As word of the ocean Shangri-la has spread through Europe and America, tourism in one of Southasia’s most isolated area, the Andaman Islands, has in recent years been rising steadily. Although visited mostly for its natural attractions – pristine beaches, world-class snorkelling and untouched, monkey-filled forests – there is also a wealth of human culture just waiting to be explored. Which brings us to the latest exhibit: the Jarawa, one of the original Adivasi communities of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
Tour companies are now offering day trips to ‘observe’ the Jarawa in their ‘natural habitat’. Tourists can take pictures of the people, and some have reportedly even been known to chuck biscuits and sweets at them. Moreover, Barefoot India, a major Indian travel company, has just won a case permitting it to develop an eco-resort at Collipur, right near the designated Jarawa reserve. Other companies are expected to follow, and the likes of Barefoot have big plans for bringing in thousands of tourists a year.
It has not been long since the Jarawa first started wandering out of the jungle. In 1997, they began to be seen standing around the roads that thread through their territory. Eventually, some stopped vehicles to beg for food. Most of the Jarawa, said to number only around 250, still remain somewhere in the forests. But a few have picked up a little Hindi over the past decade, and are becoming a regular sight in the markets. A handful of Jarawa children have even walked up to schools and asked for an education.
Some anthropologists have now begun to protest the recent turn of events, as have human-rights groups focused on indigenous peoples, such as Survival International. Some are predicting the imminent extinction, both cultural and physical, for the Jarawa. Still more pressingly, contact with tourists could quickly expose the tribe to new diseases for which they have no natural defences, as has been seen in myriad similar situations worldwide. With the fate of the Jarawa hanging on a thread, one would think that the newfound international interest in the community would be able to be put to some good use.
The shadowy profile kept by Pakistan’s primary intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), is a mixed blessing for the country’s intelligence network as a whole. Manoeuvring and plotting behind closed doors and maximum-security gates, ISI operatives have long acted with near-total impunity. As a consequence, however, the agency today finds itself publicly suspected of lurking behind any foul play within (and outside) Pakistan, from training extremists to election-rigging to the abduction and murder of political opponents.
In response to this image problem, the ISI is today undergoing a PR-savvy makeover, and throwing open its still-unsignposted doors to Western journalists and other habitual critics. In weekly receptions in wood-panelled offices, liveried servants are now reportedly treating suspicious guests to refreshments, while suited officials are introducing themselves fully before showing a series of PowerPoint presentations, where ‘confidential’ details of the Taliban insurgency and the hunt for al-Qaeda are revealed in neat bullet points, if you will pardon the expression. “In the past, irrespective of whether we did something, we were getting blamed for it,” said one ISI official, one of a few now authorised to speak to the press. “Now we want to reach out and get our point of view across.”
Whether these congenial tea receptions will convince anyone one way or another is another matter entirely. But the ISI’s new strategy has indeed won some small yet notable victories. In late July, the New York Times ran a front-page story highlighting the difficulties the US military ‘surge’ in Afghanistan has presented Pakistan – apparently sourced entirely from one of those ISI briefings. An ISI official was evidently jubilant about the propaganda coup: “That was the first time [a Western journalist] carried both sides of the argument,” he was quoted as exclaiming. “I think we are getting there!” Still, this is merely a PR campaign; genuine transparency is, of course, not the stock in trade of a spy agency.
Though Colombo must have enough to worry about within the confines of the Sri Lankan shores in today’s post-war, pre-peace situation, it is never too preoccupied to look across the Palk Strait to neighbouring India. Hoping to connect to the Southasian mainland, the government is now urgently seeking to revive ferry services to the north, and even to reinstate a railway link.
Ferry services are now set to begin running from Colombo port to Cochin and Tuticorin in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, respectively. The services on these routes were suspended during the 1980s due to the war, which had also entered the sea. Meanwhile, the railway connection is being planned along an existing route between Talaimannar, on the northwestern tip of Sri Lanka, and Dhanushkodi, on the Indian island of Rameswaram. This connection, with a steamer service to cross the water, had been used until the Dhanushkodi Railway was destroyed by a cyclone in 1964.
Baitullah Mehsud is dead, Maulvi Omar has been arrested and the militants no longer control the Swat Valley. In short, the Pakistani Taliban – the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan – is scrambling to reorganise. Indeed, the Pakistani armed forced (backed, worryingly, by American ‘drones’) are pursuing the insurgents across the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), from Bajaur in the north all the way down to South Waziristan. Many say that the operation has been far more successful against the militants than similar undertakings have been in years. Which is why, perhaps, thoughts are now turning to governance.
