Round-up of regional news

Protecting journalists by committee
Oppressive governments and terrorist organisations have a propensity to confuse the truth with bad news and to further confuse the news with the messenger. They labour under the delusion that if journalists, as the modern world´s main purveyors of bad news, are leaned upon, imprisoned, tortured or killed, the bad news will stop.

The Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based organisation founded in 1981 and backed by heavyweights of American journalism, has been keeping public tabs on the effects of this delusion for over a decade. The record it has compiled of journalists in the line of fire around the world is a sorry one.
Having said that, the truth about the latest CPJ annual report (Attacks on the Press in 1997, 443 pp, USD 30) is that it seems to have been done on a shoestring. It does not cover attacks on journalists in any of the "Western democracies", and on occasion adopts a decidedly propagandistic approach to the situations it covers in the developing world.

Take India as an example. The relevant section begins: "India´s aggressive economic liberalisation policies continued as the country celebrated the 50th anniversary of independence from Britain, but so did the harassment of the Press in some regions. India´s claims to being a modernising democracy was undermined by State-tolerated assaults on and intimidation of journalists in areas traditionally troubled by violent secessionist and sectarian movements and other social tensions."

It is unclear why the incidents cited undermine India´s "claims to being a modernising democracy". The report states that there were seven journalists killed in India last year, and includes in that number five members of a television crew killed in a bomb blast in Hyderabad. The bomb was meant for a politician-turned-film producer and the attack was allegedly planned by a businessrival. However, the report gives the impression that the journalists were the targets of a politically motivated killing. The killing of the two other journalists during 1997 was in Kashmir. Both worked for state-owned television and both were gunned down by militants and not the state, a fact which may have been worth mentioning.

As for the rest of South Asia, the report is spotty. It covers Bangladesh and Pakistan but none of the other countries. "The killing of journalists has halted the flow of any semblance of honest journalism in Pakistan," CPJ Chairman Gene Roberts generalises in his introduction to the volume. But the section on Pakistan cites only one killing of a journalist- Z. A. Shahid, a photographer – in a bomb blast aimed at two Sunni Muslim leaders in Lahore. Elsewhere, the report claims that the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif "hovers on the fringes of repression", including the introduction of the new Anti- Terrorism Act, a "harsh martial law-style response to factional violence".

Bangladesh gets off relatively lightly. The national press "enjoys considerable freedom" and "continues to play an important role in the transition to democracy". The journalists attacked seem mainly to be photo journalists. Two were assaulted while covering street demonstrations, and a third was hit on the head with a teargas canister fired by police attempting to control a street demonstration. One local journalist is quoted as saying that the incidents "represent irritations, not national problems".

That is about the only attribution to a local source. For the rest, the judgements are American and come from high above.
-Bhaskar Menon

The Franco-Bangla mimodramatist
Who is this man in a body suit parading down a Paris street? And why is he essaying a classical Hindustani dance pose within a stone´s throw of the Arche de Triomphe?

He is Partha Pratim Majumder, born in Pabna, Bangladesh, Master of Mime, and devoted disciple of the pantomime great, Marcel Marceau. In Dhaka recently to conduct a mime workshop, the 45-year-old artiste spoke to Himal about his devotion to a genre of dance which has not been appreciated enough in the Subcontinent.

Majumder is out to set this right. As his guru Marceau certifies, "Partha enmeshes the traditions of Bengal with occidental disciplines to achieve universal dimensions." Originally in¬spired by the "millennial art" of Bharat Natyam and Kathakali, Majumder says he was soon attracted to the quintessential European form of mimodrama emerging from the Greco-Roman and Judaeo-Christian cultures. Majumder says he has tried to synthesise the two traditions in his work.

In 1990, Majumder, who had by then travelled the world to perform French mime with Marceau, opened his own school of mime in Bretagne, France. Now his overriding wish is to start a similar institution back in Bangladesh. This commitment translates itself, for the moment, into conducting workshops in Dhaka. Such as the very successful staging in 1994 of a "mimodrama" written and choreographed by Majumder for the Dhaka Little Theatre.

