Round-up of regional news

Twice-made refugees

For decades now, the fate of ethnic Rohingya refugees living on the border between Burma and Bangladesh has been subject to the ever-changing political dynamics between the two governments. This Muslim minority, whose population spreads across the Rakhine (Arakan) state of Burma and spills over into Bangladesh, has been bounced about by governments unwilling to acknowledge their rights or citizenship. Now, at last, there seems to be some movement.

Having long faced discrimination in Burma, the 1970s saw a Burmese campaign to expunge the population of these supposed foreigners. At first, this forced about 250,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh, followed by another major influx of a quarter-million in the early 1990s. Today, there are around 30,000 Rohingya languishing in UN-overseen camps in southeastern Bangladesh, unwelcome and poorly provided for.

Engaging the military government on the issue, Dhaka again asked for the repatriation of these refugees during bilateral talks (dealing with trade and maritime issues) in late December. Surprisingly, Naypyidaw junta officials have now promised action on the issue, acknowledging some 9000 Rohingya as Burmese citizens. While this appears to be good news for the Rohingya, the truth is that hardly any of the refugees actually wants to be repatriated, given the extremely harsh treatment that they fear receiving in the home country.

Indeed, it is reported that the number of Rohingya fleeing Rakhine increased in 2009 as compared to the previous year. And little wonder, considering that the junta is, among other things, said to be forcing the Rohingya to build the 200-km border fence it has been constructing along the Bangladesh border since last March. Odds are that the new returnees will not receive a warm welcome upon their homecoming, either.

Judicious identity

If Bangladeshis took cues from their government in forming a sense of 'national identity', they would be a very confused people – every time there is a transfer of power, the country's history and 'identity' gets a thorough re-revision. Take what happened in April 2009. Just a few months after the Awami League came back to power, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the first prime minister of Bangladesh, was declared the official 'father of the nation' – thus beating Ziaur Rahman, backed by his Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) now headed by his wife Khaleda Zia, to the prized title. Of course, Mujib also happens to be the father of current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

In what is seen by many as a far more substantial issue, in early January the Supreme Court reopened a controversial debate on whether the state is secular or Islamic. As with the 'father of the nation' designation, this discussion too has been victim to the changes in political winds over time. While the original 1972 Constitution emphatically defines the state as "secular", in 1979, Ziaur Rehman abolished the term from the Constitution and allowed the establishment of religion-based parties. He also included the Arabic phrase bismillah-ar-rahman-ar-rahim, invoking Allah, in the Constitution's preamble.

Decades later, in 2005, these moves were challenged in a High Court, which banned the politicisation of religion. While the then-ruling BNP immediately got energised, getting the courts to staying the decision, the issue is once again a live one, as the Supreme Court recently removed the stay. This opens the door for the Constitution of 1972, with its reference to secularism, to be reinstated. Such an outcome is not guaranteed, however, with the BNP asking an appellate court to revise the Supreme Court's decision.

Whatever the end result, the debate is clearly a vital one for the country and population. It is also a problematic issue with little room for dialogue in the public sphere, it seems. Then again, with the Constitution being altered with every change of government in Dhaka, perhaps the population is wise in keeping its own counsel.

Nuclear nightmares

When it comes to the goings-on between Islamabad and Washington, DC in the 'war on terror', media reports often raise questions rather than provide answers. Take, for instance, the recent story that the US was preparing an elite 'crack' team to retrieve and secure Pakistan's nuclear assets, should militants ever get hold of them.

Two main factors seem to be making the US wary of Islamabad's ability to protect its own weaponry. To begin with, Taliban militants have proven that they are able to stage rather sophisticated attacked on military locations, including their breach in October of the army headquarters in Rawalpindi. US fears were further compounded by the fact that al-Qaeda leaders have publicly stated that they would like nuclear weapons to carry out a "nuclear 9/11". The other significant issue is that the US does not quite trust the Pakistan Army, which is responsible for safeguarding the country's nuclear assets. Pakistan is estimated to have some 80 nuclear warheads, housed in a variety of military locations across the country.

