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In this episode, we talk about the recent cases of attack on and intimidation of journalists in Southasia, particularly in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Myanmar. In Around Southasia in 5 minutes, we’ll be looking at stories of environmental crises in Sri Lanka and Nepal, a currency-swap deal between Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, and China’s land grab in Bhutan, among other topics. Plus our culture section Bookmarked, where we discuss Southasian archives and a Hindi-language movie about a ‘monkey repeller’.
Raisa Wickrematunge: Hi everyone, and welcome to Southasiasphere, Himal Southasian’s monthly round-up of news events and developing stories across Southasia. I’m Raisa, and I’m joined by my colleagues Shubhanga, Marlon and Shwetha. Hi guys!
Shubhanga Pandey: Hello.
Marlon Ariyasinghe: Hi.
Shwetha Srikanthan: Hi.
RW: So, our big story in this edition is on targeting and intimidation of the Southasian press, especially in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar. In Around Southasia in 5 minutes, we’ll be talking about a currency swap between Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, China’s land grab in Bhutan, and stories of environmental exploitation in Nepal and Sri Lanka.
Let’s begin by talking about recent attacks on the press.
MA: Yes, Raisa. This is quite a worrying trend from the region. We’ve been speaking about this quite a bit among ourselves and we all agree that this is not something new. Nevertheless, it’s alarming how normalised intimidations, arrests, attacks on the press have become. So starting with Rozina Islam from Bangladesh, who works for the daily newspaper Prothom Alo. She was arrested on May 17th when she went to attend a meeting at the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, where the officials held her for more than five hours and accused her of taking pictures of official documents containing sensitive information. While she was being held, she was denied access to a doctor, even though she felt unwell and fainted.
RW: Yeah it’s quite a concerning case, Marlon. And I heard she was released on bail?
MA: Yes, she was granted bail on the 23rd and her hearing is scheduled for 15th of July. Now there has been quite a bit of backlash from within Bangladesh, news outlets have condemned the arrest, and there were widespread protests organised by journalist unions and advocacy groups in Bangladesh.
SP: Yeah, and what I found interesting about this case is also that, in contrast to the arrest of photojournalist Shahidul Alam in 2018, there was much more rapid and extensive mobilisation within the fraternity of journalists, within the country also. Probably, I think, has something to do with the fact that this was a reporter working for a mainstream newspaper. What she was doing was largely seen as a non-political thing, as a story on governance, or bad governance, and it probably helped that mobilising these various journalists’ groups and federations also have some kind of leverage with the government. Much more than an individual journalist or photojournalist would have.
SS: And there was a similar situation recently with the Pakistani journalist Asad Ali Toor, known for his critical coverage of the country’s military on his YouTube channel. He was attacked last week inside his own home by three men who questioned him on his sources of income and ‘funding’.
MA: Yeah, and this was in response to a complaint that he defamed an “institution of Government of Pakistan” on “social media.” This is according to the summons. But it does not specify the social media post in question or the government institution that was defamed. Further, it warns that he could face criminal prosecution if he does not comply.
SP: Yeah, and I think one problem with these attacks is also it’s never exactly clear who is behind these attacks. In the case of Asad Toor, what’s clear is that his journalism was not popular among the Pakistani establishment, especially the military. He has this quite popular YouTube channel where he posts stories and blogs, and recently did a story about this questionable promotion of a bureaucrat who also happens to be the brother of the ISI chief. So, that, many people assume, is what got him into trouble.
Of course, there have been other worrying developments, including one prominent TV journalist, Hamid Mir, losing his primetime TV spot. Hamid Mir is quite prominent, he in the past has actually been shot at also, and came back to journalism. Now he has been taken off his show by his employers Geo Jang Group for making a speech during a rally that was in support of Asad Toor. And the reason they give for taking this decision is that he made some unseemly remarks during the speech. During one part of the speech he talks about how journalists have this embarrassing information about the private lives of the generals in Pakistan. He doesn’t mention them, but that’s clearly implied, and the fact that if they can come into our homes and go after us and assault us, then we also have the ability to make public certain embarrassing information. So that seems to be what the employer found problematic and therefore took him off the show.
