In mid-August, a report by the rights watchdog Amnesty International strongly criticised Bangladesh’s elite police force, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), accusing it of human-rights violations and extrajudicial executions. The RAB has tended to explain away the purported extrajudicial deaths as a result of gunfights with criminal elements or as unfortunate deaths resulting from crossfire. Amnesty’s report alleges that about 700 people have been killed since the RAB was set up in March 2004. One of the Amnesty researchers stated that the frequency of killings by the RAB is one a week if not more. It operates under the Ministry of Home Affairs and its personnel are recruited from the navy, army, air force as well as the police.
Founded by Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the RAB was the government’s solution to rampant crime. Particularly in the country’s west and centre, armed gangs were increasingly colluding with local politicians to run smuggling rings and engage in extortion. The RAB was accused of politically motivated killings during the BNP regime, particularly targeting members of the currently ruling Awami League. The Bangladeshi police says that the force, which is currently most active in Dhaka and neighbouring districts, plays a crucial role in countering terrorism and maintaining law and order.
Even though Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina promised to put an end to extrajudicial killings, including those perpetrated by the RAB, the Amnesty report indicates that almost 200 unlawful killings have taken place since she came to power in 2009. The report comes on the heels of another published in May this year by another watchdog, the New York-based Human Rights Watch, which labels the RAB a ‘government death squad’.
Wild and woolly
A report published in early September by the US-based journal Science confirmed that a ‘woolly rhinoceros’, whose remains were discovered in 2007 in the Zanda basin, in southwestern Tibet, was the precursor to great Ice Age beasts such as the woolly mammoth. The discovery debunked an earlier theory which suggested that specially adapted mammals evolved during the Ice Age, which peaked around 20,000 years ago. In fact, Tibet might have provided the required climatic setting for mammals to pre-adapt for what then came to be known as the Ice Age.
The discovery adds considerable importance to Tibet as a site for evolutionary studies. Along with the woolly rhino, officially known as Coelodonta thibetana, remains of the three-toed horse and 23 other kinds of extinct mammals were also uncovered. The rhino is estimated to have existed 3.6 million years ago, and scientists that uncovered its skull found that it included a flattened horn – perhaps, they suggest, to be used as a snow shovel.
The research was conducted by a team from the Chinese Academy of Science. When the discovery was made in 2007, researchers were forced to rush nearly 100 km to the nearest hospital, to get hold of the plaster needed to preserve the remains. Since areas such as Tibet and the two arctic poles remain relatively unexplored frontiers, many suggest that such areas could yet be harbouring significant discoveries buried deep within, waiting to be revealed.
A three-year inquiry by the Jammu & Kashmir Human Rights Commission, concluded in late August, has found a series of mass graves, mostly along the Line of Control. The inquiry’s report, conducted by an 11-member team, stated that 2156 bodies had been buried in 40 graves over the 20-year period. Moreover, it revealed that many of the victims who had disappeared during more than two decades of insurgency were most likely civilians rather than insurgents, as the security forces have claimed. The commission’s inquiry and the subsequent report is the first official acknowledgment that civilians might have been disappeared during the insurgency.
There has been an outpouring of anger in Kashmir. The Democratic Students Union said that the mass graves were a ‘glaring testimony to the gruesome brutalities of the Indian state’; opposition leader and People’s Democratic Party president Mehbooba Mufti demanded punitive action against those responsible. In addition, people have also demonstrated on the streets of Srinagar, calling for a swift identification process of the bodies. The UN, meanwhile, has remained silent. When contacted by one media organisation, spokesperson for the United Nations Military Observer Group, Rajiv Chandran, commented that he could not comment on the news, nor did he know how the UN planned to strategise in light of the revelations.
A national census that concluded recently found the Sri Lankan elephant population to be doing surprisingly well. More than 3500 census-takers surveyed wild elephants as they came to watering holes in over 1500 locations across the country. According to the three-day survey, Sri Lanka has about 5800 elephants, 300 more than what was previously estimated.
The survey also drew a bit of controversy. About 20 wildlife groups protested after the wildlife minister, S M Chandrasena, was quoted by the media as saying that 300 elephants would be captured and handed over to Buddhist temples for use in religious rituals following the census. Officials later said this was a rumour and that Chandrasena was misquoted. They said that the data would instead be used to devise policies for elephant protection, and to mitigate conflict between farmers and free-ranging elephants.
