Interview: Sheikh Hasina

Rita Payne and Ekaterina Bystrova

Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has survived several assassination attempts, one of which saw most of her family killed. In spite of this, her political achievements have been notable – the country has seen poverty fall and GDP rise under her tenure. Global caught up with Sheikh Hasina when she visited the UK this summer 

Sheikh Hasina with UK Foreign Secretary William Hague in July 2012 (© Foreign and Commonwealth Office CC BY-ND 2.0)

Sheikh Hasina’s life has been one of drama, tragedy and political endeavour. The eldest child of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, founding father of Bangladesh and the country’s first President, Sheikh Hasina was born into politics. To date, her political career has seen her take the roles of Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition, dodge assassination attempts and face arrest at the hands of a caretaker government. Through countless trials and hardships, Hasina has carried her father’s mantle as head of the Awami League in driving forward a free, fair and self-sufficient ‘Golden Bangladesh’ for all. 

Hasina, 66, was first elected Prime Minister in 1996 and since then Bangladesh’s economy has been on a steady incline, despite the 2008-09 global financial crises. 

“One of my first initiatives was to open up the economy to the private sector,” she says. “I began to strengthen the macroeconomic fundamentals and initiated an aggressive policy to export manpower, instructing our banks and embassies to open money transfer agencies to facilitate remittances. I travelled to countries to promote manpower and to persuade countries, especially developed ones, to grant us duty-free, quota-free access to their market. Thus, Bangladesh began to develop the private sector, attract more FDI, increase exports, send more people abroad for work and receive a constantly increasing flow of remittance.” 

“Also, due to the attractive investment climate, countries began relocating their factories to Bangladesh. These initiatives and factors reaped benefits, steady income and growth for Bangladesh even when the world economy was experiencing recession.” 

Skyrocketting economy

In the last decade alone, Bangladesh’s economy has skyrocketed. According to World Bank data, national GDP has more than doubled from US$51.9 billion in 2003 to $115.6 billion in 2012, while GNI per capita has almost doubled over the same period. The country has experienced a healthy GDP growth rate of six to seven per cent since 2004, while the poverty rate declined by 26 per cent between 2000 and 2010 – despite a growing population. What was the single biggest factor in driving Bangladesh’s economy forward? 

“I can tell you one thing: it is our people. My people cooperated with us and they worked very hard. We also worked really hard; that is how we developed so quickly. I said, ‘We don’t have much time to lose, we have to work, you and I, to develop this country. We have to face many problems but even then, we can achieve it.'” 

Bangladesh has come a long way since Sheikh Hasina’s first days as Prime Minister, and not just in terms of its economy. The country has received awards from international bodies for its reduction of maternal and child mortality, as well as its work to reduce poverty, while Garter lists it among its 30 best outsourcing destinations. 

“All these achievements have been possible in this short period because of good governance, human rights and the rule of law,” says Hasina. “Bangladesh is moving forward to becoming a middle income country soon – hopefully well before our target date of 2021.” 

Bangladesh found itself the focus of international criticism in April following the now infamous collapse of a garment factory in Rana Plaza, in which 1,129 workers were killed and a further 2,500 injured (see Global 15, Arena: Garment Workers). The incident highlighted some major issues surrounding the country’s garment industry, which has grown to nearly 6,000 factories over the past four years. 

“Unfortunately, our infrastructure has not been able to keep pace with this growth. Many factories have been set up in buildings meant for residence, or hurriedly built without meeting minimum required standards.” 

Problems to be tackled include a deficit of employment rights, health and safety regulations, and a lack of building construction protocols. A committee was formed in response to the accident, but Hasina recognises that more must be done to protect the country’s major industry and crucial economic driver. 

“On assuming office this time, my government began to rectify the discrepancies. We strengthened the fire brigade; increased the number of factory inspectors; encouraged owners to build dormitories for working women; established industrial police; increased wages of workers; and we are soon promulgating a law to ensure workers have labour rights and unions in accordance with ILO conventions.” 

