10 Eye-Opening Facts About Bangladesh
10. “Bangladesh” Did Not Exist Before 1971
Bangladesh as a country did not exist before 1971. Over the centuries, the region of Bengal was ruled by a list of Indian, Turkic, and Mughal dynasties as well as the British.
Following the battle of Plassey in 1757, the British East India Company officially gained control of the region of Bengal from the then ruling Mughals and consolidated it under the company beginning a 200-year period of British rule1. The company exported bamboo, tea, sugar cane, spices, cotton, muslin and jute produced in the now capital city of Dhaka and the districts of Rajshahi, Khulna, Kushtia and Sylhet2.
The company lost control of the Bengal region, following the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 that lead to the transfer of its powers in the region to the British Raj1 which by the early 20th century ruled the majority of the Indian sub-continent. In 1947, the British Raj relinquished its rule over the Indian sub-continent following decades of independence movements, resulting in the establishment of the countries of India and Pakistan—East and West Pakistan. Bangladesh was “East Pakistan” until its Independence in 19713.
9. The Only Country to Fight a War and Declare Independence Over Language
The name “Bangladesh” is made up of two words; “Bangla," the native name of the Bengali language, and “desh," meaning country4.
In the years following the division of the Indian sub-continent, tensions rose between West and East Pakistan (Bangladesh) on a number of different fronts including West Pakistan’s economic exploitation of East Pakistan, political division, cultural differences, views on religious fundamentalism and most importantly—language!5
West Pakistan, with a predominantly Urdu speaking populace looked upon the Bengali language unfavourably as it represented the deep cultural ties of the populace of East Pakistan with the Indian region of West Bengal5.
In 1948, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the leader of the All-India Muslim league and founder of Pakistan declared in Dhaka that Urdu alone should be the national language of Pakistan. This was strongly opposed by the populace of East Pakistan and following the deaths of students and civilians in demonstrations against it on February 21 1952* and West Pakistan imposed martial law, resentment towards West Pakistan continued to fester until on March 7, 1971 Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founder of Bangladesh in a speech urged every household in East Pakistan to remain a “fort of resistance”5.
West Pakistan reacted violently to this with systematic targeted killings at the University of Dhaka and political and ethnic killings around East Pakistan on March 25, 1971. On March 26, 1971 a declaration of independence was broadcasted across East Pakistan in reaction to the killings and war ensued5.
With the assistance of the India the East Pakistani liberation fighters finally defeated West Pakistan by December. West Pakistan signed an Instrument of Surrender on the 16th of December 1971 and Bangladesh was born6.
*Note: UNESCO declared February 21 International Mother Language Day.
8. The Origin of “Bangla” and Ancient History
Although the precise origin of the word “Bangla” or “Bengal” is unknown, it is often attributed to the ancient kingdom of Vanga which was first mentioned in the Aranyanka layers and the Bodhayana sutras of the Vedic texts. They mention the Vangas as a tribe of people living in the regions beyond the borders of the Aryan civilisation in current day central and eastern Bengal (Bangladesh) with intimate political ties to the aristocracy of the ancient kingdom of Ayodhya7, now a city in current day India.
A seafaring thalossocracy, the Arthaxastra of Kautilya, a subsequent ancient Indian treatise on statecraft, economic policy and military strategy, mentions the kingdom as the producers of the finest quality white and soft cotton fabrics8.
7. The Origin of Muslin
Muslin is a renowned lightweight cotton fabric that was first handwoven in the Bengal region around current day Dhaka. The name “Muslin”, is thought have come from the city of Mosul in current day Iraq from where western traders procured the material9.
Muslin was highly prized throughout history, records showing that the fabric was used in ancient Egypt to wrap mummies and was worn by high ranking women of Imperial Rome. It was also highly sought after by The British East India Company, with Dhakai muslin (named after Dhaka), one of the finest variants of muslins selling in London with a 75% profit margin in the 18th and 19th centuries9.
The traditional hand weaving of Dhakai muslin is still practiced in Bangladesh today and is more commonly known by the Persian name of Jamdani and is recognised by UNESCO as an “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity”10
6. Controversial Garments Industry
Many big named clothing brands from around the world now source their products from Bangladesh with an estimated 4,000 garment factories currently in operation11. While the industry has boosted Bangladesh’s economy and helped towards the empowerment of women—who make up 80% of factory workers—much controversy surrounds its practices and safety standards12.
In 2013, the collapse of Rana Plaza, a complex housing a number of garment factories near Dhaka made worldwide headlines when over 1,000 factory workers were crushed to death and another 2,500 workers injured. This avoidable disaster brought the darker side of the industry to international attention13.
