Round-up of regional news

Courting Tel Aviv
Ariel Sharon, the embattled, pugnacious prime minister of Israel, is reportedly weighing a state visit to India, perhaps as early as June. If the visit happens, it would be the first by an Israeli head of government to New Delhi (Israeli head of state Ezer Weizman made a ceremonial visit in January 1997), and would cement the 180-degree turn in relations between India and Israel since they gained statehood within months of each other in 1947-48.

Despite the emigration to Israel of thousands of Indian Jews, Indian-Israeli diplomacy during the cold war remained a cold affair, at least publicly. New Delhi refused to engage in full diplomatic relations with Israel, though it did allow Tel Aviv to establish a trade office in Bombay in 1950, which became a consulate three years later. Over time, cooperation grew slowly between the two states, primarily in security affairs. In January 1963, a few months after suffering an embarrassing defeat in the Sino-Indian border war, New Delhi invited senior Israeli military leaders, including the chiefs of army staff and military intelligence, for consultations. Israeli labour minister Yigal Along visited India in 1965, as did foreign ministers Moshe Dayan in 1977 and Shimon Peres in 1993.

A year before the Peres visit, Indian-Israeli diplomacy reached a milestone with the establishment of full diplomatic relations, an outcome of Narasimha Rao's non-ideological, post-cold war foreign policy. This decade of engagement focussed primarily on military contacts, with Israel emerging as India's second largest military supplier, following only Russia. Today, Israel provides India with military assistance in its combat aircraft, weapons, tank, missile and naval programmes, and is slated to train 3000 Indian jawans in anti-insurgency tactics. Israel supports New Delhi's stand on Kashmir and refused to condemn the Pokhran II nuclear tests of May 1998. And India, while not completely reversing itself, has toned down its traditional support for the Palestinian cause.

According to Nehru biographer BN Pandey, India's first prime minister "had no feeling of animosity towards Israel and would have hated to see the Jewish state wiped out of existence or even crippled by the Arab nationalists. The reason for his refusal to have diplomatic relations with Israel was tactical; it was his fear that India might lose the friendship of the Arab world", important partners in the non-aligned stance. After Nehru's death in 1964, and before Rao's arrival as prime minister in 1991, Congress governments resisted making public overtures to Israel for fear that they would alienate Muslim voters in India and jeopardise India's access to West Asian oil.

The strengthening of Indian-Israeli ties during the past decade demonstrates as much about changing global politics as it does about India's evolving internal dynamics. The perceived importance of the Arab world has declined, while India's Muslim population has been the target of campaigns of vilification and violence, particularly since the rise of the Hindu-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Support for Israel has arisen in ideologically diffuse sections of the Indian political spectrum, ranging from the Congress under Rao to the current BJP and even the Communist Party of India (Marxist), a leader of which, former West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu, visited Israel in 2000.

Islamabad is reportedly nervous about growing Indian-Israeli military ties, in particular that they may serve as a channel for advanced US military technology to reach the South Asian theatre. Such concerns about an Indian-Israeli-US military axis, which have been voiced in India by political columnist Praful Bidwai, among others, appear buttressed by growing support in the American Jewish lobby for India. In February, the singularly influential American-Israeli Political Action Committee, whose website boasts a quote from the New York Times calling it "the most important organization affecting America's relationship with Israel", argued in its Near East Report that "faced with similar threats from Islamic radicals and weapons of mass destruction, burgeoning economic, political and military ties between Israel and India are proving beneficial to both countries".

On 22 May, the US approved Israel's sale of an advanced airborne early warning system to India, valued at USD 1 billion, and the same day in Islamabad former Inter-Services Intelligence chief Hamid Gul told reporters that a Sharon visit to India "is a threat to our security". Closer Indian-Israeli cooperation is turning heads in Islamabad. "Do growing India-Israel relations have an impact on Pakistan and its security?" queried the Pakistani media in May. "The answer cannot be but a categorical yes". Faced with the prospect of advanced military technology reaching India, some Pakistani commentators have called for the establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel, though this would be wildly unpopular with Pakistani public opinion.

Unification bridge
When he was in his early teens, Mohamed Amir used to go swimming with his friends from Fares island and get into fights with rival groups from the neighbouring Maathodaa island. "The two islands are just a stone's throw away from each other. We used to swim in the shallow lagoon and throw corals at Maathodaa boys who would bully us", Amir, now in his mid-30s, reminisces.

Today a teacher in Male, the Maldivian capital home to 70,000-plus people, Amir, who has earned the nickname 'Fares Amir' because of his home island, says that much has changed in the social relations between Fares and Maathodaa islands.

The rivalry between the two neighbouring islands in the Gaafu Dhaalu atoll – the largest natural atoll in the equator-straddling Maldivian archipelago – goes back 30 years, a consequence of neighbourly feuds inherited and continued down the years. However, the gulf between the two islands was bridged, literally and figuratively, when the government recently reclaimed the shallow lagoon separating the two, making it one whole island now known as 'Fares-Maathodaa'.

Since then, tensions between inhabitants of the two islands have eased, with residents saying they now want integration in all senses. Benefits of cooperation are already evident; a single powerhouse, built on the reclaimed coral sand 'bridge', now provides electricity to both sides. A health centre has also been set up while a school, an ice production plant for fishermen, a court and an administrative office for Fares-Maathodaa are in the works.

Residents are also hoping that economic benefits will flow from the unification. The larger an island is, the more likely it is to receive assistance from the national government. "Developing 200-odd islands is like developing 200 separate countries. A small island state like Maldives cannot possibly undertake such an arduous task with the limited resources we have", a senior official from the planning ministry explains. While only about 200 of the archipelago's 1190 islands are inhabited by humans, more than 80 have been developed for high-end international tourists.

The planning ministry has embarked on an ambitious nation-wide development programme called 'Effas Kurun', which literally means shifting people from disadvantaged islands to those with greater space and economic prospects. Fares and Maathodaa are expected to benefit from this venture because the joining of the two islands has made the improvement of facilities and commercial opportunities possible.

"We are seeing a time of great development for us. It might not have been possible before as economic constraints prevented us from developing basic infrastructure in both islands", the Fares Island chief Mohamed Latheef says.

While rivalries "run deep", he is optimistic that residents will see a time of social harmony in the near future. "Give us about two years and I am sure everything is going to be just fine. It will give us time to develop and consolidate friendships between Fares and Maathodaa residents".

Fares has a population of 802 while Maathodaa's is slightly larger, at 853.

Many islands in the Maldives are disadvantaged because of the scattered nature of the populace. The country's 320,000 people, predominantly Sunni Muslim, live on a string of islands dotted across 90,000 square kilometres of the northern Indian Ocean.

While Fares and Maathodaa are seeing economic, social, educational and medical benefits resulting from the joining of the two islands, the most outstanding example of developing friendships among the rival islands is that fishermen from both islands now work in their erstwhile rivals' dhonies, traditional fishing vessels, and young children from both islands study in a common nursery school. A new school with classes up to grade 10 is also in the pipeline, according to Latheef.

The Maathodaa Island chief Ibrahim Latheef is cheered by the recent developments as well. "Now we can open big stores catering to a larger number of consumers", he says. Like many other residents, he too would now like to lay to rest the long-running rivalry and give development a chance.

Mohamed Yooshau, Male

Hijacked justice
On 23 June, in a courtroom in Calcutta, the hijacking trial of Burmese dissent Soe Myint is scheduled to begin. The case revolves around the events of 11 November 1990, the day Myint, then aged 22, along with fellow dissident Kyaw Oo, hijacked a 220-passenger Rangoon-bound Thai airways flight from Bangkok with a laughing Buddha statue wrapped in tissue paper that they claimed was a bomb, and redirected the plane to Calcutta. Their aim, Myint says, was to draw attention to the suppression of democracy in Burma.

Upon arrival in West Bengal, despite being booked for the hijacking, the two received something of a hero's welcome. On 12 November, crowds assembled outside the jail in which they were being held, and Myint and Oo were allowed to hold two press conferences during their detention, at which they made upbeat statements. The long-time West Bengal chief minister, Jyoti Basu, assured them that they would receive refugee status, and 30 members of the Indian parliament lobbied Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar to grant them such. Three months after their arrest the two were released, and in 1993 Myint received official refugee status from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

At the time, New Delhi was strongly opposed to the Burmese military junta, which had come to power in 1988 and rechristened the country 'Myanmar' the following year. The cases against Myint and Oo remained pending throughout the 1990s, though no action was taken on them and they were allowed to live freely, and in 1995 the public prosecutor recommended that the state of West Bengal drop the charges. Oo was allowed to migrate to Europe to pursue studies, while Myint remained in India to take up fulltime dissident work as a journalist, along the way befriending Samata Party leader and current Indian defence minister, George Fernandes. Myint, now 35, stayed in Fernandes' official Delhi residence for several years before renting his own apartment in west Delhi, and in 1998 he founded Mizzima, an Internet news service on Burma (accessible at that regularly criticises the government of General Than Shwe.

Thus, the situation stood until the night of 10 April 2002, when Myint, to his great surprise, was rearrested in Delhi by West Bengal police and taken into custody on a warrant citing the hijacking charge. It is not entirely clear why, after 12 years, the police suddenly took a renewed interest in his case. Myint's defenders, however, point to the visit of India's foreign minister, Jaswant Singh, to Rangoon the same week as Myint's re-arrest by way of explanation. India has dropped its principled opposition to the Burmese dictatorship in favour of pragmatic engagement with the Rangoon regime, and some suspect that the Burmese generals, for whom Myint is a thorn in their relations with New Delhi, requested that Singh arrange for his arrest. Myint says that Fernandes pressed Singh on this point, and that the latter denied any involvement in the case.

His experience in custody leads Myint to believe that the arrest was politically motivated. Between his jailing, on 10 April, and his release a week later, two unidentified interrogators questioned him on his political and journalistic work, not, as the charges would suggest, on his involvement in the 1990 hijacking. Despite requests from Myint's lawyer, Nandita Haksar, the identities of the two interrogators have not been revealed. In January 2003, a Calcutta court formally charge-sheeted him, though the opening of the trial, originally scheduled for April, was postponed until late June to allow the public prosecutor to make arrangements for 29 witnesses. Myint's activist wife, Thin Thin Aung, says that the Communist Part of India (Marxist)-led West Bengal government is willing to drop the case, but that New Delhi is intimidating Calcutta into carrying out the trial.    If convicted of hijacking, Myint faces life imprisonment.

The Myint case has become a minor cause célèbre, with activists and journalists in India and overseas agitating for his release, and four attorneys representing him in court pro-bono. An Internet petition calling for the charges to be dropped has collected nearly 1000 signatures, Reporters sans Frontieres has called on the Indian government to explain the arrest, and at least six Scandinavian Burmese watchdog groups have demanded his immediate release. Numerous publications in India and Southeast Asia, including Frontline and the Bangkok Post, have reported on the case, guaranteeing that if it does go to trial, Myint will become a celebrity defendant in the process. Which makes the arrest all the more puzzling, because if Myint is convicted after a dozen years of agitating against the Rangoon regime, the impression, either correct or incorrect, will be that he has been jailed for his work as a journalist and that the Indian government caved into Burmese demands to silence a critic.

Myint himself notes that he could easily slip out of India to avoid trial, but says that he will stay and fight his case. "Being in a neighbouring country of Burma like India, I could do many activities", he says. "It is also important to mobilise the support and solidarity of the people of India and lobby the government of India to support the democracy movement in Burma. More importantly, India still has a vibrant democracy which continues to allow Burmese democracy activists to launch various campaigns for democracy in Burma".

On the picket line
It is Islamabad's best-known secret. The picket lines at fast food multinationals KFC and Pizza Hut were well into their second month this summer, and there had not been a word about it in the local press. Stories filed by reporters on the city's longest-running non-violent protest had a habit of mysteriously disappearing – the godfathers protecting American franchises must have some clout. The only related news that was permitted (or planted) was a crime report, naming individuals against whom cases had been registered for demonstrating at a supermarket, though the story failed to mention what the demonstration was about. Clout and crude scare tactics, one supposes, are the hallmarks of godfathers everywhere.

There is some evidence, however, of who these protectors might be. The evidence is statistical, based on arrow number plates that flock to KFC Rawalpindi, and green number plates that swarm Pizza Hut Islamabad. But as it is circumstantial evidence, we will refrain from presenting it. It goes against our campaign principle of strict adherence to the law.

Adhering to the law in Islamabad is by no means simple these days. For the local lawmakers keep changing it all the time. It was our third night at KFC and the city administration – DC, AC, city magistrate, DSP, SHO and busloads of police – was out in force to protect the goateed images of Colonel Sanders. We had barely started distributing our boycott leaflets when we were told that it was a violation of Section 144. We stopped leafleting and unfurled our banners. The city magistracy then proclaimed that, as of right then, this too was a violation of the same law. Somebody produced a megaphone; Section 144 was extended then to ban the use of it. Desperately trying to stay on the right side of the rapidly changing laws, we put away the megaphone and blew whistles instead. The game of wits between Islamabad's lawmakers and its law-abiding citizens continued till late that night. Finally forced to remain silent and stand five metres apart, we lit candles – dim beacons pointing the path of freedom from American brand-name slavery. The city authorities could have snuffed this challenge too, but it was late and other, more lucrative pursuits beckoned them elsewhere.

Baffling arrogant lawmakers may be a piece of cake. Convincing the public that boycotting American corporate brand names is an effective strategy to contain American unilateralism is another matter. A typical conversation between a picketer and a would-be customer runs as follows:

Picketer: Don't send royalties to America; boycott American brand names; boycott KFC; boycott Pizza Hut.
Customer: But Pakistanis own this restaurant and it provides livelihoods to many Pakistanis.
Picketer: We are not for closing these restaurants. All we are requesting is that instead of promoting American brand names and sending royalties to the USA, they do business under a local name, establishing a brand name of their own.
Customer: But then they will have no customers.
Picketer: Not if people like you boycott American brand names and support local outlets.
Customer: But what difference can one customer make?
Picketer: Drop by drop a river is formed. You can become the first drop.
Customer: But you cannot change American policy by boycotting one American restaurant.
Picketer: This is our best bet though. If corporate America feels the pinch, it will make the American administration change its policy.
Customer: Actually it is my kids who want to eat in here.
Picketer: Maybe you need to explain all this to your kids, if you do not want them growing up as mental slaves to American brand names.
Customer: But America produces many useful things.
Picketer: Yes, and there are many good Americans too. This campaign is not against all things American. This is just an effective way to tell corporate America that attempts at world domination through force can be counterproductive to their interests. 

This conversation can be longer or shorter and not always successful. But the campaign has been effective – effective enough to have the city administration descend on us once again, this time at Pizza Hut. On 6 May the city AC and magistrate, using provocation, abuse and harassment, took the identity cards of those on the picket line by force and threatened immediate arrests if the picket continued. Not willing to risk arrests of girl students and senior citizens, we retreated to fight another day.

Already this demand-side campaign is gaining momentum. Starting with the Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad, many institutions have declared themselves cola-free. Booklets explaining the boycott, available in both English and Urdu, are proving popular. More citizens continue to join the picket ranks: it is a cause of our times, and the finest of the city are coming forward to take it up. Islamabad is beginning to demonstrate that with patience, commitment and creativity ordinary folk can effectively resist unilateral aggression and contribute to world peace. And our resistance is succeeding – if the response of the local hirelings is anything to go by.

Jamil Omar, Islamabad

Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian