From the outside, Bangladesh appears to be on the path to stability. Envious economic growth rates attest to this. However, they mask an underlying political instability which is working its way down to everyday life.
There is much to be optimistic about when it comes to Bangladesh's stated goal of becoming a middle-income country by 2021: an expanding economy, a functioning civil society and a government keen to accept help from the international community - all strong arrows in Bangladesh's quiver. And yet some 60 percent of the South Asian nation's 150 million inhabitants still live under the poverty line.
Things are amiss politically, too. The country has for some time been in the grips of ongoing tensions between government and opposition that occasionally spills onto the streets in the form of bloody clashes - the most recent incident coming just last weekend when police opened fire on opposition demonstrators, killing four and injuring nearly 200.
It's difficult to tell whether Bangladesh is in a state of flux or at a stalemate.
The main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its key Islamist ally, Jamaat-e-Islami, call regular rallies in cities across the country to pressure the government over various policy issues.
The latest clashes came after a rally aimed at pressuring the government to appoint an independent caretaker government to oversee elections scheduled for 2014.
The Awami League of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina scrapped the 15-year-old caretaker system last year, saying it contradicted the constitution. But the opposition, under Hasina's fierce rival, former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, says elections will be rigged unless a caretaker system is in place.
Shanhanur Islam, executive director of the Bangladesh Institute of Human Rights in the capital, Dhaka, says this standoff between government and opposition is destabilizing Bangladesh.
"We see that the opposition party is demonstrating against the government, but they're not doing it peacefully. But the government party, too, does not act humanely. They act to stop protests at all cost," he told Deutsche Welle.
Islam, who offers pro bono legal aid to victims of ethnic, political and religious violence, says that systemic human rights abuses such as extrajudicial executions and the use of torture by security forces have continued despite election pledges in 2008 to stop such practices.
"The present government came to power promising that there would be no human rights violations. They also made this promise to the United Nations. But extrajudicial killings have continued," he says.
Edda Kirleis, program officer at the German Protestant Church's overseas development service, the EED, says there are many voices in Bangladesh criticizing problems related to everyday life, but that their complaints often go unheard and unheeded.
"Recently, we feel that there is more of a fear that whatever is the dissenting voice in Bangladesh may be a threat to those who are currently in (positions of power)," she told Deutsche Welle. "It's a pity that voices of criticism, which are usually meant to be
constructive, are not being perceived as an asset to democratic society."
Kirleis argues there is still a major lack of access to information, government services and legal support for poor and marginalized communities, "particularly indigenous peoples and members of minority communities and women," adding that an engrained patriarchy is also detrimental to social progress for women.
And what of the country's economic progress? The economy has grown at a rate of 6-7 percent over the last few years with big leaps in the textiles and ready-made garments sectors. Bangladeshi and Indian power companies also recently signed deals worth $1.5 billion to build a coal-fired plant to provide around one-fifth of the country's energy needs and address chronic power shortages.
Ingo Fritz, executive director at development and rights group NETZ Bangladesh, says that despite the strong figures being posted by the Bangladeshi economy, there are still many groups, such as female-headed households, minorities and the indigenous who are not benefitting.
"On the other hand, poverty has been reduced and this is visible in the cities and also in the villages. There are some social developments. For example, the child mortality rate has been reduced a lot and enrollment in schools is also much higher nowadays," he told Deutsche Welle.
What is preventing further progress in the country? Fritz comes back to events such as the recent deadly weekend clashes and what he terms "confrontational politics."
"This is one of the major problems for the country not realizing its full potential. It is blocking political decisions that are important, such as in the education sector, where there should be much more investment," he says. "The confrontational politics is even visible at the local level."
Another bone of contention is the ongoing trial of suspected war criminals involved in Bangladesh's 1971 war of independence from Pakistan. Five top officials and a former Jamaat-e-Islami chief are currently behind bars for their alleged role in the nine-month conflict. Two members of Khaleda Zia's BNP face similar charges of crimes against humanity that include murder, rape and arson. Zia and Jamaat-e-Islami claim the trials are politically motivated and designed to decimate the senior ranks of the opposition.
Throw into the pot the fact that Bangladesh has a coup-ridden history, with two successful and 19 failed attempts since its independence - the most recent in December last year when the military reportedly foiled a plan by a group of hard-line officers and retired soldiers to overthrow Hasina.
With little over a year until elections, the question remains whether government and opposition can reconcile their differences. Edda Kirleis believes there is every reason to hope the ruling Awami League will keep its promise to be transparent and hold free polls. "However, if that is not the case, if the (space to dissent) shrinks, then I think the danger of the situation turning violent is very high."
Author: Darren Mara
Editor: Anne Thomas