Indeed, Islamabad seems to have finally realised that military might alone is not enough to ensure peace in the volatile frontier. On 14 August, Pakistan’s Independence Day, President Asif Ali Zardari announced that much-needed political, legal and administrative reforms would be implemented in the FATA. The seven ‘agencies’ of FATA – Bajaur, Mohmand, Khyber, Orakzai, Kurram, North Waziristan and South Waziristan – have been ruled under what the president recently termed “a 100-year-old, obsolete system of administration”.
To date, each of the agencies is governed by a direct presidential appointee called a Political Agent, who is vested with sweeping powers. Political parties are banned from operating in the areas. To make matters worse, the Supreme Court has no jurisdiction over FATA, which is still governed through the draconian colonial-era Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR). This act allows, among other things, for arbitrary arrest with no provision for appeal or bail, and enforces collective punishment on the people, including women and children.
If the noises coming from Islamabad are to be believed, all of this is now set to change. A whole gamut of reforms designed to ensure greater legal and political rights for the people of FATA are soon to be implemented. Greater government accountability, through financial audits and a reduction of the Political Agent’s unchecked power, is one of the first steps. Other promised changes include the creation of appeal courts; the removal of women and children from collective punishment; and a reversal of the no-political-parties rule.
At the very least, the people of FATA should not have to wait another century for the same rights as the rest of their fellow citizens.
In another chapter in the controversy over the Presidential Commission in the Maldives, the body has now released a statement saying that it has solid proof that former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom misused state funds for personal purposes. And these were not just any expenses, but bills for – of all things – booze and cosmetic surgery. The Commission was launched in May by President Mohamed Nasheed in order to investigate allegations of corruption against officials of the former government.
Under heated discussion from the moment of its inception, the opposition termed the Commission “unconstitutional” and a “massacre against Nasheed’s political rivals”. While the Commission is authorised to summon and interrogate any citizen, Gayoom has refused to appear before it.
Nevertheless, in July the Commission accused Gayoom and several of his relatives and friends of squandering over USD 5 million from state funds. Now, the body claims to be in possession of receipts proving that the former president and his family, during their three decades in power, used funds designated for social welfare to pay for cosmetic surgery and mini-bar tabs at luxury hotels in Singapore.
While the Commission’s spokesperson says that he is shocked by the large amounts spent so frivolously, Gayoom’s office has yet to respond formally. What we would want to know is whether it was the former president himself who had the alleged surgery?
Wooing the tourist dollar
In a bid to rekindle their flagging tourist industries, Nepal and Burma are seeking to re-establish a direct air link, severed since 1998 due to mounting unrest at the time in the former. While in qualitatively different ways, both countries are currently buckling under ethnic invasion, crumbling infrastructure, constitutional crises and shaky governmental legitimacy. And both need tourist dollars.
Burma has had an especially difficult time at tourism, of course. Due to internal unrest among its marginalised communities, and widespread international condemnation of its human-rights record, many international tourists have long refused to visit the country as a way of showing solidarity with the Burmese oppressed. Between 2002 and 2007, tourist numbers remained relatively static, with some 212,000 and 248,000 visitors arriving. In comparison, Thailand saw 15 million tourists in 2007 alone.
Nepal, on the other hand, has never been a slouch in the game of international tourism. It is one of the preferred destinations in Asia for Western backpackers – not to mention the annual flood of Indian tourists who make up a third of Nepal visitors. But the steady cash flow in the good years made the drop-off during the ten years of civil war in 1996 all the more painful. In 1997, when the Maoist insurgency was limited to remote, little-visited districts, Nepal saw around 700,000 visitors, generating about USD 230 million, a full four percent of gross domestic product. Then followed a series of dismal years, with 2002 for instance, seeing a mere 200,000 arrivals.
With the war over, Nepal has aggressively sought to woo its visitors back. In January of this year, the Maoist-led government set the target of doubling tourist numbers by 2011, already self-designated as Nepal Tourism Year. And recent statistics suggest this target is not altogether fantastical. Tourist numbers grew four percent last year from 526,000 in 2007, which was itself the highest flow ever into Nepal. Exactly how many of those tourists would be heading from Nepal to Burma – or the other way around – is unclear; but it certainly cannot hurt to try.
Blue sheep on the brink
In a coup for Southasian biodiversity, 353 new species of animal and plant life have been discovered in the eastern Himalaya, stretching between Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan, the Indian Northeast and northern Burma. According to conservationists, this is one of the most biologically rich areas in the world. But a World Wildlife Fund report has also warned that global warming could change all that, and quickly.
At the summit of the problem are the melting Himalayan glaciers of this stretch, the source of giant rivers – the Yangtze, the Ganga, the Mekong, the Brahmaputra – that sustain some 40 percent of humanity and an equally massive chunk of flora and fauna. In this light, the extinction of animal species is perhaps merely a sideshow to a potential humanitarian crisis. But the glacial melting and subsequent flooding are also compounding the existing threats to the Himalayan ecosystem, of pollution, overgrazing, logging and illegal animal trading. What has traditionally been a haven for a broad spectrum of unique wildlife – including elephants, clouded leopards and cobras in the foothills; red pandas, blue sheep and snow leopards in the high Himalaya – is fast becoming inhospitable.
