Cartoon by Gihan de Chickera.
Cartoon by Gihan de Chickera.

Southasia’s COP26, Bhutan’s political prisoners, the politics of listening and more.

Southasiasphere episode 13: Updates and analysis from around the region.

Southasiasphere is our monthly 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 discuss the bold new pledges made by Southasian leaders at the COP26 UN climate summit versus the realities on the ground. In Around Southasia in 5 minutes, we look at Pakistan's agreement with the banned Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), communal violence in Bangladesh, political prisoners in Bhutan, and the appointment of a new Presidential Task Force in Sri Lanka.

Plus, in our culture section Bookmarked, we discuss an essay exploring the politics of listening, 'Other People's Shoes: Let's not demand that people tell us stories' written and read by Sunila Galappatti, and our monthly recommendations for reading and watching.

Episode notes:


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.

Southasia's COP26

RW: So, our big story in this edition is on COP26 – the UN climate change conference – across Southasia. In Around Southasia in 5 minutes, we're talking about Pakistan's agreement with the banned Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), communal violence in Bangladesh, political prisoners in Bhutan, and the appointment of a new Presidential Task Force in Sri Lanka.

Let's begin with COP26. Shubhanga, do you want to start off?

SP: Thanks, Raisa. I actually was thinking we should start with the dinosaur in the room, or in this case the dinosaur at the UN General Assembly. For those of you who don't know what I'm talking about, I'm referring to this video produced by the UNDP, just ahead of the climate conference, which shows this raptor reminding humans to not choose extinction, in multiple languages across the world. What did you guys think of that video?

RW: Yeah, I think what was striking– it was definitely quite clever from a communications standpoint, using a dinosaur to talk about fossil fuels and climate change, but what was really jarring to me was how the words that the dinosaur spoke echoed what young climate activists like Greta Thunberg are saying, and I was thinking as I was listening that it's almost like these large bodies are almost appropriating Greta's rhetoric, which takes away from the underlying seriousness of her message.

MA: And Raisa, it's not only the UN that's appropriating Greta's global call for action, there are politicians and world leaders who have been doing the same thing for some time now. And talking of dinosaurs, Shubhanga, Prince Charles stated that he has spent the last 50 years 'trying to raise awareness' of the climate crisis. I don't know, maybe it's from his stand-up comedy routine, since he flew to the summit in a private plane, and if he has been doing that for the last 50 years, then I think the world would've been better off without Prince Charles' climate activism. So I think the Summit as a whole did shed light on what's been now branded as eco-hypocrisy, since it was reported that an estimated 400 private planes carried world leaders and business executives to COP26.

Cartoon by Gihan de Chickera.
Cartoon by Gihan de Chickera.

RW: Yeah. And coming back to what we were talking about, which is the feel-good messaging at these conferences, in Sri Lanka you could say the good vibes continued. There was this side event to COP26, which was actually co-hosted by the government of Sri Lanka, where President Gotabaya Rajapaksa highlighted the country's switch to organic fertiliser, and he said that this was a major achievement. In particular, Rajapaksa also mentioned this overuse of chemical fertiliser contributing significantly to chronic kidney disease. But research has not definitively proven the causative link, firstly between chemical fertiliser use and chronic kidney disease, there are many factors that could contribute to it. But apart from that, the Sri Lankan government's chosen solution to this problem was to just ban the use of chemical fertiliser, virtually overnight, and they didn't really provide farmers with a sustainable way to make the switch to organic farming.

And if you look in the region, even states like Sikkim who successfully transitioned to organic farming – when you look at their case, they took over 10 years to make that switch, and they did it with a strong policy framework, they did a lot of training and consultation with the farmers themselves. But in contrast, there was no such support provided in Sri Lanka, and there were these concerns being raised about food insecurity and low income for the farmers who were already impacted by COVID-19 anyway. And these issues are particularly concerning given that Sri Lanka is also facing an economic crisis, which is resulting in austerity measures like import bans and cuts in government spending. But none of this tension was really discussed in any detail at the side-event, and it just became an exercise in greenwashing.

