Round-up of regional news

Feral fans

With umbrellas, water bottles, shoes and stones, infuriated Burmese fans at the Thuwunna sports stadium, in Rangoon, brought a 28 July World Cup qualifying match against Oman to a premature halt. The riot started 39 minutes into the game when a referee granted Oman a penalty kick that led it to notch its second goal, bringing the score to 2-0.

Armed security guards were then called in to surround the chaos on the field, but were unable to control the crowd – an extremely unusual sight in the highly securitised state. Still, taking a cue from how the government has functioned for decades, Myanmar Football Federation (MFF) officials say that 300 fans will now be charged, on the basis of police photographs, and punished accordingly.

Football's world body, FIFA, says the match will not be replayed and that Oman will automatically advance to the third round of qualifiers. FIFA will also most likely take disciplinary action, and could even ban Burma from playing or hosting international games. However, according to Soe Moe, media director of the MFF, the incident will not affect Burma's hosting of the 2013 Southeast Asian Games.

This is certainly not the first time a country has been left embarrassed by its sports fans. But it is a first for Burma, and many mourn the event for the loss of face and for the loss of an exciting, and relatively rare, international public diversion. Burma is currently ranked 136th out of 203 countries worldwide by FIFA. If counted within Southasia, it stands second only to India, which ranks 127th. Burma is followed by Sri Lanka at 146th, Bangladesh at 149th and Maldives at 153rd with the rest trailing even further behind.

End of enclaves

If all goes well, India and Bangladesh will have finally resolved the longstanding issue of residents living in chitmahals, or enclaves that fall within each other's territories, during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's highly anticipated visit to Dhaka in early September. The prime minister, who will be accompanied by West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, is expected to sign a historic land-boundary agreement and finalise the criteria for an exchange of enclaves with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

According to details discussed during Home Minister P Chidambaram's visit to Dhaka in late June, the deal is set to resolve the 1974 accord signed between Indira Gandhi and Mujibur Rehman – an agreement that has been left pending for more than three decades. Doing so should bring an end to the notorious ambiguity regarding the borders of the two countries. Since Independence, Bangladesh (and earlier East Pakistan) has had 51 enclaves within Indian territory, the majority of them in Cooch Behar district. India, meanwhile, has had 100 enclaves, mostly in Rangpur district of Bangladesh.

According to media reports, however, there is another reason for the current push to resolve the chitmahal issue: New Delhi wants to speed up and complete the fencing of the 4000-km India-Bangladesh border. To this end, it recently conducted a first-ever joint census, which concluded in July, to identify the exact number of people living in the enclaves. Currently, chitmahal residents regularly cross the border to tend to their agricultural land and access markets across the border – movements that both governments have made clear they want halted

Happiness in the UN 

After months of lobbying for the inclusion of Gross National Happiness (GNH) as a development indicator, Bhutan has finally gotten its way. In late July, the UN General Assembly unanimously adopted GNH as an 'optional' indicator, through a non-binding resolution. It will now be the ninth Millennium Development Goal (MDG), which otherwise comprise such assessors as well-being and social progress, among others.

Sixty-eight out of 193 member states, including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, co-sponsored the motion. In its 39 years of being a UN member, Bhutan had never before initiated a proposal, let alone had it passed. GNH, while popular among most member states, was nevertheless received sceptically by some representatives who pointed out that it would be difficult to measure such a subjective indicator across countries. Others termed it a 'romantic' idea.
Claiming that the widely used gross domestic product (GDP) indicator does not reflect spiritual progress, Bhutan promoted GNH as an alternative, one that it has measured since 1972. However, any discussion of GNH also raises the reality of happiness in Bhutan, where most of the minority Nepali-speaking Lhotshampa population were denied citizenship after the passage of a new citizenship act of 1985, to make way for a relatively uniform, Ngalong-dominated culture. Citing this reality, some claim that GNH is 'hypocritical'; others in the media point out that such a measurement is too open to government manipulation.

Tit for tat

In retaliation to the US government's recent move to cut USD 800 million in military aid, the Pakistan Army has threatened to withdraw its troops from the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The decision to cut military aid to Pakistan was taken by the US administration following the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad in early May. Islamabad has decided to set stricter visa regulations for US defence personnel as well as private military contractors, and has begun to repatriate US military trainers.

According to Defence Minister Chaudhry Ahmad Mukhtar, Pakistan has spent heavily on guarding its western border – about USD 300 million, reportedly – and can no longer afford to maintain troops along the highly volatile frontier. Mukhtar added that the US aid had been used by Pakistan to fight the US-led 'war on terror', and that the aid was therefore essentially reimbursement for Pakistan's military operations along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Mukhtar also noted that if the US did not continue to provide funds, Pakistan could always depend on China.

Friendly friction

Although the bilateral relationship between China and Pakistan has for decades been more than amicable, Beijing surprised many recently by being quick to criticise its ally after another wave of violence hit Kashgar, in western Xinjiang, home to the Muslim minority ethnic Uighur community.

