Don’t Write Off Bangladesh

The New York Times Editorial (June 12, 1981)

At first glance, the recent news from Bangladesh seems only to confirm that nation’s pathetic image. Born out of a fracturing of Pakistan only a decade ago, Bangladesh early on gained a reputation as an international ”basket case,” a metaphor for misery and hopelessness. Only charity and benefit concerts seemed to sustain its population.

The country’s political development appeared equally discouraging. The charismatic leader for independence, Sheik Mujibur Rahman, was overwhelmed by corruption, then assassinated. Now Ziaur Rahman, who emerged from instability to succeed to the presidency, has also been slain.

Though a dictator, and at times brutal, President Zia was a capable manager and was apparently committed to gradual political reform. His development plans impressed World Bank officials; evidence of tangible progress had begun to dispel the old image. He also rejected the conventional wisdom that economic and political progress are somehow in conflict. He insisted that Bangladesh could have both.

Even events since President Zia’s violent death imply some progress. The attempt to seize the Government failed. The politicized army remained loyal to the constitutional regime. Interim power passed smoothly to a frail Acting President, and plans have been announced for new elections in six months.

It’s too soon to conclude that this institutional strength will outlive its author. The assassination itself does not bode well and the regime may yet collapse under challenge. But President Zia’s unheralded achievements contain a lesson of sorts: No third-world country should be glibly written off. No society wants to be a basket case.

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