Cherie Blair in Bangladesh
By Iftekhar Sayeed
Online Journal Contributing Writer

May 6, 2008, 00:16

Enter Mrs. Corleone

In the The Godfather II, Mrs. Corleone leaves her husband: he was, she observed with understatement, "evil." If Cherie Blair ever had such misgivings about her spouse, she has kept them to herself. The fact that she remains married to a man who, if not by the courts, but in the court of public opinion, has been named a war criminal, testifies instead to the shared beliefs of a happily married couple.

None can fault her for such attachment; love is, after all, a many-splendoured thing. But when such a woman visits a Third World country and lectures the people there on "the rule of law" and "human rights," she has gone beyond decency and humanity, and made a mockery of the deaths of over a million people in Iraq.

�I am aware that Bangladesh borders with Burma, a country which is not known as a supporter of the rule of law. And in Burma, there is a woman leader in a political party, who is being detained,� said Blair, who arrived in Dhaka, Bangladesh on Tuesday, 22 April. �I would not like to think that Bangladesh was going along that route. I am sure that the government and the people of Bangladesh want to be applauding human rights and the rule of law." [1]

No one initially knew the reason for her visit, but it turned out that she was here to help one of the two arrested political leaders, Sheikh Hasina. According to the Daily Star [2]: "Cherie Blair, wife of former British prime minister Tony Blair, yesterday said she hoped for the application of the human rights principles enshrined in Bangladesh's constitution. A barrister, Cherie is currently in Dhaka as a consultant to detained former Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's legal team. She visited the Supreme Court (SC) yesterday to observe the appeal proceedings of a graft case against Hasina.

"The same day, Blair attended two press conferences, where she said that she wants [sic] to observe the judicial proceedings and the human rights situation in Bangladesh, which were her special areas of interest as a lawyer."

That is to say, she hoped for Bangladesh what she never hoped for her own country: respect for law, and the lives and safety of other people, especially women and children. How does she reconcile Britain going into an illegal war, invading a country that posed no threat to her own, with her moral grandstanding in a donor-controlled country like Bangladesh? Only a severely ethically challenged person could be capable of such moral jiggery-pokery.

Tony Blair privately conceded two weeks before the Iraq war that Saddam Hussein did not have any usable weapons of mass destruction, Robin Cook, the former foreign secretary, reveals today." We know all about the Cook revelations. [3]

According to David Stringer of the Associated press: "An early version of a British dossier of prewar intelligence on Iraq did not include a key claim about weapons of mass destruction that became vital to Tony Blair's case for war, the newly published document showed Monday." However, "Blair presented a final draft of the JIC [Joint Intelligence Committee] dossier, called 'Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction,' to parliament on Sep. 24, 2002 -- a document that included the 45-minute claim [4]."

According to Robin Cook: "I have no reason to doubt that Tony Blair believed in September that Saddam really had weapons of mass destruction ready for firing within 45 minutes. What was clear from this conversation was that he did not believe it himself in March."

The rest is tragedy and guilt.

Cheri Blair's comparison of Bangladesh and Burma, and by extension of Sheikh Hasina and Aung San Su Kyi, verges on the farcical. She must indeed be a terrible lawyer if she cannot master such an elementary brief.

Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia were prime ministers of Bangladesh, the former once, the latter twice. The democratic process was ended on 11 January, 2007, not by the army alone but -- and this takes the biscuit -- by the Western donor countries and their agencies backing the army (cold war habits never die). The country narrowly averted a civil war. The democratic experiment had failed miserably. The only reason the Western powers ended the murderous 16-year experiment was that they didn't want a fourth Muslim country -- after Iraq, Palestine, and Afghanistan -- to descend into chaos. There are no parallels with Burma whatsoever.

Since "1/11," as the day of reprieve is known in Bangladesh, the Americans and the British have consistently supported the military-backed caretaker government. Bangladesh is, after all, a colony of the Western powers.