Considering the sensitivity of the issue, and the potential for outrage in Pakistan, it is no surprise that neither country has officially commented on the reports. Indeed, it would be unsurprising if neither ever broke the silence. But in November, even prior to this round of the stories, it was suggested that the US may already have such an elite team at the American Embassy in Islamabad. Naturally, both Pakistani and US officials denied this claim, too, and the picture is not much clearer this time around.

Non-resident thumbprint

As the number of Southasians living outside their respective countries continues to rise, diaspora communities are calling, in increasingly louder voices, to be allowed to vote back home. Despite the economic muscle of much of the diaspora communities, no state in the region has such provisions as yet. But while most governments limit themselves to lip-service to the idea, New Delhi and Colombo now appear to be engaging seriously with the demand.

Indian policymakers have actually been contemplating the issue since 2006, when the Law Ministry tabled a bill along these lines in the Rajya Sabha. Though the bill is now stuck in the legislative process, there seems to be much political will at the executive level of the current government. Speaking at the annual gathering of non-resident Indians (NRIs) in early January, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh suggested that NRIs may be able to vote by the next general election, slated for 2014.

Meanwhile, the conversation is at a more nascent stage in Sri Lanka, with Colombo in the process of designing a website through which overseas citizens can communicate their views on the matter to the state. Needless to say, the roughly one million-strong Sri Lankan diaspora was not able to vote during the 26 January presidential elections, as much as its members seem to have wanted to engage in this highly emotive poll exercise.

Going beyond the logistics, it is interesting to contemplate how allowing the diaspora to vote could impact on the political dynamics within a country. This is an especially noteworthy conversation in the Sri Lankan context, considering that much of the diaspora is Tamil, and largely sympathetic to the Tamil nationalistic cause. For instance, the 150,000-strong Tamil diaspora in Canada overwhelmingly voted for an independent homeland in a symbolic referendum held in mid-December; similar sentiment has been in evidence in related undertakings held in other parts of North America and Europe. Then again, with both the Indian and Sri Lankan diasporas constituting a very small percentage of the total voting population, perhaps their thumbprints would have little signifi-cant impact.

Beefing up

Rushing to get up to speed on the dismally lagging preparations for the Commonwealth Games (slated for this coming October), the battle-weary organising committee now has yet another fight on its doorstop. And this one may prove to be far tougher to chew than all the others. After all, it has to do with that dreaded-cum-delicious word: beef.

For the moment, both sides are firmly ensconced in their own side of the ring, exhibiting no signs of backing down. With the sale and consumption of beef in fact illegal in Delhi, local authorities are insisting that they will make no exception for the Games. In this, the municipal bodies are, perhaps unsurprisingly, backed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), with senior leaders such as ex-BJP president Rajnath Singh calling for the menu to be rewritten.

Interestingly, this is not the first time that beef has become an international issue for India. Just last November, Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh suggested that the world give up eating beef in an effort to reduce global warming. But considering that it is the flatulence of all livestock – not only cows – that are said to be responsible for some 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, Ramesh may have done better in pushing vegetarianism, not simply giving up beef.

Meanwhile the Games organisers remain unmoved by the opposition to beef, whatever its ills may be, maintaining that they must serve "international standard" meals at the event. According to current plans, the 10,000 participants of the Games – including athletes, officials and coordinators – have been grouped into six locations, each one serving food from the residents' respective regions. With roughly 36,000 meals thus expected to be served every day, the operation is a massive one – and calls for a suitably extensive, non-majoritarian menu, too.

Cricket debacle

History always appears to be a pressing burden in any activity involving India and Pakistan. And the recent bidding process for athletes for the third round of the Indian Premier League (IPL) was no different. While the eight teams took no more than two hours to sign their picks, not a single one of the 11 Pakistani cricketers in the draft was chosen.