In late July, unknown attackers entered a restaurant in Kashgar, killing the owner and a waiter before going berserk on the street outside, stabbing random civilians. The Chinese government said the violence was orchestrated by the separatist Uighur East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which Beijing officials claimed receives training in Pakistan. Islamabad responded quickly, calling the act 'deplorable' and pledging its complete 'support and cooperation' to China. A Foreign Office spokesperson added that she was confident that China would successfully vanquish the 'evil forces'.

The charm seems to have worked and Beijing seems mollified. In a visit to Islamabad following the attacks, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson asserted that the two countries remained 'partners against terror and religious extremism'. Several deaths have been recorded in separate attacks in areas of Xinjiang in recent years, and there remains constant friction with Han Chinese migrants who have settled in the province, known officially as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

Nuclear hungry

Within hours of President Pratibha Patil's arrival in Seoul in late July, the Indian delegation sealed an agreement on civilian nuclear energy with its South Korean counterpart. This 'priority' deal began when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak met at the ASEAN summit in Hanoi last year.

In June 2010, India, hungry for more nuclear energy, had jumped at the chance to hold bilateral talks with Japan on a new nuclear deal. Tokyo subsequently suspended the talks, however, given India's continued non-membership of the international Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty – a stance only strengthened by the subsequent Fuskushima-Daiichi nuclear disaster.

South Korea, meanwhile, has recently begun to export nuclear-energy technologies to developing countries, and at a comparatively low cost with little in the form of legal strictures. As such, with Tokyo suddenly reluctant, Seoul became India's next choice; a deal was struck between New Delhi and Seoul after just three rounds of negotiations. South Korea is the ninth country to sign such a nuclear deal with India, after the US, France, Russia, Canada, Kazakhstan, Argentina, Namibia and Mongolia.

In 2010, the Indian Parliament enacted the civil-nuclear-power bill that allowed foreign companies to invest in building nuclear reactors in India, and permitted countries to export nuclear technologies to India. This opened up India's growing nuclear-energy market, estimated to be worth USD 150 billion, to potential investors. Currently, nuclear energy comprises just three percent of the country's power supply. To keep up with its growing energy needs, however, New Delhi hopes to have nearly 30 reactors, and get a quarter of its electricity from nuclear energy, by 2050.

A big country

Bangladesh's population figures are set to hit a new high. According to analysts, the final count following the national census of March 2011 will top 160 million, including a 7.5 million-strong expatriate community. In a preliminary report, the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) had estimated the total to be 18 million less than this figure, at around 142 million. But after the government found inconsistencies in the initial estimate, the BBS was asked to revise its approximation. In the words of the agriculture minister, if the population was just 142 million, we should have been sitting on sacks full of food grains now, and there would have been no requirement of food import.'

The final report is now set to be released in September, once the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies finishes carrying out sample surveys and verifies the findings. Interestingly, last year when the United Nations Population Fund calculated the figure to be about 160 million, the Dhaka government had dismissed the number as 'unauthorised meddling' and asked the agency to revise its data.

The final headcount of 160 million would now mean that by 2050, at the current annual growth rate of nearly two percent, Bangladesh will have a population of 220 million. Already the seventh most populous country in the world – and third in Southasia, after India and Pakistan – the growing population will inevitably put further pressure on living space, limit access to already-scarce resources and land, and create further outward push for economic migration.

Trial trials

The trial of Jamaat-e-Islami leader Delwar Hossain Sayedee for crimes against humanity and war crimes during Bangladesh's Liberation War, originally set for 10 August, has already been adjourned twice. Now there are fears that further adjournments are in store. Sayedee is the first alleged war criminal set to be tried, standing accused of involvement in the murder of more than 50 people as well as mass rape, burning of villages and forced conversions to Islam of Hindu Bengalis.

It has been more than a year since Bangladesh set up the controversial war-crimes tribunal, in March 2010, to prosecute individuals alleged to have collaborated with the Pakistan Army in committing atrocities against Bengalis during the nine-month war. All those who have been accused so far – seven in total – belong to the opposition parties. Two are from the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and five from the Jamaat-e-Islami; both have denounced the tribunal as unfair targeting, the result of political vendettas by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League.

There is the widespread claim that more than three million people were killed during the war and that one of the accused, BNP leader and former minister Abdul Alim, has been accused of being partially responsible for the killing of about 10,000 people. While the tribunal is all set to begin its hearings, the New York-based Human Rights Watch has questioned the standards and rules set by the tribunal, urging that it follow international norms.

Measure for measure

Nepal has decided to measure its highest asset: Mount Everest. Following extensive debates with the Chinese government over the actual height of the world's highest peak, the Kathmandu government recently proposed to use satellite technology to determine Everest's 'accurate' height. The announcement was made in late July during the annual budget meeting.

Everest (Sagarmatha in Nepal; Qomolangma, as Beijing prefers) was first measured in 1856 by British surveyors, who put its height at 8840 metres above sea level. Almost a century later, in 1955, an Indian survey came up with a slightly higher number, 8848 m. This was widely regarded as accurate until confusion erupted in 1999 when an American expedition, using GPS technology for the first time, found the mountain to be two metres higher. Then six years ago, China's State Bureau of Surveying and Mapping lowered the peak back to 8844 m, claiming that its calculation was the most accurate because it was based on the height of the rock and not that of the icecap at the summit, which China alleged (and the previous surveyors subsequently contested) that the other surveys had included.