And I think there’s been some more recent troubling events also, right?
RW: Yeah, so more recently, along the same lines, another journalist and anchor, Asma Shirazi, who’s also been subject to attacks in the past, and the organisation she is affiliated with, Freedom Network was attacked by a so called “investigative journalist”, for being an Indian operation, based on a misleading reading of public domain information about Freedom Network’s website. This case is particularly troubling because it was someone who – the person who exposed this identifies himself as a journalist, and uses and even co-opts the language of investigative journalism, but does so disingenuously. Because apparently this ‘investigative journalist’ didn’t realise, or didn’t know, that website hosting companies have servers in different countries around the world.
SS: And over in Myanmar, on 24th of May, Frontier Myanmar’s managing editor Danny Fenster, was detained at Yangon International Airport while he was waiting to board a flight to Kuala Lumpur. In a statement by Frontier Myanmar, they stated they have not been able to confirm with the authorities why he has been detained or what charges he is facing.
And according to the AAPPB’s latest update from 21st May, almost 88 journalists have been arrested since the February 1st coup.
RW: Yeah, that’s quite a worrying statistic. And interestingly, whilst the news of Danny Fenster’s detention broke, there was also a news story of a former Frontier Myanmar journalist Mratt Kyaw Thu, who fled the country and he was stranded at the Frankfurt airport after trying to seek asylum in Germany. He was eventually redirected to Spain because of an EU law – because he had a Schengen visa there, even though he already had two job offers in Germany. And that incident has also led to some discussion about how EU procedures relating to politically persecuted individuals should allow or recognise existing support networks.
SP: Again, like Marlon mentioned at the beginning – these are not surprising new developments, you know a continuation of a trend we’ve been seeing for some years now. What might be worth noting is the incredible ease with which critical journalists can be attacked like this, and not just by governments but also by other private actors, including fellow journalists or so-called journalists and others in the larger public sphere or civil society – and often with so little engagement with the substance of their work. And also I think really worrying is the frequency with which these conspiratorial accusations of being an Indian agent or Pakistani agent, or increasingly maybe, now Chinese agent or American agent – I think these things will unfortunately become a bit more common now.
Shall we move on to our next segment, Around Southasia in 5 minutes?
RW: Sure. So on June 2nd, the Singapore-flagged vessel XPress Pearl sank off the coast of Sri Lanka, raising concerns of an oil spill, after an attempt to tow it out into deeper waters failed. Now, the chairman of Master Divers, which is a specialist in towing operations, has already said that the ship sinking was entirely due to government negligence, adding that they had not been consulted and that the ship could have actually been salvaged. Now, the crew discovered an acid leak, which was possibly due to poor packaging, while they were still out in the Arabian sea, and this happened as far back as three weeks before the fire broke out. But unfortunately, both India and Qatar said they had no manpower or equipment, or the expertise to safely unload and handle this leaking container. Meanwhile, it’s been revealed in court that the local agent for the XPress deleted an email from the ship’s captain about the leak and asked Colombo Harbour to admit the ship as it was in a ‘dangerous and unsafe condition’. [Note: Following the recording of this podcast, the ship’s agent has since denied that any emails were deleted and added that all records have been handed over to the CID.]
Our former editor, Aunohita Mojumdar, raised the question of what international laws govern a disaster at sea. As far as we can tell, there’s several laws that can apply, which include the UN Convention on the law of the sea, the 1973 International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from ships or MARPOL, The International Maritime Dangerous Goods (IMDG) Code which governs the coverage of dangerous goods in packaged form, and there’s a host of other laws and conventions for oil spills specifically. Now, in the event that there’s a collision or another incident of navigation, it is usually the country whose flag the ship is bearing or else the country that the captain is from which bears legal responsibility. In general, it’s the polluter who pays. But it also appears that if the ship is out in international waters, then maritime law applies, unless the ship is close to a particular territory or state. So the State Minister on this subject, Kanchana Wijesekara actually noted on a Twitter Space that while maritime law states that ports do have to render assistance when there is a disaster unfolding, in situations where they have no expertise or they are unable to render assistance – which appears to have been the case here – then it’s more of a gray area.