MA: So, in addition to this fertiliser issue in Sri Lanka, there is a diplomatic tug-of-war between China and Sri Lanka, due to a Chinese ship with a batch of contaminated fertiliser. Raisa, what's the latest on that?

RW: Yes, so this shipment has been creating quite a lot of drama and headlines. It was originally found to have harmful bacteria in it, and Sri Lanka rejected the shipment. But China then let Sri Lanka know that refusing the ship entrance would impair relations between the countries, but Sri Lanka continues to insist they're not going to accept it. The latest on this [at the time of recording this podcast] is that a third party company which has been selected by the Chinese company who sent the fertiliser has found no contaminants. But Sri Lanka is continuing to insist that they're not going to accept this shipment.

So, most of the headlines and discussions on this is kind of focusing on the geopolitical implications of this standoff, but what this also highlights is this distance between the lofty policy measures that are raised at events like COP26, which are aimed at pleasing the international community in order to invite investment – which it seems to be what they were trying to do by announcing this ban. In fact, the president himself also mentioned that they are looking for initiatives and investment on renewable energy, while he was speaking.

Whilst they are promoting these initiatives they are also concealing that many of these measures aren't truly sustainable and they're not being implemented on the ground. Policy experts had already pointed out that there's a need to introduce regulations to make sure that if you're going to use organic fertiliser, that it doesn't have contaminants. All this advice anyway was too late because it was only given after the ban was already imposed because that decision was already made. But even when it was raised it went unheeded.

So, Sri Lanka has been of course saying that they are planning to transition to renewable energy and they're committing to not building new coal power plants. But just a few weeks ago, there was this story that broke about how a large cement company is already bending the rules to import thousands of tonnes of coal for use in its plants, without the need for an Environmental Impact Assessment, and again this is at odds with the government's commitments at COP26.

SS: That's right, Raisa. At the summit, when over 40 countries also pledged to end use of coal power – Australia, China, India and the US, the biggest coal dependent economies, were missing from the deal.

And India is currently struggling with an escalating power crisis as their stockpiles of coal are at the lowest in years, just as power demand is also set to surge faster than anywhere in the world over the next two decades.

SP: That's interesting. So on one hand there's increased anxiety about future energy security – but Modi wants to harness the country's coal reserves as a part of the "self-reliant India" campaign?

SS: Yes, for example, Coal India, the world's largest miner, plans to increase production to more than one billion tonnes a year by 2024. Coal-fired plants worth 60 billion dollars  are under construction. India is also trying to increase private participation in the coal sector – since last year it has been auctioning dozens of blocks for commercial mining. The government also has repeatedly pushed back deadlines for coal plants to adopt stricter emissions targets, despite having the world's worst air pollution levels.

Now, Modi has at COP26 announced five new pledges, which are significantly more ambitious than their earlier commitments. By 2030, half of India's energy would come from renewables. And by 2070, India would achieve carbon neutrality, decades later than other economies, and even later than China, which has targeted 2060.

On the whole, a lot remains unclear about Modi's new commitments. The challenge for Indian authorities will be managing this shift in a way that protects energy security in the future while preventing economic devastation in the coal belt – in which millions of people depend on the industry for work.

SP: So when it comes to Nepal, quite predictably, their delegates at the conference also made some ambitious commitments, and it's interesting to contrast that with the record of actual policies and performance, especially over the last decade. So the Nepali prime minister gave 2045 as their net-zero-emission year. Another notable date was 2030, that's the year by which they say the share of clean energy in the country's overall energy demand will reach 15 percent and that the forest cover up will also reach 45 percent.

These are ambitious numbers, especially if you look at the record on the ground, which is that the gasoline use has doubled in the last four years. The number of pipeline projects and storage facilities are increasing. One department of the government is giving data that clearly shows there's growing interest to use fossil fuels to grow the economy. Also, in recent years Nepal's per capita emissions increase has actually been the highest in Southasia.

