By Joy Hampton
The Norman Transcript
NORMAN — Editor’s note: Transcript senior staff writer Joy Hampton is traveling with a U.S. State Department-sponsored group to Bangladesh. Journalists from Bangladesh visited Oklahoma in 2013.
DHAKA — On Election Day, the streets were quiet in Dhaka, Bangladesh, the nation’s capital city of 19 million people, due to a government ban on motorized vehicles. In the days leading up to the election, dozens of schools were torched, 100 people reported injured and at least three people were reported killed as part of opposition party protests.
On Sunday, only media, ambulances and a few buses were allowed on the streets. As a result, millions of people stayed home, creating an unwanted holiday for many of the working poor such as rickshaw drivers and street vendors who depend on the crowds moving through Dhaka for their daily living. Most said they had never seen the streets of Dhaka quiet in their lifetimes.
At the Pan Pacific Sonargaon hotel, current home to the traveling delegation of Oklahoma visitors, journalists from around the world arrived to report on the election. Hotel security includes guards inside and outside of the facility, some armed, and a sweep for car bombs on arrival. Guests walk through a metal detector to enter, and bags run through the X-ray scan. It’s been a daily fact since our arrival in Dhaka and the security is provided for guests’ comfort and safety.
But the truth is, the real hazard in the days of violence leading to the election have been for the people who are most vulnerable and who can least afford the loss. Schools were burned because they were designated to serve as polling places, but when the election has passed and school resumes, the children and their teachers will have no place to go, no books to read.
Most of the dead and injured are working people caught by the random violence. Those of us with means have been insulated behind a wall of security.
On Sunday, we walked to Rtv to tour the television studio. The quiet streets were eerie. Normally, Dhaka is alive with horns honking and traffic competing for passage.
Rtv is one of the older and more successful stations in a nation where media is expanding at an astounding rate. There have been 43 licenses issued for TV stations in Dhaka. For the past year about 26 stations are in operation, and about six years ago Rtv leadership told us there were only five stations.
The competition for advertising will not allow all of these stations to survive, but the political climate has bred the sudden expansion as politicians granted licenses to business interests in order to curry favor and gain advantageous coverage, leadership at Rtv told us.
After the tour, we traveled courtesy of Rtv to the Ruposhi Bangla Hotel, where we lunched at the Bithika Restaurant. Once known as the International, this hotel was the first five-star hotel in Dhaka. According to OU Journalism Dean Joe Foote, who once lived in Bangladesh while working on a Fulbright, the hotel had a role in the developing nation’s history. Joe and wife Judy Foote, who also worked in Dhaka, taught their children to swim in the hotel’s pool.
Joe Foote said the hotel was once the site of many media gatherings during key events.
Bangladesh is a young nation with an old heart. The Bengali people who form its core are in essence the Indian people, and their culture extends far beyond the British colonization of the land. They have been Buddhist, Hindu and now are predominantly Muslim.
Because this land on the east side of India is Islamic, it first separated from India as part of Pakistan, but language and other differences caused Bangladesh to demand its independence which it gained in 1971.
Like all nations, there are people who live at all levels along the economic spectrum. During our stay at the Sonargaon hotel, as locals call it, there have been elaborate weddings with ladies garbed in gilded saris in stunning displays of fashion comparable to a night on the Hollywood red carpet.
Like all of the people we have met here, these obviously wealthy Bangladeshi were generous with their smiles, greetings and conversations.
Everywhere we travel in this nation, we are asked where we are from. They do not know Oklahoma, but they do know America. That our accents and towering height do not give our nationality away is a clue that there are more visitors from European nations than from the United States.
Bangladesh is 55,584 square miles in land area, smaller than Oklahoma at 69,903 square miles, but Bangladesh has a population of more than 147 million people while Oklahoma’s population is just under 4 million, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The primary language here is Bangla, but every Bangladeshi speaks English, though in varying degrees of fluency.
After lunch, our Rtv guides took us to tour their newest studio and then on to the construction site of a multistory building that will house their new station.
In 2008, the building housing Rtv tragically burned with the fire starting on the first floor. There were several deaths, and people escaped by climbing down cables or were rescued from the roof and through windows. They assured us at the current station that they now have emergency exits. Sprinkler systems of the caliber we have in the U.S. would have saved lives, but the buildings here do not have those safety features.
Near the construction site, we encountered some of Dhaka’s working poor, living in shanties topped by corrugated metal roofs. These tiny dwellings are very basic with room to cook and sleep on the floor. Many use wood for cooking. In more prosperous ghetto areas, we have seen goats and even a bull.
Despite their obvious poverty, these people are friendly and smiling and happy to meet us.
The Bangladeshi are social people, and their strong family and emotional connections are apparent through observation as we see them work and play together.
Some of the working poor in Dhaka came from rural areas to find a means to earn a living — even the small huts where they live and the long hard days of work in the city are preferable to the hunger of even greater poverty back home in the rural villages.
My Bangladeshi friend, Yas, tells me that the employees of the hotel where we are staying live in much better circumstances than those who populate the ghettos spread throughout the city.
It is no surprise that most of the hotel staff, all of whom appear well fed and in good health, report working for the hotel for many years. These are good jobs.
The working poor who populate the hovels of the ghetto are the street vendors, rickshaw drivers, servants in the homes of the wealthy, and those who drive the vegetable trucks like the onion trader who was burnt to death in the pre-election violence.
In Bangladesh, as in most of the world, the poor seem to be paying the highest price for the nation’s political unrest.
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