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“We Have Arrested So Many”

4 minute read

Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Khaleda Zia entered politics after the 1981 assassination of her husband General Ziaur Rahman. In a rare interview with Western journalists, Zia, 60, talked to Time’s William Green and Alex Perry in Dhaka about corruption, her political nemesis and her campaign to crush the threat of militant Islam.

Tell us about your crackdown on the Islamic insurgents.
Zia: We have arrested so many. There are two or three big leaders left. We will get everybody. It’s possible because the people are with us. Even religious leaders are not supporting them. We have broken their back. Some leaders face a death sentence. Many have been given 40 years in jail.

Was it pressure from abroad that finally made you confront the problem?
Zia: We have very good relations with the fbi, the U.S. [government] and Interpol. We are working together. But this is from me. I told my Home Minister to catch all these people. They are terrorists. They are using the name of Islam, but they are not good Muslims.

What made it so difficult to tackle them?
Zia: We did not know they were there. After the Aug. 17 bomb blasts, we knew. And we cracked down. [But] Bangladesh is not a rich country; my priorities are health and education, so we could not give money for other things. The terrorists have modern weapons, but the police did not. Now we have given them [what they need], and they are doing a very good job.

Opposition leader Sheikh Hasina told us the insurgency was your “baby”?
Zia: No, no, it’s not my baby. It’s their baby. When I took over, the country’s law-and-order situation was very bad. People were very afraid. Nobody could sleep. Nobody could come out of their homes. We inherited terrorism from them.

Why is there so much mutual hostility with Hasina?
Zia: It’s not mutual. I want to be friends. I’d be very happy to meet her. Many times I have invited her, but she did not turn up. We have to [be] together [to] resolve problems. If she really wants to cooperate, tell her she can come. But if she does not want to, I cannot help it.

Doesn’t this political deadlock stymie development?
Zia: We’re not fighting, we’re working. We have many development programs. If you go to the countryside, you’ll see good roads, bridges, homes, electricity, women’s education. I am doing all these things. [Our] development work is not hampered. But when [the opposition] calls countrywide strikes, despite promising not to, then development will be hampered. I can’t do anything about that.

Outsiders often regard Bangladesh as synonymous with crime, corruption and poverty. Is this fair?
Zia: This is all propaganda against Bangladesh. After people come here, they [realize] the law-and-order situation is very good. If Bangladesh is so bad, how come it’s doing so well in health and education? How come so much investment is coming in? Nobody goes without food or clothes. Everybody has access to education. They get proper health care. There is no hunger. What else do you want?

Why has educating girls been such a priority for you?
Zia: If we want to progress as a country, if we want to remove poverty, if we have to spread awareness of family planning and bring down population growth, we have to educate them, give them equal rights. Women have to prove that they are no less than men. I am trying to end [the] dowry [system]. That will only happen when women start working as professionals. Our country is conservative, but people have accepted my programs. People accepted me. This is big.

At times, Bangladesh must seem virtually ungovernable. Do you ever lose hope?
Zia: I’m a human being. [Sometimes] I feel like giving up. But people have shown their trust in me; I can’t let them down.

What do you do to get away from the pressure of the job?
Zia: Nowadays, I am a grandmother. So I [spend time with my] three granddaughters. And I look after my garden.

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