To the pole!
India launched its first-ever scientific research mission to the South Pole in November. A team of eight scientists from the Goa-based National Centre for Antarctic and Ocean Research (NCAOR) are currently undertaking the 40-day mission, which involves journeying from Maitri, India’s round-the-year base in northwest Antarctica, to the pole, 2200 km away.
Headed by Rasik Ravindra, NCAOR’s director, the team includes five other scientists and two drivers. Beyond national pride, their stated purpose is to gather data on how climate change has affected Antarctica’s environment. The team will also begin construction of India’s third base in eastern Antarctica, scheduled for completion by 2012.
Many view the current expedition as an attempt by India to assert its presence in the uninhabited continent. The country has already undertaken 29 missions to Antarctica; the first was from 1981-83, during which it built Dakshin Gangotri, the first base, later de-commissioned. Maitri is India’s second base. In the past, India’s research interests in Antarctica have focused on studies of the Antarctic ecosystem, earthquakes and ancient geology.
Some of the countries that have bases in Antarctica are the United Kingdom, France, Norway, New Zealand, Australia, Chile and Argentina. They all claimed portions of Antarctica as far back as the 1940s and 1950s, some of which overlapped. These differences were eventually buried, if not resolved, with the introduction of the Antarctic Treaty in 1959, which banned any military activity, among other things. India ratified the treaty in 1983, and is now attempting to carve out a bit of space for itself. When will the other Southasians follow suit?
Early June 1981 saw a catastrophe that has remained a heartrending memory for the Tamil community of Sri Lanka ever since. At that time, a Sinhalese mob set fire to the Jaffna Public Library, leaving it to burn for two days and resulting in the loss of 97,000 books and manuscripts. This act was used by the LTTE to further its war propaganda against the Sri Lankan state.
In October this year there was a feeling of déjà vu when the library was vandalised yet again, this time by a group of Sinhalese tourists. When denied the opportunity to have a tour as a conference was taking place inside, the vandals forced their way in and went on a rampage for three hours, dismantling bookshelves and smashing signboards. Eventually, the police intervened. Tamil MP Sujeewa Serasinghe, of the United National Party, cautioned that the library was a ‘revered institute of knowledge that should not [have been] desecrated,’ and urged the government to take action. The library has remained closed since the attack.
Thereafter, the plot thickened. When contacted by journalists, President Mahinda Rajapakse’s office at first refused to confirm that the destruction had taken place. It then issued a statement denying the news reports, followed by a press release on 1 November that specifically mentioned that ‘no member of the [presidential] Secretariat’ had been involved. The staff of Jaffna Library also did an about-face, first confirming the attacks and then denying them; the mayor of Jaffna, Yogeswari Patkunarajah, likewise denied that anything amiss had taken place. Four days later, however, the attacks were finally confirmed by a retired Municipal Council commissioner, C V K Sivagnanam, who wrote a letter to President Rajapakse to that effect.
In the aftermath of the war’s end, in May 2009, the Tamil community has become wary of the large number of visitors from the south thronging Jaffna. The argument of some Sinhalese leaders is that it is their right to visit parts of the reunited land, which has engendered discomfort and even frustration on the part of some locals. At a time when the Tamil and Sinhalese communities are trying to forge a path towards reconciliation, the second library attack indicates the pitfalls and the responsibilities of the Sinhalese leaders in this regard.
February 2011 will see a different kind of traffic on the Bangladesh-India border. People from both sides of the border will again be able to cross over, without visas, to exchange produce, spices, dry fish and handicrafts, among other items. According to an agreement signed in late October, early next year will see the re-opening of border haats, or markets, that have been forced to remain closed since the creation of Bangladesh in 1971.
On the back of this agreement, however, is news that India is continuing to fence the entirety of its border with Bangladesh. As construction has progressed, this undertaking has been criticised from those living along the border, whose livelihoods depend on informal – and what New Delhi terms ‘illegal’ – trade.
Reopening of border haats is expected to bring much-needed economic relief to residents living along the border. The haats will be set up in the no-man’s land between Kaliachar, located in Meghalaya’s West Garo Hills district, and Lawar Ghar, in Bangladesh’s Sunamganj district, in Sylhet state. A second will come up between Balat in the West Khasi Hills district (also in Meghalaya) and Naryantala in Sunamganj. They will be supervised by a committee consisting of government officials and border security forces of both countries.
