Bangladesh country brief


Bangladesh is a fertile alluvial plain on the delta of three main rivers, the Ganges, the Brahmaputra and the Meghna. The country covers an area of 144,000 square kilometres (which is about two-thirds the size of Victoria) and has a population of approximately 163.5 million, making it one of the world's most densely populated countries. Bangladesh is also one of the world's poorest countries – approximately 31.5 per cent of the population live below the poverty line. The tropical monsoons, with heavy summer rains, experienced in Bangladesh are generally accompanied by cyclones and floods, often with catastrophic consequences.

Bangladesh has a rich cultural heritage with literature, poetry and music all playing important roles in Bangladesh society. Folk art is also very common, with weaving and complex needlework finding its roots in traditional Bengali culture. Over 85 per cent of Bangladeshis are Muslims and the state religion is Islam. Hindus make up 9.6 per cent of the population, with other religious minorities including Buddhists and Christians also present.

Political overview

Formerly known as East Pakistan following the 1947 British partition of India, the People's Republic of Bangladesh came into existence in 1971 after a 'war of liberation' from Pakistan. Since then, Bangladesh has experienced considerable political instability.

The Awami League (AL), ('awami' means 'people's'), led by the independence leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, formed the first government of Bangladesh. The AL's rule came to an end with the assassination of Sheikh Mujib (and most of his family) by military officers in August 1975. Following a period of coup and counter-coup, Major General Ziaur Rahman (known as Zia) assumed control jointly with other officers in 1975 and independently from late 1976. Zia formed the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). He was assassinated by military officers in 1981. Following a further period of instability, the then Chief of Army staff, Lt-General Hossain Mohammad Ershad, seized power in a bloodless coup in 1982 and established the Jatiya Party (JP – 'jatiya' means 'national'). Election boycotts, general strikes and anti-government demonstrations were widespread throughout Ershad's rule, leading eventually to his resignation in 1990.

In 1991 Bangladesh instituted a democratic parliamentary system of government, with a unicameral Parliament of 300 directly-elected members. The national Parliament serves a five-year term. The Head of State is the President who is elected by the national Parliament for a five-year term. Executive authority rests with the Prime Minister.

Since the restoration of democracy, Bangladesh politics has been dominated by two women, BNP leader Khaleda Zia (widow of General Zia), and AL leader, Sheikh Hasina Wajed (daughter of Sheikh Mujib). The 1991 parliamentary elections were won by the BNP under the leadership of Khaleda Zia. The AL won the 1996 elections, after 21 years in opposition. In October 2001, Khaleda Zia became Prime Minister again after her BNP-led four-party coalition won a landslide victory – 209 seats in a 300 seat parliament.

Elections for the 9th Parliament in Bangladesh were held on 29 December 2008. The Awami League, under the leadership of Sheikh Hasina, won an overwhelming 230 of the available 300 seats. With the exception of a few minor incidents, the elections were relatively peacefully, and widely considered by the thousands of international and domestic observers to be free and fair. The Bangladesh Election Commission announced voter participation was about 80 per cent, the highest ever in Bangladesh. The BNP accepted the election results and, together with its coalition partner the Jamat-e-Islami party, formed the opposition under the leadership of Khaleda Zia.

Elections for the 10th Parliament are expected to be held in early 2014.

For further information, see the Bangladesh Virtual Library developed by the Australian National University.

Economic overview

The Bangladesh economy has grown at an average rate of 5 to 6 per cent per year since 1996, growing by 6.3 per cent in 2011-12. However, Bangladesh’s growth rate remains significantly below the levels required to meet the Millennium Development Goals target of halving the number of people living below the poverty line by 2015. According to the Asia Development Bank, growth is expected to slow further to 5.7 per cent in 2012-13.

Sustained economic growth and inwards investment have contributed to a gradual increase in the relative weighting of manufacturing in GDP and a decline in agriculture's weighting. However, Bangladesh remains an agricultural economy, with agriculture contributing around 20 per cent of GDP and employing over 50 per cent of the labour force. Rice is the dominant crop (over 70 per cent of the total value of agricultural production). Other crops include wheat, jute, sugar cane, pulses, spices, tea, and various fruits and vegetables.

The Bangladesh economy benefits from strong inflows of foreign aid and remittances. A major challenge for the country is to diversify its sources of national income. The garment industry currently accounts for around 80 per cent of total exports and is under competitive pressures. Remittances from workers employed overseas remain an important income stream for Bangladesh. As a result, the currency remains vulnerable, although the taka has remained relatively stable since the currency was floated on 30 May 2003. The government has skillfully managed monetary policy resulting in external reserves equivalent to three months export coverage.

