Cartoon by Gihan de Chickera
Cartoon by Gihan de Chickera

CNN in Myanmar, environmental crises, and Tibetan cinema

Southasiasphere podcast episode 06: Updates and analysis from around the region.

Southasiasphere is our monthly podcast roundup of news events and analysis of regional affairs. If you are a member, you will automatically receive links to the new episodes in your inbox. If you are not yet a member, you can still get it for free by signing up here.

In this episode, we talk about state and civil society response to escalating violence in Myanmar and environmental issues in Nepal and Sri Lanka, plus two new segments: Around Southasia in 5 minutes, and our culture section Bookmarked.


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!

Marlon Ariyasinghe: Hi

Shubhanga Pandey: Hi

Shwetha Srikanthan: Hi

RW: So our big stories in this edition include the state and civil society response to escalating violence in Myanmar and environmental issues in Nepal and Sri Lanka. We'll also be doing a quick roundup of other news stories we're following around Southasia, as well as our new culture section, Bookmarked. Thanks to all those who participated in our polls on Twitter and Instagram and helped us to pick the name!

So let's start off with the situation in Myanmar.

SP: Thanks, Raisa. So, we're now in the third month of the coup in Myanmar and the last couple of weeks have been particularly violent. The number of civilians killed by the Army has now crossed 550. And, on March 27, which happened to be the Armed Forces Day, over 110 were killed on a single day.

Perhaps the most shocking casualty figure throughout this has been the number of the children killed, which is now close to 50.

In another important news, Aung San Suu Kyi has now been charged with sharing state secrets, it's the fifth and most serious charge leveled against her, and it actually carries a sentence of up to 14 years. So the law that's been used against her has been often criticised by rights activists for being very broad and vague. But for Suu Kyi, who is 75, a sentence of 14 years would basically mean the end of her political career.

But there have also been some interesting developments on the international coverage of Myanmar. Raisa, do you want to talk about it?

RW: Yeah, so meanwhile, CNN was flown into Yangon under supervision by the military, to cover the unfolding events. CNN argued that they felt it was important to be there, but 11 people were actually detained after being interviewed by them in an open market. While CNN said that 8 of these people had been released, the question is why did they have to be there in the first place, because there's been plenty of coverage from journalists and activists on the ground. In fact, even we were able to interview the director of HURFOM in Mon state, which you can read now on our website. So the CNN report did go live this week and there was actually nothing particularly new or even groundbreaking in that report. So this tour has actually ended up reviving conversations about this concept of parachuting journalists and the danger that international journalists can sometimes put locals in when they are speaking to them.

SP:  Yes, I think your point about the report being unremarkable is quite important. From listening to their correspondent Clarissa Ward, and just the way they framed the whole thing, it seems like making claims about being 'first international journalist' or 'the first media organisation' to arrive in Myanmar was the main thing CNN was concerned about, which is also, like you said, completely untrue. There are lots of Myanmar nationals and non-nationals who have been reporting for international outlets, and it seems like they have this strange idea about who counts as an international reporter and who doesn't. And what is the point of being somewhere in the first place if, like you said, there is nothing fresh or new about the reporting – except the fact that they ended up becoming the news.

RW: Exactly Shubhanga. But apart from the CNN report, I heard there have also been protests against the events in Myanmar across the region?

SP: Yeah, so around the region we're also seeing activists, but in some cases also political figures who've spoken out against what's happening in Myanmar. In Nepal for example, earlier in March, a group protested outside the Myanmar embassy. In fact, several groups, civil society, people concerned with  human rights and democracy, have been coming out with statements, including one which asked the Nepal government to stand up. Also some MPs in the Nepal Parliament from the opposition party actually spoke out against the coup.

MA: So did you guys hear that in early March, Sri Lanka started trending in Myanmar?

SS: Yeah, is this the 'protest Sri Lanka' hashtag that was trending on Facebook and Twitter?

MA: Yeah, this hashtag was in response to a letter that was leaked online from the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry who had invited the Myanmar Junta's Foreign Minister to a meeting of the regional body BIMSTEC which is the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation. Later, the Foreign ministry clarified the act by saying that they invited Myanmar because they were part of the body and that the invitation does not mean an endorsement. And they went on further to state that Sri Lanka is yet to take a position on the Myanmar coup.

SS: Meanwhile, nearly 40 Sri Lankan activists staged a demonstration outside the Myanmar Embassy in Colombo, in solidarity with Myanmar's protesting civilians.

SP: Yeah, and they were also asking why the government of Sri Lanka has remained silent on the issue.

MA: Yeah and looking a bit more at the response from the region and elsewhere – now on March 27, the Armed Forces Day parade was held in Myanmar and eight countries including Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand – they sent representatives for this parade.

RW: Right, and during the United Nations Security Council consultations on March 31st, China's ambassador stated that China rejects sanctions against Myanmar and calls for a democratic transition.

SS: And with the violence in Myanmar forcing hundreds of refugees over the border into India, last week India's Home Ministry told four bordering states (Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Mizoram) to take measures to prevent refugees from entering India except on humanitarian grounds.

Mizoram's Chief Minister Zoramthanga wrote to Prime Minister Modi and said "India cannot turn a blind eye" to the humanitarian crisis unfolding in his state and the people of his state, who share ethnic ties with the refugees from Myanmar, can't remain indifferent.

Meanwhile, the Manipur government has withdrawn the letter issued last week directing officials and civil society organisations to not open camps for food and shelter.

And from the Maldives, in a statement released on 4 March, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs joined the international community in condemning the military coup and has expressed concern over the growing number of lives lost, also urged the Military to accept the vote of the people and to relinquish the power to the elected National Assembly.

Cartoon by Gihan de Chickera
Cartoon by Gihan de Chickera

MA: Thanks Shwetha. Moving on to our next story, in Nepal, forest fires are making the news. Raisa, what's the latest on that?

RW: Yes Marlon. So Nepal is currently feeling the effects of continuous forest fires since around November last year, actually. So on 26 March, the Air Quality Index, which measures the concentration of harmful particles below 2.5 microns,  rose to 632 in Kathmandu and stayed above 400 over the weekend. That's 10 times higher than what the WHO deems safe to breathe.

SP: Yeah, and some have also pointed out that the ongoing political crisis in Kathmandu has meant that these enduring environmental issues have been ignored, until it was impossible to in this case. So the Ministry of Health issued a warning about air pollution levels but it's been left to citizens to really take care of their own health.

MA: I heard the smoke is even beginning to reach Bhutan.

RW: That's right, and it's even gone up into Tibet as well. But while these forest fires have received some media attention, because of the smoke, there's also an important conversation about how vehicular emissions and industrial pollution and even open garbage burning are contributing much more to the poor air quality in Nepal.

SP: Right, but what I feel is missing in a lot of these conversations is the fact that stories or debates on the environment are still anodyne and don't get channelled into actual politics. And I think we saw some interesting examples in Sri Lanka of what politicised environmental activism might look like. So, in one recent case, a large mural installed by a coalition of environmental groups was taken down by the municipal corporation in Colombo, even though the groups took the necessary permission in advance. So the mural was speaking out against environmental destruction in Sri Lanka, and this government action to essentially deny public space and speech on this matter sparked a lot of public debate.

RW: Yes, and there have been other incidents recently as well. For example, the argument between Gampaha District forest officer Devani Jayathilake and Minister Nimal Lanza about the Negombo lagoon development project, and specifically the continued dumping of soil in the vicinity, which would really damage the mangroves – as Devani points out, they're this ecological site that really needs to be protected.

MA: Yeah Raisa, and just like Devani, there was the 17-year-old Bhagya Abeyratne, who raised concerns about deforestation in the Sinharaja rainforest on a TV program. What followed was a calculated campaign against her in social media to discredit her claims. There were others who criticised the programme saying that it was scripted. This subsequently led to Bhagya being interrogated by police and environmental officers.

RW: Right, and after these incidents, the state now seems bent on seeing environmental activism as a threat. So they recently said they would recruit 323 environmental officers to monitor 'accurate and false information' about environmental incidents on social media – which is concerning to say the least.

Cartoon by Gihan de Chickera
Cartoon by Gihan de Chickera

Around Southasia in 5 minutes

SS: Moving on to our next segment called around Southasia in 5 minutes, I'll start with an update on Bangladesh. Modi's arrival in Dhaka for the 50th anniversary of independence in Bangladesh set off violent protests with more than a dozen people injured and 13 protesters have been killed. Members of an Islamist hardliner group attacked temples and a train in eastern Bangladesh, accusing Modi of discriminating against Muslims in India.

On another note, we've also put out a call for submissions for non-fiction writing from Bangladesh – do head to our website for more details on this.

SP: Meanwhile, regarding Sri Lanka – The United Nations Human Rights Council has adopted a resolution on Sri Lanka, which was opposed by the government. So what does it mean for the country? Well, right now it basically gives a mandate to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to start collecting evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by either side during the civil war. So the immediate thing will likely happen is that some funds will be set aside to create such an office.

