The People’s Republic of Bangladesh is located in South Asia, almost completely surrounded by India, with a small border with Burma in the southeast. One of the world’s most densely populated countries, it is an emerging democracy with an increasingly prominent role in global economics.
A young state with an ancient culture, Bangladesh bears remnants of human settlement dating back 4,000 years. Numerous Bangladeshi kingdoms have risen to regional power, and several great empires have left their mark on the nation as well. Bangladesh was ruled by the Mughals when the British East India company gained power over the country in 1757. As a British colony, Bangladesh was part of the Indian state of Bengal, which was divided along religious lines during the British withdrawal from the region in 1947. The Hindu-majority western portion of the country remained an Indian state, while the east, with a primarily Muslim population, became East Pakistan. But political, cultural, and economic divisions created popular discontent through the next several decades; this culminated with Bangladesh declaring its independence in 1971, which it won nine months later with military assistance from India. A series of coups and counter-coups took place in the ensuing years. General Hossain Mohammad Ershad established a stable government in 1982, and democracy was restored in 1990. Since then, although often heated, politics has for the most part been at least non-violent.
Bangladesh has made many strides forward in the past century; among those often cited are literacy rate growth, slowing of population growth, and gender equality (since the reestablishment of democracy, government has been dominated by the rivalry between Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, both women). However, the country also faces a variety of problems, including overpopulation, environmental degradation, and income distribution. Although the economy has experienced consistently high growth rates, the sheer size of the population complicates efforts to achieve full employment. Leading export industries include jute, tea, garments, and light manufacturing, but the majority of Bangladeshis remain employed in agriculture, including subsistence. In addition, much of the country’s land is only a few meters above sea level; while this has helped create some exciting natural features, including the world’s longest beach and largest mangrove forest, it also makes Bangladesh very sensitive to natural disasters, including cyclones, tornadoes, and floods.
Foreigners are a fairly rare sight in Bangladesh, especially outside of Dhaka and other large cities. Nevertheless, the country offers numerous cultural and natural attractions, from beach resorts to ancient monastic ruins. Aside from business professionals, there are a wide variety of humanitarian opportunities in Bangladesh, both for paid workers and volunteers. Native English teachers are also highly valued.
Bengali is by far the most widely spoken of Bangladesh’s 38 languages. It is also the second most widely spoken language in India, and its unique writing system will likely provide an extra challenge for those not already familiar with it. Travelers should probably begin study early, as a large number of Bangladeshis have limited or no understanding of English.