Now the impact of the ship sinking has already been termed an environmental disaster for Sri Lanka with wide-ranging impacts that may last for years to come. So, around 5600 fishing boats have been affected because fishing has been suspended along an 80 kilometre stretch, and tonnes of plastic nurdles, which are little plastic pellets used in creating other plastic items, have been washing up on Sri Lanka’s beaches, raising concerns that marine species will ingest them. People have also been asked not to handle the nurdles, as they may be covered in chemicals. So we do know the ship was carrying nitric acid and a host of other chemicals, as well as cosmetics.
SP: So, environmental news have also made headlines in Nepal this past week, after the recently announced government budget basically lifted the ban on extraction of gravel, sand, stone and other aggregates from the country. Now the argument was that this was part of an effort to reduce Nepal’s growing trade deficit, and the intended kind of buyer is companies in India, for example. But this has raised a lot of questions about the kind of environmental damage this kind of extraction can do, and has already done, particularly in this hill range that runs from east to west called the Chure hill range. And over the past decade, decade and a half, there’s been a lot of reporting on it – on how unregulated extraction of these aggregates, partly because of growing infrastructure projects and construction projects within the country, but also because there’s a lot of demand for these things across the border in the south in India. So there’s been a wide public outcry against this, because this seems like a terrible way to manage an economic problem. And the media and civil society, a lot of environmentalists and I think the general public has been quite critical of this new measure. But it remains to be seen how exactly the government will respond to this in the coming days.
MA: Over in Bhutan, an article published in the magazine Foreign Policy in early May states that China has built an entire town, with roads, a power plant, a communications base, military and police outposts and a warehouse, almost 8 kilometres into the territory of Bhutan. Now China and Bhutan share a border that extends to more than 477 kilometers.
SS: And over in Bangladesh, Bangladesh’s central bank has in principle approved a $200 million currency swap agreement with Sri Lanka, to help the country tide over its foreign exchange crisis and looming debt repayment schedule.
Now this is a significant move because this is the first time that Bangladesh is extending financial assistance to another country. And Bangladesh has outpaced both India and Pakistan in terms of GDP per capita, with Bangladesh’s economy is expected to grow by 6.8 percent in 2021.
And now it’s time for our Culture section, Bookmarked
SP: So there has been a lot of discussion in the Indian press and social media last few weeks about the fate of India’s National Archives, based in New Delhi, after it became clear that part of the structure that hold some of these archival records were to be demolished as part of the ongoing Central Vista project. Now the Central Vista project is this massive redevelopment project in India’s central administrative area. And so it seemed as if an annex would come down and it held national archival records. So many scholars and researchers, especially historians have been quite concerned about this, and especially because there isn’t a lot of clarity about what happens to the records and about the relocation plans.
Now it seems the actual structure that exists right now will not be demolished because it is a heritage building, but the records will be moved. And the worry is about how this relocation of the massive amount of records will take place, and if this will also entail a shift in accessibility of records in the future, that’s one of the big concerns also. It’s important to also remember that, with all the caveats about state archives and their limits, these are also important records of not just the Indian nation state but also, because of the nature of the colonial government, records of large parts of Southasia.
And similarly, an interesting thing we came across, speaking of archives is this visual documentation of Nepal’s queer movement We are Queer visual archive project. We’ll also put a link to that on our website.
SS: And it’s interesting that you bring up archives, because this week, starting on 7th June marks the beginning of international archives week, and it’s also been 40 years since the burning of the Jaffna library on May 31st 1981. This was one of the largest in Asia – when 95,000 volumes, some of which were rare and centuries old, were destroyed. So my recommendation this month is an article from our own archives: Sundar Ganesan’s essay from 2014, on the fall and resurrection of the Jaffna Library. In this essay he essentially notes that while it’s important to recover all that was lost, there is still much work to be done in restoring and rebuilding the Jaffna Public Library.
