Round-up of regional news

Final roars

It might be the Chinese year of the ox, but tigers seem to be getting most of the press these days, and justifiably so. According to statements made at the recent Kathmandu Global Tiger Workshop – a gathering of experts from across the world – the population of the big cat in 14 'tiger range' countries (including Bhutan, Bangladesh, China, India, Nepal, China and Burma) has fallen from 100,000 to just 3500 over the past century. The gathered representatives made a commitment to doubling the current tiger population in the coming century, though how exactly this will happen remains unclear. One way or another, the gathered experts warned, if urgent collaborative efforts are not made soon, tigers of all sub-species will almost certainly become extinct.

Unfortunately for the disappearing cats, tigers' predators are a growing human population – particularly Chinese consumers, who seek their organs for medicinal purposes and their skins as decoration. While a 1993 international ban on trade in tiger parts still holds today, the smuggling of animal parts and skins of endangered animals continues – especially across the barely manned Nepal-China border from other parts of Southasia, namely India. The economics make doing anything about this trade exceedingly difficult, however. A single tiger skin is said to sell for around USD 1000 in the Nepali market, but ten times more by the time it arrives in China. Nepal is currently pushing China to sign an agreement to jointly monitor the frontier for tiger contraband.

Amidst the gloom, there was some positive news out of Bangladesh. The country is thought to be home to the world's largest remaining tiger population, and its national forest department is now drafting its first comprehensive plan to protect the Royal Bengal Tiger. Further, some experts have suggested that working to save the tiger would also help to save the broader Sundarban mangrove, which represent almost half of the country's remaining wild lands. The Tiger Action Plan thus aims to save 300-500 tigers, in addition to recognising the Sundarban and the rest of the country's coastal green belt as being critical for the overall protection of the country, particularly in light of predicted impact of climate change. In this case, what is good for humans is indeed good for tigers.

Smelling gas

The world's second-largest consumer of petroleum is currently laying a massive, contentious straw straight to the source. Although delayed by a month, Chinese construction of a crude-oil port in Burma recently got underway, part of a 771-km pipeline project from Burma's Arakan State to Kunming in the Chinese province. Staggering numbers are involved: in its initial phase, the pipeline is to boast the capacity to transport 240,000 barrels of crude oil per day.

The new conduit will mean that China will no longer have to transport Burmese petroleum through the congested and pirate-infested Malacca Strait. The project, however, is facing stepped-up resistance from human-rights activists, who are demanding the construction be stopped. According to the Shwe Gas Movement (SGM), a prominent activist group, such projects in Burma involve "forced labour, forced relocation, land confiscation and a host of abuse by soldiers deployed in the project area."

According to a recent SGM report, neither the Chinese company nor the Burmese authorities involved in the project have conducted even the most basic of environmental- or social-impact assessments. Furthermore, the massive revenue stream promised by the project inevitably strengthens the junta government's pocketbook and resolve. Unfortunately, that alone, but certainly coupled with Beijing's fervent backing, will undoubtedly keep the oil flowing for many years.

Politics vs art

While the pictures on display in a recent exhibition in Dhaka may have spoken a thousand words, subsequent actions to gag the show by Chinese and Bangladeshi officials spoke many thousands more. In late October, the well-established Drik Gallery in Dhaka was prohibited from going forward with its show, "Into Exile: Tibet 1949-2009", after receiving 'requests' and complaints from Chinese diplomats, followed by strict instructions from the Bangladeshi police. The official disapproval became ever clearer when riot cops arrived to physically cordon off the gallery an hour before the show was to be inaugurated.

But the show went on. Despite heavy police blockades, the exhibition, depicting the journey of Tibetans from the plateau into exile, including of the Dalai Lama's flight in 1959, was informally launched on the street outside the venue. Undeterred by the bullying, chief guest Muzaffar Ahmed, the chairman of Transparency International Bangladesh, inaugurated the event, with activists supporting the show.

March 2009 saw the first-ever pro-Tibet rally in Bangladesh, following on the formation of the Bangladesh chapter of the international activist group Students for a Free Tibet, which also co-organised the photo exhibition. During the March protests, demonstrators were briefly arrested. Meanwhile, the Dhaka government made haste to emphasise that it remains ardently 'pro-China'.

Terror talk

With the insurgencies in Pakistan and Afghanistan showing no signs of losing steam, terrorism has unfortunately become a buzzword by which to identify Southasia. Even so, the region's countries may be said to have been far from proactive in working together to tackle the issue. With this is mind, the United Nations has now gotten (further) into the game, setting up a programme to encourage cooperation within SAARC on fighting militancy.