Prior to 1971, the haats provided easily accessible markets to those living in remote and hilly regions of India and what, since 1947, was East Pakistan. Going forward, one of the criteria for deciding the location of future haats, according to Meghalaya CM Mukul Sangma, will be that they must be set up near such inaccessible areas. No tax will be levied on goods purchased in the haats, though there will be a spending cap of USD 50 for each shopper.
New Delhi officials have said they are keen to establish about 22 more haats, in Meghalaya but also along Tripura and Assam’s border with Bangladesh. However, we are yet to hear about haats along the West Bengal-Bangladesh border, the most populated by far.
After winning 98 percent of the votes in the General Assembly that got it elected as a non-permanent member to the United National Security Council (UNSC) in October, India is confident that this support will help it in its longstanding bid for a permanent UNSC seat. Adding to this was US President Barack Obama’s statement, made during his visit to India this November, in which he expressed his unequivocal support for such a move. This, predictably, was criticised by the Pakistan government, which stated that it would have ‘implications’ on the stability of the region. China also endorsed India’s bid, a week after Obama’s statement.
A permanent seat in the UNSC comes with veto power over resolutions, clout that becomes especially beneficial when discussing issues of peace and security. As such, those pushing for the inclusion of emerging economies such as India and Brazil hope that they will contribute to reforming the Security Council. Negotiations for this, including increasing the number of permanent and non-permanent members, will begin in 2012.
India, Germany, Portugal, South Africa and Colombia, were elected non-permanent members of the 15-member UNSC for a two-year term. India has not been in the UNSC since 1992.
In November, Southasian countries came together in Kathmandu to launch a five-year plan to tackle the rising incidence of violence against children in the region. The South Asia Initiative to End Violence against Children (SAIEVC), founded in January, will be tasked with monitoring the implementation of this plan, which involves formulating strategies and laws and spreading awareness on child violence.
An estimated 75 percent of Southasian children suffer from some form of violence. A 2009 report compiled by the Global Initiative to End all Corporal Punishment, supported by UNICEF, stated that while some schools in Pakistan, Afghanistan and India prohibited corporal punishment, there are no laws against it in Bhutan, Bangladesh, the Maldives, Nepal or Sri Lanka. In Nepal, 1.6 million children work as domestic help. In India, 69 percent are victims of physical abuse – and most of these cases are never reported.
Abuse is rampant despite the fact that all Southasian countries signed the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in the 1990s. Difficulty in gathering data on child abuse, a culture of silence and lack of awareness about what constitutes as abuse are some issues that SAIVEC will tackle.
Seas for the landlocked
In November, a draft agreement allowing Bhutan to access Bangladesh’s Mongla inland seaport was prepared by the Commerce Ministry in Dhaka. Following input from the rest of the Bangladesh government, the agreement would stand for the next decade. During that period, Bhutanese goods would travel north to the Indian border and cross over the Banglabandha land port, located on the northwestern tip of Bangladesh. From there, goods would go through India’s ‘Chicken’s Neck’ and enter Bhutan at the Jaigaon-Phuentsholing border point.
Now, under directives of the Prime Minister’s Office, Dhaka officials have been asked to finalise the operational guidelines for use of Bangladesh’s Chittagong and Mongla seaports by both Bhutan and Nepal. In return, Bangladesh will be expecting exports of electricity from the two regional neighbours. The power sector has been asked to prepare a memorandum the same.
These spurts of developments are a result of an agreement that was signed during Sheikh Hasina’s New Delhi visit in January, which allows both Nepal and Bhutan to use Indian territory to transport goods. Nepal received access to the Mongla port in September, after a three-way deal. At present, the Indo-Bhutan Trade Treaty of 1995 allows Bhutan to transfer imports such as machinery, automobile parts, textiles and cosmetics via the Kolkata port. Mongla, however, offers a port option just half the distance away. In addition, the Kolkata port is overcrowded, with frequent delays in processing and delivery, while Mongla stands relatively underutilised.
It started with a letter. Rakesh Sood, the Indian ambassador to Nepal, submitted one in November to Nepal’s home minister, alleging that the Nepali Maoists had been engaging in military training of their Indian Naxalite counterparts. Foreign Minister Sujata Koirala assured an investigation.
