Round-up of regional news

Lights on – sorry, off

With a turnover of close to USD 2.3 billion per annum and an output of nearly a thousand movies each year, the Indian film industry makes its Bangladeshi counterpart – turnover of about USD 50,000 per production for less than hundred productions a year – seem particularly Lilliputian. More than size, however, the matter is about quality. It is no surprise, then, that many Bangladeshis resort to videotapes and bootlegged DVDs of Bollywood's output, because Indian films, as well as those from the rest of the region, have been banned for four decades. The ban has been in effect almost since Bangladesh's independence, to protect the national filmmakers. Unsurprisingly, the number of cinemagoers in the country has dwindled due to the local industry's inability to supply enough films to satisfy audience appetite.It was to revitalise cinema halls across the country – the number of functioning theatres has dropped from 1600 ten years ago to 600 today – that the longstanding ban on the import of Southasian films was lifted in late April. Before long, however, the decision was suspended by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's cabinet, putting the ban back into effect for an indefinite period. Apparently, this reversal was to keep the ailing Dallywood – as the Bangladeshi film business is known – from crumpling further.Filmmakers across the country are arguing in favour of the ban, warning that an influx of celluloid from across the border would lead to the axing of some 25,000 jobs – not to mention that the Bangladeshi film industry would be 'completely destroyed'. Speculation was also rife that the now-deferred decision to lift the ban would have incited 'anti-government' and 'anti-India' campaigns by the opposition parties.Dhaka's dilemma is not unique. With Hindi cinema so dominant in the region, it inevitably overshadows the smaller film industries in Lahore, Colombo, Kathmandu and elsewhere. The obvious answer, of course, is that these countries begin to make better films. Yet even if the ban were to target only Bollywood, one wonders whether Bangladeshis would flock to see Nepali action flicks, Pakistani social dramas or Sri Lankan comedies.

Sad Sacks

The recent SAARC Summit in Thimphu could well have been an act of egging on a weakened horse – it is common knowledge that such summits through the years have been mere showcases, for the most part. Simultaneously, close by in another capital, Southasian citizens were thrashing the three 'devils' haunting them: poverty, the atomic bomb and water hegemony. Such was the scene at the Central Shaheed Minar in Dhaka at the end of April, just as the 16th SAARC Summit was being inaugurated a little to the north.Enthusiasts in Dhaka made their own emblematic approach to ridding the region of what they believe are its three largest festering problems, by setting up what they dubbed a SAARC Mass-Stick Beating Open-Air Session. Three separate jute sacks, figurative representations of the three impediments, were beaten with sticks by the youth that gathered. Yet for all the fury that was unrestrainedly rained down upon the symbolic sacks, actually driving out these 'devils' from our region will remain far more difficult. Back to Thimphu, then, and the SAARC Secretariat in Kathmandu.

Beyond Religious Ties

The Maldivian economy might be in dire straits, but it remains a country in which more than 77,000 foreign workers – a little less than a fifth of the entire population – earn their bread. While Bangladeshis and Indians make up a major part of this number, the Pakistani presence has also been prominent. As the burgeoning Pakistani workforce in the Maldives ties the two countries closer, Islamabad and Male have been feeling the need for closer bilateral relations as well. In this regard, the mid-May visit of Maldivian Foreign Affairs Minister Ahmeed Shaheed to Islamabad – the first in two decades – is expected to do much to strengthen their affiliation. For Male at least, the visit secured 'much-needed assistance'.While Islamabad has expressed its willingness to provide aid for education and infrastructure in the Maldives, more notable is the offer to have senior officers from Pakistan train police personnel. Islamabad has agreed to fully fund a training visit of 25 policemen from the Maldives, and also hopes to lend a hand in training the Maldives' naval force, and for containing cybercrime and money-laundering in the atolls. Moreover, with more and more Maldivian students opting to further their education in Pakistan, the latter has promised to ease student visas.All this builds on the decision late last year by the Islamabad Chamber of Commerce and Industry to strengthen trade ties with the Maldives, which to date have been negligible. It had made a request to Male that Pakistani exporters be allowed to establish themselves there, promising that they would offer better import options than European countries. While Male welcomed investment from Pakistan, plans or projects as such are yet to be specified.