The first phase of this project took off recently with a three-day workshop for police officers and prosecutors from all eight SAARC member countries. With politics always a stumbling block to regional cooperation, the sessions focused simply on improving communication between professionals involved in fighting insurgencies.

The initial effort is to be built upon with a subsequent workshop in Sri Lanka in early 2010. According to UN officials, the goal is to make such gatherings regular, at first simply in order to foster contact. This is all well and good. Yet, the question subsequently arises – what then? Logically, actual cooperation on information sharing, arrests and extraditions would follow. These issues are, however, a minefield.

Even India and Nepal – which share an open border and generally cordial relations, relative to the rest of the region – are as yet unable to agree on extradition of third-country nationals meaning harm on each other. It seems unimaginable that others will be able to agree upon any such practical cooperation.

Chicken's-neck bridge

A big event seems almost certain for those keen to celebrate greater Southasian connectivity. At long last, the 21-km wide 'chicken's neck' of West Bengal, separating Bangladesh from Nepal and Bhutan, looks set to be bridged through a rail connection. Dhaka has faced difficulty in trading with the two countries because of the lack of a trade link through the narrow stretch of Indian territory, when New Delhi allowed bilateral trade between its neighbours by road. A 1976 trade-and-transit agreement between Dhaka and Kathmandu has remained fully unimplemented for just this reason.

Now, with the political obstacle to the linkage seemingly no longer in place, only the technical details require agreement. Once the route is finalised, Nepal should be able to use the Chittagong and Mongla ports in Bangladesh for trade.

Even so, it appears that a disagreement could develop on exactly that front. As of now, India is offering three potential points for a transit station – the Birol-Radhikapur border, the Rahanpur-Singhabad border and an as-yet undisclosed location. Meanwhile, Dhaka has identified Chilahati-Haldibari as the best transit point.

The Chilahati station is a mere 35 km away from the Jogbani station on the India-Nepal border at the Nepali town of Biratnagar, and it would also provide convenient access to Bhutan. To make this link functional, Bangladesh would need to build around eight km of track and India just three km. The Rahanpur-Singhabad crossing, on the other hand, is some 150 km distant.

A final decision on these much-anticipated issues is to be made during a planned visit to India by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in late November. But Nepali and Bhutanese exporters are undoubtedly already packing additional crates.

The Lady's letter

For the first time in two decades, the Burmese generals in Naypyitaw will allow elections to be held next year, currently slated for May. Of course, everybody expects them to the flawed, especially with iconic opposition leader Aung Sang Suu Kyi still under house arrest. But a recent letter from Suu Kyi to General Than Shwe, chairman of the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), has raised hopes across the country.

In her mid-November letter, Suu Kyi expressed her wish, among other things, to work with the SPDC to help the state on a number of fronts – particularly to remove the sanctions currently imposed on Burma, and which have been a major bane of the generals. The letter concluded with a request to meet Gen Shwe to further discuss any possible cooperation.

Suu Kyi had sent another letter to the general in September, requesting permission to meet with Western diplomats as part of a fact-finding mission to understand the impact of the sanctions. Surprisingly, that proposal met with a positive response, and the incarcerated leader was allowed to meet EU, US and Australian diplomats – an allowance for which she thanks Gen Shwe in this latest note. At that time, Aung Kyi, the junta's official liaison with the opposition, had also met with the detained leader.

As Himal went to press, there had been no response yet from the junta officials to Suu Kyi. However, analysts believe that some reply may be forthcoming after the quarterly meet of the commanders concludes during the last week of November. This particular meet is considered a significant one, as it was to decide the details of the upcoming elections – certainly the ideal time to make a gesture to Suu Kyi.

The Maldives
Moral lead

Global as the impact of climate change is and will be, the negative consequences will be more immediate and dramatic for some. Yet those likely to be most affected also have the least influence to ensure that concrete action is taken at the upcoming Copenhagen meet. With this in mind, President Mohamed Nasheed recently hosted a meeting of 11 countries – including Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal – considered most vulnerable to the negative consequences of climate change.

The two-day meet ended with a statement from the gathered countries promising to green their economies. President Nasheed is said to be disappointed that the governments in Asia, Africa and the Pacific have not given definite commitments to become carbon neutral within a decade. Indeed, none of the gathered countries have made any voluntary pledge to reduce emissions. With no concrete action likely to emerge from Copenhagen, President Nasheed had thus envisioned the meeting as an effort to show "moral leadership" by these so-called frontline nations.