Although reaction from the Nepali Maoists was oddly long in coming, they were eventually vehement in their rejections. Pushpa Kamal Dahal, the chairman of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), has maintained that the whole thing was a ‘conspiracy’. Another Maoist leader, Barsha Man Pun, said that India was trying to ‘detach the Maoists from the ongoing constitution-making and peace process’, going so far as to suggest that New Delhi was creating conditions for a ‘military intervention’ in Nepal. Dahal blamed the Indian media, while Pun blamed the Nepal Army for forwarding a report about the issue to India. The army, meanwhile, called Pun’s allegations baseless.
In the past, Dahal has admitted to links with the Indian Maoists, but says that they were only ideological in nature. In February, for instance, he said that the two groups met ‘from time to time’, but only for ‘debates and discussions’. In addition, he publicly opposed Operation Green Hunt, the Indian government’s military offensive against the Naxalites, launched in 2009.
But today, the party is divided on how to engage with India, or to what extent to utilise ultra-nationalist, anti-India rhetoric. For instance, former Maoist finance minister, Baburam Bhattarai, considered a centrist, has stated that his party was ‘not foolish’ enough to be training Indian Maoists, as it did not want to spoil its relations with India. Even Dahal has become more open about rebuilding ties with New Delhi. Returning from a much-ballyhooed recent trip to China, he reported that the Beijing authorities had asked him to mend fences with India.
While Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal has publicly stated that he can find no evidence supporting the charges, the issue has continued to roil Kathmandu. Meanwhile, there has been no confirmation or otherwise from the Naxalite camps themselves.
Buddha vs copper
Archaeologists in Mes Aynak, in the eastern Afghan province of Logar, are working against the clock to save Buddhist relics found in a newly excavated monastery. The structure was uncovered by labourers working for a Chinese company that has plans to mine the site for copper. The archaeologists now fear that they might not be able to save all the artefacts before mining work begins.
Things certainly do not bode well for the monastery. The China Metallurgical Group Corporation (MCC), a private entity backed by the Chinese government, has invested USD 3.5 billion in the mine, for which it received excavation rights in 2008. The Afghan Mining Ministry claims that there are some six million tons of copper underneath the ancient monastery complex, the world’s ‘second-biggest, unexploited’ copper reserve, claims the MCC.
Interest in Afghanistan’s mineral resources peaked earlier this year, after the findings of a joint survey by the Pentagon and US Geological Survey were made public in June. The findings placed the net sum of untapped mineral resources in the country at around USD 1 trillion, particularly for copper. According to a 2009 Mining Ministry document, 106 mining contracts have already been awarded to various companies, though the Mes Aynak site represents the only one thus far given out for copper deposits.
Archaeologists have unearthed 150 statues of standing and reclining Buddhas, some as high as 10 feet tall, in the two-sq-km religious site of Mes Aynak. The monastery is thought to be around 2600 years old, and is located along the ancient Silk Road. In the context of the widely decried destruction of the Buddha figures of Bamiyan, by the then-Taliban government, the authorities and MCC are now trying their best not to allow parallels to be drawn with Mes Aynak.
As such, they have given archaeologists three years and USD 2 million to salvage what they can. But the scholars say this is neither enough time nor enough money. One archaeologist involved with the mission has said that Mes Aynak should involve a decade-long expedition, and three years is insufficient even to document the artefacts. Further, some archaeologists have made public a copy of a letter that they say was sent to them from the MCC, pressuring them to finish excavations by the end of this year.
But same old problems
Back in September 2008, in accordance with the new Constitution, Burma unveiled its plans for a new flag. The new banner was finally hoisted on 21 October this year at exactly 3:33 pm, considered an auspicious time by the astrologers of the ruling junta. Alongside the flag, junta officials introduced a new national anthem and official name for the country. The new flag replaces the 1974 ‘socialist republic’ flag, which had 14 stars, representing Burma’s 14 states, each comprising several ethnic groups.
It is always difficult to divine the generals’ motivations. But these momentous changes, analysts theorise, symbolise the regime’s attempt at the assimilation of Burma’s various states – in other words, suppressing the various ethnic movements that continue to burn across the country, and which got particularly heated up in the weeks preceding the 7 November national elections in Burma.