Still smouldering

Since mid-April, hundreds of people have been trickling away from the restive southern Burmese state of Shan, and heading towards the Thai border. The impetus was a government deadline for 22 April, by which time armed groups that had signed ceasefire agreements were to have been incorporated into the country's Border Guard Force – and the refusal by a number of these groups to do so. With past experiences in mind of horrific violence in clashes between Shan-based armed groups and government troops, many locals quickly chose to head to less dangerous ground.Among the resisting groups are the Karen National Union/Karen National Liberation Army (KNU/KNLA) Peace Council, the Kachin Independence Organisation and the United Wa State Army (UWSA). All these groups, which have fought against the Burmese state for decades, continue to refuse to come under the Tatmadaw, Burma's military. Tensions seem to be especially high in the Shan areas, which have a history of clashes between the junta and militant forces. The USWA, which is among the armed groups based in Shan, is the largest of the ethnic armed forces, with an estimated 30,000 fighters.The fears of those who have decided to flee are undoubtedly well founded, as there have recently been reports of weapons-carrying military vehicles headed to Shan state. While there had been some hope of talks between the junta and the groups, the former now appears unlikely to give much ground. With its demand for greater autonomy not being met, the UWSA is said to be ready to continue fighting the junta, though the Wa leadership has committed to not attacking first. Reports of a few small clashes have filtered out of the area, though reliable on-the-ground details are, as ever, lacking. The steady flow of people to the Thai-Burmese border, however, is a clear sign that all is not well.

Stay on the pitch

If the public controversy between the Indian MP and former minister of state Shashi Tharoor and the former Indian Premier League (IPL) boss Lalit Modi was not enough of a merging of cricket and politics, here is another instance. The Sri Lankan government recently told its cricketers not to meet with the Dalai Lama while in India to take part in the IPL. It is a well-known fact that the Mahinda Rajapakse government is a staunch supporter of the 'One China' policy – a good investment when one considers monetary and military returns, as well as Beijing's regular assistance in blocking difficult resolutions at the UN Security Council. 'We were made to understand that we should not upset relations with China,' Sri Lanka cricket secretary Nishantha Ranatunga stated.Indeed, Sri Lanka has long been known to keep a safe distance from the Dalai Lama. In 2006, the exiled leader is said to have been denied a Sri Lankan visa when he requested permission to worship at two of Buddhism's holiest shrines on the island, in commemoration of the Buddha's birthday. The question then arises as to how the many Buddhists of Sri Lanka feel about the snub. Then again, perhaps there is little connection between the Sri Lankans and the Tibetans, who practice different strands of the faith. Sri Lanka adheres to the Theravada tradition, which worships only the historical Sakyamuni Buddha and emphasises self-liberation. Meanwhile, Tibetans follow the Mahayana school, which accepts other contemporary Buddhas (such as the Amitabha), and emphasises the importance of helping other sentient beings.

Old gas

India can give Iran a tough time, as it showed a few years ago at the International Atomic Energy Association by siding with the West on an important vote against Tehran. But the world's second-fastest-growing economy needs gas, and that means New Delhi is keen to no longer burn bridges with an important supplier. With gas supply in India expected to fall short of demand by 17 percent this year, India depends on imports to satiate its gas-hungry cities and industries. Further, the shortfall will inch up to closer to 50 percent of demand in the coming years, if production continues at the current rate. New Delhi has clearly done the math by now, and is therefore eager to break the ice with Tehran after a few years of prickly relations.The Indian government hoped to clear up some issues with Tehran on the sidelines of the G-15 Summit, in mid-May. The two 'old friends' have been in a tiff since New Delhi 'betrayed' Tehran back in 2005, by backing Washington's stance against Iran's already (and still) controversial nuclear programme. In its newly revised stance, Indian officials say they believe that Tehran has every right to peacefully use atomic energy, and has come out against US-imposed sanctions.Not coincidentally, New Delhi has now proposed dates for talks on the shelved Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI, remember that?) gas-pipeline issue. The IPI has been discussed as far back as 1994, but a go-ahead has not been possible owing to political and economic disagreements, as well as concern over secure transportation through volatile parts of Pakistani territory. But in March, Islamabad and Tehran signed the paperwork in support of the pipeline. Having stayed out of the agreement at the time, New Delhi now wants in, claiming that its participation would make the plan more cost- and time-effective.If built, the proposed pipeline will be about 2600 km long and extend from the South Pars gas fields in the Persian Gulf to the Iran-Pakistan border. New Delhi, however, has been insistent that gas be delivered to it at the Pakistan-India border, with Tehran accountable for safety up to that point. As yet, there has been no confirmed response from the Iranian side on the resumption of talks, but if Tehran does agree to go forward New Delhi will probably need to calibrate its demands with the status quo in mind. With calculations showing that India will need to import nearly 30 percent of its gas by around 2030, pragmatism seems to be the call of the day.


