Although always officially atheistic, the Communist Party of China continues to make headway in actively promoting Buddhism. In late June, the Chinese government-backed Asia Pacific Exchange and Cooperation Foundation (APECF) announced that it would raise USD 3 billion to develop Lumbini, the birthplace of Gautama Buddha and a UNESCO World Heritage site in Nepal’s southern Tarai plains. The project will try to turn the area into a ‘magnet for Buddhists’ similar to Mecca or the Vatican, building roads, airports, hotels and museums, as well as a Buddhist University.
The new Chinese plans for Lumbini, less than 10 km from the border with India, is said to have raised concerns in New Delhi. Largely lost in this tussle between the Asian giants, however, is Nepal itself. At present, Lumbini loses out in terms of revenue to Saranath in eastern Uttar Pradesh, where Buddha first taught the dharma, and Bodhgaya in Bihar, where he attained enlightenment.
Not much is known about the APECF, and its website (www.apecf.org) is still under construction. However, over the last year, the chairman of Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), Pushpa Kamal Dahal, made two visits to Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok, purportedly at the behest of the Foundation. He is also said to be the vice-chairman of the foundation. All of which leads to some speculation that the Lumbini effort is a business-cum-governmental effort by China to promote an economic activity that will also reap geopolitical dividends. Mid-July press reports, on the other hand, indicated incongruously that the UN Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO) had signed a memorandum in Beijing with the APECF. Then came news that Paras Shah, the ex-crown prince was also a member of the APECF board!
Over the past year, UNESCO too has been ramping up conservation efforts in Lumbini, though it remains unclear whether the foundation will work together with this cultural agency of the UN which has been the designated organisation thus far on Lumbini. Meanwhile a group of Malaysian investors, including the budget airline Air Asia, has been showing an interest in developing Lumbini.
Bringing in the army
The Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF), better known for guarding the atolls’ watery borders, has now become a ubiquitous presence in other areas of governance as well, controlling a variety of diseases ranging from dengue to corruption. Most recently, they were given orders to escort quarrelsome MPs out of the Parliament, if the latter failed to do so after repeated requests by the speaker.
The Maldives is currently facing a dengue epidemic, with more than a thousand cases reported this year alone. In keeping with recent moves against economic migrants, the government is linking the epidemic to an upsurge in the number of Bangladeshi workers entering the country illegally, as a result of the recent boom in construction. In early July, President Mohamed Nasheed called out the MNDF to help collect data on the number of people suffering from dengue, a challenging task given that it requires travel to far-flung islands to the north and south.
While bringing in the army to help with a health emergency is not unusual to the Maldives, having them take over the functioning of other ministries, as happened recently, has worried many. The previous month, in late June, after being authorised by President Nasheed, the MNDF took control of the employment arm of the Human Resource Ministry and the Immigration Ministry, which provides work permits to foreign labourers. Reports of corruption in both of these ministries was reportedly leading to the ease with which migrants were entering and working in the country illegally – after bribing the required officials.
Although no official has specifically acknowledged the corruption claim, Abdulla Shahid, an official in the Immigration Ministry, did point to a lack of coordination between the two ministries. Human Resources Minister Hassan Latheef denied the corruption charges and said that the fact that the MNDF has been assigned these responsibilities was probably motivated by a May report by the US State Department, which ranked the Maldives high on its watch list for human trafficking and forced labour practices.
To this, President Nasheed had a response all ready. At a formal event hosted by the US ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Maldives, Patricia Butenis, President Nasheed assured the US that the Maldives would take vigorous action against illegal human-trafficking rings. The MNDF, he noted, was already in the process of cleaning up the government ministries.
Better than a gun!
Population control, one of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s pet projects that led to brutal forced sterilisations of the poor during the 1970s, is now being tackled in a less vicious and more consumer-friendly manner in Rajasthan. For those individuals who register to get sterilised, the state Health Ministry, in association with the central government’s Family Welfare Scheme, is offering a lottery where the sterilised could win a Tata Nano each. Other ‘prizes’ include motorcycles, 21-inch television sets and food blenders.
Whoever registers for sterilisation before 30 September is automatically entered into the lottery system. Although the offer to sterilise is open to all Indians, those interested will have to travel to Jhunjhunu district in Rajasthan, where the scheme was launched in early July. India’s population of more than a billion is expected to overtake that of China by 2030, to become the most populous country in the world, and health official hope that this latest ‘enticement’ will attract at least 30,000 people.
