Bangladesh: A habitat of strange people

Part 1.

A synopsis of what the country got from its leaders

                                              By Mohammad Asghar

It was 1973. I was accompanying a friend of mine to Genoa, Italy. He needed my help with the conclusion of an agency agreement with Piaggo and Co. This company was the largest exporter of three wheeler taxis and Vespa scooters to Bangladesh. My friend had been issuing indents on this company for almost a year without an agreement.

Bangladesh was still an un-organized country. It did not have any passport to issue to its citizens for travel abroad. On our request, the Immigration Department issued us two “chardpatras” (permits) to facilitate our journey. We applied to Bangladesh Bank, and it permitted us to carry ten English Pounds (five for each) in traveler’s check to cover our entire journey from Bangladesh to Genoa, via New Delhi, and return.

After landing in Rome one fine morning, we went to the immigration counter. The officer glanced at our chardpatras; let a faint smile creep up on his face; cast a cursory look at our faces; picked up his official seal; affixed it to our chardpatras and waved us in. At the custom counter, the officer took a look at our chardpatras, and signaled us out of the custom hall.

My friend and I compared the scrutiny we were subjected to at New Delhi Airport with the one we were given at Rome and concluded that, perhaps, it was the way in which the Italians treated their foreign guests. (In Delhi, it was different; we were given a special treatment, as we looked like Indians!).

Our business over, we decided to reroute our tickets (first class, provided by Piaggo and Co.) so that we could go around the world before returning to Bangladesh. The Rome office of Air India was kind; it issued us two new economic class tickets that covered London, Stockholm, Tokyo via Alaska, Hong Kong, Bangkok and Dhaka (at that time, it was Decca). We had to pay a few hundred Dollars for rerouting our tickets (thanks to Piaggo; it let my friend collect his outstanding commission from them in US Dollars).

We reached Heathrow one late evening by an Alitalia flight. The officer at the immigration counter was a young man, and he had never seen, so it seemed, chardpatras before in his life. He questioned us for about forty-five minutes to make sure that we were genuine travelers and that we had enough money to cover our expenses. After being satisfied, he quipped: I thought that the people of Bangladesh were very poor whom we have been helping with our aid and grants. But I see you two gentlemen are rich. How come?

Incensed by his ignorant and impolite remark, I retorted: Officer, you or your country is giving nothing to our country. What your country had taken out from the Indian sub-continent during your occupation of our lands, your country has been paying it back in easy installments. We are allowing you to do so, as we are a kind people. If we had insisted on a one-time return of everything your country had taken out of our lands, your country would have gone bankrupt a long time ago.

Thus expressing my anger, I looked up at his face; it was red and his eyes moist. Without saying anything further, he chopped our chardpatras, with permission to stay in England for three months.

At Stockholm, we sailed through immigration and customs, without being asked a single question. In Tokyo, the young female immigration officer had failed, perhaps, to recognize our chardpatras, but she resolved her problem after having a consultation with one of her colleagues without letting us know the nature of problem she had with our document.

Hong Kong and Bangkok welcomed us with open arms. Though our chardpatras had created a little ripple at Hong Kong, immigration officers at Bangkok appeared very familiar with them, thanks to Patpong and other “tourist attractions,” which must have had motivated many neo-rich Bangladeshis to visit Thailand in order to help rid this formerly poor Buddhist country of its grinding poverty.

After my first overseas visit in 1973, I kept on visiting most of the far-eastern countries, I do not know for how many times. At Narita of Japan and Kimpo of Seoul, I needed no visas; my green passport was enough to let me enter these two countries without any hindrance whatsoever. The same was the situation with Bangkok and Hong Kong; I spent only so much time at the airports as was necessary for me to reach the immigration and custom counters.

The situation changed when Bangladesh decided to impose visa restrictions on the people of Japan and Korea. Both these countries retaliated in kind, but remained lukewarm in implementing their new immigration laws in respect to the people of Bangladesh.

Bangladesh, though never a destination of great attraction, became very serious in seeing that all Japanese and Koreans followed its visa requirements. In its zest to prevail, Dhaka Airport was instructed not to let the people of these two countries enter Bangladesh, unless they had obtained visas prior to their arrival.

A group of Japanese investors fell victim to Dhaka’s whimsical law; Zia’s immigration department refused to let them in as they had arrived without visas, though there existed, I believe, a provision for the visitors without visas, to get temporary visas on arrival at the Airport on payment of a certain amount of fee.

The Japanese remained confined at the airport for a number of hours. They could walk out of their confinement only after the Japanese Embassy came forward, and prevailed on the authority to let them go with one of its high officials.

The Japanese went to a hotel in Dhaka, relaxed in it during the night and then left for Bangkok, the next morning with a vow never to come to Dhaka again.

Japan did not take the humiliation of its people kindly; it also put into operation its own immigration restrictions on the Bengalees. They could no more enter Japan as easily as it was possible in the past. Its Embassy in Dhaka checked stringently the bona fides of all the Bangladeshi visa applicants, who wanted to visit Japan. Even those, like myself, who had been to this country a number of times in the past faced difficulties in obtaining visas; this despite the fact that they provided satisfactory proofs to justify their visit to Japan on business and other important considerations.

While Japan was tightening its visa rules on the Bangladeshi people, Bangladesh Biman opened its flight to Kyoto. Over two hundred Bangladeshi ‘businessmen’ were scheduled to travel by its inaugural flight. The Federation of Chamber and Commerce requested, and the Japanese Embassy issued visas to all of them. They traveled to Kyoto, but none of them returned to Dhaka.

