Round-up of regional news

Flying green

With a global recession still in full swing, airlines the world over have been experiencing tough times. In Sri Lanka, not only are people travelling less, but insecurity fears abound with the war still waging in the north. The state-run SriLankan Airlines subsequently has had it doubly rough.

In fact, the last 12 months have been difficult ones for the airline. It was left scrambling in January 2008, after Emirates Airline, a major shareholder involved in management, chose to part ways with SriLankan, ending a decade-long relationship. Add to this the global hike in fuel prices last year, and a recipe for disaster was instantly born – one that resulted in losses of almost USD 50 million during the first quarter of this financial year.

Needless to say, the push to cut costs remains great for the embattled national carrier. And it did just that recently, reducing flights to India from 100 to just 51 flights per week. This is, of course, likely to put a damper on the plan to convert Colombo into a luxurious duty-free shopping destination (see last month's Briefs). But compromises are necessary in these lean times, and SriLankan has promised to revert to the old schedule once the global financial situation improves – whenever that may be.

Meanwhile, the airline has gone ahead to 'greenify' itself. SriLankan officials have introduced a line of 'green flights', which include a range of measures considered environment-friendly: towing aircrafts away from terminals to reduce engine use, paperless ticketing, reducing the weight of magazines carried onboard, and serving in-flight meals on biodegradable and recyclable materials.

Even landings and takeoffs have been subjected to the overhaul. Pilots on the green flights are now encouraged to think of new green techniques, such as flying at optimum-energy-conservation altitudes, reduced-flap landings and single-engine taxiing. Since putting these measures into practice, the airline says that it has saved almost 10 million gallons of fuel. Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned here by Air India, PIA, Bangladesh Biman and Nepal Airlines.

From Russia, with love

Over the last seven years, Afghanistan-focused conferences have become something of a trend. What is more, most of these gatherings have been put together by the West, be it the US, the EU or NATO. But a new acronym has now arrived on the scene: SCO, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the intergovernmental security group with China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan as members.

It may be a bit late to the game, but at the end of March the SCO organised a lavish get-together in Moscow to discuss Afghanistan. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon attended the gathering, as did representatives from the US, NATO, G8 and the Organisation of Islamic Countries. India and Pakistan, who have observer status at the SCO, also flew in their foreign ministers.

With Afghanistan's out-of control drug production and organised crime spilling over into Central Asia and further, the SCO's interest in the country is understandable. Moreover, it also seems that the Kremlin is now actively re-engaging with Afghanistan after years of aloofness, after it withdrew Soviet troops from the country in 1989. To begin with, Moscow has promised USD 1 billion in loans and aid to Kabul. It is likely that this renewed interest is a result of Moscow's wariness of the massive US presence, especially in light of the latter's role in the Ukraine and Georgia.

As for what came out of the Moscow conference, the focus was on checking 'terrorism', drug trafficking and organised crime. Agreements were struck on sharing intelligence, conducting joint operations and monitoring borders. These are all good plans, of course, though it remains curious that the SCO, which has been around since 2001, had not really looked at Afghanistan till now.

Poll money

With the Rangoon junta barely communicating with its citizenry, most government decisions in Burma remain mere rumours right up to the moment they are implemented. The latest buzz doing the rounds has been that a trebling of government employee salaries was likely after the Burmese New Year, in mid-April, though this decision now seems to have been postponed, at least for now.

Surprisingly, there was only muted enthusiasm about the initiative. With the prices of essentials expected to rise in reaction to the salary hike, it is not likely to do much to improve the living standards of most. A similar increase of 500 to 1000 percent was carried out in April 2006 for all public workers, which subsequently resulted in up to 15 percent inflation. The price of gold also shot up significantly at that time, with the kyat falling in currency exchange rates, leading to frenzied buying in the urban areas.

Going by this trend, such a boost would undoubtedly benefit higher-rung officials significantly more than those whose salaries are spent on essential goods. But there is, of course, more to the story. The 2006 pay hike is said to have been an incentive to mollify bureaucrats who had literally been forced to move to far-flung Naypyidaw, which had just been dubbed the new capital. The current rumoured increase may likewise be a stunt to increase the government's popularity – at least among those sections of the population that 'count' – before the country goes to the polls in 2010.

Expanding web

After three Maldivians were found trying to enter Waziristan in March, nine more armed Maldivians were caught in the same area in early April. Neither Islamabad nor Male purports to know why the men were in the frontier region, though many observers suggest that they were either planning an attack of some kind or seeking to join the Taliban.

With the two countries collaborating on the investigation, it has been established that the nine departed from Male between 27 February and 1 March. While none of the detained has a criminal record, one individual had been freed after first being charged with involvement in the September 2007 bomb blast in Male. The bombing, which occurred in the crowded Sultan Park, injured 12 people and greatly shook confidence in the atolls, unaccustomed to such violence.