Bangladesh has a liberal foreign investment regime, but apart from energy exploration and production, foreign investment in Bangladesh in general is limited. Large-scale investment in the gas and telecommunication sectors peaked in 1997-1998, but has since levelled out. The Privatisation Commission has listed over 90 state-owned enterprises for sale or liquidation.

Foreign relations

Bangladesh's foreign relations are strongly influenced by its dominant neighbour India as well as by its position as a major recipient of foreign development assistance (US$1.5 – 1.9 billion per annum in recent years).

In 1991, over 250,000 Rohingya Muslims fled from the bordering Rakhine State in Burma to Bangladesh. While some Rohingyas have returned to Burma, two remaining Rohingya camps in the Cox’s Bazaar district still house over 31,500 refugees, and the UNHCR estimates another 150,000 to 200,000 live outside the camps. Those remaining in camps in the country's south-east are under the auspices of the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Bangladesh plays an active role in forums such as the Commonwealth and the UN, and participates in many multilateral agencies. It has also provided large numbers of personnel to UN peacekeeping operations around the world, including in Cambodia, Bosnia, Somalia, Haiti and East Timor.

Bangladesh is active in promoting regional and sub-regional cooperation. It supported the concept of sub-regional cooperation between India, Bhutan and Nepal as a means of strengthening the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), of which Australia is now an observer. Bangladesh is also a founding member of BIMST-EC, an association of the countries of the Bay of Bengal (Bangladesh, India, Burma, Sri Lanka and Thailand). In 2001, Bangladesh became a member of the Indian Ocean Rim – Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC).

Bilateral relationship

Australia was the fourth country (the first from the developed world) to recognise Bangladesh's independence in 1971. A resident mission was established in Dhaka in 1972 and Australia has enjoyed good relations with Bangladesh since then.

The then Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs, the Hon Richard Marles MP visited Bangladesh in November 2011. During this trip Mr Marles held discussions with Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Foreign Minister Dipu Moni, and announced an additional $15 million in ‘fast start’ climate change finance to assist Bangladesh adapt to the impacts of climate change.

On 24 December 2008, Australia and Bangladesh signed a MOU to cooperate on combating terrorism. It was Bangladesh’s first bilateral counter-terrorism (CT) MOU and Australia's fourteenth. The MOU provides a framework for operational agencies to cooperate in areas such as information and intelligence exchange, law enforcement, activities, money laundering and financing of terrorism, and the development of effective CT legal instruments. The two countries have conducted various CT cooperation activities, including the first ever joint training exercise on CT between the Australian and Bangladeshi police forces. Australia’s then Ambassador for Counter-Terrorism, Mr Bill Paterson, visited Dhaka in November 2009 to discuss CT cooperation between Australia and Bangladesh with Ministers and senior officials.

The number of Bangladeshis settling permanently in Australia has increased significantly in recent years. The 2011 Census recorded 27,808 people from Bangladesh living in Australia, up from 16,100 recorded in the 2006 Census, which was in turn an increase of 77.8 per cent from the 2001 Census.

Sporting links have also played an important role in strengthening Australia-Bangladesh relations. Cricket Australia signed an MOU with the Bangladesh Cricket Board in 2000 to underpin cooperation, including young players studying at the Commonwealth Bank Cricket Academy in Adelaide. The most recent Australian cricket team tour of Bangladesh was in April 2011, with three one-day internationals played.

Economic and trade relationship

Two-way merchandise trade totaled $865 million for 2012, with exports to Bangladesh valued at $490 million. Principal exports to Bangladesh were vegetables, fertilisers (excluding crude), cotton and wheat. The main imports were clothing, textiles and floor coverings. Since 1 July 2003, products from Bangladesh enter Australia duty-free and quota-free.

Bangladesh offers commercial opportunities to Australian companies operating in the energy, telecommunications, transport, and mining sectors. Australian businesses are well placed to provide services and equipment for infrastructure development in Bangladesh.

For more information on developing commercial links with Bangladesh, please see the Austrade website.

Development assistance

Bangladesh has been a significant recipient of Australian development assistance since the early 1970s. Australia’s aid budget for Bangladesh doubled to $92 million between 2007-08 and 2011-12, and reached $97.3 million in 2012-13. Our aid focuses on improving the lives of the poorest and most vulnerable, particularly women. Priority sectors include health, education, social protection, water and sanitation, climate change and disaster risk management. Development scholarships and volunteer programs are also important features of Australia's assistance to Bangladesh.

More information on Australia's development assistance to Bangladesh.

Last Updated: 24 January 2014