Round-up of regional news
Best left untravelled
Even for Burma’s miniscule tourism industry, 2008 was a particularly bad year. With the devastating Cyclone Nargis (in May) coming on the heels of the Saffron Revolution (the previous fall), and considering the bad press garnered by the junta’s response to both events, it is hardly surprising the country suffered a 25 percent decrease in visitors over the previous year’s levels.
This figure, however, only accounts for visitors arriving by air. It is estimated that over half of Burma’s tourists enter by land, mainly from China and Thailand. And the generals are now allowing Chinese citizens crossing at Teng Chong, in Yunnan, to get visas on arrival. And, once they are across the frontier, in the border town of Myitkyina in Kachin state, the tourists can continue inland, something that was not allowed under the previous visa regime. Moreover, even those chartering flights from Teng Chong, as well as other select airports in China, will be granted visas on arrival along with permission to travel to a number of cities.
This limited easing of restrictions comes after the construction of the Myitkyina-Teng Chong highway was completed last November. The USD 180 million construction costs for the highway were borne entirely by Beijing, so the new allowances are clearly something of a quid pro quo. But the Chinese government has its eye set on much loftier goals than mere tourism, having made no secret of the fact that it ultimately sees the road as a means of strengthening trade links with Bangladesh and India. Of course, easy access to Burma’s abundant natural resources must also be a great incentive.
Ironically, Chinese officials are now warning their citizens against travel to Burma, due to the likelihood of being kidnapped, or hoodwinked at best. Many Chinese cross the border lured not only by promises of high-paying work, but also by cheap jade, free travels and the thrill of casino gambling – the latter a particular luxury, as casinos have been banned in their homeland. And, evidently, with good reason. According to Beijing, many of these tourists end up being held inside Burmese casinos for ransom. In February alone, 19 Chinese teenagers were released from such situations only after their families coughed up the necessary payoff.
Already identified as an unstable, dangerous state by its neighbours and the international community, Pakistan’s image took another drastic downturn with the recent attack in Lahore on Sri Lanka’s national cricket team. The ramifications of the incident were immediate. The International Cricket Council announced that it was moving the 2011 cricket World Cup from Pakistan, probably to England. A host of international teams cancelled scheduled games in Pakistan, and pundits mourned the fact that international cricket was unlikely to be played in the country for a very long time.
As the world of cricket was abandoning the Pakistani ship, it is worth remembering that not all cricketers had done so. The Afghan cricket team was already in the process of practising for a series of World Cup-qualifying games, and was largely unperturbed by the hullabaloo that broke out. The team did take one precaution: moving their practice venue from the normally staid environs of Lahore to the volatile city of Peshawar. Perhaps it was bolstered by being closer to home, also. Either way, the Afghan cricketers say that the environment and facilities in Peshawar are, when all is said and done, much better than those in Afghanistan.
After almost two decades of living in camps in eastern Nepal, over 10,000 Lhotshampa refugees from Bhutan are now scattered across the globe, trying to fashion new lives for themselves. They are the pioneers of a resettlement effort that has been ongoing for more than a year now, even as the Thimphu government refused to consider repatriation. Their experience has been bittersweet, with hopes for a brighter future diminished by practical problems including unemployment and a language barrier.
Yet many more of the roughly 107,000 Lhotshampa will be leaving Nepal over the next five years, with more than 60,000 expected to settle in the United States alone. (Others are headed to New Zealand, Australia, Norway and other countries.) With a full-fledged Bhutanese diaspora in the making – one that will only grow larger and more established as time goes on – organised efforts to remember the homeland are also springing up. For instance, newly arrived Bhutanese in the US state of Minnesota named 28 February ‘Bhutan Day’, an opportunity for the small nascent community to share challenges and experiences, relax and feast on turkey momos.
Interestingly, many of the refugees currently on the move were born and raised in camps in Nepal, and thus have never actually seen Bhutan. But the affinity for a motherland remains strong despite years or even a generation away – something that the Tibetan diaspora has made potently clear over the course of the past half-century.
Can you hear me now?
In a sudden move, the Indian state-owned telecommunications operator Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) has closed down all of its towers along the 500 km Indo-Nepali frontier. According to allegations by the Telecommunications Ministry in New Delhi, the towers were being used for the smuggling of arms, drugs and counterfeit currency, as well as dangerous “anti-India” activities.
It is reported that the move was largely prompted by New Delhi’s belief that agents of the Inter Service Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s spy body, were operating out of Nepal. India’s spook agencies have voiced such concerns previously. And with the border extremely porous, no one can say that none of this takes place. What is unclear is whether the ‘infiltration’ is drastic enough to require such a measure.
