Starting this month, we are happy to announce that Southasiasphere, our analysis of regional affairs will be a monthly podcast featuring Himal editors! If you’re a member, you’ll automatically receive links to the new episodes in your inbox. If you’re not yet a member, you can still get it for free (for the time being..) by signing up here.
In this first audio episode of the roundup, we talk about elections in Sri Lanka, freedom of speech debates in India, war on drugs in Bangladesh and more.
This is an unedited transcription from the podcast. Please listen to the corresponding audio before quoting from it.
Shubhanga Pandey: Welcome to Southasiasphere, our monthly round up of news events in Southasia that have made headlines and haven’t made headlines. If you’ve been following Southasiasphere for some time, you might have seen it in the form of a newsletter before. But starting this month we are going to be doing a podcast. And this is the first episode of the Southasiasphere podcast. I’m Shubhanga, and I’m joined by Amita and Raisa. Hi guys.
Raisa Wickrematunge: Hi
Amita Arudpragasam: Hi
SP: So in this episode of Southasiasphere we are going to be talking about a few big stories that affected Southasia: the elections in Sri Lanka, the freedom of speech debate in India, the war on drugs in Bangladesh, among a few other things.
AA: Yeah Shubhanga, so thanks for the introduction. It’s been a really eventful month for Southasia as we held in the region our first post covid-19 election in Sri Lanka on August 5th to elect, 225 members to Sri Lanka’s parliament. The Rajapaksa family and their party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna or SLPP won more seats than when Mahinda Rajapaksa went to the polls in 2010 soon after Sri Lanka’s civil war ended with a, you know, complete military victory for the government. This was when Mahinda was assumed to be at the height of his popularity. And now that’s been surpassed. So with close allies the SLPP secured 150 seats in parliament which is a 2/3rds majority and, you know, that grants SLPP the power to amend the Constitution. Sri Lanka’s government is likely to interpret this as a mandate to consolidate Sinhala Buddhism in the otherwise ethnically diverse country —that is, you know, clearly symbolized by Mahinda Rajapaksa taking oaths at a Buddhist Temple like his brother did on becoming President in November last year. It’s also, you know, the parliamentary elections has also resulted in the empowerment of Sinhala Buddhist ultranationalists including with the parliamentary seat this election for a party associated with anti-Muslim hate speech. Given, you know, the Rajapaksa side of governance the next few years are likely to see some significant human rights violations especially for minority communities as Gotabaya Rajapaksa noted in his throne speech, “national security” will be a top priority for the government – and that often translates to no dissent tolerated. Already in the last 6 months, we’ve seen a rapid increase in militarization, the arrest without charge of a prominent human rights lawyer, the intimidation of journalists and activists representing the relatives of the forcibly disappeared. This election also notably saw a fragmentation of Tamil politics, we had the predominant Tamil party, the Tamil National Alliance losing about 40% of its parliamentary presence and it’s also seen a shift away from Sri Lanka’s grand old parties —I really hate using that term it’s something an old British colonial administrator would use probably, kind of associated with the US Republican party, and, you know, suggest that there’s something kind of ungrand about modernity and evolved values.
RW: Yeah, and I’m not sure that it’s exactly a move away from the establishment if you interpret grand old party to mean establishment, because if you look at the heads of the new parties, the SLPP is headed by Gotabaya Rajapaksa who was well known as the former Defense Secretary and the SJB which forms the main opposition party with Sajith Premadasa who’s also not a newcomer, you know then this isn’t really a move away from the establishment and even the policies that they put forward or discussed aren’t really anything new.
AA: Right so I think even though there’s this kind of rhetoric of a shift away from some of these old establishment politics, a lot has actually remained the same. I think, this election you know, to sum up will actually kind of weaken constitutional safeguards for Sri Lankan democracy including the separation of powers and the independent oversight bodies that were introduced in 2015 because you know as Gotabaya Rajapaksa mentioned in his throne speech, the SLPP plans to eliminate, the 19th amendment and you know it will possibly also result in greater centralization of power via the proposed elimination of the 13th amendment which guarantees devolution to the provinces. And you know we may even see a new constitution in Sri Lanka which will consolidate Sinhala Buddhist ethnocracy in the country and perhaps even the Rajapaksa dynastic project.
SP: Right, which kind of brings us to the next big elections in Southasia that’s the Myanmar elections on November 8th. Could you give us updates on that, Amita?