Similar attempts have been made in the past. One of the oddest schemes, initiated in 2008, saw about 150 men getting sterilised in return for gun licenses in Madhya Pradesh. At the time, the state government reasoned that since men avoided sterilisation for fear of ‘losing their masculinity’, a gun, being an apparent symbol of male virility, would be offered in exchange.
Despite threats to strike by the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its religious allies, the Awami League government recently went ahead and abolished the ‘caretaker’ government system. Introduced in 1996 through a constitutional amendment, the neutral system has been a mainstay in overseeing the periods leading up to the country’s general elections, ideally taking away the possibility of a ruling government having undue influence over a poll.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has assured those in the opposition that they would be asked to participate in drafting a plan on how the next general elections should be held, currently slated for 2014. Yet BNP leader Khaleda Zia accused the prime minister and the Awami League of electoral malpractice, characterising the move as an attempt to rig the next general elections in order to remain in power.
In fact, the caretaker system had been coming under increasing criticism in recent years. This has become particularly strong since 2007, when a military-backed caretaker government overstayed its three-month mandate and delayed the general elections by more than two years.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recently hosted trilateral talks in Tehran with delegations from Islamabad and Kabul to discuss, in part, US hopes to build permanent military bases in Afghanistan. The idea is an old one, first proposed in 2005, then dropped, then proposed again in 2010. Discussions have continued since that time, although the US is said to have not yet officially decided on the matter. The issue has gained significance recently, however, after President Barack Obama’s announcement that the US would soon begin to withdraw troops.
In the past, both Afghanistan and Pakistan have officially been against any attempt to establish permanent bases by the US. More recently, however, President Karzai has tweaked his stance a bit, assuring the neighbouring countries, especially Pakistan, that no such bases would ever be used to ‘threaten’ other countries. Pakistan, on the other hand, has been unequivocal, labelling any proposed US military base a sign of a new ‘great war in Afghanistan’.
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has lost no time since her May election. In late June, after being approached by the Tata group, the Supreme Court ordered Mamata’s new state government to temporarily discontinue the returning of land to farmers in Singur. The land return had been a central campaign promise for Mamata, coasting on lingering frustration over the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led government’s 2006 leasing of Singur land to Tata Motors over the objections of local farmers.
Within a month of her electoral victory, Mamata’s government passed the Singur Land Rehabilitation and Development Act. The legislation favoured those whose land had been taken by the former government, amounting to about 400 of the total 1000 acres. Under the bill, those farmers who want their land back are required to submit an official form within 30 days, while the remaining land will be considered ‘open for industry’. The legislation also stipulated that Tata, too, would be compensated if it did not opt to return to Singur, in which case the government would become the owner of the land.
As soon as the Singur Act was passed, the Tata group released a statement claiming that it was ‘unconstitutional’. Company officials also noted that Tata had moved out of Singur in October 2008 unwillingly, amid protests and threats, without having been given sufficient financial relief. It has since filed two petitions, one challenging a High Court order that permitted the recent attempts at land redistribution, and one challenging the Singur Act itself. The High Court has rejected the first plea, sending the Tatas to ask the Supreme Court to look into the case. The justices quickly pointed out that the legality of the Singur Act is still under discussion in the High Court, and till that is decided Mamata and Tata – and the people of Singur – can wait.
The shiny seas
India has been going all out in its bid to boost tourism in its maritime neighbourhood. Less than a month after it restarted its ferry service to Colombo from the Tuticorin port in Tamil Nadu, New Delhi has proposed plans to launch a similar service to the main port in the Maldives. The new ferry could also run from Tuticorin, or perhaps it will start from Cochin, in Kerala, which is closer and hence the more convenient option.
Although the cost and the ports need to be finalised, the ferry should soon be offering a pleasant, and cheaper, alternative to flying to Male. Currently the cost ranges from USD 156 to USD 290 one way into Male, depending on whether one is travelling from South or North India. Most commonly, Indian visitors fly to Colombo, from where there are flights to Male.