Calling the accident a “tragedy”, Hasina laments that administrative warnings from the day before were ignored. “It is very, very unfortunate; so many people died, so many people were injured. But we are assisting those people and we have arrested the owners of the factories.” 

Bangladesh was also criticised for refusing foreign aid during the disaster, deeming it unnecessary as the situation was being handled internally. The country as a whole, Hasina explains, is striving to become self-reliant and self-sufficient. 

“We want to reduce the dependence on other aid, because there are so many conditions. Our aim is to develop our country by ourselves. We have our manpower, we have our resources, so if we can work together we can achieve this. We are trying.” 

There has been some debate over how foreign aid money should be spent in helping Bangladesh’s development, with criticism arising both from within and without the country. Conditions imposed by donor countries regarding the implementation of foreign aid are seen by some as belittling. 

“When we take a loan, we pay back with interest. It is not that we are begging. We should have liberty to use that money in a proper way that is suitable for our country, because we know our country, we know where the problem is, we know how to develop; but sometimes the conditions [of foreign aid] really hamper our development,” says Hasina. “My personal feeling is that perhaps some people, or some organisations, do not want us to develop very quickly. Maybe they want us to beg forever.” Initially defensive, Hasina goes on to express her resolve and passion; a woman proud of her country and determined to drive it to prosperity. 

“Yes, we could depend on other foreign aid or foreign assistance, but why should we? We have to take measures so that we can stand by ourselves. Others can do it. It’s under these circumstances that we have been able to keep up our GDP above six per cent and reduce our poverty level. In many countries there is a food crisis, but in our country we have become self-sufficient in food. Our economy is getting stronger and stronger, as is our government.” 

The Prime Minister takes on a guarded tone. “But I can sense that there are many quarters that don’t want [our government] to continue; perhaps they think that if we do not continue then another government will be more dependent on their aid. Maybe some quarters will want that.” 

Bridging south and south-east Asia, and situated right next to commercial giant China, Bangladesh has a population of 160 million and a regional market of around three billion people. The future of Bangladesh, the Prime Minister tells Global, lies in strengthening its position as the economic hub of the region. 

“The possibility lies with cultivating good relations with all our neighbours in the region, and developing excellent connectivity with them. Bangladesh’s foreign policy is guided by a dictum of the father of the nation – Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman [Hasina’s father]: ‘Friendship towards all and malice towards none.’ We believe in peace as the only solution for development and prosperity. I believe if all countries reached out to one another in friendship, our world would be secure, stable and enjoy peace. Our aim is to strengthen friendships with all countries of the world.”

Bangladesh’s influence on the global stage is growing, and as such the eyes of the world will be focused resolutely on its upcoming national elections. It is an important period for the country – one that the Prime Minister is confident will highlight Bangladesh’s virtues. 

“I am confident that the next general elections will be held by the election commissioner in a free, fair and credible manner. The election will be conducted and held as in all practicing democracies around the world,” says Hasina, inviting international observers to view the elections, which, she says, will be conducted on par with elections in the UK. “As for violence, I am confident that there will be none.” 

Despite Hasina’s conviction, the country continues to face allegations of political and bureaucratic corruption – an allegation with which the prime minister vehemently disagrees, saying: “Show me the evidence of corruption, and we will address it. 

“If there is really corruption, how could we have achieved our GDP above six per cent, our food security? How could we have reduced our poverty from 41 per cent to 26 per cent? People put out many remarks just to defame our government, but you have to examine whether this country is moving forward or not. That is important. Blaming, defaming – that is halting the development of our people.” 

Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s assassination

Hasina’s father Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was assassinated together with 18 members of Sheikh Hasina’s family on 15 August 1975, when Sheikh Hasina and her sister, Sheikh Rehana, were out of the country. The military dictator Major General Ziaur Rahman assumed power, amending the constitution to allow religious parties into the political sphere, making groups such as Jamaat-e-Islami (BJI) legal. The new political climate bred extremism and terrorism, the Prime Minister explains, reaching its peak during the final Bangladesh Nationalist Party-BJI alliance, 2001-06. 

