Bangladesh country brief

Introduction

Bangladesh is a fertile alluvial plain on the delta of three main rivers, the Ganges, the Brahmaputra and the Meghna. The country covers an area of 147,000 square kilometres (which is about two-thirds the size of Victoria) and has a population of approximately 156.6 million, making it one of the world's most densely populated countries. Around one-third of Bangladeshis live in urban areas, including Dhaka, the capital and largest city. Bangladesh is also one of the world's poorest countries – approximately 31.5 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line. The tropical monsoons, with heavy summer rains, experienced in Bangladesh are generally accompanied by cyclones and floods, often with catastrophic consequences.

Bangladesh has a rich cultural heritage with literature, poetry and music all playing important roles in Bangladesh society. Folk art is also very common, with weaving and complex needlework finding its roots in traditional Bengali culture. More than 85 per cent of Bangladeshis are Muslims and the state religion is Islam. Hindus make up 8.5 per cent of the population, with other religious minorities including Buddhists and Christians also present.

Political overview

Formerly known as East Pakistan following the 1947 British partition of India, the People's Republic of Bangladesh came into existence in 1971 after a 'war of liberation' from Pakistan. Since then, Bangladesh has experienced considerable political instability.

The Awami League (AL), ('awami' means 'people's'), led by the independence leader Sheikh Mujib ur Rhman, formed the first government of Bangladesh. The AL's rule came to an end with the assassination of Sheikh Mujib (and most of his family) by military officers in August 1975. Following a period of coup and counter-coup, Major General Ziaur Rahman (known as Zia) assumed control jointly with other officers in 1975 and independently from late 1976. Zia formed the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). He was assassinated by military officers in 1981. Following a further period of instability, the then Chief of Army staff, Lt-General Hossain Mohammad Ershad, seized power in a bloodless coup in 1982 and established the Jatiya Party (JP – 'jatiya' means 'national'). Election boycotts, general strikes and anti-government demonstrations were widespread throughout Ershad's rule, leading eventually to his resignation in 1990.

In 1991 Bangladesh instituted a democratic parliamentary system of government, with a unicameral Parliament of 300 directly-elected members. The national Parliament serves a five-year term. The Head of State is the President who is elected by the national Parliament for a five-year term. Executive authority rests with the Prime Minister.

Since the restoration of democracy, Bangladesh politics has been dominated by two women, BNP leader Khaleda Zia (widow of General Zia), and AL leader, Sheikh Hasina Wajid (daughter of Sheikh Mujib). The 1991 parliamentary elections were won by the BNP under the leadership of Khaleda Zia. The AL won the 1996 elections, after 21 years in opposition. In October 2001, Khaleda Zia became Prime Minister again after her BNP-led four-party coalition won a landslide victory – 209 seats in a 300 seat parliament. Sporadic countrywide violence in resulted in a military-backed caretaker government from late 2006 until December 2008 when the AL won back leadership in fresh polls.

With the exception of a few minor incidents, the elections were relatively peaceful, and widely considered by the thousands of international and domestic observers to be free and fair. The Bangladesh Election Commission announced voter participation was about 80 per cent, the highest ever in Bangladesh. The BNP accepted the election results and, together with its coalition partner the Jamat-e-Islami party, formed the opposition under the leadership of Khaleda Zia.

Elections for the 10th Parliament were held on 5 January 2014. The pre-election period was marred by violent protests which resulted in several hundred deaths.  Fewer than half of the parliamentary seats were contested and voter turnout was low.  The BNP boycotted the elections, and the AL won a significant majority in parliament. Many nations including the United States, United Kingdom, European Union and Australia criticised the election.

The one-year anniversary of the elections in January 2015 has been accompanied by widespread political violence, protests and countrywide hartals (strikes). The Australian Government, along with other partners including the United Nations, United Kingdom, United States, Canada, Japan and the EU has called for an end to the continuing violence.

Economic overview

The Bangladesh economy has enjoyed 38 consecutive years of real economic growth and grew by 6.1 per cent in 2013. Bangladesh aspires to become a middle-income country by 2021, and will need to increase the growth rate to 7-8 per cent in an inclusive and sustainable manner to achieve this goal.