And in terms of policies that relate to things like electric vehicles, two years back there was actually a significant tax increase on electric vehicles, both customs as well as excise duties, which came down only recently this year. So a lot of commitments have been made, even in the past. In 2016 there was actually a commitment to bring up the share of electric vehicles to 20 percent by 2020 – which again seems very ambitious for a four-year interval but it has only gone to one percent at the moment. So I think you see this kind of gap between what is said at these conferences, often for international consumption, and what's the reality on the ground.

MA: Pakistan has been making waves at COP26 with their urgent appeal to the wealthy nations to deliver on climate pledges. The Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Climate Change,  Malik Amin was at COP26 and they unveiled quite a few ambitious initiatives. One is the Ecosystem Restoration Initiative (ESRI), where Pakistan plans to in the next three years plant over 180 million trees, providing over 75,000  green jobs. He also shared an update of the government's 10 billion Tree Tsunami program and announced an ambitious water management project in the Indus basin in the next 20 years. However, it is estimated that the Indus river would be affected by the glacier melts which would lead to severe water scarcity, hunger and drought. Muhammad Arif Goheer, who works as the Principal Scientific Officer in the Global Change Impact Studies Centre, who was also at COP26 stated that while the Pakistan government is aware of the high risk that water stress will cause in the near future, there has been no effort to study its severity or its impact.

RW: Right. And Tibet also came into focus at COP26. This year the Dalai Lama addressed the conference and  highlighted that Tibet was the source of many of the world's major rivers, and as a result, of course provided water for more than 2 billion people across Asia. Also spoke about how that area is now threatened by deforestation, damming and diversion of Tibet's rivers, and the melting of Tibet's numerous glaciers. Unspoken in his message was the continued exploitation of Tibet's natural resources. Meanwhile, the International Campaign for Tibet called for improved access and transparency in scientific research on climate change, and both a rights-based and an ecosystem approach to climate action policies, with a focus on critical ecosystems and indigenous peoples and local communities. But once again, this policy being discussed could only be theoretical given that Chinese President Xi Jinping did not attend COP26, instead sending an update of commitments. Activists who attended the conference also highlighted that Beijing's efforts to present itself as a leader in the fight against the climate crisis must also be viewed in light of its position as a major greenhouse gas emitter and as well as the policies it has pursued in Tibet which has led to its environmental degradation.

Moving on to our next segment, Around Southasia in 5 minutes

Around Southasia in 5 minutes

Pakistan's agreement with the banned Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP)

MA: Starting with Pakistan, PM Imran Khan has lifted the ban on the Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP) on October 31. Throughout October, there were protests organised by the group which resulted in the deaths of at least 15 people, including four police personnel. The protest demanded the release of TLP's leader Saad Rizvi. If you look at the TLP, this group gained popularity through its radical Islamist agenda and have engaged in similar protests in the past, which included the expulsion of the French ambassador over the issue of the Prophet Mohammad's caricatures.

Cartoon by Gihan de Chickera.
Cartoon by Gihan de Chickera.

Bhutan's political prisoners

SP: Over the past few weeks, a series of crossborder reports on the state of political prisoners in Bhutan have been published in the Nepali press. These stories basically document that after the Bhutan government's forced displacement or ethnic cleansing of its Nepali-speaking Lhotsampa community in early 1990s, many from the community ended up as political prisoners. Most of them were charged with the country's National Security Act, and between 30 to as many as a 100 political prisoners are currently serving life sentences in Bhutan's prisons and perhaps military detention centres. So these stories have basically contrasted the situation with the Bhutan government's rather successful PR campaign about this idea of Gross National Happiness.