That Bangladesh is a colony is vividly illustrated by the shocking red-carpet treatment accorded to Cherie Blair in a predominantly Muslim country. Although no longer the British prime minister's wife, she had lunch at the state guest house with Foreign Adviser Iftekhar A Chowdhury. Why should a nonentity receive such treatment?

And why is Cherie Blair so solicitous of Sheikh Hasina's health, and not that of the other former prime minister, Khaleda Zia? That may not be her brief, but as a conscientious member of the international legal community -- hell-bent on upholding the rule of law and human rights -- she should have shown some concern for the other arrested leader (the arrest of two leaders, after a 16-year-old violent democratic period imposed on the country by the West after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, proves once again that the alleged similarity between the caretaker government and the Burmese junta is totally vacuous).

She has asked the government to send Sheikh Hasina for treatment to -- wait for it! -- the United States of America. Now, we all know that the people of Bangladesh make regular treks to the USA for treatment, don't we? After all, they don't get any treatment in their own country on account of their poverty. Why should a nationalistic leader of the people, the daughter of the "father of the nation," not go abroad to seek treatment? Sarcasm aside, even as a prisoner she is getting the best treatment the country can provide -- treatment that the woman-in-the-street cannot even comprehend, let alone afford.

Cheri Blair and the Anonymous Lady

And speaking of the woman-in-the-street, Cherie Blair did not forget the Anonymous Lady. She made the ritual pilgrimage to the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee, better known as BRAC, arguably the world's largest NGO. "She visited [the] BRAC-run the [sic] 'maternal, neonatal and child health program (MNCHP)' in South Manikganj and the 'BRAC Primary School' at Khilgaon intersection in the metropolis." [5] It testifies to the ineffectiveness of the BRAC literacy program that none of the students expressed outrage at the presence of the wife of the murderer of their fellow Muslims -- they must surely not read the newspapers! "Later, she discussed [sic] with women entrepreneurs, who borrowed from the BRAC at the school."

These "women entrepreneurs" are supposed to be the beneficiary of the local innovation called 'microcredit.' Microcredit has been around in Bangladesh for decades. Yet, according to TIME [6], "Some development experts warn that microcredit programs do little to alleviate overall poverty, even in countries like Bangladesh, where they are well-established. About 45 percent of the country's population lives below the poverty line, down just 2 points in the past two decades. In southeastern Bangladesh, recipients often use microlending to pay off old debts or buy consumer goods, not to generate income, according to a 2000 study by the aid group CARE Bangladesh. When it came time to pay up, the study found, borrowers were often forced to go into further debt."

Supporters of the two political parties incessantly point out that democracy has been good for Bangladesh because it has enabled the country to grow by 6 percent annually, whereas under military rule growth had been only 4.8 percent. Any undergraduate student in economics can tell you that GDP figures are no indicator of well-being: a country can grow very fast by spending enormously on defense, for instance, as happened in Germany before and during the Second World War -- what matters is the source of growth and the nature of the beneficiaries; and also the accompanying externalities (in Germany's case, these included the people killed, so net welfare gain was the greatest negative in the history of humanity.)

The externalities between 1991 and 2007 in Bangladesh included the rape of thousands of women and the murder of hundreds by the armed youth and student wings of the two political parties. It is unfortunate that our political leaders are being tried for corruption when they should be tried for crimes against humanity, which includes rape. [7] This must have escaped the narrow attention-span of the lawyer, Cherie Blair -- or perhaps she just doesn't care for crimes committed against humanity, since her husband's fit the description to a T.

Immeasurable damage has been done to the country's main institutions: the bureaucracy, the judiciary and even the military were politicized. Subtract such negativity from the growth rate, and the welfare achieved under democratic rule narrows markedly. It narrows even further when you consider that the reduction in poverty, according to TIME, has been only 2 percent over the last 20 years. Where did all the money go?

