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|Volume 11 |Issue 49| December 14, 2012 ||
The Bangladeshi flag hangs in the living room, in what has become a December tradition. It's about Victory Day but nor does the red and green go astray in the Christmas season. I've never thought to write about 1971. I wasn't here and there are people far more qualified to do it. But strange as it may be on 16 December I feel gratitude for a victory that is not mine, for the independent Bangladesh I admire. And it is of modern Bangladesh that I wish to write.
To do so I rely on what must be the sole advantage, and it isn't much of one: being born elsewhere there are differences to observe and many aspects of Bangladesh would seem to have been shaped by the events of that fateful year. Bangladesh was born in blood. Australia was born with an Act of British Parliament.
In Bangladesh I see a belief in justice and more specifically, standing against injustice. It's to be found in many places: on the street when petty disputes draw in bystanders to actively partake in finding a solution, hopefully via discussion and considering the merits of each side of the argument; in the newspapers which skilfully represent the underdog, the hard done by, even when vested interests might not like it; in the courts who are rather good at pursuing their own motions and through such judicial activism demonstrate significant potential to contribute to improving society. In Australia these things don't happen or not to the same extent.
Australia is a developed country, wealthy in mineral resources, two and half times larger than India. Bangladesh has few earthy resources and a small territory by comparison.
In Bangladesh there is independent thinking, from the rickshaw driver painstakingly putting his case to the policeman for some infringement to the government's refusal to simply cave in to the whims of larger powers like India or America. It's refreshing because in Australia debate usually centres on how much to please America. The recent vote on Palestine at the UN is a case in point. Australia abstained which was considered by its government to be a strong symbol of independent views, which is sad because it was such a singular, minor thing, important symbolically but still just one vote that would not change the outcome, and it was compromise because most who voted for the ruling Labor Party in Australia would likely prefer a vote in favour of Palestine. Australia is for America a very poor ally, as a yes-nodder inevitably is. Meanwhile in Bangladesh the UN vote was a non-issue: there are longstanding principles.
Bangladesh will be 42 in March. Australia turns 112 in January.
In Bangladesh there is dissent and no fear to challenge the powerful. The negative is when it takes on the form of hartals and violence, but consider how important basic dissent is, to democracy. Bangladeshis are not afraid to own their country and if only protests were peaceful and well-targeted they could not but be considered an asset; because the alternative is a conformist society where dissent is actively discouraged. In Australia when Muslims protested against that movie, the Immigration Minister thought to threaten to review their immigration status if they were violent, if they were non-citizens. In Australia after Indian students raised their voice against racial attacks on the streets the government amended citizenship laws to make it more difficult for students, post-studies, to stay. There are many ways to control voices and it's mostly only the new communities that still use them.
In Bangladesh like a phoenix from the ashes arose a vibrant academic and artistic community, to build upon the legacy of the martyred intellectuals. Bangladeshis fought for and died for their language; and culture holds the place of dignity and celebration that it should. In Australia meanwhile funding for the arts remains woeful compared to financial support for sport. It's reminiscent of Soviet policy that favoured sport and ballet, because spectacles of that nature are wholly apolitical and do not encourage a populace to think. And if each Tiger was given about $10 million, which is what Australia spent per Olympic medal achieved in London1, what do you imagine they could achieve? But in the case of the Tigers it's looking as though it's not required.
Australia has a population of 2.2 crores. In Bangladesh there are 16.
If we look to the cleverly drafted Constitution, there are protections there: human rights, freedom of expression. It's a people-centred document. In Australia there is no protection for freedom of expression and little for human rights which are at best contained in ordinary legislation that can be and is changed by the government-of-the-day at whim. It's how the provisions of the Racial Discrimination Act were suspended in order to intervene in remote aboriginal communities. The government told aboriginal people how to spend their income. And the valid point that protection of human rights is not always achieved in Bangladesh does not lessen the wisdom of the Constitution; it makes it more remarkable since human rights as a national value become the starting point of discussion. Australia debates meanwhile whether there is need for national values, whether formal protections are at all necessary and what such values could be. Ultimately it's a simple matter of valuing human liberty.
And then there was the tragedy at Tazreen Fashions, which shouldn't have happened but did. Even with such a horrible event with Australian eyes I see, am impressed by the outpouring of grief, concern and self-reflection. Because as you may know, the Australian government operates camps in Papua New Guinea and Nauru for boat arriving asylum-seekers where inmates can expect to wait for years, where they currently live in tents, where there are suicide attempts and hunger strikes. As you may know, the Australian government holds fifty plus human beings in indefinite detention because although refugees they have been determined by secret security assessment to be threats to the community. Those inmates are not allowed to know the charge against them. For the most part they are Sri Lankan Tamils who would seem unlikely threats to the Australian community, and they cannot defend themselves. These are official policies that operate every day and can have no less cruelty to them than any potential act of negligence that led to the Tazreen fire but there is little outcry.
And of bravery and boldness I see abundance, not only in the history books but now, in all of the above aspects of Bangladesh and of course, you know it, in the very difficult struggle for daily life that too many Bangladeshis still face. And they smile.
As a westerner, on 16 December I remember Senator Edward Kennedy and George Harrison were not afraid to stand up and be counted.
I know and you know how easily this country's challenges, shortcomings and failures can be spoken of; how many there are to choose from – free speech, it is there to a very significant degree – people can talk; journalists inform and with a degree of daring and bravery too. But save that talk please for December 17, since Victory Day is for remembering the struggle and sacrifice that created this young nation where people live cheek by jowl in relative peace. Victory Day is to recall that along with the many other things, good and bad, that modern Bangladesh is, it remains not less than a minor miracle.
People value the things they have to fight for. In the month when we remember courage, let's value Bangladesh, because Bangladesh was born in blood.
1. 'Chris Johnston, Marc Moncrief and Caroline Wilson, “What Price Medals?” in the Sydney Morning Herald, 11 August 2012.