The political fallout of violence in Manipur, Bangladesh’s economic crisis, the crackdown on PTI supporters and more
In this episode, we talk about the political implications of continued violence in Manipur, including growing calls from the Kuki community for a separate state, and explore the mounting economic crisis in Bangladesh.
For "Around Southasia in 5 minutes" we talk about the controversial G20 meeting on tourism hosted by the Indian government in Srinagar, the investigations into a controversial pastor in Sri Lanka and the increasing use of the country's ICCPR Act to quash dissent, a new political party in the Maldives, a newly released report on the Adani Group by a Supreme Court-appointed investigative committee in India, the growing crackdown on PTI leaders and journalists in Pakistan and a new report on the terrible conditions facing migrant workers from Nepal.
For "Bookmarked" we discuss the short film, "The tea is cold", following the story of a researcher traveling to the North of Sri Lanka and the stories he uncovers.
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 30th of May 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 and fact-checker and researcher Saheli. Hi Saheli!
Saheli Wikramanayake: Hi Raisa!
RW: So this episode for our big stories, we are talking about the political implications of ongoing violence in Manipur, including calls for a separate administration from Kukis, as well as fuel and foreign currency shortages in Bangladesh. For Around Southasia in Five Minutes, we'll talk about the recent G20 meeting in Kashmir, unpack recent investigations into a controversial pastor in Sri Lanka, talk about developments in the Maldives in the run-up to presidential elections, discuss the Supreme Court-appointed panel report on the Adani-Hindenburg case, talk about the crackdown on PTI and harassment of journalists after Khan's arrest, and chat about a recently released report on migrant workers from Nepal.
Let's begin with what's happening in Manipur.
[News clips from India]
RW: So in Manipur, there were fresh outbreaks of violence on May 24th, where a man who was staying in a relief camp was shot and State Public Works department minister, Gowindas Kantojams house in Bishnupur was vandalised. Now this is already having political implications, including a growing demand from Kuki representatives for a separate state. Union Home Minister Amit Shah is in Manipur on a three-day visit, while the clashes continued. In our last episode of Southasiasphere, we spoke about how all ten Kuki MLA's had raised a call for a separate state. Now we're seeing Kuki insurgent groups join them in that call. The United People's Front and the Kuki National Organisation have said that they want separate administration but equal political status for the Kuki Zo community, while clarifying that they want to be separate from Manipur but still fall within the union of India. Most recently, the general secretary of the Kuki People's Alliance, who is aligned with the BJP government in Manipur, Wilson Lalam Hangshing, said the Kukis would not go back on the demand for a separate administration, and he clarified that he meant either a separate state or a union territory. Meanwhile, the MLA Chairman of the Privilege and Ethics Committee, Nishikant Sapam, who is also a Meitei, has said that separate administration would not be allowed, after members of the joint Union Clubs of Keishamthong ward 9 submitted a memorandum calling for action against the ten MLA's, the abrogation of a suspension of operation order with Kuki militant groups and the implementation of the National Register of Citizens in Manipur, among other demands. Now until the May 3rd violence, the UPF and the KNO had actually reached a settlement, and it was going to be self-governance through territorial councils for Kukis living in Manipur. But now they're saying that they want to be out of Manipur and they no longer agree to the settlement on territorial councils. This is also being echoed by many of the people impacted by the violence who say that they cannot trust their neighbors from different communities anymore. The violence, which has led to over 70 deaths and over 40,000 people displaced, is likely to hurt the BJP's reach in Manipur where they now face allegations of neglecting the Zo community and favoring the Meiteis. And it's likely to have an impact on Mizoram as well, where they lack a popular presence. And this is going to be key as they're going to see elections later this year.
SW: Our next big story is from Bangladesh, where the economic situation is slowly deteriorating. As per two letters sent by the Bangladesh Petroleum Corporation to the power ministry which were received by Reuters, BPC is struggling to pay for shipments of fuel because of a shortage of dollars. In April, BPC's reported to have said that "[i]f it is not possible to import fuel according to the import schedule prepared for May, supply may be disrupted throughout the country with an alarming decrease in fuel reserves." Now the country is also facing power cuts after both its floating liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals had to close because of the recent Cyclone Mocha.