AA: Yeah, I mean with 2 months to go the National League for Democracy, the NLD is predicted to hold on to its electoral successes and you know while Aung San Suu Kyi remains extremely popular with her base, and the country has made several reforms in the last few years, some analysts think there hasn’t been enough change in Myanmar and Suu Kyi’s relationship with ethnic groups have actually deteriorated in the years, you know, analysts have suggested that Myanmar’s elections won’t be free and fair, because you know we have thousands of displaced civilians, 200 000 from Rakhine alone, across a nation that might not be able to vote in areas of social unrest. The Election Commission has also barred three more Rohingya candidates from running for office because apparently their parents were not citizens when they were born. But on the outcomes and conduct of the Myanmar elections we’ll have to wait and see. But you know relatedly on the subject of elections, we’ve also seen calls for internal elections, to elect a new leader for India’s congress, after senior leaders over 20 expressed their grievances with the interim nature of the party’s leadership in a letter to Sonia Gandhi. She’s you know like, the longest serving Congress President and the Congress is actually another grand old party with a 130 year old history.
SP: Right, so coming to India I think we can enter the second big topic of this podcast which is free speech debates that’s going on in India. The debate began with the withdrawal by Bloomsbury, a publisher, of a book on Delhi riots, so you know everyone saw those kind of social-media criticism of their decision to publish a book that seems to be both misinformed and kind of riddled with misleading and dubiously sourced information about the February Delhi riots, and actually based on a report produced by a pro-BJP and a pro-Citizenship Amendment Act group. So anyway that was, you know the book seemed like a strange thing for them to publish. And there was a book launch that was happening which invited Kapil Mishra, who’s a BJP politician, who’s seen as someone that incited the entire violence. So you know it seemed like a strange thing for them to do.
Now they did say that the book launch was not part of their plan, and that their logo had been used, but still they were publishing the book, so after a sustained, kind of social-media criticism of that this has led to Bloomsbury withdrawing the publishing of the book much to the ire of rightwing commentators, who were now seeing this as a curtailment of free speech. Interestingly the book has been picked up by a pro-Hindutva publisher, but all of a sudden there’s this big debate, and I don’t know how valid the debate is on this being an attack on free speech and that the liberal left is being hypocritical.
RW: Yeah, I find it quite interesting that this story of this book is being discussed in the context of freedom of expression because in my view, this is a reaction to public outcry which I feel should kind of be contrasted with actual instances where the state is intervening to restrict free speech and we have a high profile instance of that before the Supreme Court right now with the case of Prashant Bhushan.
SP: Right, which again explains why this whole thing is a false analogy, that supposedly the liberal left have this outcry when their people are stopped from speaking, but it ignores the fact that Prashant Bushan being found guilty of contempt of court for a few tweets was the state you know the judiciary acting on that. Even with non-state actors you saw the attack on Caravan reporters by mobs in Delhi. I mean those are genuine attacks on free expression because it either uses the state instrument or there’s physical violence, which seems very much different from the case of that book being withdrawn, because that’s the kind of social sanctioning.
And I feel in some ways the Indian right is deploying the same categories and terms of the cancel culture which has kind of become big in the US, particularly since the rise of Trump, and you know all of a sudden, social boycotts of all kinds become the same as the state or mobs attacking someone.
RW: Yeah, it’s kind of interesting how these false analogies are being created. Another story that’s kind of really made headlines was this story in the Wall Street Journal which actually found that there were these instances of hate speech which were identified by Facebook and which were being spread by the BJP, which were not removed and this story actually lifted the veil of secrecy that surrounds like some of the inner operations of Facebook, and it kind of identified Ankhi Das who is their policy person kind of showing that she had apparently explicitly said that these posts should not be removed because to do so would be to threaten the market opportunity that they would have in India, so that’s been an interesting story.
SP: Yeah and I feel it sometimes even muddles the actual debate on free speech and hate speech and you know how companies like Facebook maintain their own standards. I mean, in this case it was clearly a failure to stand by their own standards. Interestingly, she has a history of also making Islamophobic comments, and we know what the result of allowing these kind of hate speech on platforms like Facebook have been, looking at what happened in Myanmar and Sri Lanka. So it also makes one question how serious platforms like Facebook are when it comes to basically standing you know by their own standards.
RW: Yeah that’s right, to add to that, there’s also been some writing that I’ve seen which has actually talked about, how maybe we shouldn’t get too distracted by the personalities, including Ankhi Das, and focus like you said on the issues, on the fact that these platforms need to be standing by the commitments that they make or making some kind of an effort on freedom of speech and just not allowing hate speech to proliferate but we are going to move on now to drugs, and specifically a particular case in Bangladesh, which was actually the killing of this retired military officer, Major Sinha Rashed Khan and this case has actually forced security forces to confront their culture of extrajudicial executions. So the details of this case will be chillingly familiar to those who have been following Bangladesh politics and these kinds of cases. So he was shot dead at a checkpoint in Cox’s Bazar where he was actually shooting a documentary. According to the police he refused to stop and they had then fired in self defense. And afterwards they recovered, they said recreational drugs and alcohol from Sinha. Now following this and following some outcry, 7 police personnel who are among the accused have been placed in remand, and there have been several residents who were witnesses who were also placed in remand. Now I said that this kind of shooting is familiar to those who have been following incidents in Bangladesh, that’s because it has very chilling similarities to these incidents which are kind of euphemistically called crossfire killings.
