Round-up of regional news

Battle of the tongues

In the spirit of International Mother Language Day, on 21 February the Free Tibet Campaign called on China to pass legislation that would make Tibetan the official language of the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR). Coinciding with 2008 being dubbed the International Year of Languages by the United Nations General Assembly, a recently released report titled "Forked Tongue: Tibetan language under attack" had warned that Tibetan might soon lose standing on the high plateau.

As such, on 21 February, activists pointed to Article 5 of the Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity. This states that people have the right to "express themselves and to create and disseminate their work in the language of their choice, and particularly in their mother tongue", and to be "entitled to quality education and training that fully respect their cultural identity".

Critics allege that the Beijing government's actions continue to reflect an absence of any commitment to these stipulations. According to the Free Tibet Campaign, Chinese authorities continue to pass laws that minimise the teaching of Tibetan in schools, instead replacing the language with Mandarin in many spheres of public life in Tibet. The vast majority of the Han settlers that have moved to Tibet in recent years likewise have neither the need nor the desire to learn Tibetan.

All that gas
The stagnating proposal for a gas pipeline between Iran and India, through Pakistan, could soon be forced to take a detour – into China. Against a backdrop of years of fudging with and confusing deadlines by New Delhi, Beijing recently offered to join the proposed pipeline project if India decides to back out. Pakistan and Iran appear to have no objection to China replacing India.

The finalisation of the IPI agreement has long been delayed by differences between Pakistan and India, presently on the issue of a transit fee. New Delhi rejected Pakistan's invitation to sit for negotiations on 7-8 February, maintaining that it would only talk to the elected Pakistani government after the elections. If China does join the project, China would get gas, Pakistan would get gas in addition to transit fees, and Iran could make off with a tidy profit. Where would that leave India?

Dalai who?
Despite Beijing's hopes to confine the Olympics to mere sporting events, politics are inevitably taking over. Even before the recent Uprising Day-related activities, British athletes with reservations about China's policy on human rights, Tibet or any other 'politically sensitive' issue were recently told that they would have to bite their tongues if they wanted to compete in the games this coming August in Beijing.   The moratorium on anti-China statements was imposed on athletes by the British Olympic Association (BOA), which stated that competitors who break the rule would not be allowed to travel to the games. Alternatively, if they were already in China, they would be carted back to England on the next plane home.

"There is a requirement on team members to sign the agreement. If athletes step out of line, action will be taken," warned Graham Newsom, the BOA spokesman. "There are all sorts of organisations who would like athletes to use the Olympic Games as a vehicle to publicise their causes. I don't believe that is in the interest of the team performance. We are ambassadors of the country, and we have to conform to an appropriate code of conduct."

The move sparked widespread criticism among activists that the new rules, among other things, make a mockery of England's belief in free speech eventually leading BOA authorities to reconsider. Other participating countries, meanwhile, have reiterated guarantees that their athletes would be free to speak about any issue concerning China – much to England's embarrassment and China's trepidation.

Black gold
Despite ongoing international criticism of Indian involvement in Burma, the third Indian oil company with Burmese interests, Essar Global, has announced that it will begin drilling its first test well, in the western state of Arakan, in May. Essar is following in the footsteps of government-owned Indian competitors, the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation and the Gas Authority of India. There was still worse news for many critics, who point to the fact that oil wealth has played a significant part in propping up the Rangoon junta: any production on Essar's part will be shared with the state-run Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise.

Discovery of India
As comparisons between the economies of India and China continue apace, the citizens of these two countries are becoming more curious about each other by the year. Now, the New Delhi government is hoping to bring those numbers up still higher. In late February, the first-ever Indian tourism office was established in Beijing. Set to be inaugurated in April by Tourism and Culture Minister Ambika Soni, the new office will spearhead travelling promotional shows, in Mandarin, about India's historical, cultural and other attractions. Indian tourism officials have described the project as "long overdue".

The opening of the tourism office follows the declaration of 2006 as the 'Year of India-China Friendship' and of 2007 as the 'Year of India-China Friendship through Tourism'. Beijing, too, had recently opened a tourism office in New Delhi. During the course of last year, 80,000 Chinese travellers visited India – a 38 percent increase from 2006. Indian travel to China, meanwhile, remains significantly higher, having long numbered more than a half-million a year.