Though the IPL is still in its infancy, the fate of its Pakistani players has predictably been coloured by the volatile dynamics between New Delhi and Islamabad. The athletes were unable even to participate in the event last year, after Pakistani officials refused to allow them to travel to India, in the aftermath of the November 2008 attacks in Bombay.

With Islamabad imposing no such constraints this year, however, a number of highly prized Pakistani players were expected to be picked. That this has not happened has understandably ruffled feathers, with the mudslinging getting underway within hours of the final line-up being announced. The Pakistani media has been highly critical of the omission, which it believes was driven by fears of a messy visa process by the Indian government. Meanwhile, the manager of star Pakistani player Shahid Afridi explicitly stated that the Indian government would not have issued a visa anyway, as the IPL is an "Indian company".

The furore is certain to be significant, and the Pakistani establishment had already started making noises. Nawaz Sharif's party, the opposition PML (N), withdrew a legislator from a parliamentary delegation slated to travel to India, citing the "humiliation of Pakistani cricketers" by the IPL. Thereafter, the entire trip parliamentary trip was scrapped, though there has been no official response as to why.

The hoopla – and more is certain to be forthcoming – does not seem to be affecting the fortunes of the IPL, however. Soon after the bidding was complete, it was announced that Google would air all IPL matches live, via YouTube. IPL Chairman Lalit Modi was then quick to wax eloquent about impending "global reach", though one wonders how many Pakistanis will want to watch the matches.

While the IPL bosses, including the Bollywood stars, may be happy, what does this IPL debacle do to the cause of cross-border India-Pakistan camaraderie so important to Southasia as a whole?

Afghan warbler

Afghanistan's 210 km-long Wakhan Corridor, on the northeastern rim, is proving to be quite the paradise for wildlife conservationists. Home to most of the country's snow leopards, another rare species in the area has recently trilled its way into the world of humans from this area. Described as "the world's least-known bird species", the large-billed reed warbler appears to be flourishing in the Wakhan, the bird's only-known breeding ground.

So elusive is the warbler that there have only been two recorded sightings. The first took place in India as far back as 1867, followed by the second almost two centuries later in 2006, in Thailand. Now, researchers have been able to capture, study and release about 20 individual birds in the Wakhan. While the finding of the warbler's breeding ground is important in itself, it also touches upon the larger question of research and conservation in the Wakhan specifically and Afghanistan in general. Work on these issues remains at a very early stage in Afghanistan, after decades of conflict and instability.

Along these lines, then, comes some pleasant news. Hamid Karzai's government, although weighed down by a heavy plateful of pressing problems, has been paying increased attention to environment-related issues. To date, Kabul has put together a list of protected species, and opened its very first national park – sure to make a home someday for at least a few of the large-billed reed warblers.

Northeastern time

It is a little absurd: A country the size of India has only a single time zone, Indian Standard Time (IST), for its entire territory. Opposing this bizarre system, the Indian Northeast is now campaigning full-throttle for a separate time zone. And the facts would seem to support their demand.

For instance, it is true that the sun rises two to three hours earlier in the east than it does in the western part of the country. Consequently, those in the east get started on their day a few hours after sunrise, and finish a few hours after sunset. One tangible result of this is, of course, a greater use of electricity.

Indeed, activists for a separate time zone allege that the Northeast has wasted a whopping INR 949 billion on power alone since Independence. To remedy this, they are asking that the Northeast clock be moved forward by a minimum of 90 minutes, a move that would synchronise the Seven Sisters with Bangladeshi time.

Inherently sensible as the call for distinct time zones based on longitude is, this particular movement – supported at this initial phase by some 200 citizens in Guwahati – is tinged with politics. The rhetoric that the single time zone is an imposition from the Centre harming the 'people and the economy' of the Northeast, echoes other complaints emerging from the area.

Then again, the question of time is closely tied to that of politics in Southasia as a whole. After all, scientific basis can hardly be claimed for the fact that Pakistani clocks run 30 minutes ahead of Indian ones, while Nepali time is 15 minutes ahead of Indian.