But beyond the issue of the fate of these prisoners and the lack of transparency from the Bhutan government, I think these stories also raise some interesting questions about crossborder journalism. The reporting itself is crossborder in the sense that it is led by two Kathmandu-based organisations – the Centre for Investigative Journalism (which also did the Pandora Papers) and the Nepali language daily the Kantipur daily. The reporting covers more than just Bhutan, which the reporters don't have direct access to, so you hear from Bhutanese refugees in Nepal, and from countries they have resettled in, interestingly the Nepali-speaking community in India, leaders from that community, and then activists, lawyers around the world.

But curiously the reporting has not really been picked up in any notable international media or even the regional press. I was also thinking about this while Raisa, you were talking about the shipment of organic fertiliser. That story has been picked up quite well in the Indian press and obviously there's more interest if it's a geopolitical contestation and things of that kind. In Bhutan itself, I couldn't find any reporting on this subject – before or after these reports – which is not unexpected since press freedoms are still quite tenuous there. The other thing I didn't quite understand was why the organisations doing these stories reported only in English. One of them actually runs an English language newspaper, and doing an English story would surely have expanded the audience. So, unfortunate that the readership has been somewhat limited, but an important story nonetheless.

Appointment of a new Presidential Task Force in Sri Lanka

Cartoon by Gihan de Chickera.
Cartoon by Gihan de Chickera.

RW: Thanks, Shubhanga. And over in Sri Lanka, a Presidential Task Force to establish 'One Country, One Law' has met with criticism as its headed by a monk known for inciting hate and violence against the minority Muslim community. In 2014, Galagodaththa Gnanasara Thero urged his supporters at a rally in Aluthgama to 'fight against minorities', shortly before violent riots broke out targeting Muslims. The organisation he was part of, the Bodu Bala Sena have championed a number of issues, including banning what they term illegal conversions and halal food, among a range of other issues that they've taken up. Gnanasara himself was imprisoned in 2018 on contempt of court charges, only to be granted a presidential pardon by former President Maithripala Sirisena. This decision to appoint him as head of a Presidential Task Force indicates the current government's support of this controversial monk. While the initial reaction to the appointment of the Task Force was derision, especially on social media, the report that it is tasked with compiling is cause for concern given that Sri Lanka will be embarking upon a constitutional reform process early next year. The composition of the task force was also subject to criticism given that there were initially no Tamils. This task force is supposed to be implementing the idea of equality before the law and should ideally have some minority representation, but in a hasty amendment after sustained criticism, the President appointed more Tamil members and said the task force would only formulate a 'conceptual framework'. Either way, it is unlikely that the new task force will inspire confidence among minorities of true equality before the law.

Communal violence in Bangladesh

SS: In Bangladesh, anti-Hindu violence spread during the Durga Puja festival, triggered by a social media post from 13 October about the alleged desecration of the Quran in one of the pavilions set up for the celebrations. This led to attacks on a small Hindu community in Comilla district, where seven people, including two Hindu men were killed. The violence spread to other parts of the country: in one northern village, more than 20 homes of Hindus were burned down, despite warnings from the government.

This was some of the worst violence in Bangladesh since Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's party came to power in 2009. This presents a challenge to her party – which is seen as the more secular one of the two groups that have alternated power since independence.

Around late October, in India's northeastern state of Tripura, there were violent marches organised by a prominent Hindu right wing organisation in response to the anti-Hindu violence in Bangladesh. Muslim homes, shops and mosques were attacked – showing a troubling trend in both India and Bangladesh to use atrocities in one country to try and justify anti-minority repression in the other.

And now for our culture section, Bookmarked


Sunila Galappatti's essay 'Other People's Shoes' 

RW: So this month, I recently listened to the audio version of this essay that was written by Sunila Galappatti called Other People's Shoes. If you think her name is familiar that's because she has of course worked with Himal before, and in fact it's her voice that's perhaps most familiar because she introduces this very podcast, which was the first thing that I thought of when I listened to this essay. But I also found what she wrote about, which is talking about storytelling – I found it to be very relevant, interesting and thought-provoking, considering that a lot of what we do also kind of revolves around storytelling. Although she was specifically talking about storytelling which involves trauma and violence.