Press reports had it that each one of the stowaways had paid the President of the Federation a large sum of money for the help he gave them in obtaining visas from the Japanese Embassy. When the Biman guests did not return home, the Embassy became furious. Failing to punish the President of the Federation for his fraudulent act, the Embassy satisfied itself by barring him for life from approaching its premises in Dhaka.

Even though Biman was claiming that the “world was becoming smaller,” in fact, many countries of it were becoming out of reach of the people of Bangladesh. Middle-Eastern countries were sending back many of them who had gone their on employment. Others stopped hiring them altogether.

Bangladeshis, therefore, began looking for other venues where they could find employments, legally or illegally. Their desperate search for means of livelihood took them to Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea. Many went to these countries as businessmen, and stayed back after taking up jobs in factories and other establishments, which needed them for meeting the shortage of menial workers from among their own people. Others entered those countries through illegal routes, thus creating problems for those countries’ law enforcement agencies.

Frustrated, most of the Far East and South Eastern countries shut down their doors on the Bangladeshis; even Singapore, generally a liberal country in respect to tourists, imposed embargo on the visa-free entry of we Bengalees into this country. Bengalees are now being required by the tourist-friendly Thailand to obtain their visas before arriving in Bangkok.

According to a recent press report, over ten thousand Bangladeshis have been lingering in Malaysian jails for a long time. Some were caught in Laos, while trying to proceed to Japan. At least seven Bangladeshis were dumped on Jordan-Iraq border by their agent, who was responsible to take them to somewhere else in the Middle East with the promise of providing them with jobs.

Jordanian police helped them out of the danger that loomed over their head in Iraq. What happened to these unfortunate men later is not within my knowledge.

There was a time when many hotels in Bangkok would not check-in visitors from Bangladesh without first taking a deposit; hospitals would not treat them without receiving the estimated cost of their treatment.

The Thai people had to adopt the above precautionary measures, because many Bangladeshis, including the well-to-do folks among them, left their hotel rooms and hospital beds without paying their bills.

Those of our compatriots who failed to enter the territories of the countries, named above, they traveled through land to Turkey and then tried to cross into Greece during winter, when the Greek guards remain less alert on their borders. Many Bangladeshis lost their toes and noses to frost bites, for the reason that they had failed to make a living in the country of their birth.

At this stage of my narrative, I need to digress from my main theme in order to assure readers that what I have stated above, or am about to write below, are not intended to cast aspersion on Bangladesh, nor is it my intention to make light of the struggles many of its unfortunate people are forced to undertake in order to survive in our cruel world. Through this write up, I intend to point out where the so-called leaders of Bangladesh have led the country to, and also to remind readers of how the ruling elites and their cohorts have steadily been making the lives of its common people unbearable.

South Korea was once one of the poorest countries in the Far East. It is today a rising star, drawing admiration even from its former distracters. If we were to compare its economic conditions with that of Bangladesh of 1970s, I can say without hesitation that South Korea did not have much appreciable advantage over Bangladesh. But today, South Korea has not only left Bangladesh much behind in its march to advancement and progress, it has also become one of the much sought-after destinations for many overseas job seekers of Bangladesh.

A little consideration of what I was once told by one of the South Korean Ambassadors to Dhaka should help readers know the main cause for Bangladesh’s ever deteriorating situation.

Asked to compare his country’s situation with that of Bangladesh, he had told me: My country is one of the most corrupt countries of the world. You cannot do much in Korea without paying something to someone for doing something for you. But we Koreans take precautions in certain matters: we do not receive bribes, nor are expected to pay bribes in those cases where we know paying and receiving bribes are going to harm our common interests. For example, we avoid taking bribes in projects like building roads and sub-ways. We all know that all of us have to use them in our daily lives. Since indulgence in corruption is not likely to produce a good and strong road or sub-way, we try our best to keep sectors like these two out of our culture of bribe.

But my long stay in Bangladesh, as well as my dealings with many officials of your country has made on thing very clear to me and that is this: Many among them do not accept even aid or grants for the poor people of your country without first receiving their share of bribes.

Above was a revelation that has been boggling my mind for over twenty years. I have tried to verify the Ambassador’s remarks, but could not make any headway, as I did not have right connections in the Government of Bangladesh.

Transparency International Bangladesh confirmed what the Korean Ambassador had told me a long time ago. In a study entitled “Endemic Corruption in Bangladesh” released recently, it said that at least 75 percent of foreign aid received by Bangladesh does not reach its intended target because of corruption (source: The Daily Times of Pakistan).

This explains why the majority of the people of Bangladesh are so poor, despite the fact that their country is the recipient of a large amount of foreign aid, and also when each one of them owes today approximately 28 US Dollars in loan to foreign countries and International Lending Agencies.

The “sarkari kormokartas (literally, officers appointed by the government to boss over the people) are not the only beneficiaries of the plunder; many businessmen, especially the elite ones, also get their share of it, through their collaborative efforts. If not all, but most of the projects, such as the laying of gas pipe lines, construction of power stations, building of bridges like the one over the Jamuna River, and the contracts for exploration of gas in the country etc. have local agents to represent their foreign principals. They help their principals with the negotiation of their deals with the government.

Most often, agents negotiate the amount of bribe to be paid to the concerned officers of the government. The lesser amount they are able to negotiate for payment, the higher income they derive from the projects for themselves. Representing foreign principals has been, and still remains a highly lucrative business for many businessmen of Bangladesh. Consequently, most of them have never tried to develop local resources or expertise for the execution of projects that are essential for the development and progress and wellbeing of Bangladesh.

July 24, 2004

To continue


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Mohammad Asghar writes from USA. 

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