Round-up of regional news

National identity on the tarmac

Stealing the show from Pakistan's nuclear scientists in the run-up to the revenge blasts in Chagai was never going to be easy. But three Baloch nationalists gave it a try anyway, and their attempt was heart-rending both in its amateurishness and its denouement.

Their stage was a PIA Fokker plane bound for Karachi from Gawadar, in the extreme southwest corner of Pakistan. Brandishing pistols, the three young men stormed into the cockpit fifteen minutes into the flight and ordered the pilot to take the plane to India. The captain made as if to comply, and told the hijackers that he was landing in Rajasthan's Jodhpur for re-fuelling on way to New Delhi. He touched down, instead, in Pakistan's own Hyderabad.

The "poor and illiterate-looking" – as one passenger had it – Baloch men fell for the gambit. The passengers too were stumped for a while; some of them horrified at being in India, prime enemy territory in these frenzied nuclear times, started reciting Quranic verses.

Outside the plane, Hyderabad's very Pakistani officials had to quickly devise a plan to make their airport (and themselves) look properly Indian (read "Hindu"). Sepoys were deployed at the mosques to keep the muezzins from going on air with their call to prayer and giving the game away! In order to forge a more authentic India, it is reported, the airport staff was asked to wear dhotis. It is not clear where the appropriate cotton cloth was found at such short notice, but the hijackers in all likelihood were not sartorial sophisticates when it came to what Hindus wear.

The simulation became even more 'authentic' as the official negotiators assumed names, straight out of Hindi films. Hyderabad's commissioner became "Dilip" and his deputy was "Gopi". The SSP of police became "Manoj" for the duration of the drama. The trio, it is said, eschewed a "Salam walaikum" and managed a creditable "Namasté" when they met the hijackers.

Suspecting no trickery and believing themselves to be safe in India, the hijackers waited for the arrival of Pakistan's envoy in New Delhi, with whom they had demanded to speak. In the meantime, they put up a show of traditional Baloch hospitality. True to tradition, Sabir Rind, Shabbir Rind and Shahsawar Rind from the Tarandoz clan of Balochistan, ate their meal only after serving the 21 passengers. The Balochs also invited the 'Indian' officials to eat, offering them chicken instead of beef. One also gifted a traditional Baloch lungi (wraparound) to an official. And like all good men, the Balochs allowed the women and children to get off the plane.

Then came the moment of truth, nine hours into the drama. The Indians suddenly turned into Pakistanis, the plane was stormed, and the three young men realised that they had never left Pakistan. They were whisked off by the police, to confess later to being Indian agents. "These fools continued to believe they were in India until their arrest," said Captain Zuhair Ahmed with a touch of bombast.

Fools or amateurs, and criminal hijackers certainly, the three Balochs had a significant message to deliver, something which was considerably underplayed by most of the Subcontinent's nuclear-charged media. The trio represented the best or worst faces of deprived Balochistan's angst. All along the drama, they told the passengers: "We have no enmity with anyone. We are against the government of Pakistan. They have money for an atom bomb, but don't have anything for Balochistan. Thousands of people were killed in floods [in Turbat], but there is no aid. Our area is under-developed, but nobody cares."

Clearly, these were not your typical agents.

Ministers resign, fools hijack

The Balochistan government, which has long felt marginalised by Islamabad, announced that it did not have any sympathy for the hijackers. Chief Minister Sardar Akhtar Mengal was quick to condemn their action, saying that he believed in a peaceful and democratic struggle for achieving the rights of Balochistan. Nevertheless, he was in for a rude shock, four days and five blasts later. Pakistan had tested its nuclear devices in his own Balochi backyard of Chagai district, and he was not informed beforehand. The chief minister threatened to resign. And that is the way it goes, chief ministers threaten to resign (and rarely do), while foolhardy young men skyjack civilian airliners.

Gen. Scissorhands

On 5 June, the Sri Lankan government imposed the latest blackout on war news after the government forces, battling for over a year to establish a main supply route between Vavuniya and Jaffna, suffered some very heavy casualties. Confirming the losses in Parliament, Deputy Defence Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte claimed that the military gave as good as it got and imposed even more fatalities on the Tamil Tigers. As for most Lankans, especially residents of Colombo, the wailing of ambulance sirens was sign enough that the war was going badly.