RW: Yeah, and it seems political and constitutional crises are now a trend in the region. Now it's Tibet's turn, with the Chief Justice and two Justice Commissioners of the Tibetan Supreme Justice Commission abdicating their posts after being dismissed by the Tibetan Parliament in exile on charges of abuse of power.

Key to this crisis is Article 40 of the exile Tibetan Charter, which requires that the House of Parliament meet around every 6 months. This was violated last September, when the House cancelled sessions due to COVID-19. Now the justices ruled that this was actually unconstitutional despite the situation and they revoked voting rights for 11 members, resulting in them being unable to vote in the preliminary round of elections in January 2021.

And now there's a new article in this charter being talked about, which is Article 54, which restricts Parliament from removing the Chief Justice and other two Justices without a report from a probe committee. This crisis has essentially pitted Tibet's Parliament in exile against its judiciary, and it's not unlike what happened in Nepal in the past few months and in Sri Lanka in 2018.

MA: Moving on to Pakistan, a shipment of 50,000 doses of the Sputnik vaccine were being held in storage because the drug regulatory body and the government decided on a price, which the importer refused. Eventually it was released. It's also important to note that Pakistan is one of the first countries in the region to allow private entities to import the vaccine.

SP: In contrast, in the Maldives and Bhutan, successful vaccination campaigns are driving the reopening of tourism now. So the Maldives had around 100,000 tourist arrivals in March – on 27 February, they had administered the first dose of the vaccine to over 100,000 people.


MA: Alright. Now on to our cultural section which we're calling Bookmarked. Now the initial plan was to talk about the 2019 Tibetan film Balloon and we were all supposed to watch it, but unfortunately we were working extremely hard on our edits and some of us forgot. But Raisa, who always understands the assignment, has watched it and is here to save the day.

RW: Yeah, it's totally fine – I quite enjoyed the movie actually! So Balloon basically follows this story of a Tibetan family who farms, and it's set in the 1980s, during at the time of China's restrictive one-child policy. And without giving away too much of the plotline, I'd say that it's really a story that talks about this tension between tradition and modernity, and it also explores how faith can kind of bind people together and be a source of support, but also push them apart at times. But what I particularly liked about this movie is, it's also really wryly humorous from the opening shot and it navigates these taboo topics such as contraception, for example. And this movie also has really subtle commentary on gender roles. So for example, I really enjoyed that the female protagonist isn't just the silent and submissive character. She's portrayed as someone torn between doing what's right and following her faith. But having said that, there were parts of the movie that I wasn't such a fan of – they had these sudden flights into magic realism, if you will. Those scenes were really beautifully shot. According to the director,  Pema Tseden, he said that those scenes are linked with elements of Tibetan culture, and they are really beautiful and you can kind of see what they are hinting at. It's talking about the nature of youth, about loss, grief and death. But I also felt that sometimes, the way it was inserted, it detracted from the narrative of the story. I thought the story itself stood strong enough on its own without necessarily needing those. But yeah, I really enjoyed the movie, apart from that.

SP: Yeah that sounds interesting, and I think we can all go back and watch the movie also.

I've got a book recommendation, this is Amit Chaudhuri's Finding the Raga, which just came out, or is out next week, I think. So Chaudhuri is an essayist and novelist, and pretty well known for doing that, but not many people know he is also an accomplished vocalist in the North Indian Hindostani classical tradition. So the book is really a reflection on music, art and philosophy of music, and also what he calls a "highly personal introduction to Indian music". It sounds really interesting, and good writing on art, especially on music, is kind of rare in Southasia these days. And I'm really excited about this book, because I think Chaudhuri is also a great writer. So that will be interesting to look forward to.

MA: I didn't really read anything from the region per se. I've been reading The Wheel of Time series since the beginning of this year and I just finished the fourth book and it has been quite a traumatic experience so far. I mean the books are great, but the more I read, the more I realise that one of my all time favourite authors – someone I read since I was a child was completely ripping off  The Wheel of Time series. He was imitating the plot, the characters, just about everything. I don't want to mention his name because he died recently, but I do feel deeply betrayed. I think I need therapy to get over this. But that's it from me.

SS: For those who enjoy true crime shows, there's a new limited series on Netflix called The Serpent, based on Charles Sobhraj, a serial murderer in the 1970s, who killed Western travellers on the hippie trail across Southasia and Bangkok. He's currently incarcerated in Nepal. The show does a good job of piecing together this story and recreates the atmosphere of the hippy trail with a great 70s soundtrack. So, if you enjoy true crime shows, do check that out.

RW: That's it for this edition of Southasiasphere. Do head to our website 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!

Everyone: Bye!


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