Khan is accused of receiving PKR 58 million for the sale of gifts from the state treasury. Pakistan’s election commission released the Toshakhana records which show expensive gifts retained not just by Khan but also former prime ministers. Cartoon by Gihan de Chickera.
Khan is accused of receiving PKR 58 million for the sale of gifts from the state treasury. Pakistan’s election commission released the Toshakhana records which show expensive gifts retained not just by Khan but also former prime ministers. Cartoon by Gihan de Chickera.

Imran Khan’s attempted arrest, UN appeal for Afghanistan aid, a graphic novel on Naga repatriation and more

March - Updates and analysis from around the region

Southasiasphere is our roundup of news events and analysis of regional affairs, now out every two weeks. 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 get it for free by signing up here.

In this episode, we talk about the attempted arrest of Pakistan's former prime minister Imran Khan and details of the case against him, involving state gifts. We also discuss a fresh UN High Commissioner for Refugees funding call for Afghanistan, where the dire humanitarian situation means 20 million people – almost half the population – are experiencing food insecurity.

In "Around Southasia in 5 minutes", we discuss the spread of adenovirus in West Bengal, protests around toxic smoke at the Brahmapuram waste dump in Kochi, Nepal's new president, trade union action in Sri Lanka opposing the IMF's conditions for a bailout loan, a new Human Rights Watch report on political prisoners in Bhutan, and news of Zangkar Jamyang, a Tibetan writer and language rights activist, who disappeared in 2020 and has resurfaced in a Sichuan prison.

For "Bookmarked", we'll be discussing A path home, a graphic novel about Naga repatriation.

Episode notes:

The podcast episode is now available on SoundcloudSpotify, Apple Podcasts and Youtube


This is a machine-generated, unedited transcript of the episode and may contain inaccuracies. For exactness, please refer to the recording. 

This episode was recorded on the 20th of March 2023.

Raisa Wickrematunge: Hi everyone and welcome to Southasiasphere, our fortnightly roundup of news events and regional affairs. I'm Raisa and I'm joined by my colleague, fact checker and researcher, Saheli. Hi Saheli!

Saheli Wikramanayake: Hi Raisa!

RW: So in this episode we're going to have a couple of big stories. One of them is about the rapidly unfolding story about the arrest warrant for Imran Khan and the case behind that. We're also going to be talking about the continued humanitarian situation in Afghanistan and a new UNHRC funding call. For Around Southasia in Five Minutes, we'll be talking about escalating cases of the Adenovirus in West Bengal, toxic smoke and a fire in Brahmapuram in Kocchi and the protests around it, a new president for Nepal, and we'll be looking at island wide trade union strikes in Sri Lanka, as well as a new Human Rights Watch report from Bhutan, and recent news about a Tibetan writer who disappeared in 2020 and has recently been found. For Bookmarked, we'll be also talking about a graphic novel about the repatriation of Naga artefacts.

We'll kick off with talking about what's happening in Pakistan.

[Audio from news clips on Pakistan]

RW: So on March 13th, a Sessions Court in Islamabad issued an arrest warrant against the former prime minister Imran Khan for failing to attend court hearings. The next day there were clashes outside his house in Lahore between police who were trying to arrest Khan and PTI supporters, with tear gas and water cannons being fired. By March 15th police were ordered to stand down because apparently there was an important cricket match and, as you know, you can't interrupt the cricket. But on a serious note, they wanted to maintain peace during that time. The latest news is that the arrest warrant was suspended and Khan was granted protective bail in several other cases.

Now the wider context here according to Khan is that this is an attempt to distract from upcoming provincial council elections which are slated to be held in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab, which the ruling Pakistan Democracy Movement Coalition seems to be opposed to holding on time. Somewhat similar to in Sri Lanka where the UNP is also attempting to delay local government elections.

Now this is part of a broader political crisis in Pakistan that began after Khan was removed from the prime minister post after a vote of no confidence. The recent standoff outside his house is only the latest in a series of attempts to arrest Khan. He faces charges in at least 37 cases on issues like sedition, corruption and terrorism. The latest case is known as the Toshakhana case. Toshakhana is a government department where presents handed to government officials from foreign officials are kept. Khan is accused of earning PKR 36 million from selling three watches gifted to him. Dawn reports that in total, he received about PKR 58 million, for the sale of gifts from the state treasury. This came out because Pakistan's election commission released the Toshakhana records which show records of expensive gifts, retained not just by Khan but also former prime ministers, Shaukat Aziz, Nawaz Sharif, Yousaf Raza Gillani, Raja Pervaiz Ashraf and former president Pervez Musharraf. So it's important to note that this whole political spectacle is also revealing the corruption that's embedded in Pakistan's politics.