SP: The word ‘crossfire killings’ sounds dangerously close to what’s called ‘encounter killings’ or ‘encounters’ mostly in India, Pakistan, sometimes Nepal also. It just shows how creative states can get when it comes to hiding certain kinds of extrajudicial actions.
RW: Yeah I agree and I mean you can even draw parallels with Sri Lanka, there’s been again a long history of prisoners either being taken to the scene of a crime and then reports that they’ve tried to escape and then in Sri Lanka what’s often said is again this term self-defence either tried to escape or attack them, so similarities across the region to these incidents, but when we look at Bangladesh in particular, according to rights body Ain O Salish Kendra there’ve been around 2700 people who have been killed in this so called crossfire or gunfight since 2004 and that’s when the Rapid Action Battalion was formed. Now, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has given the RAB a mandate to crackdown on drugs, and they’ve called, she’s gone so far as to call drug peddlers a menace to society, but now with the killing of Major Sinha there’s been this increased scrutiny and especially because the victim is a former bodyguard of the Prime Minister herself. So she’s actually told Rashed’s mother that a proper probe would be carried out. So this story has crossborder resonance with Sri Lanka where former President Maithripala Sirisena pushed for the death penalty for drug traffickers and the current President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has also appointed a military led task force and their primary mandate is actually to liberate society from the drug menace. So since this task force has been formed and indeed since Gotabaya has been appointed President, there’ve been these reports of drugs and firearms being seized along with reports of increased crackdowns, but there’s also been these reports of apprehending a number of really unusual accomplices so most recently there was a cat who was found smuggling 2 grams of heroin, 2 SIM cards and a memory chip into Welikada prison and the cat was detained in early August, and interestingly this cat then made a break for freedom, and was then subsequently found again on the prison premises and this story made headlines, around the world. There was also actually an eagle who was suspected to be used by underworld Kingpin Angoda Lokka for his drug trafficking ring and this eagle was also seized by the police at the end of July actually and it was found on a poultry farm in Meegoda and two suspects who were involved in this ring were arrested. Now Angoda Lokka has actually been in the news recently as well, he goes by two other aliases which is Pradeep Singh and Maddumage Lasantha Chandana Perera. He was recently found dead in India seemingly due to a heart attack but he was wanted in connection with several crimes in Sri Lanka including murder, illegal sand mining, land reclamation, extortion, drug smuggling, so that’s been an interesting story that we’ve been following.
AA: And I guess that’s a nice transition or segue into the issue of transitional justice in the continent. So August 30th was the International Day of Disappearances, but unfortunately across the region families of the disappeared are still waiting for answers with several stalled or flawed or in some cases nonexistent transitional justice projects. In Sri Lanka it’s quite obvious in hindsight now, that 2015’s political shift was not really consolidated by the kind of accountability or change in political culture that’s necessary for a genuine political transition, so despite pledges by the previous government to implement a meaningful transitional justice project, nothing substantial has actually happened and in Nepal you have victims of the ten year long Mao’s insurgency who are gradually losing hope of getting justice just like in Sri Lanka. 9 years after the comprehensive peace agreement was signed and you know the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Commissioner of Investigation on Enforced Disappeared Persons was formed in 2015, these victims are still waiting for answers. And like in Sri Lanka the Transitional Justice project in Nepal is suspected to be a type of undue international intervention largely because there is a lot of foreign interest and human rights groups have that kind of association in Nepal and you know across the region, but you know if you’re interested in regional transitional justice efforts be sure to catch our piece this week on the transitional justice process in the Maldives as well.
SP: Now a very short quick update on Covid-19, we’ve been seeing cases really pick up particularly in Nepal and India continues to see more and more infections. Very interestingly a lot of countries around the region appear to be using the blood plasma therapy, to try to treat Covid patients, and so you’re seeing this in Pakistan, you know cities around Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Bangladesh, Nepal and it’s not clear if the governments have kind of made it part of their public health effort but clearly organizations, different hospitals and clinics have started doing it, and that’s an interesting trend.
RW: Yeah, and just to end on a bit of a positive note, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment in India has constituted the National Counsel for Transgender Persons which would you know work with states to ensure that transgender welfare boards are set up in all states and that the essential needs of the community like housing, food, healthcare and education are met.
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