Titled Dushwapana (The Nightmare, adapted from the French play´ Cauchemar), the show was about a father´s love for his daughter which turns violent when the daughter takes a lover. This is how the Dhaka Daily Star described Dushwapana: "Silent shrieks ripped through the gracefully moving limbs, a daughter unmasked her assailant father and long shadows danced on the wall — a mimodrama (which) attempted to explain the chemistry of love and hate, cruelty and affection."

In the spring of 1998, Majumder was back in Bangladesh, working with the Dhaka Little Theatre on another production. What did he think about the 30 young boys and girls he was training at the Alliance Francaise? "They´re not quite fit," he replied, adding that the graceful movements of mime require regular exercise, something not followed in Dhaka.

However, such stumbling blocks do not discourage Majumder, who remains nationalistic despite his many years in the Continent. Wherever he performs, he reminds the listener, he insists on printing ´Bangladesh´ in brackets after his name.

Does he, then, intend to limit his productions to his home country, he is asked. He replies, "No! No! I would like to take my mime productions to Kathmandu! I would like to take them to Colombo!"

Heritage in flames
IT WAS A national tragedy for Bhutan when the Paro Taktsang, or Tiger´s Nest, the most sacred amongst Bhutan´s monasteries went up in flames on the Sunday evening of 19 April, 1998.
At least three of the few resident monks in the temples were killed, while countless statues, frescoes, painted scrolls, holy relics and numerous ancient Buddhist scriptures were destroyed in the blaze. It is suspected that ceremonial oil lamps may have caused the fire, but it is as yet not certain. Lightning is also reported to have struck earlier in the day.

Perched precipitously on a 2500-foot vertiginous granite cliff above Paro Valley, the wood-and-stone Taktsang was one of the most spectacular sites in the Himalaya, and a centre-piece of Bhutanese tourism, although the monastery itself had been closed for tourists these past few years, and was only accessible to native pilgrims. Nestled amidst a set of caves, the monastery was held to be blessed by Padmasambhava, the sage who brought Buddhism into Tibet in the 9 th century.

It is said that when Padmasambhava visited Bhutan´s Paro Valley, he transformed himself into the wrathful form of Dorje Drollo (one of the eight aspects in which Padmasambhava appeared at various times of his life), and, riding upon a tigress, flew up to a cave high on a cliffside. There, he imparted his teachings and initiations to several of his closest disciples.

Padmasambhava is then believed to have concealed many of his profound teachings, known as termas ("spiritual treasures"), which were meant to be rediscovered and spread at appropriate times in history to benefit beings according to their needs. It was in the 17th century that a remarkable Bhutanese teacher, Tendzin Rabgye, went on to build the several temples that hung almost miraculously on the cliff face.

In modern times, great Tibetan masters have revealed through visions and miracles the spiritual treasures at Taktsang. These teachers considered the place so sacred that one of them, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, once offered 100,000 butter lamps at Taktsang to commemorate Padma sambhava´s anniversary in the Monkey Year of 1980. Khyentse Rinpoche then wrote:

Towering mountain clad in a virgin
forest Your peak, majestic in its snowy turban, stretches to the skies.
Your chest is draped with silvery
scarves of mist;
How happy the carefree yogi who
lets go of this life´s affairs´.*

That eulogy now will have a tragic ring to it as thousands of believers mourn a monument that has been engulfed by the flames of imperma nence.

Treating torture
Custodial deaths, torture and beatings appear to be a part of the job profile of many policemen across the region. In India alone, 889 people died in custody during 1996-97. However, the country took a major step forward in April by opening a special medical facility for torture victims in New Delhi.

Inge Genefke, Secretary General of the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (1RCT), often called the Florence Nightingale of torture victims, who helped open the New Delhi facility says that another centre will soon open in Calcutta and then elsewhere in India. Her efforts to open such centres in other South Asian countries have not succeeded so far, she says.

Says Genefke, "At least 72 countries continue to use torture as a means of interrogation and suppression and too many governments depend on torture to stay in power." As part of 1RCT policy, she avoided naming any country or referring to the gruesome record of India´s custodial deaths. The main mission of the organisation, she states, is to help erase the physical and psychological scars of torture victims.

The spadework for the New Delhi torture treatment centre was done by the Indian Medical Association, a self-regulatory organisation of physicians. They have also called for a 16-hour course on torture treatment to be included in the syllabi of medical schools.

Treatment of hapless victims of brute state power — now this might be one area where other South Asian nations may follow the Indian example.

Cremating contraband
It's a familiar scene in the African game parks: millions of dollars´ worth of ivory and rhino horn going up in smoke in the name of conservation, while rangers and politicians watch on approvingly. On 22 March, Nepal´s Department of National Parks and Wildlife held its own public immolation of animal parts at a spot near the Royal Chitwan National Park.

More than a thousand items were hauled out of rank storerooms by sneezing guards and heaped  onto  the pyre. Skins of rhinoceros (over four tonnes), crocodile, tiger, leopard and of a   host   of   other hoofed and clawed mammals  joined trunkloads of tiger bone,       monkey skulls and rhino horn. Most of the items had been confiscated from local poachers, and the Chitwan cache, being the repository of animal contraband seized throughout Nepal, contained its share of highland exotica – among  other  things, sackloads of Tibetan antelope wool, a snow-leopard skin, and a jar of the famous Cordyceps caterpillar fungus (yartsagumbu), nabbed on their way to the southern markets.

The event attracted criticism from the national press and some wildlife experts, who argued that the stock should have been sold, not burned. When Nepal signed the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) agreement in 1974, it committed itself to stop cross-border traffic in parts of rare animals, and that covered nearly everything that was burned in Tikauli. The ban is all very well for wealthy nations, say the critics, but Nepal needs cash to help its conservation programme, and the sale of the Chitwan stock would have fetched a tidy sum.

But just what did find its way onto the pyre in Tikauli? This was no million-dollar African ivory-burn. The condemned skins were all rated as C-grade – threadbare specimens of little or no commercial value. Rhino horn can fetch upward of USD 15,000 per kilo in parts of Southeast Asia, but the eight items that were burned were all fake – ingenious constructions of hardwood, bone and cattle horn; the tiger claws, seized in Kathmandu, were plastic imitations glued into tufts of goat hair; 10 of the tiger skins were nothing more than painted cowhides; and the caterpillar fungus a heap of putrid crumbs.

So what was the purpose of the exercise? "The items in the store have been collected over the past 70 years," said Hridayesh Tripathi, then Minister for Forest and Soil Conservation. "The amount of material that had been accumulated was creating problems of storage." A task force had suggested that all the decayed, unusable items should be destroyed. (The logic of incinerating the forgeries, as a ranger pointed out, was "to reduce the importance that these things have in the public mind.")

Tirtha Bahadur Shrestha, Nepal´s eminent botanist, was cautiously opposed to the destruction of the stock, but not on the grounds that it should have been sold: "It may have been better to build new storage space and to keep everything at the park visitor´s centre. The sheer quantity of the collection has a striking visual impact. It gives an idea of how much wildlife is poached in Nepal and also how effective the park personnel have been in confiscating contraband."

Destroying seven decades´ accumulation of junk is only the beginning. "We still have the problem of what to do with all the other things in storage," concedes Tirtha Man Maskey of the Parks and Wildlife Department, who headed the task-force which recommended the immolation.

A number of steps have already been taken. Precious substances that are used in traditional medicine have been consigned to the Department of Ayurveda – such as musk-pods and bears´ gall bladders. Many other pieces, including tortoise shells and rhino skulls, will be allocated to museums and educational institutions within the country. The Home Ministry has even requested 38 skins of various species for distribution to mendicant yogis.

International sale of most of the remaining items may be out of the question, but Nepal´s Ministry of Forests is negotiating with CITES about marketing them within the country. Maskey hopes that the good-quality rhino hides which still occupy a large storeroom can be cut up and sold to make the ritual cups that are a necessary part of Hindu death ceremonies. So, the critics can be assured that the burning was not a sacrifice of national interests on the altar of an alien ideology. On the other hand, it wasn´t a case of spring cleaning either. -Charles Ramble

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