The group subsequently requested that developed countries provide at least 1.5 percent of their GDP by 2015 as assistance for developing countries to switch to low-carbon sources of energy. The representatives also agreed to hold another Climate Vulnerable Forum in 2010, this time in the Pacific island of Kiribati – the first country expected to disappear underwater due to climate change, before even the Southasian atolls.

Dire deficit

With a current trade deficit of NPR 108 million with regards to India, Nepal needs all the help it can get to make up the balance. Now, some relief may come in the form of the revised Treaty of Trade and Agreement of Cooperation, recently signed by the two countries. Overall, the new version of the treaty is said to provide a more solid outline for bilateral trade.

Among other things, the treaty removes all non-tariff barriers on Nepali exports to India; pledges to open new custom points along the border, and allow air trade; and agrees to establish a trade port for Nepal at Visakhapatnam, in Andhra Pradesh. Significantly, the treaty also allows both sides to re-export goods produced in the neighbouring state to a third country without any local manufacturing activity. This particular clause will be of great benefit to Nepal, allowing it to send Indian goods to places where it has greater access (read: China).

Just as this version of the treaty is likely to have a significant impact on the trade relationship, the original (signed in 1996) also brought about dramatic changes in bilateral trade relations. Trade volume increased from about INR 28 billion in the 1995-96 fiscal year to INR 204 billion during 2008-09. Nepali exports to India also increased 11-fold (though still miniscule compared to Indian imports) during this time, from less than INR 4 billion to about INR 40 billion.

77 words

Every time there is any hint of Chinese involvement in the region, New Delhi gets prickly. It was no different this time around, when a joint US-China statement was released following President Barack Obama's recent trip to East Asia. In the note's more than 4000 words, however, only one tiny paragraph (some 77 words) referred to Southasia, with China stating that it would only get involved in initiatives relevant to bringing peace and stability to the region.

This, of course, is what subsequently got New Delhi up in arms, jumping to assume that its northern neighbour is looking to get increasingly involved in India-Pakistan issues. But Foreign Ministry officials in Beijing were quick to try and smoothen the ruffled feathers in Delhi, promising that they did not want a "primary" role in India-Pakistan relations. Yet perhaps we actually need to be concerned by the miniscule reference in the joint statement itself – as to how little importance the US and China seem to ascribe to Southasia.

Border tantrums

Six decades, a war and 13 rounds of negotiations later, the Indo-China border dispute in Arunachal Pradesh continues to fester, though mostly out of sight. There has been a sudden deepening in tensions in recent months. The issue first flared up when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made a pre-election campaign trip to the state in mid-October, drawing Beijing's ire.

The pressure went up several additional notches in early November, when New Delhi allowed the Dalai Lama to travel to the disputed monastery town of Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh – particularly sensitive because this was where the fleeing Dalai Lama exited Tibet a half-century ago. Technically, the trip was nothing new, as the Dalai Lama had made four previous trips. But that Beijing reacted the way it did was evidently a deliberate attempt by Beijing to highlight the level to which relations with New Delhi had plummeted.

Among other things, Beijing seems to have been angered by New Delhi's new, stringent visa policy for Chinese workers. Most Chinese citizens working in India have multiple-entry business visas, which are valid for six months. Under a new policy, under which unskilled or secretarial positions cannot be filled by non-Indians, some 25,000 Chinese workers were forced to leave India by a 31 October deadline. Beijing, meanwhile, had a punch of its own to throw, attempting to block a USD 2.9 billion loan from the Asian Development Bank to India – as part of the money was meant for projects in Arunachal.

Over the last year, there have been reports of hundreds of incursions into the other's territory by both countries, along the northeastern frontier. Chinese border guards apparently throw their discarded bottles and cigarette stubs on the Indian side, while Indian soldiers respond by dumping that trash, supplemented by their own, back into China.

Adding machines

That the Internet is slow in Southasia will not be news to any readers. What may come as a surprise, however, is that we pay far more for our tortoise-paced connections than others do for much faster access. According to research recently concluded by LIRNEasia, a regional ICT policy body, Southasians get less dependable broadband connections per dollar spent as compared to users in North America.

A large part of the problem, of course, lies in the lack of adequate infrastructure in the region. With the broadband lines coming to Southasia being relatively puny, most regional websites are hosted on services in the West. Another aspect of the difficulty is the large number of users sharing the same link.

The broadband providers in the region have it better than their Western counterparts. Though they offer 'cheaper' payment schemes, for them slower connections actually translates into more money – as users sit and stare with mounting frustration at their computer screens, seeking access to … something.

Bland jalebi

The worldwide sugarcane industry is in an un-sweet mess this crushing season. And India, the world's second-largest producer of sugar, has not been exempt from the negative repercussions – reduced yield, and higher labour and other costs. With tighter profits on the minds of farmers already, the government's recent setting of the nationwide base price – the price at which farmers must sell their crops to mills – at INR 129 per 100 kilograms led to cane-banging protests.

In mid-November, opposition parties halted Parliament proceedings as farmers from western Uttar Pradesh arrived in New Delhi by the busload to carry out street protests. Meanwhile, Uttar Pradesh set its state-advised price (SAP) at a higher rate of INR 162.5 per kg, eventually convincing sugar mills to pay an extra 15 rupees. Yet even so, farmers continued agitating for a nationwide base price of INR 280. A nation-wide production of 16 billion kilos of sugar is expected for this year, short of the 23 billion kg demand.

Matters are not much better in the rest of the region. In Bangladesh, where crushing can last for almost four months in a good year, the process is expected to last little more than two months this year. Similar jalebi-style binds are being faced by the industry in Pakistan, with farmers in Punjab making gur as an alternative to sugar.


Ritual animal sacrifice is no uncommon thing in Nepal. Almost all communities, regardless of religion, are known to relish their meat, and have historically used animal sacrifice as a means to acquire that meat. Indeed, Nepal is a country that draws meat from yaks, goats, sheep, buffalos and assorted fowl. And while there are communities that eat beef, the slaughter of cows is prohibited by law, a bone of contention among many communities because of the reminder of Hindu-state domination.

On 24-25 November, the country was home to the largest mass animal slaughter is the world, or so has gone the recent rhetoric. Every five years, towards the end of November, some millions of devotees converge in the small Nepali town of Bariyapur, in the border district of Bara, for the Gadhimai Mela. There, after the Gadhimai deity has been 'awakened' by the priests, they offer up hundreds of thousands of animals to her, to have their prayers fulfilled. The scale of the sacrifice is truly astounding. Prior to the event, organisers estimated that they would kill about half a million animals – everything from buffalos to wild rats. About 400 'strong butchers' were tasked with slaughtering the animals, as demanded by the deity.

For years an obscure festival as far as the outside world was concerned, this year the Gadhimai Mela suddenly became a controversial event. The festival was first criticised by Nepali animal-rights groups, then followed up by Indian Menaka Gandhi, then the French actress Bridget Bardot. In Nepal, an ascetic who recently gained fame for alleged feats of fasting and meditation likewise came out against Gadhimai.

For a while, it seemed that the matter might take on a political tinge, including hill-vs-plains faiths. There was also a crossborder dimension, given that the bulk of the devotees were plains people from across the open Nepal-India frontier. Fortunately, no untoward incident took place, though obviously there will be more protests by the time the next Gadhimai date rolls around, five years hence.

But the one question the animal-rights activists were not confronting. The Gadhimai devotees were at least honest and open in the killing they do. What of the millions of animals killed daily worldwide behind the abattoir's walls, and the sanitisation of slaughter that allows non-vegetarians the world over to don the humanist mask? And what of the fourty million turkey already slaughtered this past thanksgiving in the US? Were the Gadhimai devotees being penalised for their transparency?

Come visit!

Tourism projects in north and eastern Southasia are set to receive a huge cash influx, with the Asian Development Bank (ABD) pledging to give USD 57.5 million to the area. The ADB funding is geared particularly towards developing the tourism sector in Bangladesh, Nepal and the Indian Northeast.

In recent years, the number of tourists of all kinds visiting these areas has grown sharply, increasing almost 120 percent from 2002 to 2006. All the same, these numbers are minor when compared to statistics in other popular tourist destinations. Poor international connectivity and inadequate local infrastructure are thought to be the two major obstacles to greater tourism levels.

While the ADB money is aimed at tackling these problems, it also has loftier goals. According to the project guidelines, a driving idea behind the plan is the creation of better linkages within the so-called "subregion". The intent is to improve access and amenities to encourage tourists visiting Bangladesh to continue on to, say, the Northeast or Bhutan.

For the effort, the ADB will be providing a combination of grants and loans to the three countries. India and Bangladesh, for instance, will be given USD 20 million and USD 12 million in loans, respectively; Nepal will receive a loan of about USD 12 million and a grant of the same amount. The remaining cost of the USD 89 million project will be covered by OPEC Fund for International Development and the governments of the three countries.

If all goes according to plan, the project will be completed by September 2014. Even if the tourists do not pour in, however, locals in the area are sure to gain from the planned improvements in roads and infrastructure. But there just may be potential for a tourism circuit that ropes in the Sundarban, the Manas and the Kaziranga national parks, and the lofty Himalaya at the northern rim, beside the incredible cultural diversity of the Northeast.

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