With China ranking first in the number of tourist arrivals to the Maldives last year – about 120,000 – the Indian government clearly felt it was in its best interest to back this new venture, and be left behind in the tourism race. An Indian delegation headed by the secretary of the Indian shipping ministry, K Mohandas, along with officials from the Cochin and Tuticorin ports, visited the Maldives in mid-July to gauge the viability of the project. One big spoiler could be piracy. While the Maldives has been relatively safe from pirates, recent news reports have noted a growing trend of pirate ships following merchant ships in the Indian Ocean.
Another India-Maldives private venture also took off recently, when the real-estate arm of the Tata Group signed on to develop housing in the Maldives. The estimated cost of that project is about USD 200 million, with 80 percent of the housing being handed over to the government, while the remainder will be for sale in the open market.
Fixing the fix
Thimphu seems to be remembering the old advice against putting all of one’s eggs in a single basket. Wangdi Norbu, the country’s finance minister, while recently presenting the annual budget for 2011-12, revealed that Bhutan will make an effort to wean itself away from its reliance on hydropower exports to India, which is currently the country’s main source of revenue. The minister said that more effort would be made to generate revenue through domestic sources such as collection of taxes, which has increased by about 11.5 percent for 2009-10 over the previous year.
Bhutan has agreed to generate and sell 10,000 megawatts of electricity to India by 2020. The World Bank, in one report, attributed Bhutan’s increase in economic growth to these hydropower deals with India, specifically mentioning the Tata hydro project launched in 2008. The World Bank analysts suggested that this alone would treble Bhutan’s power generation capacity. However, in this year’s budget, there were concerns about poor maintenance and lack of quality control, to the extent that money from hydropower exports will have to be ‘diverted’ to ‘address problems’ in the Tata project. An empowered group of ministers from both the Indian and Bhutanese side have been assigned to look into the problems in the Tata and other India-backed hydro projects in Bhutan.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s first public trip outside of Rangoon since her release from house arrest began on 4 July with a journey to Bagan. In this ancient town in the north, popular with both pilgrims and tourists alike, Suu Kyi and her 33-year-old son, Kim Aris, appeared calm and relaxed. She said she was ‘happy’ to be visiting the countryside, while her son described the visit as a ‘holiday’. In Bagan, Suu Kyi went to Mount Poppa, famous for the worship of nats, or spirits, and also visited other temples.
Predictably, the junta has been keeping a close eye on her peregrinations, worried about the possible risk in political fervour. Anxiety over security problems had already been heightened following a series of bomb blasts in Mandalay on 24 June. In fact, however, the trip was a relatively low-key affair, restricted to daytime hours. Although Suu Kyi was accompanied by members of her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), who volunteered to provide her with security, she made no political speeches.
This was clearly part of the plan. Suu Kyi had urged her followers not to form large crowds during her journey, keeping in mind what had taken place during her previous trip outside of Rangoon. That was in 2003, when a confrontation known as the Depayin Massacre took place in which Suu Kyi’s convoy was attacked and several lives were lost. She was then made to suffer her latest round of house arrest, which ended on 13 November 2010.
Nonetheless, it is almost impossible for Suu Kyi’s actions to be anything but political. Among the few known stops after leaving Bagan was the town of Natmauk town, in central Burma, the birthplace of her father, Aung San – the most widely regarded democracy hero in Burma after Suu Kyi herself. She also ‘paid homage’ to Burmese martyrs, including her father, at the Martyr’s Mausoleum in Rangoon and visited her mother’s tomb near the Shwedagon Pagoda as well as the pagoda itself.
When she did voice some criticism, it was on matters historical. After visiting the temples in Bagan, Suu Kyi said the ongoing restoration work there was being done without taking into account the original architectural design.
In danger! Really?
The Washington-based Foreign Policy magazine has come out with the seventh edition of its annual ranking of ‘failed states’ that ranks a country on the basis of its stability (or lack thereof). The data was collected last year and the index is based on such indicators as flow of refugees, degree of deterioration of public services, poverty, human-rights violations, security threats and foreign intervention. Ultimately the list purports to be an assessment of a country’s stability and the pressures it faces, both internally and externally.
The index evaluates each country out of a total of 120 points, this being the worst possible score. Countries scoring worst fall in the ‘critical’ category and are the most unstable, followed by countries ‘in danger’ of being unstable and those that are ‘borderline’, oscillating between stability and instability. Once again Southasia did not do well. Predictably, Afghanistan and Pakistan have been declared in ‘critical’ condition, while Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal and Burma are ‘in danger’ of becoming critical. India and the Maldives on the other hand are, thus far, on the borderline.
