Archive for July 29th, 2012

As we all know, the politics of Bangladesh are never far from Tower Hamlets and it was interesting to interview the country’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on Thursday. I spoke to her for about 35 minutes at her hotel, the Renaissance in St Pancras, where she has been staying for a few days for engagements at Buckingham Palace and at the Olympic Stadium on Friday to cheer on the country’s five-strong Olympic team.

We covered a wide range of topics (including why the team only had five members: she blamed the “failed policies” of the previous Bangladesh Nationalist Party government) and I will publish an edited transcript of the full interview in a separate post soon.

But here’s the news piece I wrote for today’s Sunday Express here. Sheikh Hasina, whose niece Tulip Siddiq is a Labour cabinet member at Camden Council (and who is tipped as a future MP), also gave an interview to the BBC News channel’s Hardtalk, which will air tomorrow night.

THE Prime Minister of Bangladesh has warned of possible terrorist connections among the thousands of Muslim refugees trying to enter her country from neighbouring Burma.

Sheikh Hasina said in an interview with the Sunday Express that her government had passed on concerns about a number of unidentified “incidents” to the authorities in Burma where there have been clashes between Buddhists and Muslims.

The recent fighting, which has seen dozens killed, has been taking place in the western Burmese state of Rakhine.

Thousands of Rohingyas, whom the UN describes as a persecuted Islamic minority group in Buddhist Burma, have tried to flee to Bangaldesh, a secular country of 160 million mainly Muslims.

Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League government has been turning them away at the border, angering campaign groups Human Rights Watch and Amnesty.

However, she told the Sunday Express that the international community should investigate why so many are fleeing.

She met Foreign Secretary William Hague earlier today to discuss the situation.

In her interview with the Sunday Express, she said she was concerned about the activities of Jamaat e Islami, an Islamic fundamentalist political party that has a powerbase near the border with Burma and which has previously been accused of terror links, allegations it denies.

She alleged: “Jamaat e Islami is very much involved in terrorist activity, there’s no doubt about it and everybody knows that.

“As for refugees, we have a large number trying to get into our country, which is already over-populated.

“How many can we take it? We don’t want any refugees coming to Bangladesh.

“The international community should try and find out why these refugees want to come.”

Asked if she was concerned that Jamaat e Islami might be encouraging some refugees, she said: “We have some intelligence reports about it. 

“My government has talked to our ambassador in Myanmar (Burma) and they have informed them about some incidents and our intelligence people and law enforcement agencies are enquiring about it. 

“We are trying to find out the reality.”

Sheikh Hasina, who attended Friday night’s Olympic opening ceremony, also praised Britain and Scotland Yard for helping in the fight against terrorism.

She came to power in 2008 after several years of rule by the military and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, whom she accused of being soft on terror.

She said: “Our position is a zero-tolerance to terrorism. Many people were killed between 2001 and 2006 but since we formed our government we will not allow anybody to use our soil to launch any type of terrorist activity.”

“But once a previous government encouraged them or nursed them, you cannot stop them overnight. 

“We have good relations especially with the British. We have a Joint Task Force on Counter Terrorism and they are training our people and that is really very helpful and I really appreciate that.”

She also thanked UK taxpayers for the £250million of foreign aid sent from Britain every year, cash she says is helping her vision to make Bangladesh a “middle income country” by 2021.

She already has a large-scale infrastructure improvement programme in the country and is also working with neighbouring Nepal, India and Bhutan about a massive tourism drive in the region.

She said: “We have the world’s longest naturally sandy beach (at Cox’s Bazar). 

“We want to develop that with lots of beautiful tea gardens areas, so there is a very good possibility to develop this.”

In her meeting with Mr Hague today, the Rohingyas crisis was raised alongside other issues, including trade, migration co-operation and climate change.

Mr Hague said: “The strong roots between our two countries are reflected in our trade relationship where the UK is the largest cumulative investor in Bangladesh. 

“I welcome our co-operation on a range of international issues not least climate change, where Bangladesh plays an important role.” 

Read Full Post »

This is the first of two posts this morning that are slightly off the Tower Hamlets beat. I’m on Olympics duty for the Sunday Express over the next fortnight (like Mayor Lutfur Rahman, I was at the opening ceremony on Friday and we both agree–again!–it was a wonderful atmosphere).