In conversation with Sunila, she actually mentioned that she was thinking about it more from a personal perspective, in personal interactions. Most recently, there's been this issue that was raised of three young Muslim girls who went missing, and I really thought about this as I was watching this unfold and I was watching people share their personal information, and even after they returned there was this kind of curiosity about where they had been. The family had also put out a statement where they mentioned: please don't call us just to ask questions, only call us if you have information. And I think that it really taps into this curiosity that people do have about stories of trauma and violence.

But also, for me personally, I think it's something that spoke to a lot of the work that I've done and the work that we do at Himal as well. I've covered a lot of stories which involve people who have experienced violence, for example, stories around gender-based violence or the stories of the families of the disappeared, and I think negotiating this kind of imbalance between the person who's doing the interview and the people who are being interviewed, there's often like a power imbalance in some ways, and I think this captures a lot of the tensions that you have to negotiate when you're doing these interviews. So she makes this very powerful and compelling case for just giving people the space to tell their own stories, rather than trying to extract it from them.

And when I was listening I also thought about the interview that I did most recently with Mary Akrami from Afghanistan, where in the interview she spoke about the very difficult decision that she made to leave the country, and at one point she actually broke down while she was talking to me. And something that I don't think that I really captured when I was doing that interview is how difficult that decision is for people to make. In subsequent events that have been covering Afghanistan, I've also seen that journalists kind of question people who make the decision to leave, and there's this somewhat– I wouldn't say antagonistic, but there's this questioning that takes place where they are like: what about all the people who chose to stay back, and there's this division that is made between those who decide to stay back, which is of course a very courageous decision, and the the people who choose to leave.

MA: And some of them I think didn't really decide.

RW: Yeah, Mary also said that the reason she left is because her family begged her to leave because they would also be in danger. And I think these tensions and nuances, when we're reporting on these stories, we don't often capture them the way that we'd like. I can personally say that it's something that is always an ongoing conversation with every story, and I don't think that I always get it right. So this just was a good reminder and definitely something that's food for thought, and just reinforcing that message, if you do work in media and storytelling, and also just in your personal interactions since Sunila also mentioned that it's personal-based. I would suggest that you read this and think about the issues that she raises.

MA: When I was reading it, like you Raisa, there were lots of reflections that I identified with. One thing that really struck me was when she says how we needed a history of listening, which I completely agree with, especially looking at social media in general, how reactionary we have become. When something happens we just react, comment and give our opinions, and it's usually very performative and superficial. Now, I'm including myself in this. There isn't a lot of substance, just a lot of noise. Sunila's point about how we lacked a history of listening – I think we in Sri Lanka are taught to listen, you know especially in our formative years. I know it's a very systematic and oppressive form of listening, but I think it has a huge impact because when we get out of school we have all pent up, suppressed opinions – some of them are completely nonsensical like not being able to tell our math teachers what we really think of them, and when we get out we just explode and social media has given us an outlet. So yeah, I agree with Sunila. Sometimes we just need to shut up and listen. Active listening is a virtue we all need to cultivate.

SS: And I think the most striking part of the essay for me was when she talks about how there's a tendency to group experiences by type and extract stories of suffering, leaving people out who don't fit into a simplified story and often forgetting lived realities. I think that's why listening to people who have experienced war first hand versus stories themselves, for example, is important. And I liked how she ended it by saying that it's more important than standing in their shoes, we need to just stand beside them. So I thought that was a great essay.

SP: Yeah. It also makes me wonder, because it is actually quite a serious challenge to a variety of journalism, even good journalism which requires a lot of listening but at the end there's a lot of emphasis on writing well, expressing yourself well and using what you listen to as material eventually. I don't know if there's a clear solution, but great journalism might actually not often be a good example of that also, which is a problem and if you think about it.