“Bomb blasts, grenade attacks, extra-judicial killings were regular and targeted against our leaders, supporters and minorities. Two of our MPs were killed. Several attempts were made on my life with the last being an attack on 24 August 2004 at a rally that I was addressing in protest of a grenade attack on the British High Commissioner.” 

During the rally, 23 people were killed and more than 200 injured. “I escaped miraculously but with damaged eardrums,” says Hasina. During another attack, 500 bombs were detonated across 63 of Bangladesh’s 64 districts, all within the span of half an hour. “The intention was to announce their presence as a force in the country,” Sheikh Hasina explains. “Such was the state of affairs when I was elected Prime Minister in December 2008. My immediate aim was to rid the country of terrorism and extremism. Terrorists have no religion. Perhaps terrorism itself is their religion, but they have no other religion. But it is in the name of religion that they try to destroy people.” She adds: “Under the circumstances, I really appreciated the support of the Commonwealth and other organisations. They put tremendous pressure onto that government.” 

Over the past four years, Hasina has succeeded to a great extent in ending bomb and grenade attacks in Bangladesh, and she remains optimistic about the future and her people. “I believe our people are peaceful in nature. They abhor violence. If given the opportunity, they would resist boldly against those who want to change the nature of our society and way of life. I believe the people will stand for secular democracy and that shall prevail, as shall peace in the land.” 

Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was the founding father and President of Bangladesh until his assassination. His actions and teachings have played the utmost part in Sheikh Hasina’s personal and political development, affecting her to this day. “As a child, my father was deeply moved by the suffering of our people. He grew up with the determination to free them from poverty. On joining politics, he learnt that our people’s economic salvation lay in independence. In his search for independence, he had to struggle and this frequently led to his imprisonment. The then government could not break his spirit or douse the fire for our people’s freedom. He ultimately achieved Bangladesh for our people. 

“As the eldest child of the family, I was close to my father and saw and felt the pain and suffering my father endured for our people. They were all that mattered to him, and they remain deeply ingrained in my mind and spirit. When he was assassinated, I felt that it was my duty and responsibility to continue his struggle for our people’s freedoms and wants. His legacy made it easy for me to continue, sustain and strive to attain his goal of ‘Sonar Bangla’, or ‘Golden Bangladesh’, with happy and prosperous people living a life of dignity.” 

Having endured years of attacks and hardships, what is it that drives her to carry on? “I live to fulfil the dream of my father, cut short by his brutal assassination. All close members of our family were killed. My sister Sheikh Rehana and I were alone in this world. We had to survive and, as the older sibling, I took the responsibility for us to see that our father’s dream of a Golden Bangladesh became real. This is what has driven me to carry on from that tragic day. It drives me even today without respite.” 

By the end of her current tenure, Sheikh Hasina wants to have set Bangladesh on the path towards achieving the 2015 Millennium Development Goals, aimed at confronting terrorism and extremism, tackling climate change, developing women’s empowerment and improving health. 

As a powerful female leader of the people, Hasina is an inspiration to many. Did being a woman make her journey to the top easier or more difficult? “Nothing is easier, everything is harder. As a politician, when I became the head of my party, I never felt that I was man or woman. What I felt is that people accepted me as their leader.” 

What advice would she pass on to people, and women in particular, who want to follow in her footsteps? 

“Politics means to help people, to serve people, to ensure people have a better life. So if you want to do it, you have to sacrifice, you have to face all the obstacles. I definitely want more women to come forward and join politics because women can do more good for the people, for the nation. That’s what I think.”

Free time is a luxury to the woman who holds one of the most challenging and stressful jobs in the world. In the rare moments she has outside of work she reads, listens to music and spends time with her family – she has two children. “They give me hope and strength to carry on.”

Originally published as ‘”Politics” means to help people, to serve people, to ensure people have a better life’.


Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Amnesty International