RW: Interesting. So, I ended up watching this 2019 movie Eeb Allay Ooo! which is centred around the story of a migrant worker Anjani whose job is to shoo away monkeys in Lutyens’ Delhi. So the movie I found, which was on Netflix, was full of social satire and commentary about the nature of contract labour, and it made several very subtle statements on class and about the imbalance of power between supervisors and employees, which was then kind of passed down the chain of employment, and it kind of highlighted the invisible work of migrant workers.
MA: I watched it over the weekend too. And to be quite honest it was quite traumatic, at least to me. It brought up a lot of repressed memories. I don’t know about you guys but I’ve had some close encounters with monkeys, they are ferocious. And one of my friends used to say – he had this really nice statement about monkeys – he called them, monkeys are the cockroaches of the mammalian world.
Getting back to the movie, I agree with what you said, Raisa. Class is definitely at the core of the movie, and I liked the movie and felt it brought up a lot of pertinent issues, but it felt like something was missing. Apart from Anjani, the other characters, I felt, were not fully developed. Like the characters of the sister and the character of the brother-in-law, and Kumudh, Anjani’s love interest, their struggles were introduced but not developed further. Sometimes they even felt like props who were there to kind of amplify Anjani’s character. The acting I found to be superb though.
RW: Yeah, I agree. When you said that, I agree that there are some characters who could have been fleshed out a little more. I think though, one of my favourite kind of – maybe favourite isn’t the right word, but the scene that to me, captured a lot of what the themes in the movie was this party that Anjani and his friend Mahinder were invited to and they had to chase away monkeys from there, even though there were no monkeys, and it’s this performance that even they themselves know it’s absurd but they enthusiastically carry out their job because they know that they’re going to get paid at the end, and that highlighted a lot of the tensions and the core message of the movie for me.
What were you guys’ favourite scenes?
SS: The most interesting scenes for me would be the one where Anjani is trapped by his fellow workers in a cage meant for monkeys, and they’re mocking him, which I thought was a neat metaphor on exploitation of the labour, where these humans are holding this other human captive. And it’s almost dehumanising, which is something we saw with the recent migrant crisis for example.
MA: I liked the scene with the brother-in-law, who works as a security guard, how he brings home this newly assigned gun after his night shift and it’s quite absurd because it’s early morning and he’s trying to hide this heavy and long gun from people and kids. And there’s one point where he’s in front of the train tracks and he’s trying to manage his gun, his bike and his scarf, for like two minutes. So I felt that was kind of an absurdist scene that captures, the overall absurdism and satire of the movie.
But what do you guys think about the ending? It felt a little abrupt, right?
RW: Yeah, I guess it was a bit sudden. It was also quite surreal, you know, it suddenly cut to this very surreal scene. But it also reminded me that it was touching on Anjani’s need to escape, like escapism and also highlighting that he had some skills that weren’t appreciated in the job that he was currently in. He had this kind of creative, performative spirit which is captured in that final scene.
MA: And dancing, clearly.
RW: Exactly, and these are things that would have been appreciated if he were kind of not a contract labourer or migrant worker, but it was him escaping but also I felt showcasing his skills. So, I liked it, but it was quite abrupt and a bit surreal.
MA: I agree completely, his creativity, all these different approaches to chasing away the monkeys which I think is quite under appreciated in his job.
By the way, just out of curiosity – did you guys try out the sounds?
RW: I don’t think I could replicate that, like Mahinder’s tone. I was quite impressed by the way..
MA: Yeah, that was pretty nice. And I think we should spare our listeners, you guys can check it out on Youtube. But it’s fascinating, right? I think next time I encounter a monkey I’m going to try it out and see if it works.
RW: And on that note, that’s it for this edition of Southasiasphere. Do head to our website himalmag.com to see the cartoons illustrating this episode by Gihan de Chickera, and while you’re at it, check out our membership plans and support our work!
Thanks everyone. Bye!