Escalating conflict in Myanmar, enforced disappearances in Southasia, ‘Witnesses to History’, and more.
In this episode, we focus on some key developments in Myanmar and the history of enforced disappearances across the region. In Around Southasia in 5 minutes, we look at Democracy Day in Tibet, Bangladesh's ban on PubG and other online games, the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan, and the fate of the Millennium Challenge Corporation in Nepal. Plus, in our culture section Bookmarked, we talk about 'Witnesses to History', a new podcast series featuring oral historians, architects, foodies giving insight into archives of Sri Lanka's past, investigative reporter Josy Joseph's new book The Silent Coup, and the recent removal of texts by Mahasweta Devi and two Dalit writers from the Delhi University syllabus.
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.
Shwetha Srikanthan: Hi.
Marlon Ariyasinghe: Hi.
RW: So, our big stories in this edition are significant developments in Myanmar and the history of enforced disappearances and transitional justice across the region. In Around Southasia in 5 minutes, we're talking about Democracy Day in Tibet, Bangladesh's ban on PubG and other games, the fate of the Millennium Challenge Corporation in Nepal and the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan.
Let's begin with the situation in Myanmar.
SP: Thanks Raisa. So there have been some new developments in Myanmar which could significantly impact its political direction in the days ahead. But I wanted to begin by noting that August 25th marked the fourth year of the beginning of the genocidal attacks on Myanmar's Rohingya people by the army.
Now, what was interesting about this date this time around was also the way in which the government in exile, formally called the National Unity Government (NUG), but also the military regime, how they responded to this date. So the NUG came out with a statement saying that they were deeply saddened by the horrendous violence, the human rights violations, all the displacement that Rohingya people suffered four years ago, and they also repeated their more recent commitment to abolishing the discriminatory citizenship law. But the statement avoided using the word genocide, which is not unexpected since part of its current leadership was in charge of the government when the violence occurred.
But the military regime's response to the same date is also remarkable, isn't it?
SS: Yes, it was quite ironic given that on the 24th of August, the military regime filed a legal amendment to criminalise genocide in Myanmar's domestic law, and define it by the recognised international standard. But they haven't stated the reasons behind the amendment, but experts say this could be an attempt by the military to ease international pressure for genocide charges and atrocities against the Rohingya, and also to undermine international legal mechanisms, as the military can now try to argue that genocide can be investigated and prosecuted domestically and international action is therefore not needed.
Now, with the UN expected to decide whether Myanmar is represented in the General Assembly by the military regime or the National Unity Government, two key questions that remain are who will represent Myanmar at the ICJ, and what the implications of this decision will be for a genocide case before the ICJ.
SP: Yeah, and related to this – I recently read a story about the Human Rights Ministry of this government in exile which has started collecting information on the military government's killings and what the NUG terms 'war crimes' since the February coup. And they aim to submit a report to the UN Human Rights Council later this month. So it's likely we will hear more on this subject in the coming days.
RW: Yeah Shubhanga, and I think all these developments also need to be put in context of the political contestation in Myanmar today, especially the escalation of political violence. So, something that's worth pointing out is that the armed wing of the NUG, which is the People's Defense Forces (PDF), has been resisting the military government through sporadic attacks across the country. But just last week the NUG formally declared a war against the military government "to root out military rule". So it appears we're going to see more unrest and even more deaths in the coming days. Although it's not clear if the PDF actually does have the capacity to conduct countrywide war, so it's not clear what the implication of that statement is, but that's been interesting to follow.
MA: So, moving on to our next big story on transitional justice in Southasia. August 30th marked the International Day to Protect Victims of Enforced Disappearances. It was marked across the Southasian region by protests, research and stories highlighting this ongoing issue of enforced disappearances.
RW: Yeah, did any of you guys see the event that was hosted by the Office on Missing Persons?
SP: Not me.
RW: Yeah, this was one of the first engagements that the OMP had with the public since the presidential elections, when the 20th amendment allowed the president more input into the appointment of independent commissions, and critics say that this has undermined their independence. What was interesting was that it was markedly different to earlier events from the previous regime, where there was at least some attempt to centre the stories of families of the disappeared. The OMP didn't really talk about their plans for the future. They also didn't allow anyone apart from the panellists to speak or ask questions, so people were just posting questions in the chat box.
MA: There were some protests though, I heard?
RW: Yes. So the family members of the disappeared did mark the day with protests at home in Mullaitivu and other areas, they lit candles and they held placards calling for justice. There were also several Zoom events which were attended by families of the disappeared, which were held in Sinhala and Tamil. Considering that the country is currently under lockdown because of COVID-19 and increasing cases, the families had to adapt their way of protesting.
Sri Lanka has actually had a long history of enforced disappearances, which dates back to the JVP insurrections in the 1970s, and there have been multiple commissions which have been established to investigate disappearances over the years, the first of which I think was set up in the 90s by President R Premadasa, at the time. But these commissions didn't really lead to anything concrete for families. So family members have expressed disenchantment with government commissions. I've personally heard many of them saying that they've had to repeat the same, very traumatic story for them, before commission after commission, and they've had no redress and no answers. While the OMP was finally established in 2016, these processes came to a standstill during Sri Lanka's constitutional crisis in 2018, and this recent OMP event wouldn't really have inspired confidence among families waiting for answers in Sri Lanka.
MA: Over in Bangladesh, Human Rights Watch published "'Where No Sun Can Enter': A Decade of Enforced Disappearances in Bangladesh" last month. This 57 page report, based on over 115 interviews, urges the UN to carry out an independent international investigation into enforced disappearances in Bangladesh and called for donors and trade partners to hold senior members of the country's security forces accountable.
It reports that nearly 600 people have been forcibly disappeared since Prime Minister Hasina took office, this is according to Bangladeshi human rights groups. The majority of these were either released or formally produced in court as arrests and some were even found dead. Human Rights Watch has verified 86 enforced disappearances cases in the last ten years, in which the victim's whereabouts remain unknown to this date.
SS: In past episodes of Southasiasphere, we have spoken about the controversial Digital Security Act, which gives arbitrary powers to law enforcement agencies to carry out invasive forms of surveillance, intimidate and imprison journalists, social media users and even children under 18 for criticising the ruling party.
SP: Right. I think, importantly, the report also talks about the politicised nature of some of these incidents, including cases of opposition members and activists killed in what is euphemistically called 'crossfire' incidents or 'gunfights'. And usually, such incidents also escalate just before elections.
MA: Exactly, Shubhanga. The responses from the government to numerous reports in the past have been either denial or mockery or both. For example, Sajeeb Ahmed Wazed, son of Sheikh Hasina and government advisor on information and communication technology, in 2018 stated: "Many of the "disappeared" are leaders of the opposition who are accusing the government of kidnapping them while they are, in fact, trying to avoid arrest by disappearing. … Some of the "disappearances" are almost comical."
This is not hearsay. These enforced disappearances have been all well-documented by the UN, civil society groups, journalists, the Bangladesh National Human Rights Commission, and of course, victims and their families. And it's no surprise that many of these victims were critics of the ruling Awami League government which reveals the extremely politicised nature of these incidents.
SP: The situation in Nepal on this front is also quite disappointing. Two national bodies have actually been formed since 2014-15 as part of the transitional justice process to investigate the abuses that took place during the conflict between the Maoist rebels and the state. One of them is called the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and the other is a body for investigating enforced disappearances. And the latter one has actually published a list of 2500 individuals who were allegedly forcibly disappeared.
But the key thing to know about this matter in Nepal is that successive governments (which basically means all major political parties) have tried their best to water down the laws that are supposed to apply to the guilty parties – and the Supreme Court has managed to strike down all such attempts so far. But at this point it is difficult to actually even see investigations begin on this case, not to mention the eventual litigation.
SS: In December 2020, the Maldivian government ratified the Transitional Justice Act and established the Office of the Ombudsman for Transitional Justice (OOTJ) to initiate long-overdue redress mechanisms for survivors of past abuses. However, despite multiple pledges for an independent and open investigation and prosecution of perpetrators of the enforced disappearances, such as journalist Ahmed Rilwan, his family still awaits justice. Recently, Rilwan's family raised concern over the fact that the Commission on Deaths and Disappearances, after three years since its inception, has not yet forwarded a single case out of the 27 incidents that the Commission is investigating, for prosecution. The commission also said that the investigation of Maldives blogger Yameen Rasheed's murder is delayed due to an ongoing trial in connection to the case. (To find out more, also check out our articles on the Maldives' Transitional Justice Act by Mushfiq Mohamed and Yameen Rasheed's sister Aisha Rasheed's account on the family's struggle for justice.)
Moving on to our next segment, around Southasia in 5 minutes
Around Southasia in 5 minutes
RW: Thanks, Shwetha. So moving on to Tibet, Tibet marked its 61st Democracy Day on September 2, which marks the anniversary of the first elected representative body, the Tibetan Parliament in 1960, and this is marked by the exiled Tibetan community. An official ceremony was held, which was organised by the Central Tibet Administration, with speeches being made on the evolution of Tibetan democracy and dance performances. In contrast, just weeks before on 19 August, China marked the 70th anniversary of what they termed the 'peaceful liberation' of the Tibet Autonomous Region, and they renewed calls to accept the rule of the Communist party. So it's been interesting to see the different reporting and wording used during these two official days – with China continuing to use terms like 'peaceful liberation' to mark their occupation of Tibet and the exiled Tibetan community choosing to commemorate the anniversary of electing their first Parliament in exile instead.