On all previous occasions when the government decided to begin censorship, the director of the government information department was named to be the concerned authority. But this time it is the army HQ which is vetting the news. General Ratwatte is on record saying that censorship became necessary because newspapers were publishing classified information. He accused one newspaper, which he did not name, of publicising a military plan complete with a map that led to the calling off of a whole military operation. Predictably, the minister was silent on leaks in the military establishment itself that made such publications, if they had happened, possible.

Protest against news censorship came from the local press and foreign correspondents accredited to Colombo. Independent newspapers dashed off protest editorials, while the government-controlled press made lame excuses about what they say is a necessary evil. Given that the Sri Lankan press as well as the corps of foreign correspondents in Colombo have not as a rule been irresponsible, the present restrictions are widely regarded as unnecessary.

There were signs that the foreign correspondents at least would be exempted from censorship some days after it came into force. There have been precedents when the foreign press were let off the censorship hook quicker than the locals. This time, however, that did not happen probably because the local press began to scream apartheid!

Meanwhile, a most peculiar situation has arisen. News that has been 'red pencilled' by the censor is freely accessible to anybody with a radio set tuning on to the BBC programme, Sandesaya, relayed both in the Sinhalese and Tamil languages by the state-owned Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC) after the night newscasts. And this has nothing to do with the general perception in Sri Lanka, as in other parts of South Asia, that the Beeb is truly independent. It springs from an agreement between the BBC and the SLBC that requires Sandesaya to be relayed exactly as it is produced without any deletions or alterations.

True, BBC stringers in Colombo are subject to the same rules as any other foreign correspondent and thus not allowed to transmit any uncensored war news out of the country. But that does not prevent the BBC London office from gleaning information that the army censor mayhave blocked and including it in the programmes beamed to Sri Lanka. The authorities have had this anomaly pointed out to them, but given the agreement with BBC, there is nothing they can do about it, except turn a red face to the public.

Censorship on sale

This should go down into one of the guidebooks of Bangladesh. If you are itching to say something against the memory of "Bangabandhu" Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, be forewarned that you will be doing so at your own peril. For immediate confirmation, sceptics can ask the Ananda Bazaar Patrika (ABP) Group of Publications, Calcutta's leading newspaper chain. Well, this is how the story went.

February the twenty-first is a red-letter day for Bangladeshis. It was on this day in 1952 that several students, rooting for Bengali as a state language of Pakistan, were ruthlessly shot down in Dhaka. Since then, the day has been dog-eared to mark the anniversary of the language movement in Bangladesh. Neighbouring West Bengal also goes along for the ride, and special commemorative issues of magazines during this time are not a rarity.

So when Desh, ABP's literary fortnightly with a large readership in Bangladesh, decided to take out a special issue, it made for sound editorial and marketing sense. But they would not have known the kind of trouble they were getting into when they commissioned a piece from Badruddin Umar, Bangladesh's well-known historian-litterateur. They did, soon enough, when the magazine found itself spurned by the Bangladeshi authorities. Culture cops took offence to Umar's article, specifically his observation that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was nowhere in the scene when the language agitation was gaining ground in the then East Pakistan. That, for them, was vintage blasphemy. Desh must be banned!

Cut to the Desh management, for the story does not end there. What would they do now, knowing only too well that Bangladesh was an important bread-winner and that the West Bengal market had been steadily deserting them in recent years? Well, the way out would seem to be to make an appointment with the Bangladeshi deputy high commissioner in Calcutta, and tell him that printing the article was an unpardonable error, and that it had crept in without the knowledge of the editor who was out of the country. And agree to reprint, after of course trashing Umar's piece.

Lo and behold, that is exactly what happened and a diluted Desh made it to the newsstands of Bangladesh. Moral of the story? When freedom of expression does nothing more than drain your pocket, just make liberal use of your scissors. Of course, there will be many in this market-driven age who will not fault the Desh management's action; but, once upon a time, in the 1960s, there was a magazine which got together a whole lot of Bengali writers and artists under the banner of artistic freedom. This magazine would not fail to carry fiery articles against the lack of artistic freedom in countries like China and the Soviet Union. Were those the follies of youth, someone should ask of this fortnightly called Desh.

Pink slips in Thimphu

Bhutan-watchers are scratching their heads. What to make of the sudden upheaval King Jigme Singye Wangchuk seems set to bring about in his little Himalayan redoubt? His moves have been described as relating to "wide-ranging political reforms", but in Bhutan, especially, things are never the way they seem, and it is best not to make weighty analyses until the events play themselves out in Thimphu.