Pakistan-based fundamentalist groups have been actively recruiting Maldivians. Indeed, ten individuals considered major suspects in the 2007 attack are said to be hiding in Pakistan, having been given refuge by groups affiliated with the Lashker-e-Toiba. (One of the suspects was arrested in January when he returned to Male, and is currently on trial.) Many are said to be working for Idara Khidmat-e-Khalq, the LeT's charity wing, which was active in the atolls after the devastating 2005 tsunami. Interestingly, Male has not asked that the nine be extradited, and the group is now likely to be charged under Pakistani law.

Emancipatory hacking

Spying is a time-honoured tradition in global politics. But while secret agents clad in dark suits and even darker sunglasses do still roam the world, intelligence work has also moved substantially to another sphere: cyberspace. Interestingly, evidence of perhaps the largest-ever 'cyber espionage' project recently came to light out of research commissioned by the Tibetan government-in-exile, in Dharamsala.

The Dalai Lama's office had asked that the Information Warfare Monitor (IWM), a Canadian public-private undertaking focusing on the strategic aspects of the Internet, conduct an investigation into the possible infiltration of its computers. The Tibetans seem to have had reason to be suspicious: their computer systems, it was unveiled in early April, were indeed being hacked, and by one of the most wide-reaching spying operations ever uncovered.

In a 10-month investigation, researchers found that malicious software ('malware'), now being called GhostNet, had infiltrated computers in 103 countries. Computers in the private office of the Dalai Lama had been penetrated, as well as those in foreign-affairs ministries from Bhutan, Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, not to mention Barbados, Latvia, Iran and Germany.

Evidently, the hackers had been able to send and receive classified information. They were even able to turn on audio- and video-recording devices on the computers in question, in order to screen the rooms in which the computers were located. The IWM says it has found 'circumstantial' evidence that GhostNet is a Chinese undertaking, with most of the network being based in that country – though it has strenuously avoided pointing the finger directly at the Beijing government.

Eyeing the east

After a long, somewhat tedious and over-hyped journey, the Tata Nano, the so-called 'people's car', is finally among the people. Bookings have been opened from 9 April, and sales are already soaring. And, the Nano hype aside, Tata Motors, ever the entrepreneur, is now looking to expand. With the loss the company made in the final quarter of this financial year amounting to more than anything it has faced in the last seven years, exploring other options may well have been a good idea.

Tata is thus set to launch a truck-manufacturing unit in Burma, which could also be seen as part of New Delhi's 1994 Look East Policy, which seeks to improve economic cooperation with ASEAN countries. If the project goes forward, this would be the third plant established by the company in ASEAN; the first was in Korea in 2007, followed by another in Thailand the same year. New Delhi is also keen on the project, and has promised Tata USD 20 million in credit to set up the plant.

Things seem to be moving along quickly. Representatives from Tata Motors met Vice-Admiral Soe Thein, the Burmese minister for energy, in late March. The meeting must have gone well because, though no official statement was made, the suggestion is that the new facility will be functional by December.

Democratic machine

As the much-touted 'largest democracy' in the world, it is perhaps appropriate that India has begun exporting electronic voting machines (EVM). Designed by the Election Commission and produced by two state-run companies – Bharat Electronics and the Electronics Corporation of India – the machines were first used across India in the 2004 general elections.

The EVMs were credited with improved efficiency in terms of cutting down the amount of time taken both to vote and to count the ballots. Thereafter, New Delhi made gifts of a number of EVMs, costing INR 5500 apiece, to Bhutan and Nepal, both of which held elections last year. All of the five by-elections held in Nepal in April 2009, to fill vacant seats in the Constituent Assembly, were also conducted by EVM. Other governments now seem keen to use the machines, as well.

In general, the popularity of the Indian EVMs stems from a number of factors. To begin with, it has a gained a reputation of sturdiness, and can be handled roughly. Most importantly, these machines take away the problem of invalid or uncertain votes. It is also considered highly cost-effective, removing the need to print millions of ballot papers, transport ballot boxes and hire staff to count the votes. Of particular importance in rural areas, the small machines do not need to be connected to any larger network, functioning on in-built batteries.

No surprise, then, that demands for the hardy technology have been arriving at the Electronic Corporation of India's doorstep from all over Southasia, as well as the rest of the world. Now, six countries – Mauritius, Malaysia, Singapore, Namibia, South Africa and Sri Lanka – have all contacted Bharat Electronics to purchase the machines. In the face of the regularly repeated goal of the United States (where, it should be pointed out, faulty EVMs are regularly criticised, including during the 2004 cliff-hanger presidential election) this sounds like a true export of democracy.