Only a quarter of the region’s original habitat is today said to remain viable. Nonetheless, according to the recent WWF report, this degrading area continues to house some 300 mammals, 977 birds species, 269 kinds of freshwater fish, 10,000 plant species, the last remaining greater one-horned rhino, and a high density of Royal Bengal Tigers. And these recent findings build on discoveries made over the course of the last ten years: 244 new plants, 16 amphibians, 16 reptiles, 14 fish, two birds and two mammals – a macaque monkey and the world’s smallest dear, the miniature muntjac.
To protect the existing species, and many presumably yet to be discovered, the WWF is urging India, Nepal and Bhutan to formulate and cooperate on a region-wide action plan. Similarly, it urges that development activities – from hydropower dams to tourist facilities – pay greater heed to the environment.
Druk Yul has long been a byword for exotic isolation. But the gradual, creeping spread of broadband Internet into the kingdom has drawn the Bhutanese closer to the outside world. For the moment, Internet remains an elite privilege, and particularly restricted to the political class. But this alone is facilitating a revolution in governance, towards a fully wired polity.
Centralisation in Bhutan’s bureaucracy has long been a key issue. Thimphu is the sole destination for many requiring official procedures, from passport renewal to obtaining manufacturing licenses. With a lacklustre road network and extreme rural isolation, the difficulties are blatant; for a villager, a trip to the capital could take days. With broadband Internet access now in all 20 dzongkhag (district) administrations, however, a nationwide intranet is also underway, helping to foster (hopefully) a more comprehensive form of e-governance.
District administrators can now access the Thimphu wide area network (WAN), which connects all ministries and other government agencies in the capital. Officials across Bhutan can send and receive large batches of data quickly, and even conduct video conferences with the capital. Interestingly, the reach and influence of Thimphu is thus set to spread dramatically, perhaps even entrenching centralisation. But state neglect of remote provinces will grow less excusable, and increased communication is sure to speed up the slow-grind bureaucracy.
Poking the elephant
No longer in government, the United Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) today appears keen to parade its far-left credentials. In a provocative gesture of solidarity with Southasia’s revolutionary front, the Maoists have criticised the governments of Sri Lanka and India for their heavy-handed clampdowns on the LTTE and Naxalites, respectively – one finished, the other continuing. According to the former rebels, the draconian measures undertaken were in fact counterproductive in tackling unrest.
Along the same lines, Maoist chief Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ has said that his party will retain a close kinship with both COMPOSA (the Coordination Committee of Maoist Parties and Organisations of South Asia, whose underground headquarters is found somewhere in India) and RIM (the Revolutionary International Movement, a worldwide umbrella body of hard-left militants). This is a clear message that, despite agreeing to Nepal’s peace process three years ago, the party is prepared to continue to support armed movements outside of Nepal.
Politically speaking, the Maoists lose little political capital in criticising Sri Lanka, which has few strong bilateral ties with Nepal. But criticism of India seems a serious backward step in terms of practicality. An uneasy relationship with the Big Brother to the south prevailed during the Maoist’s nine months in office. Indian support is reluctant at best, and the recent Maoist jibes must especially rankle after the state’s bloody confrontations with their Naxalite comrades earlier this summer in Lalgargh, West Bengal. Then again, un-diplomatic speech and organising countrywide shutdowns may well be the only joys of opposition.
Big Brother on the beach
Sri Lanka’s victory over the LTTE was celebrated, with jingoistic fanfare, as the glorious end to a dark era. Or so it was presented. But recent developments towards heavier security suggest that, for the Colombo regime at least, there is still a Tiger under every bed. The ink had scarcely dried on a contract worth SLR 30 million with Barnas International, a Madras-based company, to facilitate an extensive surveillance network in the capital. Now, it is to provide a similar service in northeastern areas reclaimed from the LTTE.
A state-of-the-art surveillance system, rigged with thermal imaging cameras, is now set to spread the entire length of Sri Lanka’s coastline. All cameras are to be Internet-enabled and open to monitoring through the cell phones and laptops of senior officials. Once in place, objects up to 20 km from shore will be detectable and analysed by special software, and the ghost of a threat will automatically sound an alarm in the central control centre – prompting a promised interception by heavily armed boats. The analysis technology can supposedly distinguish between a humble fishing vessel and a torpedo boat; so we hope.