King Jigme, who both rules and reigns in Druk Yul, is an astute politician besides being monarch. He may well have seen the need to respond to changing times and expectations (within and without his kingdom) by creating a sense of movement. He may, on the other hand, merely have been responding to resentments within the ruling elite of Thimphu by easing out people who have held topmost positions for much too long. Then again, he may have been responding to pressures being applied by the select band of donor governments which Thimphu has cultivated.

Whatever be the trigger, the king's proposal for portfolio revisions that was handed over to the speaker of the Tshongdu, the National Assembly, is significant merely because it is happening. Fourteen ministers appointed by the king stand to lose their jobs, while the six directly elected and the two chosen by the clergy are to continue until their three-year terms expire. What is interesting, is that the ministers being eased out of the cabinet are those who have been part of Bhutan's ruling polity during some of the most volatile as well as productive periods of modern Bhutanese life and times. Their terms as lyonpos (ministers) have coincided with significant advances made in educational, environmental, tourism and health areas. They have also presided over a period when the pressures of Westernisation and modernisation impacted on Thimphu, and they helped craft a sophisticated accommodation with New Delhi, as well as successfully wooed a handful of donor governments to be steadfast funders of Bhutanese development.

The changes planned by King Jigme may or may not have something to do with the Lhotshampa refugees matter, which has been the longest-running and biggest crisis in the history of modern Bhutan and which has brought a lot of unwelcome publicity for the Dragon Kingdom's kingly regime. The crisis was entirely self-generated by Thimphu's lyonpos, of course. All the individuals who ruled the roost during the census exercise of the late 1980s and who gave the orders of depopulation that created refugees of more than a hundred thousand people are still in place in the summer of 1998. They include Dawa Tshering – foreign minister and the smiling and sophisticated face of Bhutan to the world for over 26 years – and Dago Tsering, who as home minister did the king and the dasho (nobility) elite's bidding in throwing out the refugees.

The other reading of the changes, as Bhutan's national (and government-owned) paper Kuensel would have it, is that the shuffling in Thimphu represents a gradual bid to democratise governance, and to give more authority to the 150-member Tshongdu. This latest move is said to come in line with the policy of decentralisation pursued by King Jigme over the past 15 years, where local committees have been formed to decide the development agenda and local matters.

All that one can say at this stage is that King Jigme, who remains very much in charge of affairs in his kingdom, may be out to do some good. This good, certainly, is planned for the citizens of Bhutan presently within Bhutan, but it may be that the changes may well work towards the benefit of those who have been pushed out, under the authority of the very individuals the monarch is presently about to push out of his cabinet.

Comrade Lama

When on 5 May 1998, Amar Lama stepped out of prison a free man, his release was greeted with disbelief by the Communist Party of Nepal (UML), and its breakaway faction, the CPN (ML). Lama was no ordinary prisoner. For all of five years his fate had been inextricably linked with an incident that has haunted Nepal on and off during those years. On 17 May 1993, a Mitsubishi Pajero carrying the all-powerful General Secretary of the Communist Party of Nepal-United Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML), Madan Bhandari, and the Party Organiser, Jeevraj Ashrit, plunged into the Trishuli river at Dasdhunga in central Nepal. The sole survivor of the accident was the driver, Amar Lama.

Lama's deposition before various investigation commissions was that on trying to wipe the vapour off the windscreen on that rainy day five years ago, he had lost control of the vehicle and it had fallen into the river.

After the initial shock, talk began of the senior communist leaders having been assassinated and suspicion quickly fell on Lama, for the simple reason that he had survived. General Secretary Bhandari's wife, Vidya Bhandari, immediately after the accident had publicly vouched for Lama's integrity as a party faithful, adding that he was "like a brother" to her. Her tune, and that of the party that she became increasingly active in after her husband's death, however, changed soon enough.

The investigative commission set up by the then Nepali Congress (NC) government attributed the accident to the carelessness of the driver. It was not a verdict that the opposition CPN (UML) was willing to accept, for in the meantime, the communists had formed two separate commissions, both of which suspected foul play behind the incident.

