and will surface with the slightest slack in law enforcement and with political indulgence. We need to be alert.
Third is the Rohingya resettlement issue. With nearly a million refugees in our already over-populated country, we can ill-afford to sustain them for an indefinite period. But then the Rohingya are not just another bunch of refugees like the Syrians in Turkey or Europe.
They are ethnically Bengalis, and although they have been in Myanmar for several generations, the Myanmar government and people do not accept them as their own. Their return to Myanmar, even to designated enclaves, will not guarantee the safety and security ensured for Myanmar citizens. There may be agreement between the two countries for the return of the Rohingya, but this will not be voluntary unless Myanmar gives them recognition as citizens.
As we step into a new year all we can hope for is that we are not led into complacency by the relatively good year we had simply because really terrible things did not happen like in the previous year.
To succeed in the next decade, we need to build on the positives that have happened and give our people what they deserve, which are: Good governance, rule of law, and safety and security of life and property.
Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the US.