Bangladeshis, who have to cope with frequent cyclones from the Indian Ocean and regular outbursts of violence on the streets of their own cities, are a tough, stoic lot who don't frighten easily. But a wave of extortion, murder and kidnapping that is washing over the country of 140 million has many worried that the nation may be sliding into anarchy. The Bureau of Human Rights Bangladesh says 971 people have been killed since the start of the year. Says Badruddoza Chowdhury, former President of Bangladesh: "Never have crime and extortion taken place on such a big scale."
Nor in such a widespread manner. Nearly every rung of society is being terrorized. Truck drivers are assaulted on the roads; leading businessmen have been kidnapped for ransom; journalists have been tortured and murdered; and one of the nation's pre-eminent intellectuals, Humayun Azad, was almost killed in February by a gang of knife-wielding assailants. But the wake-up call for many Bangladeshis came last week, when the bodies of two cloth merchants were found beheaded and mutilated in a forest outside Dhaka. Stunned by the discovery, many traders in the city closed their shops or held rallies to highlight the deepening sense of insecurity in the country's business community. "I'm just asking the government to allow me to die a natural death," says Aftab ul-Islam, president of Bangladesh's American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham).
Bangladesh's drift toward mayhem threatens to undo several decades of solid progress made by one of the world's poorest countries. Thanks to a slew of innovative ngos and a committed cadre of government social-welfare workers, the nation has achieved impressive gains in fighting poverty and slowing the growth of its population. A thriving textile-export industry fills American supermarkets with made-in-Bangladesh T shirts and sweaters, and many Bangladeshi millionaire textile exporters drive about the streets of Dhaka in new Mercedes-Benz. But for all its achievements, the country has also seemed like a political experiment designed to find out just how much corruption a modern nation can withstand before it ceases to function. "We are hurtling toward disaster," warns Qazi Faruque Ahmed, president of Proshika, a prominent Bangladeshi ngo that runs schools and voter-education programs.
For three years in a row, Transparency International (TI), a Berlin-based watchdog, has ranked Bangladesh as the country perceived to be the world's most venal. Corruption in Bangladesh operates with the sweep, intricacy and structured hierarchy of a medieval feudal system, replete with an English-language nomenclature in which "tolls," "fees," and "payments" extorted from the poorest Bangladeshis are funneled up daily through an elaborate web of "collectors," "higher collectors" and intermediate barons into the ultimate hands of criminal "godfathers." Corruption starts on the streets. Every evening a "lineman" visits Dhaka's hawkers, making his way down a sidewalk ("a line") where a hundred or more hawkers squat and wait to pay him 50¢-$1.75 each, which might be up to half their day's profits. "It doesn't matter if you have had a good day or a bad day, or if your wife died or your son got sick," says one hawker. "You have to pay the lineman." Simultaneously, other collectors are making their way through Dhaka's bazaars. In a wholesale vegetable market inside Kawran Bazaar, thugs belonging to a local Mafia collect daily payments from shopkeepers, which are calculated with impressive precision. A shopkeeper squatting on the pavement has his shop space divided into plots of 3 ft. by 3 ft., and is levied $3.50 daily for each plot. Those whose shops are beside the road, and closer to the trucks that download and pick up wholesale produce, have to pay two-and-a-half times more.
If Bangladeshis live in an overwhelmingly corrupt feudal state, then the knights errant of the system are widely believed to be the nation's policemen. According to a survey conducted by TI's Bangladesh branch, 84% of all respondents who had interacted with the police said they encountered corruption when dealing with them. When asked about this finding, Dhaka police commissioner Ashraful Huda doesn't deny that corruption exists in the force, but says, "We take severe punitive measures against any policeman found guilty of corruption." Though ordinary Bangladeshis have little faith in their police, they also believe the cops are only lackeys in a system in which the chief criminal beneficiaries are a handful of powerful gang lords with important political connections. Former President Chowdhury says some politicians have cultivated gangs of armed youths in order to intimidate their opponents. These gun-toting gangs, most observers believe, also work as extortionists—sometimes to collect cash for their political patrons, sometimes simply to make money for themselves. "There is a nexus of corruption, politics and violence," says Khan Sarwar Murshid, chairman of TI's Bangladesh branch.
Yet, even though Bangladeshis have long grumbled about the daily bribes they have to pay, an etiquette of corruption, honored by extortionists and victims alike, has made life bearable for many years. Mahafuzur Rahaman Bahar, a member of the Bangladesh Truck Drivers' Union, says drivers once operated according to a "token" scheme. By paying a fixed sum to the first extortionist they encountered, they received a colored-paper token imprinted with the sign of a tree or a cow, which guaranteed free passage to their destination. So long as corruption operated within the defined rules of a scheme, Bangladeshis got along with their lives.
