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Cablegate: Economic Woes Trump Politics in Flood-Hit

VZCZCXRO3932
PP RUEHCI
DE RUEHKA #1543/01 2640808
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
P 210808Z SEP 07
FM AMEMBASSY DHAKA
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 5138
INFO RUEHLM/AMEMBASSY COLOMBO PRIORITY 8096
RUEHIL/AMEMBASSY ISLAMABAD PRIORITY 1827
RUEHKT/AMEMBASSY KATHMANDU PRIORITY 9285
RUEHNE/AMEMBASSY NEW DELHI PRIORITY 0177
RUEHCI/AMCONSUL KOLKATA PRIORITY 0921

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 02 DHAKA 001543

SIPDIS

SIPDIS

USID/W FOR ANNE DIX, DESK OFFICER ANE/SAA

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: BG EAID ECON PGOV PINR SOCI
SUBJECT: ECONOMIC WOES TRUMP POLITICS IN FLOOD-HIT
BANGLADESHI VILLAGES


1. (SBU) Summary: Much of northcentral Bangladesh remains
under water from monsoon rains that began in August. A
recent three-day visit to the region by PolOff found much
dissatisfaction with the caretaker government, which
villagers blame for spotty relief efforts and rapidly
increasing prices. As they struggle to survive they show
little interest in political developments in Dhaka,
particularly the arrest on graft charges of the women who
have long led the country's two main political parties.
Barring further precipitous increases in prices, anecdotal
evidence from the trip suggests outbreaks of violent
anti-government protests that shook Bangladeshi cities last
month are not likely in the countryside. End Summary.

2. (U) A visit to Tangail and Sirajganj northwest of Dhaka on
September 10-12 showed plenty of signs of flood devastation.
Much of the trip was on a raised main road surrounded by
flooded cropland as far as the eye could see. Sections of
several secondary roads were washed away. In Sirajganj city,
one of the worst hit regions, downtown strd%ds were flooded
calf-deep; a few boats plied the streets alongside cars and
rickshaws. Water lapped at the feet of legal scribes seated
at rickety desks set up on the street outside the courthouse.
The view from the building's third floor was of a temporary
lake whose shoreline was a row of corrugated-metal homes,
their green and red doors half submerged in the water.

3. (U) Economic hardship was foremost`on villagers' minds.
Much of this was the result of flooding. At Basail
subdistrict near Tangail, officials said 80,000 of 180,000
people were affected, with nearly 300 homes and more than
10,000 acres of crops damaged by flooding. The government
provided assistance primarily of rice and cash grants of up
to taka 500 (about $US7) per family. Villagers there and
elsewhere gave varying answers when asked how relief efforts
compared with previous years, ranging from general
satisfaction to claims that they were getting either far less
than needed or nothing at all. They spoke in a unified
agitated voice, however, when identifying inflation as a
scourge. Many rattled off prices of essential foodstuffs
compared with a year earlier, reflecting an almost doubling
of cost for rice, potatoes and edible oils. Many expect
prices to go higher still during the month of Ramadan, which
began September 13.

4. (U) Villagers seemed much more subdued when talking about
politics. Many Dhaka-based Bangladeshi journalists argue
that Sheik Hasina and Khaleda Zia, the charismatic leaders of
the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, remain
hugely popular in the countryside despite being jailed on
corruption charges but villagers had little to say in support
of them. At a family-planning clinic in Baisal, a group of
eight women in the waiting room nodded in agreement when one
said the arrest of the two ladies would be acceptable if the
graft allegations were proven. The women expressed anger at
the two parties for their incessant street fighting when in
power and urged national unity, echoing reasons cited by the
military-supported caretaker government in canceling
elections and imposing an indefinite state of emergency in
January. At a separate village just outside Sirajganj, a
group of men ignored a question about the two ladies to focus
on their complaints about prices.

5. (U) A visit to Mukundakati, a conservative village of
weavers hard hit by floodwaters near Sirajganj, appeared
particularly representative. The devastation was clear on
the approach to the village, which was surrounded by
floodwaters that looked like a vast ocean complete with an
armada of makeshift canoes, rafts, sampans and single-sail
junks. About two dozen weavers explained how many of their
looms were destroyed by the flood, putting them out of work
just as Ramadan, typically their busiest season, was
starting. They said they received five kilograms of rice
this year in relief, compared with 15 kilograms in the past.
They also said that they had not yet received any government
loans for looms as they had during previous bad flooding.
Some were getting by through personal loans and by selling
cows and cows' milk. They expressed unhappiness with the
government relief response, but as one villager, Rafiqul
Islam, said with a shrug: "What can we do?"

6. (SBU) When asked if they were familiar with the
anti-government protests at Dhaka University and elsewhere,
the weavers all nodded yes. But Islam, wearing a
long-sleeved shirt that read, "The Early Sisties (sic)
California was the Paradise of Surf," said neither the

DHAKA 00001543 002 OF 002


violence by the students nor the response by the police was
acceptable. Students should be studying, not rioting, he
said. When asked about the arrest of the two ladies, he said
they have to account for their activities in the past and
that government action against them could help establish a
culture of accountability in a nation wher% graft is endemic.
He and others also stressed that they would like the
government to hold elections, which have been promised by the
end of next year, as soon as possible.

7. (SBU) Conclusion: Although care is needed when drawing
conclusions from anecdotal evidence and a limited number of
discussions, PolOff did not detect among destitute flood
victims a level of anger that would translate into imminent
political protest. Villagers seemed resigned to their fate
concerning the floodwaters that afflict the region with
depressing regularity but were upset about skyrocketing
prices, which some called the highest in memory. Anger over
inflation helped stoke the anti-government Dhaka protests and
national officials have promised to take measures to keep
prices in check during Ramadan. Should inflation
nevertheless continue to soar, the situation in Bangladesh's
flood-soaked villages could yet turn combustible.

PASI
Pasi

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