Bangladesh’s government is stealing land from its citizens

A view of the hills outside of Chittagong, Bangladesh.
A view of the hills outside of Chittagong, Bangladesh.
Image: CC/Kazi Hirok al-Arafat
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I hadn’t spoken to my friend Raad since our undergraduate days at Bard College, in New York, nearly a decade ago. But as I listened to her father’s story, it quickly became apparent why she had spent the past few days frantically contacting friends who worked in the media.

“I’m a 70 year-old man and the police officers put their guns right against my chest and said they would shoot if I didn’t allow their men onto my property,” Syed Ziad Rahman recalled, his voice trembling. “I accepted the fact that I might die and told the main officer that if he wanted to get through, he would have to kill me.”

Rahman’s story may be harrowing, but it is hardly unique. Like all citizens of Bangladesh, Rahman lives under constant threat that the government will decide to seize his land and turn him into a refugee.

More than a million Bangladeshis have already suffered this fate, and countless more will be similarly victimized in the future in large part because—like virtually every other human-rights violation in the country—the Western media has failed to adequately publicize the atrocities and oppression.

A predominantly Muslim nation in South Asia, Bangladesh has the eighth largest population and fifth highest population density in the world, with its 166 million souls crammed into a land area roughly the size of Montana. Established in 1971 after wresting its independence from Pakistan in one of the bloodiest wars of the past half century, Bangladesh is notorious for its political repressiveness, ranging from the persecution of political dissidents and outbursts of electoral violence to draconian crackdowns on the media (such as blocking Facebook and YouTube).

Its international standing on other human-rights issues isn’t much better, as demonstrated by a litany of shocking statistics (just one example: two-thirds of Bangladeshi women in their eary twenties were married off before they turn 18).

The Bangladeshi government is particularly well-known for its aggressive land-grabbing policies. In recent years the state has displaced native tribes by seizing their land, including the Santals, the largest indigenous group on the Indian subcontinent. Most of their targets are part of the country’s Hindu or animist minority populations.

While these instances of Bangladeshi land grabbing had overtones of racial and religious chauvinism, Rahman believes the government simply wants his land because it happens to be valuable. Blossom Garden is a group of 18 shops and a convention center in Chittagong, which is valued at roughly $50 million. According to Rahman, the chairman of the adjacent Peninsula Hotel wants to acquire his property and has been using allies in the Bangladeshi government and chamber of commerce to harass him for years. After repeated lawsuits failed, the alleged cabal of politicians and businesspeople turned to using thugs, threats, arson, and vandalism.

In light of the heavy media restrictions imposed by the Bangladeshi government, it is exceptionally difficult to get impartial third-parties into Bangladesh to collect facts and bring about a fair resolution in cases like that of Rahman’s. Or, for that matter, of the various ethnic and religious minorities that have been harassed by the state over the years.

Even worse, the Bangladeshi government has an unsavory history of making noisy citizens “disappear” (hence why Rahman was reluctant to name the officials involved in his case for this article).

That said, enough information has trickled out that reports of these kinds of events in one of the most populous countries in the world should be garnering much more attention.

Unfortunately, the Western media has a long history of paying scant attention to human-rights issues that occur outside of the West— even when they’re much more extreme than what Rahman described. The genocides in Rwanda and Darfur were either under-reported or only given sufficient coverage after the worst had already passed. Indeed, when Bangladesh fought for its independence in 1971, Pakistan perpetrated a genocidal campaign that took roughly 3.5 million Bangladeshi lives. (During that time, Rahman’s future father-in-law was forced to relinquish 12,000 acres of his own land at gunpoint.)As recently as last year, Western media gave short shrift to the terrorist violence and kidnappings committed by Boko Haram in Nigeria, even as it blanketed the airwaves with details about the tragic Charlie Hebdo shootings.

While it’s impossible to know whether Western pressure could improve the situation in Bangladesh, there is no good reason why we shouldn’t try—or, at the very least, be concerned enough to actually follow what’s going on there.

Thanks to Raad, there is now a petition on for those who wish to express support for Rahman and his family.