The impacts of the Afghan crisis are deeply gendered – cutting aid will exacerbate the impact on women. Cartoon by Gihan de Chickera.
The impacts of the Afghan crisis are deeply gendered – cutting aid will exacerbate the impact on women. Cartoon by Gihan de Chickera.

SW: Our next big story is on the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Afghanistan. So on March 17th the UN Security Council decided to extend the Afghanistan mission for another year and asked for recommendations on the best way for the international community to continue work in Afghanistan. On March 15th the UN High Commissioner for Refugees launched a new appeal for humanitarian aid for Afghan refugees and hosts. The UNHCR estimates that there are currently 8.2 million Afghan refugees in neighbouring countries and Pakistan alone is estimated to hold 1.3 million of them. So the UNHCR is seeking 630 million US dollars to support the refugees, 70% of whom are women and children. But the agency noted that in 2022 the similar funding appeal for Afghanistan was only 52% funded. Meanwhile on March 9th the UN Secretary-General Special Representative for Afghanistan, Roza Otunbayeva, said that two-thirds of the Afghan population or 28 million people will need humanitarian assistance this year, and she called Afghanistan the largest humanitarian crisis globally. So the UN launched another appeal, separate from the UNHCR appeal, of 4.6 billion US dollars, the single largest country appeal ever, to help the Afghan population. And in her address to the United Nations Security Council, Otunbayeva said that the Afghan ban on women working in NGOs and a possible ban on national women staff working in the UN is making their work difficult, especially to access particularly remote parts of Afghanistan. According to a report by Crisis Group, the Taliban restrictions on women's rights are turning international donors away from Afghanistan. But the impacts of the Afghan crisis are already deeply gendered. So while backlash from donors is of course understandable, cutting aid will just exacerbate the impact on women. And as the Crisis Group report notes, donor priorities are sort of shifting towards other crises happening globally. So essentially Taliban policies are making it very hard for the international community to get much needed aid to the Afghan people. And as global attention shifts towards the crises in say Ukraine, Turkey and Syria, it's likely that the amount of aid in the first place will decrease further.

RW: And now for our next segment, Around Southasia in Five Minutes.

SW: In West Bengal, India, the Guardian reported that 19 children have died and thousands have been hospitalised from an outbreak of adenovirus. 12,000 cases have been recorded since January. Local media reports suggest that the death toll may actually be closer to 100, and the Association of Health Service Doctors warned that the number of cases and deaths might be higher than the official statistics. According to the Guardian, doctors in West Bengal say that one reason for this new outbreak is that children were unable to build immunity to common infections during COVID-19 lockdowns, and that hospitals in the state don't have adequate paediatric intensive care units to accommodate for sick children.

[Audio from news clips on the Brahmapuram Waste Plant Fire]

RW: On March 2nd, 25 foothills of garbage at the Brahmapuram Waste Plant in Kochi caught fire, blanketing the area with toxic smoke. It took 11 days and 205 fighters to put out the fire, but the smoke continued with protests erupting due to the poor air quality and as many as 800 people seeking medical aid. The opposition youth congress is alleging corruption over the contract granted to the company, Zonta InfraTech, for waste treatment, with the Mayor of Kozhikode delaying making a statement on the issue. This highlights the risk involved in tackling waste treatment safely, especially given that people living nearby are being impacted.

SW: In Nepal, Ram Chandra Poudel was sworn in as president on 9th March. The role of president is largely ceremonial, but the significance of his appointment is its impact on the ruling coalition. Poudel is a senior leader in the Nepali Congress party, and as we discussed in the last episode, Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal's choice to back him over the CPN-UML candidate led to the end of the coalition, between Dahal's Communist Party of Nepal and the CPN-UML. So now Dahal is facing a no-confidence motion today on 20th March. He is likely to have a majority with the Nepali Congress, the Rastirya Swatantra Party, the CPN-US and the Loktantrik Samajwadi Party announcing that they will support him. Dahal is also facing a court case relating to two red petitions filed at the Supreme Court seeking a criminal investigation against him over insurgency era atrocities.

[Audio from news clips on the Sri Lanka trade union strikes]

RW: In Sri Lanka, on 15th March, there was an island-wide trade union strike to protest a sharp increase in income taxes, as part of measures taken to qualify for a $2.9 billion US dollar package from the International Monetary Fund. Around 40 unions said that they would participate in the strike. While the Presidential Media Department said that 20 trains had been deployed and buses were largely in operation on that day, there was less traffic on the roads. Schools cancelled term tests and the outpatient departments at hospitals remained closed, while other unions like the air traffic controllers and some dock workers launched work to rule campaigns. The strike was called off after the government promised to take the demands of the unions into consideration. The trade union action happened despite Ranil Wickremesinghe naming certain key services essential, which is long a tactic used to try and prevent strikes. Meanwhile, a protest launched by the Inter-Union Students Federation and University students on March 7th was met with tear gas and water cannons from police when protesters approached Colombo University. Police also entered the university premises and continued to attack students when they fled inside the university campus, while passing school children were also impacted by tear gas.