Sustained economic growth and inwards investment have contributed to a gradual increase in the relative weighting of manufacturing in GDP and a decline in agriculture's weighting. However, Bangladesh remains an agricultural economy, with agriculture contributing around 20 per cent of GDP and employing around 48.5 per cent of the 54 million strong labour force. Rice is the dominant crop. Other crops include wheat, jute, sugar cane, pulses, spices, tea, and various fruits and vegetables.

The Bangladesh economy benefits from strong inflows of foreign aid and remittances. A major challenge for the country is to diversify its sources of national income. The garment industry currently accounts for around 80 per cent of total exports and is under competitive pressures. Remittances from workers employed overseas remain an important income stream for Bangladesh.

Bangladesh has a liberal foreign investment regime, offering opportunities in the energy, power, telecommunication and infrastructure sectors. Foreign direct investment inflows have risen steadily over the past five years, however weak infrastructure, skills shortages and the governance environment are constraining growth.  Bangladesh’s geographic position, with two sea ports, poses an opportunity for further economic growth through regional integration, especially by linking landlocked countries like Nepal, Bhutan and the north-eastern parts of India.

Foreign relations

Bangladesh's foreign relations are strongly influenced by its dominant neighbour India as well as by its position as a major recipient of foreign development assistance (totalling US$2.15 billion in 2012).

Bangladesh plays an active role in forums such as the Commonwealth and the UN, and participates in many multilateral agencies. Bangladesh has provided large numbers of personnel to UN peacekeeping operations around the world, including in Cambodia, Bosnia, Somalia, Haiti and East Timor. In 2014, Bangladesh contributed the highest number of personnel out of contributing countries.

Bangladesh is active in promoting regional and sub-regional cooperation. It supported the concept of sub-regional cooperation between India, Bhutan and Nepal as a means of strengthening the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), of which Australia is now an observer. Bangladesh is also a founding member of BIMST-EC, an association of the countries of the Bay of Bengal (Bangladesh, India, Burma, Sri Lanka and Thailand). In 2001, Bangladesh became a member of the thenIndian Ocean Rim – Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC), now the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA). Bangladesh is also a member of the ASEAN Regional Forum, the Asia Cooperation Dialogue and the G77.

Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh has been the arrival point and home for many Rohingya refugees fleeing from the bordering Rakhine State in Burma. While some Rohingyas have returned to Burma, two camps in the Cox’s Bazaar district house 32,000 refugees, and the UNHCR estimates another 200,000 – 500,000 live outside the camps. Those remaining in camps in the country's south-east are under the auspices of the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Bilateral relationship

Australia was the fourth country (the first from the developed world) to recognise Bangladesh's independence in 1971. A resident mission was established in Dhaka in 1972 and Australia has enjoyed good relations with Bangladesh since then. The two countries celebrated forty years of diplomatic relations in 2012.

On 24 December 2008, Australia and Bangladesh signed a MOU to cooperate on combating terrorism. It was Bangladesh’s first bilateral counter-terrorism (CT) MOU and Australia's fourteenth. The MOU provides a framework for operational agencies to cooperate in areas such as information and intelligence exchange, law enforcement, activities, money laundering and financing of terrorism, and the development of effective CT legal instruments. The two countries have conducted various CT cooperation activities, including the first ever joint training exercise on CT between the Australian and Bangladeshi police forces.

The number of Bangladeshis settling permanently in Australia has increased significantly in recent years. The 2011 Census recorded 27,808 people from Bangladesh living in Australia, up from 16,100 recorded in the 2006 Census, which was in turn an increase of 77.8 per cent from the 2001 Census.

Sporting links have also played an important role in strengthening Australia-Bangladesh relations. Young players from Bangladesh have taken part in Cricket Australia’s international skills development program while national teams continue to compete against each other on the international stage. Australia was proud to host the Bangladesh national cricket team during the ICC World Cup in 2015.

Economic and trade relationship

Two-way merchandise trade totaled $977 million for 2013-4, with exports to Bangladesh valued at $461 million. Principal exports to Bangladesh were vegetables, cotton and dairy. The main imports were clothing and textiles. Since 1 July 2003, products from Bangladesh enter Australia duty-free and quota-free.

Bangladesh offers commercial opportunities to Australian companies operating in the energy, telecommunications, transport, textiles, education and mining sectors. Australian businesses are well placed to provide services and equipment for infrastructure development in Bangladesh.

For more information on developing commercial links with Bangladesh, please see the Austrade website.

Development assistance

More information on Australia's development assistance to Bangladesh.


Last Updated: 24 January 2014