Despite the debates, Nepal and China came to an agreement last year, under which Everest is internationally recognised as 8848 m. The issue remains contested between Kathmandu and Beijing, however. During border talks, China has persisted in using its own height calculations, which has now led Kathmandu to revisit the measurement again, allocating an amount for the survey in its latest budget.

Going local

In a bid to strengthen the rufiyaa and counter a shortage of US dollars, the Maldivian government has decided to enact a rather hurried policy: the rufiyaa will now be used as the sole legal tender for all transactions in the country. However, the government seems to have failed to take note of certain laws related to the all-important tourism sector, which specify that the US dollar is the preferred currency. Belatedly, policymakers have come to the realisation that overhauling a central component of the functioning of the tourism sector for the sake of strengthening the local currency could have an adverse impact.

Tensions have also been brewing between the Finance Ministry and Maldives Inland Revenue Authority (MIRA), the latter of which is responsible for taxation. Evidently, this body was not consulted before the passage of the law. MIRA officials now say that while the Finance Ministry has directed it to accept only the rufiyaa, other laws require that the Authority only accept US dollars – such as for taxes levied on tourists and tourism-related services. MIRA now says its employees would not follow the new directives unless told to do so by their board.

Opposition parties such as Adhaalath Party have jumped to condemn the cabinet's move, which indeed seems to have been poorly thought out. Many have also expressed worry over how the new policy would affect the already fragile economy in the atolls, and suggested instead that financial policies such as this one should be implemented gradually, through an economic-reform package.

Bank of Tibet

In late-July, the China Banking Regulatory Commission cleared the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) to set up its first regional bank, with initial capital of USD 233 million. The bank, which the media has dubbed the Bank of Tibet, will be registered in Lhasa and funded by 15 institutions, including the provincial government and Chinese banking institutions from the mainland. No announcement has yet been made about when the bank will start operations.

To date, the TAR has had four subsidiaries of large Chinese banks, but many have seen these as largely ineffective for Tibet's needs. They have not catered to low-end borrowers, for instance, especially the farmers, small businesses and entrepreneurs who are pivotal in driving Tibet's economy. The new institution will hopefully not neglect the ground-level users.

Too good to be true?

According to the third Nepal Living Standard Survey (NLSS) 2009-10, there has been an 18 percent decline in poverty in the country, as compared to the earlier survey of 2003-04. The latter put the figure of those living below the poverty line at 31.5 percent, while the current survey suggests that the present figure is just 13 percent of the population. The first NLSS survey, for 1995-96, had concluded that about 40 percent of Nepalis were officially poor.

In Nepal, an annual income of USD 198 can buy food items equivalent to 2200 calories per day, the minimum some international experts believe is required to do a normal day's work. Those earning less than this are considered by NLSS to be below the poverty line.

Although the results seem suspiciously optimistic, officials have expressed confidence in the survey's accuracy, noting that sophisticated methodology and analyses were involved. Conducted by the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), the survey's methodology consisted of an integrated household questionnaire which covered aspects such as income, consumption, education, health, etc.

Until the official reports are published, however, along with a convincing explanation from the National Planning Commission (NPC), the credibility of this data remains questionable for many observers. The results are just too positive. If the NLSS survey is anything to go by, Nepal has a lower proportion of people below the poverty line than India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

Nano homes

From the world's cheapest car (the Nano) to now the most cost-effective housing, the Tata group seems to have a solution for any pricey problem. The conglomerate recently announced that it was planning to build compact 'kit houses', referred to as the People's Home, which would cost about USD 700 and take just seven days to assemble. Occupying just 20 square metres, the homes are said to last for two decades.

One of the main target groups for the new housing scheme are those who are part of the Indira Awaas Yojana, a rural housing scheme for families living below the official poverty line. For those who can afford it, a more spacious 30-square-metre option is also available for about USD 950. Through these prefabricated houses, Tata is once again tapping into the hundreds-of-millions strong down-market in India. Tata says its mass-produced houses will also be eco-friendly, made of such materials as coir and jute along with steel, and able to replace the kacha earthen structures widely in use.

Tata has also proposed setting up manufacturing facilities to boost employment in rural areas, which the company hopes will be the primary market for its low-cost housing. A pilot project, to test the viability and durability, has already been launched in West Bengal, and there are plans to launch 30 more such pilot projects in the near future. Meanwhile, construction of the 'Nano homes' would begin in the next six to eight months, once the pilot tests are complete.

A hungry Mumbai

For the first time in their 120-year history, on 20 August the famed dabbawallas of Mumbai went on strike, to show their solidarity with the ongoing anti-corruption campaign of Anna Hazare. Reportedly, the 200,000-odd Mumbaikars who depend on the daily dabba were largely supportive of the historic bandh.

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