No trunks

Just as crossing a highway comes with deathly hazards, building one's home on the great elephant corridor – a large swathe of land stretching from Thailand through India's Northeast all the way to southern Bhutan, roamed by elephants in search of food – comes with the inherent danger of stampedes.

Not that the pachyderms of the Northeast don't deserve to let off a bit of steam. After being encroached on by the haughty human, electrocuted while stumbling home from a night of accidental moonshine drinking, run over by trains, embarrassingly decorated for campaign season, and whipped on errands during the polling period, a few splurges of rage by the local elephant population should come as no surprise.

Elephants often come down to the populated plain. But with polls taking place throughout India in the next couple of months, theirs would have been an unwanted visit. So, organisers have planned ahead, by providing self-defence weapons to officials posted in the 200 'sensitive' polling stations in the Garo Hills of Meghalaya.

Other prevention tactics have also been prepared. Forest guards and local tribesmen will be posted to play drums and cymbals, and firecrackers will be set off to try to scare the animals away. While the people of Meghalaya generally try to avoid the hoofed beasts, those in Arunachal Pradesh and Assam have found a friend in the foe. In these states, as in the past, elephants will once again help to carry voting machines, polling material and election officers to remote villages.

In the grind

Just over a year ago, Islamabad was calling Afghan refugees living in the Katcha Ghari camp in the NWFP an "economic burden" and a source of "extremist influences". Due to these fears, the state announced that it wanted the 80,000 Afghans to leave the site and return to their own country. The officials got their wish, though only after both the Islamabad and Peshawar governments put pressure on the refugees. Thereafter, the camp, which had been home to Afghans for almost three decades, was closed down.

In an ironic twist, however, Islamabad was forced to reopen the site six months ago. This time, it was to house a whole new set of inhabitants – internally displaced Pakistanis. More than half a million Pakistanis have been displaced as the conflict along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border has intensified, causing many to seek refuge in the Katcha Ghari camp.

The realities in the camp are certainly harsh. Protests have become regular occurrences, as the displaced demand compensation, greater police presence to maintain law and order, and better accommodation. Unable to care for the refugees, the Peshawar government has applied for federal relief and rehabilitation funding, in order to provide for the growing population.

As for the Afghan refugees, they do not seem to be faring much better back home, either, and many have desperately sought foreign shores. In early April, 100 immigrants were caught storing their belongings in Italian sewers. A few days later, 49 Afghans were arrested in Australia for illegal entry. The refugees were being transported to a detention centre on Christmas Island, in the north, when their boat caught fire, killing three and injuring over a dozen. In yet another recent case, 45 Afghans died of suffocation trying to leave the country in a container, only to be discovered 20 km south of Quetta due to the stench. It is reported that they were trying to reach Iran through Pakistan.

Meanwhile, back home, Pakistani and Afghan war victims alike are being grinded between fighting forces in the frontier area. Such individuals will undoubtedly gain little assurance from President Barack Obama's rhetorical shift in policy from renaming the US effort against militants an 'overseas contingency operation' from the earlier avatar 'global war on terror'.

Dolphins in the rough

Here is a happy story of shock and awe. About 6000 Irrawaddy dolphins were recently found living in Bangladesh's Sundarban mangrove forest and the neighbouring waters of the Bay of Bengal. One of the rarest species of freshwater dolphins, they had been on the Red List of endangered species put together by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the oldest global environmental network.

The finding is being seen as of great importance, as the number of dolphins in the area had only last year been put at a few hundred at best. The Sundarban were to have had only around 450 of these. (The Irrawaddy Dolphin found in the Sundarban is a different species from the Ganga/Brahmaputra freshwater dolphin, a cousin species that is locally called susu.)

Optimistic as the news is, there may not be much cause for celebration, however, as the previous numbers may have simply been a result of inaccuracies in earlier studies. This particular survey, conducted by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), a New York-based organisation, covered new areas unaffected by human development.

Yet even if the numbers have somehow increased drastically, the responsibilities of preservation still remains as serious. And this is a tall order, as the rare freshwater dolphins are not clear of threat from manmade and environmental factors. The diminishing supply of freshwater due to the diversion of water upstream, coupled with rising sea levels resulting from climate change, in addition to the increase of salinisation up the river course, all pose significant dangers to their survival.

Death due to entanglement in fishing nets is also common. During the research itself, two dolphins were found to have drowned after becoming accidentally entangled in fishing nets. Interestingly, though, in Burma's Irrawaddy River, the same dolphins are said to engage in what is referred to as 'cooperative fishing' with humans, leading schools of fish towards waiting nets.

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Himal Southasian