The CPN (UML) took to the streets immediately after the government commission submitted its report on 17 June 1993. Luckily for the then Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala (back in the seat once again today after four years), even as the protests were intensifying, huge cloudbursts wiped out road links with the capital and large parts of the country's eastern plains were inundated. In the face of the national calamity, the communist agitation lost steam, and was stopped altogether after an agreement was reached to form another commission under a Supreme Court judge. This time the CPN (UML) would have a say in its formation.

However, before the commission could submit its report, the CPN (UML) itself came to power in November 1994 affirming that the "accident was a conspiracy". And when the commission did present its report, the government sat on it for a month before going public with it. The commission, much to the CPN (UML)'s discomfort, dismissed the conspiracy theory. And although the communists officially accepted the report, they made it an article of faith that the Dasdhunga mishap was part of a conspiracy, to be resurrected whenever it suited them.

Meanwhile, the Chitwan District Court charged Lama with murder, sentenced him to life imprisonment, and confiscated his property. This ruling, approved by the Appellate Court, was unprecedented given that under the circumstances the accused should have been tried under laws governing a traffic accident, not murder. In desperation, Amar Lama appealed the judgement in the Supreme Court.

It is interesting to note that, save for one, the various human rights organisations in Nepal did not raise a single voice against the way Lama had been treated by the law. The left-leaning organisations would have nothing to do with Lama given their proximity to the CPN (UML), while the others were inexplicably silent on Amar Lama's incarceration. The only consistent voice against Lama's treatment came from the well-known senior scholar-statesman, Rishikesh Shaha.

When the Supreme Court took cognisance of Lama's appeal and reduced his sentence to two years and a fine of 500 rupees, he had already served four years, 11 months and 19 days behind bars. He was released on the same day of the Supreme Court decision.

The expected protests (which even included a statement from Vidya Bhandari, now a CPN-UML member of parliament) were, however, muted. As a CPN (UML) leader puts it: "Had the Party been undivided and not busy bickering between themselves, the Supreme Court decision would have become a much bigger issue. But now they are making perfunctory statements just to keep the party workers happy."

A self-proclaimed Gandhian, a free Amar Lama says, "CPN (UML) has taken charge of the government two times after the Dasdhunga accident. They used government machinery to investigate the accident. But they could come up with nothing. They have used me and this incident merely to pull down the Congress government."

Lama now plans to enter politics, although he has not yet made up his mind which party (of the left) he will join. He would do well to carefully chose his options.

– Rajesh Ghimire

Rongthong's release

If there was some reaction to his arrest, Rongthong Kunley Dorji's release on bail by the Delhi High Court on 12 June was a much muted affair, with the news reduced to a one-column bit in the lesser pages of the Indian English national dailies.

But what does this release of the Bhutanese dissident leader after spending a little over a year in Delhi's Tihar Jail signify? A strategic shift in South Block's policy towards the Bhutanese state? An agreement between Thimphu and New Delhi to allow an act of judicial travesty to be corrected? A move to help old friends in the wilderness by the Indian Defence Minister George Fernandes, who before the high appointment had been actively opposing the refugee-creating Bhutan government? None of the above, most likely. The release on bail of Dorji seems merely the end-result of a court system which could not justify incarcerating him any longer. The proof just was not there to extradite Dorji to Bhutan as a criminal, as Thimphu claims. Sending back this political prisoner (which is what he was) would have brought on the wrath of even those reporters and diplomats in Delhi who have insisted on treating the Bhutanese government with kid gloves, and on turning away from its policy of turning a seventh of its population into refugees.

Perhaps Dorji's release will act as a shot in the arm for the Druk National Congress, the five-party Bhutanese democracy group which he heads. But, going by earlier practice, this is unlikely. The refugee leadership is a divided house, and in the past it has been unable to take advantage of events in its favour.

So, for the moment, all that can be said is that Rongthong Kunley Dorji was unfairly in jail in New Delhi, and now he is out (albeit still having to remain in the Indian capital and report to the Delhi Police). He also now has the badge of having served as a "political prisoner", which always proves useful to other politicians who are known to be more street savvy than Dorji. What a pity, though, that he was jailed in a third country, India, rather than in his own.

Which reminds us to remind the world that there is a certain Tek Nath Rizal still behind bars in Thimphu, a political prisoner who has by now stayed almost a decade in jail. There is no judicial embarrass-ment in Thimphu to keep him firmly where he is.

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