But the system has now broken down. According to one of the country's leading businessmen, extortion "has become a daily event." Calls are regularly made to his factories by extortionists asking for money. He once refused to pay up. The result: his workers were attacked on their way to work, and the extortionists threatened to do damage to his factories. In the end, he closed one of them down. For truckers, the token scheme ceased to function about a year ago. The result is that on average a truck on its way from Dhaka to the port city of Chittagong, the country's most important commercial route, is stopped 8-12 times by extortionists. Trucks are frequently hijacked at night, and drivers who attempt to fight off the hijackers are sometimes shot. Bahar says 35 drivers were killed last year by extortionists: "There's complete insecurity on the roads nowadays."
The violence is causing many foreign investors, who have eagerly eyed the country's oil and natural gas reserves, to rethink their Bangladesh strategy. Foreign direct investment in Bangladesh fell from $280 million in 2000 to $45 million in 2002, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. "Corruption and poor governance are causing negative growth in American investment in this country," says AmCham's Aftab.
Compounding the chaos is political paralysis. Many Bangladeshis say routine corruption morphed into rampant extortion after the 2001 parliamentary election, when the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) came to power with the aid of fundamentalist Islamic allies. A wide cross-section of Bangladeshis, from prominent businessmen to shopkeepers to truck drivers, complains that the government has failed to crack down on lawlessness. "The general perception is that corruption has worsened under the present regime," says TI's Murshid. The rise in extortion and violence has led the opposition Awami League (AL) to organize repeated strikes to try to force the government to resign. But the strikes are hobbling the economy and contributing to the growing consensus that the authorities are not in full control—thus emboldening criminals even further, and making matters worse for ordinary citizens. "The two parties are bashing each other, and we are caught in between," says a shopkeeper in Dhaka.
The Home Affairs Minister and the Prime Minister did not respond to TIME's questions about the deterioration of law and order. Dhaka police commissioner Huda insists "there is no crisis." He charges that local media are sensationalizing the problem, and says official records indicate that the murder rate is actually declining in the capital. But on the streets of the city, that claim is met mostly with derision. So far, nine businessmen have been shot dead in broad daylight this year for refusing to pay up to extortionists, and many of Dhaka's shopkeepers now no longer rely on the police to protect them. A wholesaler of tomatoes in Kawran Bazaar has pooled his resources with his neighbors to hire 20 armed guards to ensure the extortionists don't target his part of the market. Outside Dhaka, the level of lawlessness has been equally bad, especially in Chittagong, where many businessmen have been targeted for kidnappings by extortionists. "We live with the constant threat of either being kidnapped for ransom or killed," says a businessman in Chittagong, who declines to be identified out of fear.
Making the violence more toxic is the spread of a brand of intolerant Islamic fundamentalism in a country with a history of religious tolerance. Bangladesh's Hindus, who constitute about 10% of the population of the predominantly Muslim nation, say they are increasingly being intimidated by gangs of Islamic fundamentalists, who attack them in their homes, warn them to pack up and leave for India and, for good measure, extort ransom from them. "The condition of religious minorities has become terrible under the present government," says Subrata Chowdhury, a Dhaka-based Hindu human-rights lawyer. The brutal attack on well-known intellectual Azad, a moderate Muslim who is an outspoken critic of Islamic fundamentalism, has also led many in Bangladesh's intelligentsia to believe that they too are now being systematically targeted by Islamic radicals because they advocate secularism and tolerance. "How can you have intellectual freedom when you don't know whether you will come home safely in the evening?" asks Abul Barkat, an economist at Dhaka University.
Prominent Bangladeshi businessmen, who expect the security situation to deteriorate further and political agitation by the opposition to intensify, reckon there will be no significant investment in new factories for the next six to nine months. There could be worse ahead. Textiles account for 75% of Bangladesh's export value, but the start of 2005 will see the expiration of a special trade agreement that gives the country a guaranteed market for its garments in the U.S. Some experts fear that once the trade agreement ends, cheaper Chinese garments will eat away a large part of Bangladesh's export market and up to a third of Bangladesh's textile factories might have to shut down.
As the feeling of helplessness grows, some businessmen, recalling that extortion was less prevalent during the years of military rule, are nostalgic for the days when the army ran the country. Others are worried that a more serious threat than a military coup is the likelihood that Islamic fundamentalists, who captured only a minority of the vote in the general election, will take advantage of the rising sense of insecurity. "If [the BNP and the AL] fail to control lawlessness, then Islamists can present themselves as the only real alternative," warns Mubasshar Hussain, president of Bangladesh's Institute of Architects. Sari seller Siraj, like many other Bangladeshis, says he is adamantly opposed to the fundamentalists because he finds their brand of Islam too extreme. "I am a Muslim, but they are my enemies," he says. As he sees it, the government and the opposition must wake up to the impending crisis before it is exploited by Islamic radicals or by the military: "Corruption and violence have to end. Both political parties have to understand this, or there is no future for our children."