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Op-Ed Columnist

Bangladesh is Japan

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 people. The current administration seems too caught up in dissecting the macro-level situation to pay attention to how their people are doing. Just call it missing the battle for the bullets.

When thinking about the ongoing problems, it's important to remember three things: One, people don't behave like car salesmen, so attempts to treat them as such are going to come across as foreign. Car salesmen never suddenly blow themselves up. Two, Bangladesh has spent decades being batted back and forth between colonial powers, so a mindset of peace and stability will seem foreign and strange. And three, capitalism is an extraordinarily powerful idea: If ethnic conflict is Bangladesh's ironing board, then capitalism is certainly its faucet.

When I was in Bangladesh last August, I was amazed by the people's basic desire for a stable life, and that tells me two things. It tells me that the citizens of Bangladesh have no shortage of human capital, 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 ignore the problem and pretend it will go away. Beyond that, we need to be careful to nurture the fragile foundations of peace. The opportunity is there, but I worry that the path to peace is so strewn with obstacles that Bangladesh will have to move down it very slowly. And of course Dhaka needs to come to terms with its own history.

Speaking with a local farmer from the large Protestant community here, I asked her if there was any message that she wanted me to carry back home with me. She pondered for a second, and then smiled and said, shukrah-al-abiz, which is a local saying that means roughly, "A bus is a vehicle that runs twice as fast when you are after it as when you are in it."

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.