The monument features women in relief on a huge stone slab, and is flanked by an iron pillar that proclaims in Japanese and English, "Let peace prevail on earth". Standing sentinel atop another pillar, is the image of a folded paper crane, outlined in iron.
In Japanese tradition, cranes signify peace, happiness, long life – a symbol that has come to mean "no more nukes". It is said that anyone who folds a thousand paper cranes will get cured – even of cancer. Today, garlands of paper cranes are visible everywhere in the city along with flower bouquets, banners, and placards. One can sense a momentum and urgency in the crowds come to commemorate Hiroshima Day, but there is only frenzy, no anger. Just intense determination of thousands to remember the past and make the future nuclear-free.
I'm running late for the discussion I'm to attend, on the Indian and Pakistan nuclear tests, part of the programme that comprises the 1998 World Conference Against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs, organised by Gensuikyo (the Japan Council against A&H Bombs, which has strong links to the Japan Communist Party and a highly political agenda). So I carry on, and make my way along the river bank to the venue of the discussion. I love this walk on the mud track along the river, shaded from the intense sunlight by a canopy of leafy trees, the orchestral, insistent hum of cicadas blocking out all other noise in this shady tunnel.
Hard to imagine the scene 53 years ago, when nothing was left alive in this area, the river gorged with dead bodies; people jumping in to escape their agony, their skin peeling off like rags exposing blood-dripping flesh, eyeballs and inner organs torn out, eardrums perforated from the supersonic shock wave emitted by the explosion, the intense heat (3000-4000 degrees Celsius at ground zero) of the fireball, the 440 m per second winds (the fastest tornado is 70 m per second) flinging aside buildings, animals, human beings. Men, women, toddlers, children, pregnant women, old people – bloated, bleeding, many no longer bearing any resemblance to human beings.
No wonder that those who survived, the hibakusha (literally, "witness-survivor of the A-bomb"), are so fiercely anti-nuclear. Many, initially fired by hatred and the desire for revenge, have since channelled their anger into the peace movement centred around the idea that no one should have to suffer the way they or their loved ones did, and still do.
The insistent hum of the cicadas fades as I emerge from the canopy of trees to cross the road, and go through a neat concrete jungle of shops and apartments to enter the air-conditioned hotel where the meeting is going on.
The presence of Pakistanis and Indians has meant a lot to the Japanese participants in this conference, which has been an annual event since 1955. Although Indians have been participating every year, this year they are here in force, some 20 of them, mostly from left-wing trade unions. This is the first time in 20 years that Pakistanis have attended (there are three of us); the Bangladesh delegates did not arrive, Nepal was represented by a lone participant, and Sri Lanka by three Buddhist priests and a student leader.
"We thought everyone in India and Pakistan was for the tests, but it is encouraging to learn that there are anti-nuclear movements in your countries," was the common refrain. How does an anti-nuclear person already saturated in anti-nuclear material convey what it means to be in Hiroshima on these days? The experience only reinforces the beliefs already held, first and foremost that there is no sanity in planning a future in the Subcontinent with nuclear weapons.
"We shall overcome," said former Indian Navy chief Admiral L. Ramdas, in one of his emails, some time before we met for the first time, overbreakfast in Hiroshima. We are on the 15th floor of our hotel, overlooking the A-Bomb Dome and the Peace Park. Something symbolic about all this – a retired Indian naval officer and a Pakistani journalist, meeting not to justify their countries' policies but to reaffirm a working relationship against the nuclear psyche. He is right. We shall, we must, overcome.
What does a conscientious editor do when s/he no longer exercises control over editorial decisions? S/he calls it quits, of course. And so Matiur Rahman did on 15 July. The veteran journalist and editor of Bangladesh's widely-read Bhorer Kagoj Bangla daily, which played a critical role in the run up to the last general elections, joined the exalted ranks of those editors who had walked out of the newsroom instead of succumbing to pressure from the publishers.
Trouble for Rahman began once his publisher, Saber Hossain Chowdhury, was sworn into the Sheikh Hasina cabinet as a deputy minister last December. Other members of the Bhorer Kagoj staff had been perturbed about whether their newspaper would be able to function independently in the new scheme of things. By the first half of this year, they found out that their fears were not totally unfounded. The government began to make known its displeasure at many of the news items Bhorer Kagoj was carrying.
It did not help much that the daily was on a collision path with Bangladesh's most powerful business unit, Beximco. The enmity was earned when Bhorer Kagoj showed Beximco in a none too favourable light regarding its role in the 1996 Dhaka stock market crash. Over the last two years, the paper had reported extensively on manipulation of the stock market and about loan defaults, involving some of the most powerful business organisations of the country.
Things snowballed recently when Bhorer Kagoj carried an investigative report on the Sonali Bank in London becoming the sole guarantor of a million dollar loan to Shainpukur Ltd, a Beximco subsidiary. After the report was published, the Bangladesh Bank intervened and annulled the agreement. But those affected by the investigation were not ones to sit tight; it is alleged that they conveyed their displeasure to senior government officials. The officials themselves had reasons to be miffed with Rahman's paper as they had been its target for failing to prosecute loan defaulters despite sufficient evidence.
Their wrath was only compounded by Bhorer Kagoj's recent coverage of the "Long March", taken out by the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party to protest the Chittagong Hill Tracts peace treaty. The report said that activists of the ruling Awami League had disrupted the protest by placing cars and trucks at strategic locations to block the march.
Publisher Chowdhury now had to face the ire of the highest echelons of the Awami League government, as disclosed by a senior Bhorer Kagoj staff member. A government official is said to have told the publisher, "You know who the troublemakers are. You can remove them." Rahman was asked to discontinue running the writings of five columnists known to be especially critical of government. It was only a matter of time before Rahman handed in his resignation.