Small but profitable

Perhaps inspired by the success of Tata's Nano in India, other carmakers are now jostling to bring small, cheap cars to Southasia – an  'emerging market'. The latest to join the field is Honda, announcing in early January an INR 5 lakh vehicle scheduled to hit the Indian market in 2011. The Japanese carmaker already has a presence in the region, building models such as the Civic and Accord at a factory in Noida, Uttar Pradesh. Unlike these others, however, the new model will use local materials for almost 80 percent of its parts, thus bringing down costs.

Other carmakers, however, are well ahead of Honda in establishing themselves in the Indian market, particularly Maruti, Hyundai and Tata. Moreover, Toyota, Ford and Volkswagen are now poised to launch their models in India this year. Nissan, meanwhile, has decided to directly challenge the Nano by opening a factory that will turn out vehicles for far cheaper than the much-touted Nano. These are not far-off plans, either: Nissan has announced that it will be selling its first car in India by July. With current predictions that Indians alone will buy almost three million cars per year by 2016 – a trebling of the market in just a half-decade – this new car mania is unsurprising, though it may be worrying for some.

The shepherd and the bureaucrat

An accusation of 'encroachment' works wonders in energising forces, whether political, military or those of public opinion. Knowing this, one would have thought South Block would jump to adopt the early-January report released by government officials and army officers in Jammu & Kashmir that alleged creeping land loss to China in the Dokbug and Doley Tango area of Ladakh, along the so-called Line of Actual Control. The document even accused Beijing of grabbing the land as part of a deliberate plan to command territory leading to the Indus River.

Perhaps surprisingly, Defence Minister A K Antony took a different tack, emphatically stating that there had been no loss of territory. The honourable minister's attempts to explain away the report – brushing aside the contradictory statement as "only a difference of perception" – was, however, nothing less than enigmatic. In solidarity, Deepak Kapoor, the army chief, also rejected all claims that China had been encroaching along the Line of Actual Control. But the powers-that-be within J & K are making no secret of the fact that they see the situation on the ground differently.

The initial meeting, from which the report emerged, was first called when a Ladakhi magistrate complained that Chinese soldiers were harassing local shepherds and nomads. It goes without saying that the allegations are difficult to establish when even Indian maps do not agree on what constitutes the ad hoc border between India and China in this high desert. Nonetheless, the officials at the meeting felt confident in stating that "Though this process is very slow … we have lost [a] substantial amount of land in [the last] 20-25 years."

Comments from elsewhere within the New Delhi halls of power seem to shed a bit more light on the thinking there. With Minister of State of Defence M M Pallam Raju subsequently cooing to journalists that India "need not be alarmed" because bilateral talks with China were ongoing, it seems clear that the Centre simply wants to make sure that it and it alone directs the course of India-China discussions. As unnamed sources were quoted in the Indian media, "national policy of what China or India [is] doing at the LAC is not decided at the level of a Brigadier or a Colonel". And certainly, it seems, not at the level of shepherd or the J & K goverment.

Moving with the times

A hike in wages might be in the works for Nepali migrant workers in seven countries – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Malaysia. As things currently stand, the Kathmandu government has set the minimum monthly wage for citizens labouring in these Gulf countries at USD 125. With this benchmark set six years ago, in 2004, and considering the extent of the inflation, since a review is certainly necessary.

Now it is reported that officials at the Nepali Labour Ministry have asked the embassies in these seven states to talk to the relevant local authorities in making the necessary changes. Following these discussions, the government will establish a new minimum wage for migrant labourers, with the Department of Foreign Employment responsible for ensuring that employers pay at least this minimum amount.

Even as this revision process gets underway, manpower agencies involved in sending Nepali migrants overseas are asking that Kathmandu forms a consensus with the governments of the countries in question before setting a rate. A reasonable demand, considering that doing it any other way would make implementation nearly impossible. What a cruel supply-and-demand situation, when labourers would be fearful of asking for a minimum wage – because even what is offered might be taken away.

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