Bitter rivalry blinds Bangladesh’s leaders

There could not be a better example of the skewed priorities in Bangladesh than the response to two fires. A bus is firebombed in a political riot and seven people are burnt to death and fifteen others seriously injured. A fire breaks out at a Dhaka plastics factory and at least 13 people die in the inferno, while scores more suffer horrific injuries from molten plastic and poisonous smoke.
The attack on the bus in Chauddagram in Chittagong has led to the government charging the leader of the opposition with instigating murder. Khaleda Zia, leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, has been accused by the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of promoting the murderous rioting in order to force fresh elections.  Zia and her BNP boycotted last year’s polls saying that they would be rigged in the government’s favor.
This is the latest crass episode in a long-running tale of bitter rivalry between these two political leaders, a rivalry that transcends common sense and which indeed transcends the best interests of their country. Hasina changed Bangladesh’s widely-admired interregnum arrangements, whereby, when an election was due, the day-to-day business of government was passed to an interim administration of bureaucrats and technocrats whose job was also to organize the elections. Zia protested that the changes would allow Hasina to rig the election. Legal challenges failed. As a result, Zia and her BNP refused to take part in the elections and Hasina stayed in power.
Once the ballot box was removed, highly-predictable violent political protest became inevitable.  Hasina knew this when she changed the election arrangements. Zia knew this when she refused to take part in the poll.
There is little to choose between them. If Zia really deserves to be in the dock over the bus murders, then so too does the prime minister. Neither politician should be playing on the frustration and volatility of their citizens in a cynical attempt to score further political points.
The tragedy is that real issues are being ignored. Most obvious is the safety of the country’s overcrowded multi-story factories were a scandalous contempt for the well-being of workers still leads to mass death and injury.
The latest such outrage came last week when fire swept through the Nasim Plastic House. As has happened so many times before, fire precautions proved completely inadequate, emergency exits, where they in fact existed, were unserviceable and too many panicking workers scrambled to leave the building. It is being alleged that the management had never held a single fire drill. Bosses did not even have a full record of who was working in the plant. Thus six days after the blaze was finally extinguished by poorly-equipped firemen who struggled to cope with its size, it is still not clear how many people have been slain.
And slain is the right word for it. The 2013 Rana Plaza fire in which 1,100 garment workers were burnt to death was the largest known case of corporate murder. Yet despite official promises to crackdown on cost-cutting owners, corrupted planners and bent regulators, too many Bangladeshi factories continue to be death traps.
Because Hasina and Zia are fixated on their own unbecoming fistfight for power, the real issues that need urgent attention are being ignored. Bangladesh deserves better of its politicians.