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Remembering Progress on Bangladesh Independence Day

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Sajeeb Wazed Joy: Bangladesh celebrates its 46th year of independence this month. At midnight on March 26, 1971, Sheikh Mujibar Rahman — affectionately known as Bangabandhu — urged the citizens of what was then East Pakistan to fight for their freedom. The next nine months nearly obliterated Bangladesh. Rampant atrocities and war crimes by Pakistan’s army and its collaborators amounted to a genocide that killed 3 million. They targeted intellectuals, professors, artists and other highly educated Bengalis in an effort to snuff out the fledgling nation’s brainpower.

Thanks to the heroic Bengal fighters and the intervention of the Indian military, Pakistan surrendered in December 1971. Sheikh Mujib, my grandfather, became Bangladesh’s first president. Almost nobody thought the young nation would survive. The U.S. had opposed its creation.

The country had not recovered from a 1970 cyclone that killed 500,000. The Pakistani assault left Bangladeshi cities looking like “the morning after a nuclear attack,” Time magazine wrote. Millions of refugees poured in. The U.S. restricted food shipments to Bangladesh because Bangladesh sold jute — one of our few viable exports — to Cuba, contributing to a 1974 famine.

In 1975, leaders of a military coup rebelled against the government and stormed my grandfather’s residence, killing him and most of my family. What followed were terrible years for Bangladesh — years of military coups and kleptocratic rule, martial law, corruption, poverty and too many wasted opportunities. U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger called Bangladesh a “basket case.”

In 1996, Sheikh Hasina, my mother and Bangabandhu’s daughter, was elected prime minister and began, along with her Awami League party, to put programs in place that would start Bangladesh’s turnaround. But she was fought every inch of the way by her political rival, Khaleda Zia, head of the opposition BNP party, which won the 2001 election. The Awami League remained popular with the people — too popular for the BNP, it turned out. In 2004, Khaleda Zia’s son masterminded a grenade attack on an Awami League rally, killing 24 and wounding my mother. This was the beginning of the end for the BNP’s murderous and obstructionist ways.

Sheikh Hasina was elected prime minister again in a landslide in 2009 and then re-elected in 2014. While the BNP has spent recent years fomenting nationwide strikes and acts of terrorism, the Awami League has been making Bangladesh a better place.

Since 2009, the poverty rate in Bangladesh has dropped from 40 percent to 21 percent. Thirty million people have been lifted out of poverty. The country’s Gross Domestic Product has more than doubled from $103 billion to $250 billion. The economic growth first came from the booming ready-made garment sector; now the nation is moving toward becoming a knowledge economy with substantial digital, start-up and back-office growth. Exports have nearly doubled from $16 billion per year to $31 billion per year.

Gender parity has been achieved in primary and secondary education thanks to the government’s stipend program for girls. Bangladesh achieved several of the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals ahead of schedule. So impressive has been its progress, it was invited to help author the followup Sustainable Development Goals by the U.N.

Innovative farming initiatives have allowed rural women to become entrepreneurs and household breadwinners, increasing their independence and social status. A program launched during Prime Minister Hasina’s first term, nearly 20 years ago, to settle the landless and homeless, has provided homes to more than 110,000 families.

In 2015, the World Bank moved Bangladesh up a notch in economic status, to the lower-middle income bracket. The Awami League government has set a target of 2021 to enter the World Bank’s upper-middle income bracket.

Far from being a basket case, Bangladesh has become a model of development for other nations in the region and around the world. On this coming day of Bangladesh independence, we should remember how far the nation has come in such a short time.

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