MA: Bad news for PUBG and Free Fire players in Bangladesh, because the High Court has directed the government to put a stop to all kinds of "destructive" online games for three months to "save children and adolescents from moral and social degradation". This ruling was precipitated by a petition by two supreme court lawyers that requested the high court to order government authorities to identify those who are involved in money laundering using apps and online games.
SS: On 7 September, the Taliban announced an all-male interim government drawn almost entirely from Taliban ranks and those who had positions in the 1990s Taliban, including an interior minister under UN sanction and wanted by the FBI for his ties with Al Qaeda. This list did not include any women, despite promises of an inclusive cabinet. Also worth noting that the Taliban has excluded a Ministry of Women Affairs and brought back the ministry for promotion of virtue and prevention of vice. The Taliban have also announced that Afghan women will be required to wear conservative Islamic clothing and that university classrooms must be separated by gender. In response to recent protests led by Afghan women, the Taliban orchestrated a march of completely veiled women who filled an auditorium at Kabul University's education centre. (To find out more, read our latest interview with Mary Akrami, executive director of the Afghan Women Network, on how Afghan women activists have a difficult future under a Taliban administration)
SP: In Nepal, the media and public sphere is right now saturated with news about the Millennium Challenge Corporation, which is a US foreign-aid agency. Nepal signed a deal for a $500 million dollar grant back in 2017, for constructing electricity transmission lines and upgrading a highway, back when it made very little news and there was no controversy. But over the past two years there has been growing opposition to it in some quarters, and it's become a huge public controversy rife with misinformation, and it remains to be ratified in the parliament.
My own observation has been that this has very little do with any debate on the economics of foreign aid – which actually would be quite valuable – but more to do with narratives about increasing global power competition in the region, and, maybe more interestingly, how that gets deployed in domestic political scenario for domestic consumption by different actors, sometimes in unpredictable ways. And those of who followed the fate of MCC in Sri Lanka might draw interesting observations to what's happening in Nepal.
SP: And now we'll be moving on to our culture section, Bookmarked.
RW: Thanks, Shubhanga. This month I wanted to talk about a podcast series called 'Witnesses to History'. It's been put together by this digital platform historicaldialogue.lk, and it features interviews with oral historians, architects and foodies in Sri Lanka. If you want to know a little bit more about Sri Lanka, particularly different historical aspects that don't always make it to what's very easily publicly available, it's worth a listen. I particularly enjoyed the last episode which centres around food, not just because it's a topic that I find interesting, but I also like the way that particular episode wove in these anecdotes which have contemporary relevance. In this episode, one of the people being interviewed talks about her memories of rationing and import controls in the 1970s, which does have contemporary relevance with today's food emergency. And there's this discussion of domestic workers in passing as well, which has also been a topic of discussion in Sri Lanka after the death of a young domestic worker. And of course, there's also discussion of Sri Lanka's history of conflict, including the 1983 riots. So if you're interested in just listening to different aspects of history, from different oral history projects to the history of some of our iconic buildings and the history of our food, I would recommend checking that podcast out.
MA: So I've also been hearing nothing but good things about the podcast and I haven't really gotten around to listening to all of them, but I did join one of their earlier webinars on conflict and memory in Sri Lankan English writing in the 1980s. Early Sri Lankan writers in English were mostly critiqued for either being too elitist or focusing on a utopian village, so when 1983 happened and of course, then the war – it acts like an impetus for writers, so much so that there had to be some mention of it in their poetry or writing, or they would be accused of contributing to historical erasure. For example, Ondaatje has been accused of trivialising the JVP insurrection, the first one in 1971. So I was really interested, in an academic sense too. Because we often have post-90s writers who write about the 80s – especially about the 1983 black July, and of course, the 87-89 insurrection – you could say that they were quite removed from it in terms of time. There's not a lot of writers except for Jean Arasanayagam and Richard de Zoysa, who responded to what was happening in the country immediately. So there is a sense of immediacy in their writing, rather than the post-90s writers like Shyam Selvadurai, Ayathurai Santhan, Ambalavaner Sivanandan, and others who reflect on the 80s. So I really found the webinar discussion interesting, and I'm hoping to move on to podcast as well.
