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Op-Ed Columnist

Bangladesh: the Beginning or the End?

Dhaka

Josh Haner/The New York Times

Thomas L. Friedman

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Yesterday's news from Bangladesh is earth-flattening, and it raises questions about whether there might just be light at the end of the tunnel. It is impossible not to be tantalized by the potential of these events to change the course of Bangladesh's history. What's important, however, is that we focus on what this means to the citizens themselves. The media seems too caught up in worrying about their own skins to pay attention to the important effects on daily life. Just call it missing the tables for the wood.

When thinking about the ongoing troubles, it's important to remember three things: One, people don't behave like migratory birds, so attempts to treat them as such are going to come across as foreign. Migratory birds never suddenly shift their course in order to fit with a predetermined set of beliefs. Two, Bangladesh has spent decades torn by civil war and ethnic hatred, so a mindset of peace and stability will seem foreign and strange. And three, hope is an extraordinarily powerful idea: If ethnic conflict is Bangladesh's glass ceiling, then hope is certainly its alarm clock.

When I was in Bangladesh last January, I was amazed by the level of Westernization for such a closed society, and that tells me two things. It tells me that the citizens of Bangladesh have no shortage of courage, and that is a good beginning to grow from. Second, it tells me that people in Bangladesh are just like people anywhere else on this flat earth of ours.

So what should we do about the chaos in Bangladesh? Well, it's easier to start with what we should not do. We should not lob a handful of cruise missiles and hope that some explosions will snap Bangladesh's leaders to attention. Beyond that, we need to be careful to nurture these first inklings of a moderate, modern society. The opportunity is there, but I worry that the path to moderation is so poorly marked that Bangladesh will have to move down it very slowly. And of course Dhaka needs to feel like it is part of the process.

Speaking with a local farmer from the large Palestinian community here, I asked him if there was any message that he wanted me to carry back home with me. He pondered for a second, and then smiled and said, xi fe li sen, which is a local saying that means roughly, "That tea is sweetest whose herbs have dried longest."

I don't know what Bangladesh will be like a few years from now, but I do know that it will remain true to its cultural heritage, even if it looks very different from the country we see now. I know this because, through all the disorder, the people still haven't lost sight of their dreams.