The money went to a narrow elite of politicians, businessmen and bureaucrats. It is not surprising that there are over 200 politicians and businessmen behind bars today, almost all charged with corruption or extortion. Indeed, the best analogy for the present state of affairs is not Myanmar, but Italy during the Mani Pulite (Clean Hands) corruption investigation: "Almost a whole political class fell into disgrace, as well as industrialists and senior judges. Some 2,500 people had been fingered as the year ended, including five former prime ministers and about 200 members of Parliament." [8] "By this time magistrates in Palermo had turned their attention to still-murkier matters by accusing Giulio Andreotti, the preeminent veteran of Italian politics, of collusion with the Mafia." Deja vu.

"Not a single new BMW car was sold in Bangladesh in 2007 as the country's luxury car market collapsed in the face of the government's anti-corruption drive, officials at the sole distributor of the prestigious German brand said." [9]

This was capitalism under democratic Bangladesh: a few people riding BMWs and the rest getting themselves in hock to the NGOs in the name of development. Consider BRAC.

BRAC may have started as a NGO, but today it is a giant conglomerate: there is BRAC bank, BRAC University, BRAC business alliances with public and private limited companies, such as a giant hatchery a few kilometers outside Dhaka. BRAC University is for the super-rich, fees being some of the highest (like that at any private university); BRAC bank is not for slum-dwellers, needless to observe. Besides, these institutions give BRAC enormous leverage: professors from American and European universities, expatriates as well as foreigners, moonlight at BRAC University, and thereby polish their CVs -- in return, they maintain a conspiracy of silence regarding BRAC and its activities. It must be observed that BRAC alone is not part of this racket -- all the NGOs are. They are funded by Western donors to purchase the loyalty of the elite, not to help the poor, as some misguided Western citizens might artlessly assume.

Indeed, it was a darling of the donors -- Mohammed Yunus, Nobel-laureate and founder of Grameen Bank, a microcredit institution -- who was pushed forward as a possible political participant to replace the two ladies, the two "begums," as they are known. "Many newspapers and civil-society groups [read NGOs] have called for a new party to be formed by local hero Mohamed Yunus, who recently won the Nobel Peace Prize for his pioneering work in microcredit." [10] But that plan appears to have been shelved -- perhaps the Nobel laureate got cold feet, which would be understandable, given the -- literally -- murderous nature of Bangladeshi democracy.

As for Cherie Blair, no doubt trying to impart to a benighted Bangladesh insights gleaned from her exposure to the mother of parliaments, let these words of Robin Cook suffice: "The rules of the Commons explicitly require ministers to correct the record as soon as they are aware that they may have misled parliament. If the government did come to know that the [United States] State Department did not trust the claims in the September dossier and that some of even their top experts did not believe them, should they not have told parliament before asking the Commons to vote for war on a false prospectus?"

[1] The Daily Star, 25 April 2008, page 1

[2] 24 April, page 1

[3] Blair Knew Iraq Had No WMD


[5] The Bangladesh Observer, 25 April, page 16

[6] 16 April 2007, pages 43-4

[7] For a narrative of the violence under democratic rule, see

[8] "Year in Review 1993 ITALY." Encyclop�dia Britannica

[9] The Daily Star, 19th January 2008, page 1

[10] TIME, 5 February 2007, page 32

Iftekhar Sayeed was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where he currently resides. He teaches English as well as economics. His poetry, fiction and essays have appeared in Postcolonial Text (on-line); Altar Magazine, Online Journal, Left Curve (2004,2005) and The Whirligig in the United States; in Britain: Mouseion, Erbacce, The Journal, Poetry Monthly, Envoi, Orbis, Acumen and Panurge; and in Asiaweek in Hong Kong; Chandrabhaga and the Journal OF Indian Writing in English in India; and Himal in Nepal. He is also a freelance journalist. He and his wife love to tour Bangladesh.

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