Drawing from international media sources, the study evidently uses special software that hones in on the occurrence of the 12 key indicators (such as poverty, security, flow of refugees) for each country. Since this is the index’s seventh year running, it is probably time to ask how relevant and helpful this sort of quantification is, and whether merely counting the number of hits – say, for ‘poverty in Afghanistan’ – is a viable means to assess a country’s performance.
Nalanda, the site of the world’s first university, and frequented by Buddhists from all over the world is now facing an unusual threat. Devotees and student monks visiting the Buddhist university are reportedly mutilating the stucco idols found in the ancient university. The passionate devotees have been pinching terracotta off the idols, some eating this in devotion while others take it back with them as a treasure or a token of good luck. This has resulted in several idols becoming completely deformed.
Digging into the matter, the director-general of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), Gautam Sengupta, recently decided to appeal to the Dalai Lama himself. He is hoping that these slippery-fingered disciples will pay heed to a Buddhist deity if not to the security guards, who are reportedly being frequently roughed up by such pilgrims. The director-general blames not just the tourists but also travel agents who use this plundering as a way to attract more business.
Nalanda University was founded during the fifth century BCE. Spanning the space of more than 15 football stadiums, the site includes several temples and monasteries. While the local administrators and caretakers of the site have not implemented a strict policy against tourists, several attempts have been made to secure the idols. The ASI has blocked entry to one of the temples, notably the most prominent part of the excavated area. Similarly, images of the Buddha have been covered in mud to save them from devotional attack. So far, however, the worshippers, predominantly from Tibet and Thailand, have managed to breach all security arrangements. One ASI official claims that these pilgrims refuse to listen because they see themselves as ‘stakeholders’ of the Buddhist site all over the world.
Meanwhile, plans for re-establishing Nalanda University, in Nalanda district of Bihar, proceed apace. The vice-chancellor of the proposed university, Gopa Sabarwal, has announced that the construction will be completed within the next two years, and the university will hold its first session in 2013. Nobel Laureate Amaryta Sen is the chairman of the interim governing board of the upcoming university, which has received regional support from such countries as Singapore, Japan, Thailand and China.
No country for women
A decade after the downfall of the Taliban, Afghanistan is the worst country to be a woman, according to a recent study conducted by Thomson-Reuters Foundation. A broad range of gender experts ranked countries according to their overall perception of danger arising from such factors as fear of sexual, physical or mental violence; cultural and religious taboos; lack of access to resources and human trafficking. Afghanistan ranked below Somalia, Pakistan and India, the latter of which came in as the fourth worst country in which to be a female.
With its much-ballyhooed economic growth, a gross domestic product that is several times more than that of Afghanistan’s and many reigning women politicos, India’s ignominious ranking has taken many by surprise. According to the study, sex trafficking and female foeticide are the main factors that make it the fourth most-dangerous place in the world for women. The study indicates that up to 50 million girls died over the past century as a result of female infanticide and foeticide. Adding to the run of distressing data, almost half of India’s girls are married before they turn 18, the legal age of consent. Pakistan ranks poorest in forced marriages and Afghanistan in child marriages, followed by India.
The separatist United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) declared a unilateral and indefinite ceasefire on 13 July. The decision was taken by ULFA’s general council, signed by Chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa. However, internal conflict is palpable, with the ULFA commander-in-chief, Paresh Baruah, having rejected the Rajkhowa-called ceasefire, terming it an act against the Front’s constitution. The Indian government, on the other hand, welcomed the announcement, stating that it would contribute to a return to peace and normalcy in Assam. Rajkhowa had mentioned that the decision was motivated by the ‘earnest desire’ for negotiations that he saw in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Home Minister P Chidambaram and Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi.
Since ULFA’s formation in 1979, this is the second time that the rebels have declared a ceasefire. The first, in June 2008, was declared by a commander named Mrinal Hazarika, but it remained unclear whether this ceasefire had the backing of the high command. The New Delhi government had responded positively at the time, issuing a confidential message to all superintendents of police to restrict their actions against the guerrillas. However, a suspected bomb blast by ULFA rebels in Assam’s Baksa district eventually rendered that ceasefire ineffective.
Given the disagreements among the rebels this time around, many are now finding it hard to be optimistic about the new ceasefire, too. Nonetheless, for the moment at least by a step in the right direction.