The sea is the lifeblood of the Maldivian atolls. The country depends on the riches of its marine biodiversity to prop up the tourism industry – the largest contributor to gross domestic product. Meanwhile, the fishing industry is the largest employer across the country, while numerous mega-projects to generate clean energy in the country are today literally based on the surrounding waters. And yet, there has been an alarming lack of proper management of the Maldivian seas.One of the most pressing, and evident, problems today is the pollution of the waters surrounding Male. Untreated sewage from the capital is disposed of in the sea, which also receives added waste from boats in the harbour. While officials contend that sewage lines are directed as far away from the island, and as far below the surface, as possible, the Maldives' Health Service Corporation argues that the contamination is 'considerable', and may be responsible for incidents of typhoid fever and digestive infections in the area. Moreover, the worry is that if fish schools contract diseases due to the presence of chemical toxins, the human population could quickly be affected. The repercussions are also environmental, with one group, Bluepeace, recently noting that impurities in the sea are causing the Male reef to decay.It is not just sewage that is weakening the reef. Recent observations show that significant cracks are forming along its structure – potentially natural, but almost certainly aggravated by aggressive construction that has been taking place for years. A major case in point is a reef collapse that took place on 1 January on the northern waterfront in Male. As for sewerage pollution tainting the waters, President Mohamed Nasheed has welcomed anyone who can contribute technologically where the management of 'water, waste and energy' of the Maldives is concerned. A country that seeks to pioneer the fight against climate change would do well to stop dirtying the water.

Open Paradise

If the Maldives was not too pleased about playing host to the late-January talks between members of the Afghan government and a group in alliance with the Taliban, it is clearly not saying. In fact, Male seemed ready to offer support, if not direct participation, and a second round of talks – between Afghan lawmakers and 'groups opposed to the Afghan government' – took place there on 20 May.In January, a supposedly secret meeting took place at the Bandos Island Resort and Spa in the atolls without prior knowledge of the government. But if one goes by the statements made back then, by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the government was perfectly aware, yet had no legal reason to disallow entry of the persons in question. With a system that does not require a visa prior to arrival, the Maldives would indeed be ideal for such a gathering.This time around, the government itself confirmed that talks were afoot. The unspecified location of the meet, it was said specifically, would be anywhere but the capital or other population centres. Reportedly the group included allies of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, an Afghan mujahideen leader who has been labelled a 'terrorist' by the US. Nevertheless, with every representative possessing a valid passport and visa, Male looks confident that no rules have been broken. Both the Afghan president and the Taliban willingly stayed outside the ambit of the talks, although observers for both sides had been delegated to the atolls. The international community was also left out, since the meet would be about 'Afghan problems' in need of 'Afghan solutions'.In somewhat related news, President Mohamed Nasheed is facing significant opposition at home for agreeing, in mid-May, to take in two people currently detained at the US base in Guantanamo. Defending his decision, the president argued that refusing to help innocent prisoners, especially those who are Muslim, runs counter to 'the Constitution, Islamic values and our Maldivian identity'.The opposition is far from convinced by these arguments, however, with the Dhivehi Qaumee Party (DQP) filing a case alleging that the Constitution does not allow President Nasheed to take such a decision. Beyond the legalities, the DQP also expressed concern that allowing in the detainees would make the atolls a 'paradise for terrorists', and thus harm tourism. If the Maldives does accept the detainees, it will be the first Muslim country to accept prisoners of a foreign nationality.