Comprehensive monitoring of the coastline has long proved tricky for Sri Lanka, as the overstretched Coast Guard could only achieve so much from lookout towers. The Barnas project, on the other hand, embodies a shift from an imperfect manual system to a (theoretically) foolproof unmanned one. Yet such expensive, tech-heavy measures also betray an abiding siege mentality. Indeed, all ‘sensitive areas’ are to be brought under the surveillance network, including the recaptured northern territories, which the Sri Lankan authorities continue to comb for remaining Tigers.
Barnas has also approached the Tamil Nadu state government, proposing the surveillance of its own coastline. Although a deal has yet to be struck, an escalation in Sri Lankan maritime defence will almost certainly be met by its giant neighbour. Southasia’s waters are set to be more closely watched than ever before.
Since the collapse of British imperialism, South and Southeast Asia have been kept definitively apart. Burma’s isolationism has stifled movement between the two – and, by extension, between Southasia and China’s Yunnan province. But the proposed re-opening of a road used during World War II – since fallen in disrepair – that linked Yunnan with India’s Northeast had been promising a new beginning. Starting from the border town of Ledo in Assam, the 1079-mile Stilwell Road threads through Burma’s Kachin state and on into Yunnan. But despite enthusiasm from Assam and the Chinese government, the Indian government in early August decided to cancel the plan following the failure of a 13th round of talks with China over the disputed border in the Northeast.
Built under a US Army officer named Joe ‘Vinegar’ Stilwell in 1944 to supply Kuomintang forces fighting the Japanese, historical consensus holds that the road in fact saved the Kuomintang for the allies. Costing USD 137 million to build, it bore up to 65,000 tonnes of cargo during the war. Its potential in handling trade remains huge even today, a fact that has not been lost on the Assam authorities. Guwahati’s power minister, Pradyut Bordoloi, whose constituency sits around Ledo, has been lobbying hard for the reopening, on the grounds that it would save massive time and money in Sino-Indian trade, which has grown substantially in recent years.
Existing trade routes are problematic at best, having to negotiate the high Himalayan rampart in northern Sikkim. India’s reopening of the 15,000-foot Nathula pass in July 2006 has led to little traffic, despite lofty promises; in fact, it has proven impassable to large vehicles for several months in the winter. The Stilwell road, by contrast, offers relatively low passes, none of them prone to freezing. The volume it could accommodate is also tantalising: it could carry “between 15 and 20 percent of Sino-Indian bilateral trade”, according to Nazeeb Arif, the Assamese former secretary-general of the Indian Chamber of Commerce. Furthermore, the Stilwell Road opening would have vitalised industry in the Northeast in ways one could only imagine.
In addition to the ongoing stalemate between China and India, progress on the road was also held up by Burma. The route through insurgency-wracked Kachin state had long alarmed the Burmese junta, and the generals have been working to deny the long-running insurgency in the state the oxygen of trade altogether. Either way, it appears that New Delhi got fed up with waiting and has now shelved the project. Concerned lawmakers in the Northeast are already speaking in the past tense, referring to what could have been. “That is what Delhi does not very often understand,” said Nagaland Chief Minister Neiphui Rio. “Border trade can be very good for states like ours.”
In a country of over a billion people, it takes a gathering of only five for a protest to be officially termed a ‘mass incident’ in China. Beijing has been busy dealing with a number of such ‘incidents’ recently, all involving a great many more people than a mere half-dozen. Among these, of course, are the March-April 2008 protests in Tibet and the July 2009 agitation by the Uyghur in Xinjiang.
In the aftermath of the July protests, the Dalai Lama has also called for a revision of China’s ethnic-minority policy. The Tibetan leader has said he believes a more “realistic” policy may well be in place within a decade, which Beijing sees as a criticism. But the Dalai Lama once again reaffirmed his long-held view that independence for Tibet is not on his agenda, saying: “The Chinese government considers our problem a domestic one. And we also.” It was pro-Tibet activists that subsequently saw that one as a criticism.
And there is a chance – quiet, perhaps, but still rumbling – that something positive might emerge from the protests, a change that could in turn affect all of China’s 55 minority communities (around 10 percent of the population). Following the July violence, Wang Yang, party secretary for the southern province of Guangdong – where Uyghur workers had been attacked the previous month, thus sparking the subsequent protests – publicly stated that China needed to ‘revisit’ its policy on minorities. Currently, strict government control is maintained over minority religions, languages and cultures. Critics, meanwhile, warn that continued massive economic disparities between the Han and other ethnic groups are causing much of the unrest.
Though no other officials have spoken out on the matter, reports suggest that the Communist Party has had (in its usual secretive manner) a conversation on the policy. Indeed, many analysts suggest that there has been a longstanding rift within the Party apparatus over how strong-fisted official policy should be towards the minority communities – one that the continued unrest in various parts seems to be exacerbating.