Both India and China have unlimited possibilities to become tourism magnets. China is projected to become the second-most visited country in the world (behind the US) within a decade, while India is currently considered the fourth hottest tourist destination.

No honour
A few weeks back, it seemed as though the interim, army-backed government in Dhaka had been moving to give official honours to those Indian Army soldiers who lost their lives during the Bangladesh Liberation War. (The accompanying photo shows the Liberation War Memorial, in Gazni.) During a February meeting in India, Chief of Army Staff Deepak Kapoor and Bangladesh's General Moeen U Ahmed had reportedly agreed to do go forward with such a commemoration for the first time. Indeed, a date was even reportedly set for 25 March, the day on which the Pakistan Army began Operation Searchlight to invade what was then East Pakistan.

By the middle of March, however, officials back in Dhaka were loudly denying plans for any such commemoration, with the Defence Ministry stating that Gen Ahmed had made no such statement "formally or informally". And there was more. Gen Ahmed, the ministry noted, "is well aware that there is no link of martyred Indian soldiers with March 25 and March 26 … and therefore, such commitment is completely absurd." Rather, Gen Ahmed had merely "recalled with respect India's cooperation and sacrifice" during the War of Liberation.   Which is, of course, very honourable of the general. But regardless of what did or did not get said, the reaction of the ministry in Dhaka seemed unnecessarily vehement.

Sports for friendship
On the hope that camaraderie in the sporting arena would help to expand and deepen bilateral relations, in late February Chief Adviser Fakhruddin Ahmed kicked off the second bilateral Indo-Bangla Games, at Bangabandhu National Stadium in Dhaka. Crowds were treated to the sight of army paratroopers floating to earth trailing Indian and Bangladeshi flags.

This year's five-day Games brought together a total of 469 athletes, about half of whom came from West Bengal, to participate in an eclectic line-up of sports, including football, basketball, kabadi, kho-kho, shooting, swimming, volleyball and cricket. By the end of the five days, the home-court advantage seemed to have paid off for the second year in a row. Bangladeshi athletes came away with 45 gold medals, while those from India won just 24. During the first Games, held last year in Calcutta, West Bengal was considered the overall winner, taking 38 gold medals to Bangladesh's 30.

Refreshing rhetoric
During Pakistan's recent general elections, many observers were pleased to note that, unlike in the past, political parties in Pakistan largely abandoned anti-India rhetoric in their political manifestos. Instead, major parties, including the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), the Pakistan Muslim League (N) and the Sindh-based MQM, stressed their commitment to fostering peace with the neighbour, and to settling disputes in a mutually agreeable manner. Indeed, the PPP's platform stated that maintaining peaceful ties with India was imperative to Pakistan's prosperity. The PML (N) likewise pledged to make every effort to resolve the Kashmir issue, and to accord special priority to a peaceful settlement of issues with India. Even the Pervez Musharraf-backed PML (Q) rose to the occasion, reiterating that it would not allow the use of Pakistani territory to mount offensives against any neighbouring country.

However, an unexpected spanner was thrown into the mix a few days after the election. In early March, Asif Ali Zardari, the PPP's co-chairman and Benazir Bhutto's widower, said that the Kashmir issue should be left for "future generations" to resolve. His statement came as a surprise to those involved in longstanding backchannel diplomacy on Kashmir, and infuriated Kashmiri leaders. But others nodded along with Zardari's statement, agreeing with the PPP leader's suggestion that Kashmir not be seen as the overwhelming impediment to India-Pakistan relations. Zardari had proposed that Kashmir be set aside for the time being only in order to put more bilateral emphasis on crossborder trade and other "cooperative relationships". Oh well, then that's that!

Worst in the world
A recent study by the Save the Children alliance revealed that while countries around the world are working vigorously to improve economic growth, some governments are still not putting similar focus on decreasing their child-morality rate. Every year, the researchers warned, 10 million children die before their fifth birthday, 99 percent of which are in developing countries.   Buried in the depressing data, however, was a surprising finding. In comparing economic performance with child mortality, the study showed that some of the poorest countries in the world, including Nepal and Bangladesh, actually rank among the top ten performers in cutting their child-mortality rates. India, on the other hand, with an economic growth rate of more than 8.3 percent, fared poorly on the index. States such as Orissa, Rajasthan and Bihar have some of the worst child- and maternal-mortality rates in the world.