Bangladesh has been facing power cuts for months now, much to the frustration of citizens. The power cuts and Cyclone Mocha have also impacted Bangladesh's garment industry, which is now struggling to meet deadlines for shipments. The garment industry accounts for 80% of Bangladesh's exports, and especially now, it's a vital source of dollars.
The parallels to Sri Lanka and Pakistan, both of which are experiencing their own economic crises are pretty clear. But it's arguable that Bangladesh is in a slightly better position to navigate their crisis, because unlike the governments of Sri Lanka and Pakistan, Bangladesh has been fairly proactive in taking steps to address the crisis. For instance, the government agreed to a loan from the IMF in January, before both Sri Lanka and Pakistan. But of course, the country is still in a very precarious situation, which is true for several countries across Southasia. And if you are interested in learning more about the debt crises across the region, you check out our Southasian Conversation hosted in January, linked in the episode notes.
And now for our next segment, Around Southasia in 5 minutes.
RW: Around 53 delegates arrived in Srinagar, Kashmir for a G20 working group meeting on tourism. While the delegates played golf and visited the Mughal Gardens near Dal Lake, security was ramped up, with schools in vulnerable points being asked to close for a week. Vendors who usually applied their trade on the road from the airport to the Sheri Kashmir International Convention Centre were also missing on the day that the delegates landed. Despite India's attempts to convey a sense of normalcy, several delegates from China, Saudi Arabia and Turkey did not attend the meeting, and representatives from China actually voiced their opposition to the meeting being held in Kashmir. For its part, representatives from India said they were free to hold meetings on their own territory, while adding that peace and tranquility across its border was essential to maintain good relations with China. Egypt and Oman also did not attend the meetings. In particular, Egypt's absence was noted as surprising as they were special invitees, although they are not G20 members. This is all happening in the backdrop of India's abrogating Article 370 on Kashmir special status.
SW: In Sri Lanka, the controversial preacher and self-proclaimed Prophet Jerome Fernando has landed in legal trouble over his recent remarks, which were alleged to be derogatory towards Buddhism. Fernando is currently in Singapore, though he says that he will return to Sri Lanka soon. On 26th May, his lawyers filed a fundamental rights petition seeking an order preventing his arrest. Reports now say that the police are investigating the finances of his church, including the construction of a high profile so-called "Miracle Dome." Fernando's close associate, Uebert Angel, was recently implicated in an Al Jazeera documentary on gold smuggling in Zimbabwe, which shows him using his diplomatic privileges to launder millions of dollars.
But the bigger picture, beyond Jerome Fernando, is the continued use of the ICCPR Act as a tool to quash dissent in Sri Lanka. In the past week, two other incidents of arrests have been reported. Comedian Natasha Edirisooriya and Rajangane Saddharathana Thero, a controversial Buddhist monk, were both arrested by the CID under the ICCPR Act, for allegedly making comments that disparage Buddhism and harm religious harmony.
The ICCPR Act ironically is based on an international human rights treaty that also seeks to protect the freedom of expression. We published a piece by Gehan Gunetilleke describing how this human rights law has become a tool of repression in Sri Lanka. So do check that out in the episode notes.
RW: In the Maldives, former president and parliament speaker Mohamed Nasheed has submitted an application to register a new party called the Democrats. This is the culmination of a tussle between President Ibrahim Solih and Nasheed, within the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party, ahead of presidential polls which are slated to be held in September this year. Now the presidential primaries, which were held in January, were also bitterly fought, with Solih winning 61 percent of the vote and his rival alleging voter fraud. Also, as we outlined in a previous episode of Southasiasphere, these elections were always going to be contentious, as former president Abdullah Yameen Abdul Gayoom was sentenced to 11 years for money laundering and bribery. Now this was seen as a bid to prevent him from running for election as a progressive party of the Maldives candidate. The Election Commission has greenlit the formation of the Democrats, which could mean that the two former allies will now be electoral rivals.
[News clips from India]
SW: In India, the latest update in the Adani-Hindenburg report story is the release of a report by a Supreme Court appointed committee, which on the face of it seems like good news for Adani. This report is being mentioned in the media as a "clean chit" for the company, and it does clear the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) of any regulatory failure. But the reality is that the report is a bit more complicated than that. It notes that SEBI is still conducting investigations into Adani and its involvement in the stock market, including whether there has been a violation of the rules on the minimum requirement for public shareholding. So essentially, SEBI suspects wrongdoing, but it faces a major issue in its investigations of Adani group. Namely, that in 2018, regulations on disclosing the ultimate beneficial or the actual ownership of foreign funds were diluted, by the Securities and Exchange Board itself, which essentially makes investigations impossible.
Now, SEBI has asked for more time to complete its investigations. So while Adani may have a temporary respite, the saga isn't over.
RW: In Pakistan, there is a widespread crackdown on the PTI, after PTI supporters took to the streets to protest Imran Khan's arrest on May 9. Pakistan's Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif has said that some of the protesters will likely be tried in military courts, claiming that they had stormed defence installations. Now around 240 cases were lodged by Punjab police across the province against PTI leaders and workers. And 80 people, including former and current PTI leaders, including Khan, have been placed on a no-fly list. In reaction to the crackdown, more than two dozen leaders have quit the PTI, among the most prominent being Shireen Mazari who announced she was leaving on May 23 after being detained multiple times, and more recently, senior vice president Fawad Chaudhry. Secretary General Asad Umar has also said that he would relinquish his post, but would remain within PTI. As Khan tries to avoid being re-arrested, he is claiming that the party members are being forced to leave. Meanwhile, the government is considering banning the PTI according to Defence Minister Khawaja Asif, who is claiming that the party had 'attacked the very basis of the state.' PTI's lawyers, meanwhile, say they will challenge any such moves in court.
Apart from this, journalists covering the growing unrest are also being subject to harassment, with police visiting at least three journalist homes and multiple reports of journalists being arrested. Meanwhile, journalist and political commentator Imran Riaz Khan has been missing for over two weeks. He was last seen being escorted out of Sialkot International Airport, and the police claim he was released that night. But media watchdog Reporters Without Borders is claiming that they have received information that Khan was tortured and may possibly have died in detention.
SW: In Nepal, a new report by Equidem Research Nepal has highlighted the exploitation of migrant workers. It found that Nepal and the countries receiving Nepali migrant workers have failed to protect their rights. Workers have had to pay illegal and exorbitant fees, faced contract breaches and wage theft. Many of the workers were undocumented, meaning that they were denied rightful benefits and compensation in cases of injury or death. Some workers were even not allowed to return home.
We hosted a Twitter Space with Namrata Raju from Equidem Research in December, discussing migrant workers and the FIFA World Cup. Do check that out, it's linked in the episode notes.
Now for our next segment, Bookmarked. Raisa, do you have any recommendations?
RW: Yes, I do. So this time I watched The Tea is Cold, which is a short film which is produced by Alliance Development Trust and Minor Matters, and it's directed and written by Naomi Apsara. It basically follows a Sinhalese researcher who travels to the North, who conducts research as part of a nonprofit and the kind of issues that he encounters when he travels there. And there were things that I liked about it. One thing that I liked is that it sort of hits home for me as somebody who has been in the same position and has had to travel to the North and try to report on stories around like disappearances, sexual violence and bribery and things like that. So I was recalling many of those stories while I was watching it. But there were things that I think could have been unpacked a little more. Something that I found particularly interesting was the dynamic between the researcher and the person who was translating for him, who was employed at a guest house. And I wish they would have explored their different positions a bit more deeply because they were clearly coming from two very different places in terms of relative privilege. And I felt that it kind of focused too much on the researcher and kind of gave him emotional complexity whilst he was grappling with hearing all these stories. It went into the translator's life as well. But it didn't really delve into the subjects that they were interviewing and their lives. And at the end there was this sort of saccharine moment where the researcher and the translator hugged and said it's the first time they made a friendship across different ethnic lines. And while that's definitely true and can help to kind of stop conflict, I just feel that there's more that could have been explored in the film. But it definitely brought back a lot of memories for me and I did enjoy watching it.
[Audio from The Tea is Cold trailer]
SW: I did watch it too and I pretty much agree with what you said. For me, I did find the entire concept of this guy coming from the south and being so naive and really ignorant about the war quite accurate. I think especially given his background, as well as his age, because he would have been quite young when the war ended, I think it's realistic that someone could be so sheltered from what happened. But yeah, I agree. I think it could have done a lot more. I think there were a lot of nuances that it did gloss over.
It's also available on YouTube so if anyone wants to watch it do check it out. It'll be linked in the episode notes.
RW: And on that note, that's it for this episode of Southasiasphere. We'll see you next time. Bye!