Sri Lanka is not the only country to have obtained positive wildlife statistics. Nepal launched a rhinoceros count earlier this year that recorded a whopping increase of about a 100 rhinos, indicating growth of some 20 percent in three years.
Even as there were reports of a Chinese spy ship spotted in August in international waters off the coast of India, the New Delhi government announced plans to deploy a new special strike force of more than 35,000 troops on the 3488 km-long India-China (Tibet) border. The force would be concentrated in Arunachal Pradesh, tasked with the job of countering any possible incursion of Chinese troops.
According to many observ ers, the new force is most likely part of a larger plan that was being discussed in New Delhi in June. Media reports at that time suggested that the Defence Ministry was designing a new 15-year policy, to be implemented by 2012, with China as its focus. The security establishment was planning to build up a ‘mountain strike force’ of more than 90,000 soldiers in Arunachal by 2020. Beijing has so far remained mum on the troop build-up.
Favour thy neighbour
In an attempt to improve relations and boost crossborder trade, Pakistan has decided to grant most-favoured nation (MFN) status to India. Since 1995, under the SAARC Preferential Trading Arrangement (SAPTA, the precursor to the South Asian Free Trade Area, agreed upon in 2004), Southasian countries that are members of the World Trade Organisation can confer MFN status on each other.
In so doing, Pakistan will open up its markets to those Indian goods that it had earlier excluded from its positive list – some 1075 items that include chemicals, metal products and machinery parts. Once India gets MFN status, it can trade most commodities in Pakistan, and the latter cannot discriminate against it by levying tax or other restrictions.
India granted MFN status to Pakistan in 1995, which means it does not have a ‘positive list’. Even as New Delhi has been awaiting Islamabad’s reciprocation, it continues to embargo many items from Pakistan; exporters also complain of bureaucratic hurdles to trade, in getting their products certified for quality or in getting permission to market their products in India. Following the flexibility shown by Islamabad, New Delhi has given assurances that it will address these concerns and lift nontariff barriers such as embargoes, among others.
Bilateral trade between the two countries is currently estimated to be about USD 2 billion annually, but now it looks set to increase significantly. Among other advantages, the mutual MFN status will increase daily trading hours. Towards this end, a new checkpost has been proposed at the Wagah border, which would allow high volume of goods to cross the border.
Until recently the MFN discussion was linked to the Kashmir issue, with Islamabad consistently demanding that talks with India on trade could not go forward until the resolution of this perennial problem. In May, some Pakistani politicians tabled a resolution to this effect in the lower house of Parliament, urging Pakistan not to grant India MFN status until a settlement was reached on Kashmir. However, the government overruled that demand.
THE MALDIVES/SRI LANKA
The Sri Lankan government recently loaned USD 10 million to the Maldivian government, so that the atolls could import items from Sri Lanka at an interest rate of seven percent. While the state-owned Bank of Ceylon had previously given loans worth about USD 125 million for development projects in the Maldives, this is the first time it has extended an ‘import credit’ to the country. Some, however, are critical of the high interest rate, saying that a fellow developing country should have been more understanding.
The credit is expected to help facilitate trade in the Maldives, currently suffering from a shortage of US dollars. This has been the result of heavy borrowing by the government, which invested in development after the 2004 tsunami and then after the 2008 elections that brought Mohamed Nasheed to power. The credit will help the Maldives to import fruits, vegetables and other agricultural products from Sri Lanka, which it requires in part to support its booming – and critical – tourism industry.
This extension of credit could help to maintain strong bilateral relations. Many Sri Lankan observers have become anxious that the Maldives might turn to India to solve its financial problems; New Delhi has indeed been increasing its bilateral assistance to the country. The Sri Lankan government is also planning to help the Maldives build a 6 km stretch of road in Addu atoll, to support preparations for the 17th SAARC Summit, to be held in the Maldives in November 2011.
Students in Sindh, from Grade 6 onwards, will soon have one more language to learn: Mandarin. The new requirement will enter the province’s curriculum in two years. Currently, it is mandatory for students to learn Urdu, English and Sindhi. Pir Mazhar-ul-Haq, Sindh’s education minister, explained that with increasing economic and academic ties with China, it has become ‘necessary’ for the younger generation to study Mandarin. However, the All Private Schools Management Association has rejected the decision, terming it ‘hasty’; its chairman, Syed Khalid Shah, pointed out that the provincial government was not even consulted.