Caught in the middle

For the Nepali-speaking minority in Meghalaya, home is where the feud is. Repeated incidents of tension with Meghalaya's ethnic Khasi community in the past have only gotten worse in recent weeks. An eviction threat was imposed on them following a fierce clash on 14 May at a weekly market in Langpih, on the Assam-Meghalaya border. This led to 'indiscriminate' firing by Assam police, reportedly killed seven civilians, though this number is disputed by officials.Following the incident, Nepali-speaking people of the Langapi and Juwai areas in the state were given a 24 hours ultimatum by the Khasi community to move out. Reports abound that their houses have been torched, and that many have been coerced to leave their jobs, particularly menial labour in informal coal mines. Following the incident, the Khasi Students' Union shut down the state on 18 May, while Meghalaya Chief Minister Mukul Sangma requested the central government to launch an independent investigation into the matter.According to report, some 4000 ethnic Nepalis have already been displaced from their homes, with the number expected to increase significantly in the coming days. The displaced are said to be living in temporary camps, with about 3000 taking shelter in the Jayanti hill area of Assam, and the remaining in Purdung of Meghalaya. Certain Khasi groups are allegedly threatening to storm these camps, and paramilitary forces have been deployed to protect the refugees.The larger picture seems to be the longstanding dispute between Meghalaya and Assam over the Langpih area in general. With both claiming ownership of Langpih, there have been allegations of Assamese infringement upon the land by getting people of Nepali origin to settle there. The issue of the boundary demarcation was looked into by a former chief justice back in 1985. But although a subsequent report found Langpih to be a part of Assam, Meghalaya has refused to accept this decision.The Meghalaya incident and the eviction of Nepali-speakers will have the ethnic Nepali population all over the Indian Northeast feeling vulnerable, for they form a distinct but scattered group in the area. Memories of earlier depopulation exercises, dating back to the 1980s in Meghalaya, are sure to be on the minds of the community.

Copper crisis

After electricity from hydropower projects, the exporting of copper is the second-largest source of income for Bhutan. The copper industry has taken a significant hit in the last few years, however, with export numbers dropping dramatically. The size of the trade today is less than a fourth of what it was just three years ago. Much of this downturn can be attributed to the fact that India, Bhutan's largest trading partner, has significantly lowered its import taxes for copper.The difference in import duty for copper in the two countries had long worked to Bhutan's advantage. Copper exports were singlehandedly responsible for revenue worth some USD 71.7 million for Bhutan in 2007 alone. Following New Delhi's revision of its import-tax rates, this profit has come down to USD 18 million. The copper business that exports specifically to India is centred around five factories in Phuentsholing, on the southern border. It is here that the copper rods imported from countries such as Korea and Russia are made into cables and wires, with these products then exported to neighbouring India.To further add to Bhutan's woes, the steadily rising price of the raw material in the global market is not helping the industry in any way. Indeed, the price of copper rose nearly doubled to almost USD 6500 per tonne over the course of the last year. However, there is some hope in this front. With a technology-hungry China driving up the global demand for copper, the price of the raw commodity is expected to decrease in the near future. If this were to happen, there is some hope that the Bhutanese industry could continue to sustain itself.More broadly, of course, the copper crisis serves to highlight the pitfalls of Thimphu's across-the-board dependence on Indian markets. A similar event took place in 2008, when Bhutan's palm oil industry took a plunge after India announced that it was scrapping import duties for the product. It's certainly lucky for Bhutan that India's dire electricity shortage is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon.

Depth of friendship

Rabindranath Tagore was apparently not the most popular of guests when he visited China in 1923, with his lectures received poorly by some sections of the audience. But he appears to have made a strong impression nonetheless. Yet Tagore, who hailed from Calcutta (today home to the only Chinatown in India), is now being celebrated in China, nearly nine decades later. In the context of the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic, a Chinese newspaper published a list (voted on by readers and 'experts') naming the 60 'most influential foreigners', with Tagore featuring at number 11. Jawaharlal Nehru was the only other Indian on the list, at number 19 (just ahead of Harland Saunders, the founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken, at 22).Beyond this recognition, honouring the pre-eminent Bangla poet in myriad forms is purportedly the order of the day, with a statue, movie and books in the works. A selection of the best of his poetry is to be put up in the former French Concession area of Shanghai. Meanwhile, a team of 17 translators are working on translating Tagore's works from their original Bengali scripts; earlier translations to Chinese were done from either Hindi or English. Of 28 volumes set to be translated, five were released on the poet's birth anniversary, in early May. All the Chinese love going Tagore's way is a much-needed reminder that there is more to the relationship than the recurring political bickering and economic haggling.

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