RW: Interesting. Actually, what you said Marlon, reminded me of a piece that I worked on, in the sense that this kind of erasure of the violence of the insurrections, it was also carried over into the press. When I was doing a piece that was marking so many  years since the 83 riots, we went to the archives and we were going through all the press coverage and it was so interesting, the different language that was used to describe people who were being arrested or who were killed because they were suspected of being involved in the JVP riots, or they were being rounded up for questioning, those who were of tamil ethnicity, who were suspected of being part of the LTTE. The newspapers would very freely use the word terrorist for Tamils but [for those suspected of being involved in the JVP insurrections] it was– I forgot the exact word but it was something like revolutionaries, a much softer word [subversives] and that was really interesting, and reminded me of that.
MA: Of course, I can't remember as far back as the late 80s, but even when you look for stories, especially for news pieces, there seems to be a fog over it. Of course, we know what happened, but there's so much that's been erased from the public domain. Even if you want to look back, we have people who lived during that time, for example even our parents who went through that time – it's a lived experience for them, so we actually can find information about it. But there always seems to be fog over the 87-89 time period.
RW: Yeah that's true. I guess it does live through, unfortunately through a lot of oral histories and memories. Like you said, my first encounter of hearing of the insurrections was through my parents' memories of it. That's why this podcast also is kind of interesting in that it's trying to actually engage with these different projects and also has sections on oral histories and things like that. So yeah, I definitely recommend checking it out.
SS: Over in India, on August 24 the Delhi University, despite protests from at least 14 members of the Academic Council, decided to drop Bengali writer and activist Mahasweta Devi's story titled 'Draupadi' and also works of Tamil dalit feminist writers Bama and Sukirtharani from the BA honours english syllabus as it allegedly showed the Indian Army in a bad light, hence, 'anti-national'. Now, over 1000 academics, writers and students have called on the university to reinstate these texts. So my recommendation would be to engage with these texts which are essential readings for students, now more than ever, to understand systemic oppressions of the Dalit and Adivasi communities, especially in gendered terms.
MA: Have you guys been watching anything these days? I've actually finished The Chair.
RW: Yeah, I've watched that as well.
SP: Yeah, same here.
MA: What did you guys think of it?
RW: I thought that it was funny. I personally really like Sandra Oh, she's hilarious so I enjoyed watching her perform again. But having said that, I had mixed feelings about the series, especially the way that they portrayed students – they had this very simplistic portrayal of students as being very reactionary and not really thinking critically and engaging with issues and being so focused on social media in a way that felt like a caricature, so I wasn't a big fan of that aspect of it.
MA: Yeah, I think that's an interesting word – caricature. I kind of felt that all throughout, that these were caricatures of different elements in academia that we tend to see from the outside and the stereotypes. Of course, some of the characters do reflect what's happening in academia too, but it seemed, like you said, quite a reductive engagement. If you don't think so much about what's going on, it's very short, like six episodes, so you can just get through it without really thinking about it, without going into it in-depth.
SP: I was also thinking in terms of what kind of cinema and TV shows that are being made or were made in Southasia about universities and higher education, and thinking about the update that Shwetha was giving on certain readings being removed from university syllabus, to think if there have been any cinematic ways of capturing that in films or TV shows. I'm trying to think of Southasian cinema that have dealt interestingly with higher education, and excluding things like 3 Idiots or that kind of Bollywood version of caricatures of university. Can you guys think of something?
MA: In Sri Lanka, we have something called the 'university novel', so not really from the visual medium, but there are lots of novels written about, especially the University Of Peradeniya, and lots of bad novels – these people wake up when they're like 60 or 70 and they nostalgically try to recreate their time at the university. When it comes to Peradeniya, it's a very beautiful university, so they talk about the flowers and gardens and trees, while ignoring everything else that was happening during that time, the politicised nature of university life and class issues, because most of these writers are from the elite class and they were english-speaking and quite removed from what was going on during that time.
SP: So my recommendation for this month is this new book by investigative reporter Josy Joseph, titled The Silent Coup, where he essentially argues that Indian democracy has been subverted by the country's security agencies, who have grown highly sophisticated but also arbitrary, politicised and corrupt in their functioning. And he basically links this to how institutions like the intelligence agencies, police, the army, tax departments responded to insurgencies and militancies of the 1980s and 1990s in such ways that today these bodies act in ways that frequently violate Indian citizen's legal and constitutional protections, often at the behest of their political masters. So that's my recommendation.
RW: And on that note, that's it for this edition of Southasiasphere. Do head to our website himalmag.com to see more of Himal's work. We actually just recently had another episode of Southasian Conversation, our third, on borders and borderlands, so if you want to check that out, do head to our website as well. And while you're at it, check out our membership plans and support us.
Thanks everyone. Bye!