SW: In Bhutan, Human Rights Watch released a new report on 37 political prisoners, including political activists, anti-discrimination campaigners and others imprisoned after unfair trials for national security offences. The total number of political prisoners in Bhutan is unknown, and according to the report, most of the 37 prisoners that were profiled are being held away from other prisoners in poor conditions and are denied regular contact with their families. Many are facing physical and mental health issues, and several alleged that authorities tortured them to extract confessions. 34 of the prisoners belonged to the Nepali speaking community, the Lhotshampas, which has faced decades of discrimination and abuse from the government. 15 of these prisoners were arrested for protesting abuses against their community. Civil society activists say that no human rights organisations operate in Bhutan, and that the media avoids reporting on political prisoners.

RW: In Tibet, Zangkar Jamyang, a Tibetan writer who disappeared in 2020, has been confirmed to be serving four years in Menyang Prison, Sichuan Province, after being arrested by Chinese police. Jamyang was charged with spreading rumours in chat groups and inciting separatist acts. His family initially didn't know that he had been arrested, and they have not been allowed to see him. Jamyang had grown increasingly vocal about the importance of teaching the Tibetan language in schools, criticising the Chinese government policy. Police had interrogated the writer many times and searched his laptop and mobile phones before he was arrested, sources said. We did publish an essay on the predicament and precarity of Tibetan intellectuals in China, so do check that out in the episode notes.

RW: And now for our next segment, bookmarked. Saheli, do you have any recommendations?

SW: Yep, I do. So for this episode, I'm recommending A Path Home, which is a graphic novel on Naga Repatriation by Arkotong Longkumer and illustrated by Meren Imchen. It was published by Recover, Restore and Decolonize, an organisation formed in 2021 to facilitate and engage with issues around the repatriation of Naga ancestral human remains to the Naga homeland. So the author of the graphic novel describes it as an ethnographic fiction, which means that while the characters and the setting are fictional, the story is drawn heavily from interactions and conversations with people and from historical events. And it sort of centres around conversations about repatriation of ancestral human remains from the Pitt Rivers Museum at the University of Oxford. The novel delves into complex conversations about colonisation and decolonisation and sort of the role that repatriation can play. I found it quite interesting to read this week, given British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's comments last week about the British Museum and how the UK has no intention of returning the Parthenon Marbles and other items held in the museum. So I really liked how the novel sort of simplified these complex conversations that tend to surround repatriation and decolonisation and kind of highlighted why it can be so significant for a community. I feel like these conversations can tend to be quite academic and a bit removed from the communities that are impacted, so it was nice that it was quite simple and also, you know, the format of a graphic novel I found quite interesting.

RW: Yeah, I really liked it too. And as I was reading it, I was actually remembering a piece that we published in 2021, which looks at the repatriation of mostly Naga artefacts written by a researcher from the northeast, Deepak Naorem. And he kind of recounts how he finds this really rare manuscript in the British Library and he's really excited to examine, it and how the museum officials just come in and kind of snatch it away from him when he tries to photograph it, and tell him that he's not allowed to take photos. And he kind of was reflecting on that and like who has the right to learn about and view these kinds of artefacts and this human remains, given that they are being housed outside of their home countries and like whether they actually acknowledge where these pieces are from and how they end up in these museums. So I really was thinking a lot about that piece when I was reading this. It's definitely a really important issue and something that has, you know, been more in the news of late. I did really like the way that they had weaved local folklore into the story and kind of written it from their point of view. And also like kind of brought in the kind of complex discussions that come up even within communities about the process of repatriation, how it's going to be received, how the artefacts will be preserved. There were some lesser touched on aspects which I thought were interesting. I did think the part about the museum where the people involved in that project were talking with Naga researchers, I found that part a bit funny. I mean, obviously it's great, it's great that they are open to repatriation. But I did feel there was almost a bit of a PR spin from them there where they were trying to show how great they were for doing this. I would have liked more focus on the Naga community since that was a central story. But yeah, I mean, I thought the illustrations were beautiful and I thought it tells a really interesting and important story. But yes, if you do want to read the piece that we published in 2021, do check that out in the episode notes as well.

SW: And A Path Home is also available online. So look out for that in the episode notes.

RW: On that note, that's it for this edition of Southasiasphere. Thanks everyone. Bye!

SW: Bye!


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