One such is the 60-year-running insurrection of the ethnic Karen, as represented by Karen National Union (KNU). The conflict between the KNU’s independence movement and Burmese soldiers has resulted in the displacement of millions, including those who have scattered into Bangladesh, Thailand or requested asylum farther afield. As renewed fighting broke out in November, some 20,000 Karen again fled to Thailand.
Of course, the new flag does little to assert any real unity among the peoples of Burma. On the contrary, it is a stark reminder to the ethnic minorities of the new Republic of the Union of Myanmar of their ‘unitary nation’ status. With Aung San Suu Kyi’s release, incidentally, she will now be starting, again, to look into how the various communities are going to be living in a future democratic Burma.
Come sunset and the Wagah border – the only official road crossing between India and Pakistan – continues to witness the well-known display of dramatically choreographed struts, stamps, high-kicks, scowls, stares and goose-stepping. However, the Pakistan Rangers and India’s Border Security Force might be giving more thought to toning down their aggressive gestures, though the reasons are purported to be ‘medical not diplomatic’. The exaggerated stomping, although wildly applauded by thousands-strong audiences, has evidently resulted in guards from both sides suffering from damaged joints and other injuries.
As a tradition, the military flag-lowering ceremony, better known as the ‘retreat ceremony’, at Wagah started in 1959. The ritualised aggression is said to represent good-natured rivalry and patriotism, with the slamming of border gates at the end of the day signifying the countries’ separation. While both sides have long talked of toning down the show, including earlier this year, no agreement has yet been reached.
Now, some observers are suggesting that New Delhi might be following a new track. It has already broken the tradition, and introduced women guards to participate at the border show. Islamabad, however, said in early November, that its border guards would continue in the ‘enthusiastic’ and ‘traditional’ way.
Politics of language
In October, nearly a thousand Tibetan students marched peacefully in Regong (or Tongren, as China calls it) in Qinghai province to protest proposed educational reforms. The government had announced that all subjects in schools would be taught in Mandarin (except classes on the Tibetan and English languages), with all textbooks also in Mandarin. Students shouted slogans as the police looked on.
Within days, the anger had been picked up outside of the plateau. The Tibetan Youth Congress, an exile organisation, led a protest rally from Dharamsala to New Delhi. Another group that works for the preservation of the Tibetan language said it would send petitions to the UN asking that Tibetan be taught to the younger generation.
The proposal is part of a 12-year education-reform plan made by the Chinese government in 2008. Officials claim that changing to Mandarin as a language of instruction would allow Tibetans to ‘catch up with the Han majority in economic stature’. Tibetan has remained the official language in the Tibet Autonomous Region, as in certain other areas where Tibetans constitute the majority. Although China’s law for ethnic regional minorities, passed in 2005, specifically encourages the use of ethnic languages, in reality such provisions are typically ignored.
Unlike previous protests that have resulted in violence, the demonstrations over the proposed reforms remained peaceful. Besides Qinghai, people in several other places, including Beijing, expressed their disapproval about the reform plan. Interestingly, although the proposal remains on the table, the government appeared to backtrack somewhat on the issue – calling the situation a misunderstanding, and promising to spend more money on education in minority mother-tongues. Many will now be watching closely to see exactly what does transpire.
Sri Lanka has sought assistance from Indian linguists who will advise the Colombo government on formulating a language policy that incorporates the island’s three major languages – Sinhala, Tamil and English – in order to develop Sri Lanka as a trilingual country.
English was the country’s official language until the enactment of legislation in 1956 which officially crowned Sinhala. All state correspondence thereafter had to be in Sinhala, with all government employees requiring proficiency. The legislation enraged the Tamil-speaking community, and served as a catalyst for the riots of 1958, 1977 and 1983. The government tried to make amends by establishing Tamil as a ‘regional’ language in 1965, and then recognising it as an official language in 1987. The damage, however, was done.
The four-member team of Indian linguists, headed by a government official, is now being brought in due to India’s experience facing similar opposition when it established Hindi as the official language in 1963. At that time (and until today, among many), speakers of Urdu, Bengali, Tamil and other languages saw it as an unacceptable imposition. Following the backlash, India’s language policy was reviewed and other languages were eventually given the status of official language in those states where they constituted the majority of speakers. Currently, India has 18 official languages, recognised under the 8th Schedule of the Constitution.