Special consideration
Indian tourists flying to Nepal with neither a passport nor voter-identity card might soon be able to enter the country, so long as they have a specially created photo-ID card. The Nepal Tourism Board made the proposal to the government of India in February. At the moment, Indian tourists arriving by air are required to have one of the documents, though the stricture does not apply at all to the far-larger numbers entering Nepal overland across the open border.

The initiative is part of a wider campaign to get more Indian tourists to come to Nepal. Indian tourism to Nepal went into decline following the hijacking of a Kathmandu-Delhi flight in 1999 due to the bad publicity, as well as the sudden imposition of ID requirements. Travellers who had never before needed documentation to enter Nepal suddenly faced restrictions, and the number of incoming tourists plummeted by the tens of thousands every year. But Indian tourists have once again set their eyes on Nepal, and any easing of requirements for air travellers is bound to unleash higher tourism numbers.

Meanwhile, tourism officials in Kathmandu are now excited to utilise the space that could open up with a hoped-for return of political stability following elections in mid-April. In 2007, tourism levels from India were up by 27 percent over the previous year, with around 360,000 heading to the northern neighbour. Likewise, initial figures from January have suggested another significant leap – around 13 percent – over the same period last year.

The maharaja's 'mooch'
An interesting case of alleged discrimination in India recently took a remarkably public turn. In February, the Supreme Court asked the state-run airline to explain the firing of an employee for sporting a handlebar moustache.

Victor Joynath De, an air steward with the then-Indian Airlines (now Air India), was terminated in 2001 for refusing to shave his moustache, which stretches across his cheekbones. But size should not matter in the eyes of the law, the judges felt, wondering, "How can somebody be removed from a job because of the size of his moustache?" After all, the court noted, Air India's own mascot, nicknamed Maharaja, proudly sports a moustache (see pic).

The airline argued that it does not allow moustaches on its attendants because they could be deemed unhygienic by passengers. Other reports suggest that airline officials warned De that he could be mistaken for a hijacker. For his part, however, De stated that he was not convinced by either argument. "I never dreamed of trimming it," he said, noting that he was born in Calcutta and raised in Benaras, where a moustache was a man's "pride". "All the time I worked for the airline, my moustache attracted many adoring eyes inside the plane and on the ground."

Although the court has yet to give a final ruling, De's case has gone international. The London-based Handlebar Club campaigned on De's behalf, urging supporters to write e-mails to the airline's chairman. "Mr De, with his impressive moustache, will be a great credit to Indian Airlines," the Club noted.

Go look elsewhere
Colombo's unilateral withdrawal from the 2002 Ceasefire Agreement may have allowed it greater freedom to go after the LTTE, but keeping up the military's strength may prove somewhat more difficult. In accordance with policies that prohibit India from arming countries involved in active conflict, the Indian government recently confirmed that it would halt the supply of arms and ammunition to Sri Lanka. "We have supplied non-lethal arms to Sri Lanka but not lethal arms, since there is a conflict raging there," the Indian Minister of State for Defence Production, Rao Inderjit Singh, confirmed in late February.

Such a move may have been made with significant reluctance in New Delhi, however. Since the decision was taken, reports have surfaced that Colombo is stepping up military ties with Pakistan and China. While the Sri Lankan brass has publicly maintained that military ties would remain strong, privately the Colombo establishment seems to be smarting. In an essay called "Friends of Terrorism", pointedly released by the Colombo Ministry of Defence in mid-March, commentator Gomin Dayasri suggests that India "would prefer a weak and defenceless Sri Lanka, dependent on the Western Powers, rather than one that has the friendly support of Asian Nations".

Where to now?
Flights between India, Pakistan and Bangladesh look set to increase significantly, going by the recent flurry of high-level civil-aviation meetings. Pakistani and Indian officials have agreed to double the number of weekly passenger flights between the two countries. Each side will soon be designating up to three airlines for all current routes. At the moment, only one airline from each country – Air India and Pakistan International Airlines – is allowed to fly between Delhi and Lahore, and Bombay and Karachi, respectively. Under the terms of the new agreement, Islamabad and Madras too will be connected.

Around the same time, Bangladesh and India signed their own air-service agreement, increasing the number of flights between the two from 31 to 60 per week. For the first time, Air India will be allowed to fly from Sylhet, while Bangladeshi airlines will fly to 18 destinations in India – up dramatically from the three previous airports.

Now we can look forward to the next round of negotiations: Multan to Lucknow? Chittagong to Gwadar? Guwahati to Quetta?

