The World Leaders Forum might be over, but Bangladesh’s problems sure aren’t! Armin Rosen reports on the last of this round of WLF events.

Like Turkmenistan, Bangaldesh finds itself straddling a perilously thin line. In Turkmenistan, a solid tradition of dictatorship makes it all too easy for president Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov to lead the central Asian country away from democracy (those who saw him speak this past Monday learned that this is exactly what he plans to do). Bangladesh has an equally checkered history of civil war and military rule, although Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed’s relatively bullshit-free speech at the World Leaders Forum leads me to believe that the country probably won’t revert to destructive historical habit–but it was difficult to watch Dr. Ahmed without thinking there’s a decent chance that it will.

Dr. Ahmed was surprisingly candid as to the challenges facing his country. In impeccable English the Princeton PhD explained that his country holds long term promise, and that trade liberalization, foreign development and support from NGOs have put Bangladesh on pace to half poverty by 2015. Bangladesh could be a middle-income country within two decades, says Dr. Ahmed, who did an excellent job of presenting his country as the least dysfunctional of the world�s poverty-stricken hellholes–but he was nevertheless clear that Bangladesh remains a poverty-stricken hellhole. He touched on land shortages, corruption and market threats to the country’s economically vital readymade garment industry as challenges that could break his small country of 150 million people. And he closed on the ominous prediction that global warming will sink 30% of Bangladesh within the next couple centuries.

What Dr. Ahmed didn’t touch on during his keynote address was the fact that his very appearance at Columbia portends deep and possibly destructive problems for Bangladesh. Ahmed is the chief advisor to a “non-partisan transitional -government,” and the country is operating under emergency rule as set forth in its constitiuon. But in South Asia, “emergency rule” is often just dictatorship by other means–a case in point is Indira Gandhi’s heavy-handed tactics during India’s “emergency” in the mid-70s. So is Ahmed a responsible caretaker for a poor but inevitably promising country, or a technocratic dictator ruling over a proverbial house of cards?

One Bangladeshi expat delivered a Bollingerian scolding during the question-and-answer session, and claimed that Ahmed’s “regime” has been curtailing freedom of the press, imprisoning academics and turning a blind eye to religious and political extremism. Another questioner brought up the millions of Bangladeshis who have illegally settled in India, and mentioned that this could turn into a prickly and possibly intractable issue for the two neighbors (likely given the intensity of the immigration debate in our own country). Ahmed effectively sidestepped the question about imprisoned academics by assuring us that they deserve to be in jail. On illegal immigration he pled total ignorance, and he completely ignored the question of whether he is refusing to reign in extremism.

Ahmed’s commitment to democracy will be revealed in 2008, when an election is scheduled to end Bangladesh’s constitutional emeergency rule. If those elections go down as scheduled, and if Ahmed’s program of poverty reduction proves even marginally successful he will go down as one of the great leaders in his country’s young history. But Ahmed’s revealing answers and non-answers suggest other disconcerting possibilities. What’s for sure is that Bangladesh is no Turkmenistan–but that isn’t exactly a big deal.