The multi storey buildings that house these factories are devoid of any safety features such as fire escapes, and are often continuously reinforced with steel framings and rods on the rooftops, in a bid to add further floors for expansions to house more machinery14. Buildings in Bangladesh are not subjected to government inspections, and safety violations are often overlooked by officials through bribes and threats15.
Along with this, problems also exist around the use of child labour, labour hours, underpayment and lack of proper safety equipment around dangerous machines11.
5. Public Sector Corruption Is Rampant
Bangladesh routinely falls amongst the most corrupt countries in the world, the latest data placing it 145th out of 176 in a ranking of the least corrupt nations. Denmark and New Zealand holding 1st place16.
Corruption is present in all public-sector departments in Bangladesh and often takes the form of bribery, rent-seeking, embezzlement, pilfering, irresponsible conduct, service delays, bureaucratic indulgence and excessive lobbying17. Lack of government transparency facilitates corruption in the public sector with non-compliance of regulations regularly overlooked.
A study of 149 Bangladeshi parliamentary members conducted by TI Bangladesh in 2012 showed that 97% of the members were involved in illegal activities including 53.5% of members directly involved in criminal activities18.
Corruption also exists between the private sector and the public sector with large government contracts often the subject of corruption where gifts are often expected to secure contracts. Collusion between parliamentary members and private businessmen was also a factor in the Raza Plaza disaster discussed earlier18.
4. Biggest Central Bank Heist in Recent History
In February 2016, the Bangladesh Central Bank was the target of one the biggest bank heists in recent history. An attempt was made by hackers to steal roughly US$1 billion in 35 smaller transactions through the SWIFT Network going through the Federal Reserve Bank of New York19.
Out of the 35 transactions five were approved valuing US$101 million and the remaining 30 transactions were flagged for staff review at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York worth US$850 million19. The flagged transaction were later blocked at the request of the Bangladesh Central Bank.
Subsequent investigation of the heist found the presence of Dridex Malware on the Bangladesh Central Banks system. Dridex Malware is spread through e-mail systems and infiltrates computers to harvest confidential information required for hackers to access privileged networks like SWIFT20.
Of the US$101 million stolen, US$20 million was traced to Sri Lanka and recovered and US$81 million was traced to the Philippines21, of which only about US$18 million has been recovered to date22.
Investigations are still continuing with US media reporting that FBI suspects North Korean involvement as well23.
3. Poverty and Wealth Gap
Bangladesh is still considered one of the poorest countries in the world with 31.5%24 of a population of 161 million people25, still living under the poverty line. That’s approximately 50.7 million people, a number that is more than double the entire population of Australia.
The wealth gap in Bangladesh is also staggering. Data compiled and published by the World Bank show that the poorest 20% of the population only controlled 8.9% of the country’s total wealth in 2010 and the richest 20% of the population controlled an eye opening 41.5%26.
The data also shows that in 2010, 18.5 million people lived on less than $1.90 a day26. World Bank is yet to release its updated data for 2015.
2. World’s Largest River Delta and Mangrove
The Bengal Delta, located on the coastline of Bangladesh is the largest river delta in the world. It is fed by two large Himalayan rivers, the Ganges and the Brahmaputra and a non-Himalayan river, the Meghna which in turn is fed by two other large rivers, the Padma and Januma. The delta stretches a distance of 105,000 sq.km with approximately two thirds falling within Bangladesh27.
With some of the world’s most fertile soil, the delta is home to approximately 130 million people28, a large majority if the population who depend on agriculture for survival.
The delta is also home to the world’s largest mangroves, the Sundarbans, a UNESCOE World Heritage site29 covering 10,000 sq. km across Bangladesh and India, 60% falling within Bangladesh. The Sundarbans are home to an array of wildlife and threatened species such as the estuarine crocodile, royal Bengal tiger, Gangetic dolphins, water monitor lizards and olive Ridley turtles30.
1. Disappearing as a Victim of Climate Change
Unfortunately, this river delta also makes Bangladesh one of the most climate-vulnerable countries in the world. The effects of climate change have already began impacting the livelihoods of the population living in the delta as well as other parts of Bangladesh31.
Floods and flash floods are common in Bangladesh with 80% of the country prone to flooding, particularly during the annual monsoon season. Cyclones and storm surges have also caused widespread devastation in recent years, causing salinity issues in the south-east coastal regions32.
Flooding and salinity is slowly forcing the population away from the coasts, with approximately 200,000 people losing their homes a year to land erosion3 as a consequence of rising sea levels33. With the continued impact of climate change it is feared that Bangladesh will disappear by the end of the century34.