Officials at BSNL say that the government gave them just four days to turn off the towers. Non-compliance was not an option, given that the company is government owned. Even though the towers themselves were in Indian territory, they were providing network access to Nepalis across the border, an inadvertent crossborder operation that was technically illegal for the BSNL. None of India’s many private service providers operate in the area, considered an economic fringe.
The question now is whether the move will make a significant dent on crossborder illegal activities, or whether it will simply make communications more difficult for communities in the frontier. Perhaps one unanticipated advantage of the silencing of the Indian telecom towers will mean a lessening of militancy in the Nepali Tarai, where gunmen use a combination of the open border and Indian cell phones to conduct their operations.
A quick visit to almost any Southasian zoo, even in the national capitals, can be a dejecting experience, with the animals stuck in tiny cages and looking distinctly uncared for and unhealthy. Often, of course, this is a result of a lack of access to funding and expertise, rather than deliberate negligence.
But there could be some hope. In mid-March, senior officials of India’s Environment Ministry took a decision to ask SAARC to jump into the fray, and attempt to foster some increased cooperation among Southasia’s zoos. The idea is for the SAARC Secretariat, headquartered in Kathmandu, to draft a policy guaranteeing support for zoos in need of assistance. This could come in the form of technical assistance, the development of local expertise or the raising of public awareness.
Once a formal network of the region’s zoos is created, it will naturally increase the level of interaction between the individual institutions throughout. And, hopefully, will lead to better care and more space for the denizens. To begin with, the zoos could exchange information on how to do good with limited resources, as is invariably the case. The SAARC zoo collaboration would also lead to a central database of the animals in all of the zoos, consequently making the exchange of animals easier.
Considering that wildlife conservation must undeniably be a trans-national effort, there is much sense behind this proposal if the zoos were to collaborate to begin research and protection efforts. But with the proposal yet to be submitted to the Secretariat, which could be unwilling to come on board, enthusiasm may well be premature.
Then again, now that the idea has been floated, governments or even individual zoos could attempt it themselves, outside of the framework of SAARC. On the whole, a zoo is neglected because it is a place visited by the mass public, and is therefore considered somehow ‘down-market’. Any cross-SAARC collaboration on zoos would be a way to show more respect not only to the animals, but to the humans who visit.
Malaysia is becoming rather inhospitable to foreign workers. Facing forecasts of over four percent unemployment and with a recession in full swing, the locals are evidently putting their pride aside to take up positions in the manufacturing and service sectors. These realms have been closed to new foreign entries since January, and the government has also imposed a fast-track deportation system to fine and ferry away undocumented migrants.
In the euphoria of its rapid growth, Malaysia had developed generously porous borders. Now, with the country’s economic prospects significantly dimmed, migrants from India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan are also suffering. Kuala Lumpur now plans to reduce its two million-strong migrant-worker population (10 percent of which are Nepali, eight percent Indian, 20 percent Bangladeshi and the rest from Indonesia and elsewhere in Southeast Asia) by 60 percent over the next few years. This will transfer an estimated 15,000 jobs per month from foreigners to citizens.
So deeply is Malaysia feeling the crunch that this plan is now being implemented on a stepped-up timetable. Bangladesh was the first to be impacted when a mid-March decision was taken to cancel over 55,000 already-approved working visas to the country. Of the 523 Bangladeshis who arrived in Malaysia on the day the ruling was made, only those assigned to work in the plantation and construction sectors were given permission to stay. Bangladeshis returning to Malaysia from vacations have also been unpleasantly surprised with their valid work permits often not getting them through immigration kiosks.
For Bangladesh, a country in which remittances make up 12 percent of gross domestic product, this is disastrous news. Last year alone, Bangladeshis working in Malaysia sent home almost USD 100 million. Officials in Kuala Lumpur have promised to refund the USD 3226 paid as fees by the accepted workers who were turned back. But with little employment at home, and with traditional host countries around the world (including the Gulf countries) slashing migrant-worker numbers, the reverberations in Southasia are bound to jostle security here.
A major image overhaul may be in the offing for Sri Lanka if Gamini Wickramasinghe, chairman of the state-owned Bank of Ceylon, has his way. The banker has suggested that Sri Lanka strive to become a duty-free shopping hub, in the mould of Dubai. Considering the 140 weekly flights between Indian cities and Colombo, regular connections with Male, as well as the newly agreed upon (though not yet plying) links between the island and Kathmandu and Dhaka, Wickramasinghe believes that the city is ideally situated to be a shopping centre for Southasia’s middle and upper classes.
Of course, a peaceful solution to the island’s ethnic conflict is a must before any such dream can become reality. But many in Colombo are increasingly unconcerned about this, certain that the army will soon crush the LTTE. The shopping initiative could certainly do much to boost the island’s struggling tourism industry. But some extra research is probably advisable, given the current global and regional economic slowdown. The United Arab Emirates itself was recently forced to bail out its prized shopping paradise city, Dubai. And one cannot help but refer here to the recent fire that just engulfed the Bashundhara City Complex mall in Dhaka, billed as the largest shopping arcade in Southasia.
In search of a sign
There has been much talk of late over whether or not India has ‘arrived’ on the global financial scene. Whatever others may say, New Delhi thinks the answer to that question hinges on a symbol. While Rs and INR are often used as designations for the Indian rupee, these are considered by some to be too plebeian in relation to the specially designed currency signs – the Greek-epsilon-inspired €, the latin-librum-derived £ and the almighty (though increasingly less so) $.
To remedy this perceived lack, the Finance Ministry has launched a design competition to find, or create, the perfect symbol for the country’s currency. The competition, open till April 15 to resident Indians, particularly emphasises that design entrants take into consideration India’s “history and cultural ethos”.
Each entry, supplemented by a fee of INR (or whatever) 500 per entry, will be gunning for a significant stack of rupees: 25,000 for short-listed applicants and 250,000 for the winner. Not to mention that whoever takes the top prize will ultimately have contributed a design that will instantaneously be adopted – and longed for – by a billion-plus people.
New Delhi is already formulating plans for the new currency’s global indoctrination, including equipping keyboards and computer systems with the new rupee emblem. The cost of such an endeavour has not yet been calculated by Finance Ministry officials; but as with other things involving the ‘national identity’, it will surely be considered worth the money.
We can well predict that Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal will likely also adopt the rupee symbol developed by India, just as the Australians use the $ for their currency. In the end, this will only leave the Bangladeshi taka wondering what to do.
News items on human rights in the Maldives have always been abundant, and have generally been critical of the atolls’ record. Not so any more. Under the new administration of President Mohamed Nasheed (Anni), the country is now being lauded for having the best rights record in Southasia. Coming from Amnesty International, this is high praise indeed (though perhaps there is a whiff of bias here, given that President Nasheed was once deemed a ‘prisoner of conscience’ by Amnesty itself). The international watchdog is now to be involved in training judges, as well as assisting in drafting the country’s criminal code.
Good news abounds on the Maldivian media front, as well. The UN special rapporteur on opinion and freedom of expression, Frank La Rue, recently congratulated President Nasheed on the rapid improvements that the country has made in media freedom. English Pen, an organisation that long promoted the rights of Maldivian writers, has likewise given a nod to the quick progress that has been made since Nasheed took over from Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s thirty-year reign last November.
In further proof that the new government is serious about promoting free media, President Nasheed has said that he would like to make the islands a sanctuary for Burmese writers, as well as for persecuted journalists from other countries. Perhaps the first group to be extended this offer should be the harassed journalists of Sri Lanka, right next door.
Crisis to crisis
It has been a volatile month for Southasian cricket. To being with, there was the attack in Lahore on Sri Lanka’s national cricket team. Already identified as an unstable, dangerous state by its neighbours and the international community, Pakistan’s image took another drastic downturn after this event. The ramifications of the incident were immediate. The International Cricket Council announced that it was moving the 2011 cricket World Cup from Pakistan, probably to England. A host of international teams cancelled scheduled games in Pakistan, and pundits mourned the fact that international cricket was unlikely to be played in the country for a very long time.
As the world of cricket was abandoning the Pakistani pitch, it is worth remembering that not all cricketers had done so. The Afghan cricket team was already in the process of practising for a series of World Cup-qualifying games, and was largely unperturbed by the hullabaloo that broke out. The team did take one precaution: moving their practice venue from the normally staid environs of Lahore to the volatile city of Peshawar. Perhaps it was bolstered by being closer to home, also. Either way, the Afghan cricketers say that the environment and facilities in Peshawar are, when all is said and done, much better than those in Afghanistan.
More recently, the extravaganza that was to be the second season of the Indian Premier League (IPL) is, ironically, no longer to be held in India. With the dates scheduled for the games clashing with elections in India, the Centre as well as many of the state governments told organisers they would not be able to provide enough boots on the ground to ensure adequate security. Coming on the heels of the Lahore attack, with teams greatly fearful, the IPL decided to move the entire season to another country. Official requests to host have been sent to England and South Africa, and a final decision is expected in about three weeks.
Closer to home, the Sri Lanka Cricket Board was quick to offer its own pitches as potential host for the IPL. But with a war still waging in the northern part of the country, and the LTTE having pulled off two daring air raids on Colombo just in February, Sri Lanka can hardly be considered a safer option. Meanwhile, the cricket authority in Pakistan, in a bid to bring international teams back to the country, is using the location change to make the point that players’ security is a concern everywhere. And as valid as this point is, it is unlikely to bring any relief to Pakistani cricket.
Tales of turmoil from Afghanistan are depressingly regular news. But the latest confusion in Kabul is in a somewhat different arena: elections. First, a number of political parties had been unhappy with President Hamid Karzai’s decree that the country must go to the polls before 21 May. Under the Afghan Constitution, elections must be held every five years, which would require that the next elections be held 30 to 60 days before the deadline.
The snag lay in the fact that the Election Commission had already announced that the polls would take place on 20 August, due to security concerns, a date backed by several Western governments. To add to the confusion, regardless of what it states elsewhere, the Constitution itself says that the final decision on the matter should be that of the Commission’s. In early March, President Karzai backed down and agreed to the August date.
Thereafter, the controversy galloped in a new direction – over who will sit in the presidential chair from 21 May till the polls. President Karzai is adamant that he will not step down. He is challenged by opposition parties, many of which accuse the president of planning to maintain his grip on power illegally. They are now calling for an interim caretaker government to be formed. With the Constitution ambiguous on the procedure for such a scenario, both sides are gearing up for a showdown at the very top – exactly what Afghanistan does not need in the currently deteriorating situation.
In March 1959, a very young Dalai Lama fled the Potala Palace in Lhasa. He and his close advisers feared for his life, as the Chinese military was on the move. This year, on 10 March, during a speech commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Tibetan uprising, in what was clearly a well-planned remark, the Dalai Lama described the current situation in Tibet as “hell on earth”.
The retort from the other side was swift. Qiangba Puncog, chairman of the government in Tibet, said, “If ‘hell on earth’ was used to describe the old Tibet, it would be most appropriate.” While the so-called Uprising Day anniversary is always a somewhat tense time for Chinese government officials, Beijing was particularly sensitive this year. After all, not only was this the 50th anniversary of the uprising itself, but also the first anniversary of the massive anti-China protests that swept through Tibet (and well beyond) last year.
As such, in the run-up to the awaited day, Chinese authorities sent thousands of troops to Tibet, to patrol the streets with heavy artillery and to check identifications cards. In some areas, cell phone and Internet services were cut off. Foreign tourists were not allowed into Tibet. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that no large-scale protests were reported on the plateau.
Outside Tibet, however, it was a (slightly) different story. Small-scale, peaceful protests were indeed witnessed in many countries. In Dharamsala, home to the Dalai Lama and seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile, there were no demonstrations, only a well-attended candlelight vigil. But protests did take place in New Delhi, with many undertaking a fast lasting 50 hours, 50 minutes and 50 seconds.
In Nepal, meanwhile, through which many flee Tibet in transit to Dharamsala, the reaction was almost as quiet as in Tibet itself. Beijing persuaded the Maoist-led Kathmandu government to clamp down on protests of any kind, including those by foreigners. The Chinese embassy and consular offices in Kathmandu were heavily guarded, and roads leading to both were closed to traffic for days before and after 10 March. Nepali police even arrested 27 Tibetans considered to be community leaders, holding them until after the day had passed.
Once again, Bangladesh and India are in talks in an attempt to find common ground over maritime demarcations in the Bay of Bengal. This is old news. And considering that former discussions stalled over rather trifling matters – such as which side of the river to begin measurements from – there was little reason to expect any consensus to emerge. But the dialogue seems to have gone ahead a little differently this time around, with India in late-March going so far as to say it wanted to find an “equitable solution”.
For the average person, this does not seem to be saying much, appearing as a far cry from being a harbinger of imminent agreement. In fact, however, it is a significant step forward, marking the first time such conciliatory language has been used in 12 rounds of talks. (That said, this was more a rhetorical victory than a practical one; the two parties were once again unable to agree on which side the measuring should begin.) What brought this change about is unknown, but perhaps looming deadlines for submitting official claims to the UN – June 2009 for New Delhi and July 2011 for Dhaka – may have had something to do with it.
On the other hand, there is little good news coming from eastern Southasia, with no movement on another maritime territory dispute, between Burma and Bangladesh. In fact, the former submitted its claim to the UN without engaging in any consultation with Dhaka. It has also been quietly putting up barbed-wire fencing along the 200-km land border, and mobilising naval ships along the disputed sea areas. But the optimistic can see a silver lining even in this: it has done wonders in curbing smuggling in the Bay of Bengal.