RW: Yeah, that's why I found it very interesting, there's a very fundamental tension between what we see as journalism and how to raise awareness about these issues. And even this issue about raising awareness, I think she touched on so many interesting issues like highlighting how you might be well intentioned but even with your good intentions sometimes you do end up flattening the narrative, exactly as Shwetha pointed out. As somebody who used to work in a newsroom I definitely thought back on some of my own reporting, on the families of the disappeared is one example where I would definitely agree there were decisions that we made that I don't think we ever really get it right. It's not that we don't talk about it. I mean there are some journalists who don't talk about it also and they don't think about it, that does happen, but even when you do talk about and you do try to negotiate it sensitively, you don't always get it right, and it's only in hindsight that you realise, and I think she gave a very good framing.

I think there are solutions, which I was talking about as well. I think that you can do different things – you can spend a longer time when you're going to these communities, don't just parachute in and leave, and you can keep returning back over a period of time.

MA: I guess that's, like Shubhanga said, I think that's one of the problems with media in general because it's curated, there's not a lot of time so you have like a five minute segment on an issue that's been there for centuries, and they have to capture everything in that five minutes and ask questions. So this type of prolonged engagement with a single issue is not something that we see in media these days. It's like what's next, let's go to the next issue,  five minutes on this and five minutes on that, article on this, an article on that. I think that the way the world is moving, in the sense of how short our attention span is also, and how we kind of move from one issue to another, that's another thing that the media itself is reflecting. So there is that issue.


RW: Yeah, I fully agree. Is there anything else that guys read this month or watched?

SP: Actually, this conversation reminded me of something I've been rewatching, the series The Wire. I've actually just watched the fifth season which is about journalism and which actually involves this reporter– I won't spoil it too much, but a reporter who just comes up with really good quotes and obviously is fabricating it, so there's the question of listening. I would actually recommend watching that season.

MA: Just the fifth season or?

SP: Just the fifth season – the journalism season, yeah.

SS: So, my recommendation for this month is Tibetan activist, writer and poet Tsering Woeser's latest book titled Forbidden Memory: Tibet During the Cultural Revolution, which uses 300 previously unseen photographs taken by her father who was an officer in the People's Liberation Army, to show the upheaval caused in Tibet in the years after Red Guards arrived in 1966. These photographs he had taken of the cultural revolution are the most complete private record of these events yet to have come out, and they were found only after his death.

In the book, Woeser's annotations are based on a series of interviews she conducted in Tibet with the survivors, and she describes the devastation on Tibet's Buddhist traditions by this campaign to wipe out what were known as the Four Olds: "old thinking, old culture, old customs, and old habits of the exploiting classes." For example, there's photographs of vandalised monasteries and bonfires of books and manuscripts. And she points to several important questions like how many of these pictures were posed for by the photographers? What were the participants really thinking but could not show, and also what was outside the state promoted public political activity documented by the state's propaganda works at the time.

This book is a really interesting, rare visual record of that era, and I think resonates with the kind of violence and erasure of history and cultural memory in different parts of Southasia. So that's my recommended reading for the month.

SP: I have a recommendation which goes quite well with what Shwetha just recommended. This is also a book on Tibet and of around the same period, so this is The Chinese Revolution on the Tibetan Frontier by Benno Weiner. It came out just last year, I think, and it basically tells the story of how the Chinese Communist Party integrated the region of Amdo, which is northeastern Tibet, into the Chinese nation state. It really is a story about what it means to transform what used to be a multi-ethnic empire into a unitary nation state, and his bigger argument is that the root of Sino-Tibetan conflict, in some ways, is linked with that unresolved legacy of empire. So that's my recommendation.

RW: Thanks, Shubhanga. And on that note, that's it for this edition of Southasiasphere. Do head to our website to see more of Himal's work, and while you're at it, check out our membership plans and support us.

Thanks everyone. Bye!

Everyone: Bye!


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