Here’s the first piece, on the brilliant Olympic volunteers, many of whom, such as my lovely neighbour, Ray Gipson (he’s a steward at the Aquatics Centre), come from Tower Hamlets.

AFTER months of duff lines, angry stares and furrowed brows in front of Parliament and Lord Justice Leveson, David Cameron finally struck the right note last week. Basking in 80-degree heat, the PM addressed a pack of journalists at the heart of the £9.3billion Olympic Park in east London.

Questions were for later, he said. “I just want to set out three things you’re going to see over the coming weeks.”

Over the next few minutes, he outlined how “Britain was delivering” and spoke of the “spirit of the Games” but he was at his most passionate when eulogising about the “real sense of community” in the Park.

With all the rows over security, the Army and corporate sponsors, the real likely saviours of the 2012 Games had been hitherto largely overlooked. It was left to the PM to pick them out: the volunteers.

“The success of these Games is about our people and the welcome they give the world,” he said. “We want this to be the friendly Games and we are seeing that.

“When the call went out for Olympics volunteers, a quarter of a million people came forward; 70,000 of them were chosen. On top of that, 8,000 Londoners are acting as ambassadors for this city. Between them they are volunteering for eight million hours. So this is not a state-run Games, it is a people-run Games.”

He was right. Without them, the event simply would not run.

They may look a bit silly in their purple, red and beige Adidas tracksuit bottoms and tops (their uniforms even come with a little red plastic watch and shoulder satchel) but they are what the Olympics is all about.

Like all good amateurs, they work for free (those eight million hours would cost at least £50million if paid) but they deliver everything with the pride of top professionals. Quite frankly, I do not know how they do it, especially when confronted by a moaning ticket-holder.

Last Wednesday evening, some 50,000 spectators poured into the Park to watch the opening ceremony’s last rehearsal.

On the hottest day of the year, fans who had been ordered to discard water supplies at the security gates were getting a little thirsty. The Park’s PA system was telling them to refill bottles at the water fountains but where were they? Ask a steward, the announcer said.

I sat on a bench near one of these stewards, an engineer who was taking two weeks off work to stand by a stadium telling people where to go.

More than once, he must have been tempted to tell some of them really where to go: it wasn’t his fault the nearest water point was a good five-minute walk away and at which hundreds of others were already queueing.

I tried asking him about the negative reactions he’d received but this volunteer was a good boy. He looked at my pass, saw the word “journalist” and said only: “Oh, they’re just hot.”

The volunteers have been told to be wary of the media. I know this because I was warned to look out for “sneaky reporters” during the first two minutes of my volunteer training session.

When the call went out for Games Makers volunteers last year, I was one of the 250,000 who applied. Having watched the Olympic Park take shape from my home, 800 metres from the main stadium in Bow, east London, I just wanted to be part of the Games themselves.

In my interview (conducted by a volunteer personnel manager), I was open about my day job, so I was a touch surprised when they offered me a role as a chauffeur for Olympic VIPs.

Bless them; such a trusting lot but that is the way it should be.

I attended only one training session  (after that, Games organisers Locog realised I also had press accreditation) but that itself was an uplifting experience. Many of those there were wealthy retired businessmen, who were all keen to work unpaid throughout the day and night as glorified minicab drivers.

About 150 of us, all eager pupils, were told to drive carefully, to be polite to our “clients” (sponsors), not to carry their luggage, not to accept tips (as if!) and never to leave our BMWs unattended.

Several were unfamiliar with London’s roads, a few had not driven manual gearbox cars for decades, some were going to travel more than an hour to start their 10-hour shifts and all of us would have to work past midnight.

Some were worried about insurance issues and others were concerned how they would get home in the early hours. Yes, there were a few groans about some of the logistics but there was universal anticipation about the big task ahead.

In the Olympic Park press centre last week, thousands of journalists from all over the world arrived and were treated with perhaps undeserved respect.

A problem with the computer connection, sir? No problem, we’ll sort it out.

How do I get to the Athletes’ Village? This bus here takes you direct, sir.

All of them volunteers.

There should be signs across the Park to let fans know that so many people are working for free to ensure their enjoyment. Very few volunteers will get to see even a single event yet it is upon these people that the reputation of the Games, and their sponsors, now rests.

For that, they all deserve special medals.

Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: