Round-up of regional news

Buddha and the Bomb
INDIA CERTAINLY did not choose an auspicious day for its 11 May nuclear tests at least as far as its 69-percent Buddhist neighbour, Sri Lanka, was concerned. The blasts were set off on Vesak day (Buddha Purnima) marking the birth, enlightenment and death of the Buddha.

Four days later, on 15 May, the predominantly Indian foreign press corps accredited to Colombo gathered at the watering hole of the Foreign Correspondents´ Association (FCA) at the seafront Galle Face Hotel in squally weather for a luncheon meeting with Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar. Predictably, India´s nuclear experiments and their impact on the region as well as Sri Lanka´s own just-published reaction were the main topics of discussion.

The urbane, elegantly suited Kadirgamar, who was once president of the Oxford Union, deftly fielded the questions taking a tack which one local newspaper called "national self interest". Colombo knows the worth of Indian support with the Tamil Tiger bomb very much on its lap. So the foreign minister was certainly not going to say anything that would displease New Delhi. China and Pakistan too are old and good friends. Kadirgamar therefore was liberal with the syrup but candid enough to admit that Sri Lanka´s statement was a deliberate understatement.

"It didn´t say much," commented the correspondent for the Chennai-based daily The Hindu.
"Statements are not meant to say much," countered the minister, "that´s what diplomacy is all about."
But we digress from the Buddha. Over a lunch of prawn cocktail, French onion soup, stuffed chicken and a calorie-laden dessert which Kadirgamar passed asking for fruit which took a long time to come, the minister was given an account of how news of the successful accomplishment of India´s first nuclear test in 1974 was broken to then Prime   Minister   Indira   Gandhi with the cryptic words, "The Budha has smiled".
"I was so embarrassed," said the Indian Express representative who is the president of the FCA.
Kadirgamar, coming from old Anglican stock, but with the Buddhist pirith nool (blessed thread) round his wrist (his wife is Buddhist), raised an eyebrow clearly under the impression that the smiling Buddha code, mind you on Vesak day, had been used this time also. "I will take it up with Mr Vajpayee," he promised not once but twice.

As the code this time did not have anything to do with Buddha, the minster may have been spared the pain of tackling the Indian prime minister. But that did not stop the following Sunday´s newspapers from reporting that Indian headline writers had had a field day saying that in 1998 the Buddha had smiled not once but three times!

Laughing stock
A WITTY and acerbic series entitled Goodness Gracious Me is causing much hilarity on British TV screens these days. Originally a radio show, the series satirises the pretensions of British subcontinentals. It has just finished a series on BBC2, and judging from its enthusiastic reception it is sure to be back soon.

The comedy series features such instant classics as the Kapoors, an Indian family so desperate to fit in that they start pronouncing their name "Cooper" and change their first names Sunil and Sashi to St John and Charlotte. Such is their rampant Anglophilia, that when a brick crashes through their front window with the attached message "Pakis out!", they all nod heartily and say, "Quite right! Quite right!"

Then there´s Bollywood showbiz gossip columnist Smitta Smitten (The Showbiz Kitten) who spends her time on wild goose chases in men´s toilets and kebab shops all over London, looking for glamorous parties with stars Jackie Shroff and Akshay Kumar. What´s great about the series is the way it effortlessly and accurately sends up all the stereotypical characters from Asian life – the uncle who promises that he can get anything you need for half-price; the aunt who refuses to eat food at restaurants because she cancook exactly the same thing at home: "For half price…..all I need is a small can of aubergines."

One side-splitting sketch involves the parents who get tired of their son refusing to have an arranged marriage and therefore set him up with an arranged one-night stand. "She´s a lovely girl from a great family and they don´t mind how you violate her." There´s the catty battling mothers who compare their sons´ achievements in increasingly ridiculous terms: "My son flew all the way to Bombay to visit his uncle who has a heart problem," to which the other retorts, "Really? My son is flying all the way to Calcutta to visit his great-uncle who has a slight headache!"

British misconceptions of Asian culture are also ruthlessly turned inside out. One sketch features a group of rich young yuppies in Delhi who get drunk on beer and "go out for an English" – a direct reference to the famous British pastime of getting drunk and going for curry. The Indians harass the hapless white waiter, asking him for "steak and kidney pie with custard, and some of that, how do you pronounce it…chips?"

The West´s obsession with all things mystic and Eastern is gently assaulted with the character of a swami surrounded by gullible Westerners while he chants sacred mantras – which just happen to feature the delicacies "Cocaco lafan tagulabjamun…"
-Afdhel Aziz

Drop dead
The leading separatist group in Burma´s western province of Arakans says India has betrayed them by attacking one of their arms supply ships, killing six militants and arresting others. On the morning of 17 February, the Indians blasted the Arakanese ship off the Landfall Island in the Andamans after a six-hour-long sea chase. The defence ministry said the Burmese rebels were gunrunners peddling weapons to insurgents from the Indian Northeast.

Khin Maung, the "foreign secretary" of the outlawed National Unity Party of Arakans (NUPA), says that the six who were killed and the 74 others arrested were members of his party. "They were not gunrunners or anti-Indian rebels as claimed by the Indian defence ministry. They were Arakanese revolutionaries who were always cooperating with India against her enemies," Maung said in a letter dated 25 April to the Indian Defence Minister George Eernandes, who received it only in mid-May.

Maung claimed that the Indian military intelligence had been informed about the ship, which was carrying weapons for the Arakanese militants, at least a month before its arrival. He wrote: "The Indian military intelligence okayed our voyage and that is why we entered Indian territorial waters to avoid the Burmese navy."

So far, the Indian navy and coast guards have refused to disclose the identity of the "gunrunners", a terminology the NUPA vehemently opposes. The party was formed in 1988, after the military takeover in Burma, to fight for an independent Arakans.

Maung claimed in his note to Fernandes that "Major" Saw Tun, a senior NUPA military wing leader, had been in touch with a military intelligence colonel named Grewal for the past one year.

Wrote Maung, "We were cooperating with each other. The Indians asked us for help to track down gunrunners carrying weapons to northeast India and we helped them. So it comes as a shock to us that our ship, about which the Indians were given full information, should be attacked." A top NUPA commander named Khaing Raza was also killed during the operation.

Fernandes is known for his sympathy to the Burmese ethnic and pro-democracy movements. Incidentally, he was on a tour of the Andamans at the time of filing this report. NUPA sources say that Fernandes had not replied as yet to Maung´s letter.

The Indian secret services started cultivating the NUPA ever since China started securing naval facilities on the Burmese ports and islands close to India. Says an Indian human rights lawyer with links to NUPA about the possible cause behind the attack on the group´s ship: "It could be a change in Indian foreign policy. Delhi may be trying to cultivate Rangoon and therefore the volte face."

NUPA has now asked the Indian government to release the 74 Arakanese militants held in Port Blair, the administrative headquarters of the Andamans. "Under no circumstances [should] they be handed over to the Burmese military junta," wrote Maung to Fernandes. The fear is that they will be killed if they are handed over, as happened in the Chin Hills last year when India pushed back six Burmese soldiers who had fled.
-Subir Bhaumik Pauline strikes again
Readers in South Asia may not be aware of it, but, over across the Indian Ocean, Pauline Hanson is "dead". She is, of course, very much alive, but her slow descent into oblivion has made the legislator use some unusual methods to revive flagging support.

Hanson is the Australian legislator who gained fair notoriety some time back for her outright racist statements. Candidate for the Liberal Party in the 1997 election to the federal senate, she was dropped from the party after her criticism of government spending on Aborigines. She then launched her own party, One Nation, with an agenda devoted solely to being anti-Asian immigrant and anti-Aborigine (with outrageous statements like calling Aborigines "cannibals").

Hanson´s poll support, never more than nine percent, had plunged to four percent by end-1997. She had also suffered the ignominy of being largely ignored by the media. In a bid then to restore her falling political fortunes, Hanson a few months ago, resorted to a bizarre and possibly suicidal gamble.

In a "message from beyond the grave", Hanson told fellow Australians, "if you are seeing this, it means I have been murdered". The ´message´ went on to urge "fellow Australians" to continue her work though she had been "murdered".

Today, Hanson and her One Nation outfit are back in the news, once again for the wrong reasons. Queensland´s Liberal Party recently directed its supporters to cast their preference votes to One Nation, ahead of the Labour Party. Although the Queensland Liberals later backtracked on the preference vote after the ethnic communities council threatened to withhold all contributions to the party, its coalition partner, the National Party, is likely to announce their preference vote call for Hanson.

The Asian leadership has long noted that the prime minister is extremely weak, if not cynically opportunistic, when it comes to Pauline Hanson. Described by one political writer as "anti-anti-Hanson", the John Howard government has consistently failed to condemn the legislator´s antics.

Obviously, the Liberal Party and its coalition partner the National Party, have studied the numbers and decided that there are more dividends in turning a blind eye to the Hanson brand of populism and Asian immigrant and aboriginal bashing. The clout of the Asian communities (largely East Asian, but with a fair number from South Asia too) do not add up, according to their calculations. But the concentration of ethnic Asians (three percent of the national population), largely restricted to Sydney and Melbourne, can swing the vote in several seats.

This does not prevent Howard from waffling on his pronouncements, however. So, on the one hand he pledges commitment to "multiculturalism", while on the other he hastens to describe Australia as having a "largely European heritage".

The prime minister´s political instincts have convinced him of Hanson´s appeal among the predominantly Anglo-Saxon, Celtic rural communities battered by years of drought, uncertain prices and the winds of "economic rationalism", the Australian fallout of globalisation. "Multiculturalism", a term referring to the immigrants´ right to preserve their distinct identities and cultures, is seen to be ominously anti-Australian by this crowd.

Hardly a week passes without a bank closing a branch in the Australian bush, or a company downsizing its operation in some small town. The cumulative effect of all this is rapid de-population of rural communities and the consequent economic slump suffered by local businesses.

By bashing "multiculturalism" as it applies to Asian immigrants and Aboriginals, the Hanson brand of reactionary populism is exploiting the fears of the people in rural Australia.

As Howard faces a snap poll in early autumn, there are signs that it might be a "race" election dominated by the issue of Aboriginal land rights. A soft line on Hanson might possibly pay electoral dividends to the conservative coalition, particularly the largely rural National Party dominated by big graziers and pastoralists.
So, while it is true that Pauline Hanson´s personal political obituary is all but written, her legacy of xenophobic fear-mongering is likely to continue supplying the electoral ammunition for sections of the Australian right.
-Narendra Mohan Kommalapati

The China syndrome
The richer you get, the more chicken you get. Apple (as in Macintosh) thought the Dalai Lama was good enough to use in its "Think different" ad campaign targetted at the West. And they pulled the ad from all Asian magazines because, the company maintained, the Dalai Lama was not well enough known in Asia. Fact is, they were afraid of offending the Chinese dragon which is also a rich dragon promising revenues deep into the future. The market segment held by Tibetans-in-exile is extremely small.

Love and bullets
"Mian Biwi razi, to kya hare ga Qazi?" goes the popular Urdu saying, referring to the cleric´s obligation to sanction a marriage involving the consent of both man and wife. Religious sanction for choice in marriage aside, traditional folklore in the Subcontinent is full of tales about star-crossed lovers, and villains who stand in their way. The sympathy is always for the lovers, even if they rarely win out in the end.

Real life in the Indus plains is not any different, and romance is having a hard time of it. To begin with, parental consent is required for most betrothals by custom and tradition, if not religiously or legally. But matters become quite complicated when love gets entangled in politics. For those who wonder what politics has to do with love, the answer is that allowing love to take its course involves loss of control – of parents over their children, of community leaders over their fold, and of patriarchy in general. More specifically, freedom of choice means loss of control over a young woman´s sexuality.

The politics of romance really took a turn for the worse with the unleashing of reiigio-conservative forces by the late military dictator Zia-ul Haq. Gen Zia eventually departed by way of an air crash, but the diktats he laid down for over 12 long years have not only endured but have been internalised by many community leaders in Pakistan.

With just about the only effective challenge to his regime being the fledgling women´s movement in Pakistan, the General had tried to neutralise it by stressing on the need for women to be passive and confined within the char-devari, or four walls, duly covered by the chador. The emphasis on women´s modesty suited the conservative, the feudal and the ´tribal´. Feminism was blasted as ´Western´, while the ruling menfolk forgot that in their own indigenous traditions, both religious and cultural, women were active participants in societies rather than passive victims. Part of the reason that the tradition of ´karo kar´ or ´sia kari1 (honour killings) have not faded with modern consciousness is the retrograde steps taken by Gen Zia more than a decade ago.

The celebrated "Saima-Arshad Love Marriage Case" of 1996 was indication that revisionist conservatism which sought to throttle women´s rights had made its way from a rural, tribal setting to cosmopolitan, urban drawing rooms. In the said case, the girl´s father, an influential religious leader, refused to agree to the marriage and claimed that under the sect of Islam he followed, the approval of the wali, or guardian, was obligatory. The case was dragged through the courts, with the couple´s lawyers having to deal with death threats. Fortunately, the couple was set at liberty by the court, but was forced to flee the country and is presently living in self-exile in Norway.

Barely had the dust settled on that case, when another one hit the headlines in Karachi, this time with ominous cross-ethnic overtones. When Riffat Afridi and Kunwar Ahsan eloped, the boy a Mohajir and the girl a Pakhtoon, the result was a communal flareup. Pakhtoon tribesmen rioted to protect their communal pride against this "Mohajir conspiracy". The police put the lovers in protective lockup, but later, after Kunwar was arrested on charges of kidnapping Riffat, he was greeted by a hail of bullets on his way to court one morning. One bullet damaged his spinal column and he is presently paralysed (picture, left).

The Riffat-Kunwar case took place in urbane Karachi, which was one reason it drew international attention. Throughout the rest of Pakistan, the legacy of haywire social engineering continues to haunt the land. Pakistan has many other social tragedies, of course, but the subjugation of women is one that affects half the country´s population. What is seen as religious intolerance and communal bigotry is, in the end, merely the outer veneer masking an attitude that is essentially anti-woman.

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