What is unfortunate about this turn of events is that Bhorer Kagoj, in its six years in the market, had built a reputation as an objective, professionally run newspaper. In a country where almost all newspapers have a strong partisan affiliation, it had stood out by giving free vent to opposing ideologies and viewpoints. Its op-ed pages have seen writers of all hues enjoying their share of the space, while the editorial cartoons have made a unique contribution to Bangladeshi journalism.
Perhaps Rahman's most important contribution was in setting up an international network of exiled Bangladeshi writers. Bhorer Kagoj has been regularly printing Taslima Nasrin's travel writings, while another exile of religious fundamentalism, Daud Haider, has been frequently contributing from Germany. And none of this was token liberalism -Bhorer Kagoj was the first Dhaka paper to publish petitions and appeals on behalf of jailed writers, presecuted intel lectuals or minority commu imies, and under rahman it stood f irmly for secular principles in a country where many in the establishment are under the thrall of conservative Islam.
When Matiur Rahman officially gave up office on 15 August, what he told The Daily Star by way of explanation is the stuff of journalism manifestos. The one-time Communist Party member said, "I believe in an independent media and in the independent role of the editor. This has been my cardinal principle in journalism. Partisan politics and independent journalism cannot function together." based on a report by Naeem Mohaiemen
Basic instinct: An America story
What america wants, America gets. It may not come on a platter or in a hurry, but the necessary spadework is done to attain the ultimate end.
Now, however much they may play it down, America wants a military base in Bangladesh. So, how do they go about it, since there are any number of people in any country, perhaps more so in the Subcontinent, who will cry themselves hoarse about "national interest and sovereignty" at the slightest provocation?
America's diplomats set to work by seeking out the targeted country's Achilles' heel, and having once located it, proffer to heal it. In the case of Bangladesh, the weak point is the natural calamities that have been regularly visiting the country since before it was born. Hence was conceived in 1991 the wonderfully cryptical Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), with a Mother Teresa-esque code name, "Operation Sea Angel".
Under this interim contract, the American military helped Bangladesh tide over the ravages of the 1991 cyclone which had killed around 139,000 people. Then came the inevitable teaser: now that SOFA had worked so well, would Bangladesh mind making it permanent? But the government in Dhaka was not willing to jump; signing a permanent deal, it said, would be against the "national interest". Of that first round that ended in a stalemate, the American Defence Attache for Bangladesh said, "We regret that our effort to conclude SOFA was not successful, because we thought it could best serve the interests of the US and Bangladesh."
Bangladesh's interest, we can understand – some helicopters to evacuate stranded delta-dwellers, for example. But what 'American interest' could there be?
American diplomacy is made of sterner stuff, however. It is not one to turn away at the first slight. They kept at it, and fully Seven years later, in early August 1998, a new improved military deal to combat natural disasters was struck. This one is worth five years, and called the Humanitarian Assistance Needs Assessment (HANA).
Newspapers quoted the visiting head of the US military team as saying that HANA is part of the US military's increased humanitarian activities in the post-Cold War phase. "We want to provide focussed attention to Bangladesh's humanitarian needs… We are trying to identify the tools and equipment to mitigate disasters," said the officer.
But then matters took on a turn of their own. The mass-circulation newspaper Jankantha reported Foreign Minister Abdus Samad Azad as saying that he knew nothing about the deal announced by the US embassy "I was not here and will tell you later about it," said the minister.
The State Minister for Foreign Affairs, Abul Hasan Chowdhury, told the press that there had been no MOU on HANA and that he had only authorised a visit by US defence officials. Over at the American embassy, the Defence Attache however was upbeat, telling the Daily Star reporter that eight training programmes have been planned for the coming months, "of which three have already been approved by the highest authorities of the Bangladesh government".
Bangladesh left-wing groups pounced on this opportunity to take a stand. And so they have been quick with their protest-speak, accusing the government of sellout and claiming, as one student's group did, that the agreement was a "far-reaching plan to set up a US military base in Bangladesh".
The American embassy in Dhaka has kept mum since. Over across the border in India, the media and defence analysts suddenly became very attentive to Bangladesh affairs. Meanwhile, the country experienced its worst flood in decades.
You have to hand it to Centgas of Unocal Inc, the American gas company. Even as the civil war in Afghanistan between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance seemed certain to drag on for some time to come, Centgas executives had been laying plans to build a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Pakistan via the war-ridden country. Knowing what that takes, the consortium had embarked on negotiations with all the concerned parties, and that included the two warring groups.
Till even late July, it was thought that something real was on hand, the mood was gung-ho, and a deal was likely to be clinched. Centgas had arranged for a green signal for their project from any Afghan ruling combination – Taliban or not. But for all that organisation, they hadn't reckoned on the forces of anti-Americanism.
Thus, when the bomb blasts shook the US embassies in Dar es Salam and Nairobi, and the retaliatory cruise missiles winged their way over sea and desert in search of Osama bin Laden, the casualties included the doggedly pursued plans of Centgas. For the foreseeable future, and possibly until as long as the Taliban control Afghanistan, the multinational now stands little chance of getting the pipeline through Afghanistan.
For all the daring it represented, the consortium's original plan merits a second look: a nearly ] 500 km-long pipeline, carrying 2 billion cubic feet gas every day, running from Turkmenistan through Herat in Afghanistan, to Quetla, finally reaching Multan in southern Punjab; all at a cost of USD 1.9 billion. The project was thought to be particularly important for Pakistan, whose own gas reserves in Balochistan are due to run out in a few years.
As they say, the best laid schemes of multinationals and men oft go awry!