Every Bangladeshi living overseas is used to having their motherland associated with natural disasters, namely floods and cyclones. This can feel humiliating at times. It is the expatriates’ burden to perpetually challenge the sometimes negative, international image of Bangladesh.
Now Bangladeshis living in Australia have embraced their adopted homeland in the wake of the worst bushfires in living memory.
Australia is the driest continent in the world and much of its eastern seaboard has been charred with inferno in the past month. Twenty-five people have died. There have been estimates of half a billion animals having perished with pictures of kangaroos fleeing fires broadcast across international media outlets.
Twelve million acres have been burnt, six times the land mass of the Californian fires of 2018 which forced one of the biggest peace time evacuation in the country’s history.
Few Bangladeshis have been directly affected. Australia has attracted large numbers of skilled migrants and International students in the past decade but the vast majority live in urban areas, especially in Sydney and Melbourne.
But all have been moved to action, giving money, food and water where possible. A local community radio outlet, Gaan Baaksho, has captured the community’s attention with a Facebook driven funding round. Others are reaching out to Australian natives in messages of support and sympathy.
The challenge of building a collective identity among different ethnic groups is raised as a problem in multicultural societies like Australia. The bushfires have functioned as a force for unifying the nation giving a sense of common purpose.
Meanwhile the Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, has been heavily criticised in the international media. This is in relation to an ill-advised holiday to Hawaii he undertook with his family during Christmas and the limited government action on climate change.
Booker Prize winning novelist Richard Flanagan wrote scathingly in the New York Times:
“Australia today is ground zero for the climate catastrophe. Its glorious Great Barrier Reef is dying, its world heritage rainforests are burning, its giant kelp forests have largely vanished, numerous towns have run out of water or are about to, and now the vast continent is burning on a scale never before seen.”
This outpouring of anger is significant. Only last year the Bangladeshi High Commissioner in Australia, Suifur Rahman, urged Australia to engage more closely with Bangladesh.
Rahman has expressed disappointment about Bangladesh remaining a high security threat in Australia’s diplomatic classification since the Holy Bakery attacks, downgrading the country’s status.
Australia is however the world’s second largest exporter of coal and Bangladesh is set to have at least eight more coal power plants by 2026.
"There is enormous opportunity for export of Australian coal and LNG to Bangladesh given Bangladesh's sustained energy demand,” said Mr Rahman to Nine newspapers. "If these are added to the traditional traded items, Bangladesh could emerge as a major trading partner of Australia soon.”
These comments made last year raised eyebrows and concerns among Australian climate change activist groups. This is because Bangladesh is known to be one of the most vulnerable countries in the world from the effects of climate change, given it is so low lying.
A quoted statistic in Australia’s press was that if sea levels rise according to some United Nations estimates, twenty percent of the Bangladeshi landmass would be underwater and some thirty million people will be displaced.
If Bangladesh is one of the most vulnerable poor countries with regards to climate change, recent events have exposed Australia as one of the most vulnerable rich countries. It is the land of drought and bushfires.
The expatriate Bangladeshi community is rapidly increasing in Australia, one of top five fastest ethnic groups. Ties between the two countries are already growing, cemented further by the foreign Minister Marise Payne visiting late last year, including monitoring the Rohingya crisis on the Burmese border.
The recent bushfires have aroused a wave of patriotic feeling among Bangladeshis for their adopted home. It has also built a new kind of mutual bond regarding natural disaster and climate change. The potential in the near future is for Bangladesh and Australia to be locked into an unusual, ironic embrace, a combination of coal and climate change. Let us hope the relationship is as mutually beneficial as it may be profitable.
The writer is a Bangladesh-origin psychiatrist, based in Sydney.