Zardari: We're sorry
Even as Pakistan People's Party leader Asif Ali Zardari was sending goodwill glances across the border to the east, he also paid unique attention to a long-festering issue to the west, at home. Within days of the PPP's victory, Zardari had specifically singled out Balochistan for inclusion in his party's new platform. In an unprecedented move, he offered an outright public apology to the Baloch "for the atrocities and injustices committed against them", as well as the PPP's pledge "to embark on a new highway of healing and mutual respect".

Long distrustful of words emanating from Islamabad, however, the militant Balochistan Liberation Army initially responded cautiously to Zardari's statement. "We have been betrayed many times in the past by successive governments," a BLA spokesman said, emphasising that the PPP will now be tested on Zardari's rhetoric.

Judicial flypaper
For three and a half decades, Indian citizen Kashmir Singh spent his days locked in an overcrowded cell, since being sentenced to death in 1973 under the 1923 Official Secret Act on charges of espionage. Singh's story only came to be publicised when Pakistan's Minister for Human Rights, Ansar Burney, located him while on a campaign to promote prison reforms.

But almost immediately after Singh was freed in early March (see pic), on humanitarian grounds, things got difficult. Even as the media was promoting Kashmir Singh's 'love story' (his wife was still awaiting his return), and Burney and his counterparts in India were promising to scour their respective prison systems for similarly 'lost' prisoners, Singh himself admitted that he had indeed been a spy.

Even before Singh's subsequent denial – saying his words had been taken out of context – Burney realised that his work would become more complicated. "It will surely make it difficult for Indian prisoners in Pakistan and Pakistani prisoners in India," he noted. There are currently an estimated 500 Indians languishing in Pakistani jails, and around 450 Pakistanis in Indian prisons. Despite the recent success-cum-setback, Burney is now planning a visit to India to inquire about forgotten Pakistanis in Indian jails.

In related (and somewhat more optimistic) news, the eight-member India-Pakistan Judicial Committee held its first meeting in February, at which it decided to release all prisoners of one country being held in the other for 'petty crimes'. Women, children and the mentally imbalanced would also be freed in the near future.

Cross-LOC trade imminent
Trade across the Line of Control could begin by mid-May. Union Minister for Commerce Jairam Ramesh (see pic), in late March, announced that New Delhi was merely waiting for the new government to take over in Islamabad, in order to ink a deal. The details, he noted, had already been agreed upon by both parties.

Reportedly, the new agreement will allow for the cross-LOC trade of items in nine categories, which will include Kashmiri handicrafts such as carpets, shawls, silk products, woodworks and foodstuffs. Trade across the LOC will be allowed to take place around the clock, Ramesh noted – news that is sure to perk up the ears of entrepreneurs (night owls and otherwise) throughout Kashmir.

No jurisdiction
Southasian government seem to have been bending over backwards to accommodate Beijing during the recent pan-Tibetan protests. Not only did New Delhi and Kathmandu detain hundreds of peaceful protesters during mid-March. But following demonstrations throughout Tibet and neighbouring provinces in China, Chinese security personnel flooded the high plateau – and did not stop there.

With a group of Tibetan exiles attempting to march from to Tibet from India, Beijing was evidently afraid that a similar situation could take place in Nepal. As such, Chinese officials are said to have deployed plainclothed Chinese security personnel onto the Nepali side of the Tibet-Nepal border, to keep an eye out for protests by pro-Tibetan groups. A Nepali military official confirmed the presence of at least six Chinese security officers posted on the Nepali side of the Lipang border crossing, 70 km northwest of Kathmandu.

Eyes only
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), on 22 March, publicly criticised the Colombo government for having allegedly released confidential reports submitted to the government by the group. More to the point, the ICRC also accused the government of having misled the public by distorting the details of those documents.

The humanitarian agency was responding to a statement by the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry that cited the ICRC report as having confirmed "a distinct downward trend in disappearances and unexplained killings during the second and third quarters of 2007". Evidently, that is not at all what the ICRC's findings had suggested.

The Foreign Ministry statement had also implied that the US embassy in Sri Lanka had access to the ICRC's confidential report. The recrimination had come in the aftermath of Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama's summoning of US Ambassador Robert Blake, to protest the United States' criticism of Colombo's human-rights record in the "2007 Country Report on Human Rights", recently published by the US State Department.

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