The idea was first mooted when President Asif Ali Zardari visited Beijing last year. (More recently, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gillani said China was his country’s ‘best friend’.) China has significant economic interests in one of Southasia’s most important ports, at Karachi, and has largely funded the building of the massive new Gwadar complex on the Balochistan coast. Many are already suggesting the possibility that other areas in Pakistan, particularly those that share a border with China such as Gilgit-Baltistan and even Azad Kashmir, will now follow Sindh’s lead in introducing compulsory Mandarin.
There are those in Karachi who worry about the status of Sindhi, fearing it could become increasingly sidelined with the addition of languages in the classroom. This is a fear already compounded by the reality that Urdu is Pakistan’s official language while Punjabi remains the language spoken by majority of the country’s citizens.
The past haunts
Nepal’s Maoists are in the limelight again in India. In mid-September, a Patna district court judge, Bashishtha Narayan Singh, re-issued non-bailable warrants against 11 Nepali Maoists. These individuals were originally arrested by the Bihar police in May 2004. The Patna district court had then charged them with committing ‘traitorous acts’ against India and Nepal, including helping the Indian Maoists. They subsequently spent two years in jail, until they were freed on bail in September 2006.
Since then, however, all the accused failed to appear before the Patna district court for further hearings. As a result, in December 2006, the court issued non-bailable warrants for their arrest, which were renewed after the accused failed to turn up for their hearing on 20 September this year. Nepal’s Maobaadi were still operating underground in 2004, and would come above ground only after another year. Now high-ranking members of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), the 11 could face two to six years in prison if they entered India, while also having to pay fines of up to INR 700,000.
One of the accused is Dilip Maharjan, currently general-secretary of the Young Communist League, the UCPN (Maoist) youth wing. He has called the accusations ‘baseless’. Another accused, currently a member of the Constituent Assembly, Tara Gharti Magar, has sharply criticised the Nepal government for its ‘indifference’. He says that it failed to issue a response even five days after the arrest warrants were reissued. Newly elected Maoist Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai did meet with Jayant Prasad, the Indian ambassador to Nepal, a week after the Patna district court re-issued the warrants.
The defendants’ lawyer, Mithilesh Kumar, has called into question the legality of the warrants, arguing that a foreigner cannot be tried for treason in an Indian court. He also said that if a ‘diplomatic appeal’ is made to India, the case against the Maoist leaders could be dropped.
Anoma Dissanayake, the head of Sri Lanka’s National Child Protection Authority (NCPA), the body responsible for children’s welfare, has recently proposed a radical overhaul of the country’s laws regulating care of abused or abandoned children. All 470 homes for such children, responsible for the care of nearly 20,000 children, are to be shut, and the children placed instead with foster families. According to Dissanayake, this unprecedented step is being taken in response to reports of sexual abuse in many of the homes. Media reports suggest that Dissanayake plans to propose that the death penalty be applied to anyone who is convicted of sexual abuse of children.
The NCPA proposal needs to seen in the context of the recent arrest of a number of Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka, accused of sexually abusing children under their care. What exactly to do about the situation, however, is unclear. Critics of Dissanayake’s announcement have said the moving of children from large state- and private-run homes to a foster-care arrangement might simply serve to transfer, not eradicate, the underlying problem. In response, Dissanayake has promised strong oversight of foster families and given assurance of financial assistance to poorer families who may wish to adopt.
In India, meanwhile, a children’s home in Tamil Nadu’s Tirunelveli district has been closed after its UK-based founder was accused of indecent assault and sexual abuse. It is worth recalling that a 2007 report by India’s Ministry of Women and Child Development suggested that more than half of children in India had experienced some kind of sexual abuse.
Kerosene’s not the problem
The Kabul government is now seeking to address the growing problem of Afghans, particularly women, attempting to kill themselves by self-immolation. Last year, more than 22,000 cases of burns were referred to Afghan hospitals. While some of these might have been accidental, doctors warn that many are cases of self-immolation, where women douse themselves in household fuel or cooking oil in their own homes and set themselves afire. Now, a government campaign will highlight both safety issues, specifically the proper use of fuels in the kitchen, and deliberate acts of self-immolation, by calling attention to domestic violence and the terrible injuries sustained by survivors of self-immolation.
Afghanistan is not the only country where women resort to self-immolation; the practice is common in India, Pakistan as well as in Sri Lanka. Survivors report that they attempt to take their lives due to domestic abuse, forced early marriages or partners who have drug-addiction issues. As rumours of a case of self-immolation can bring stigma upon the families affected, survivors are often ostracised.
Peace sans Suu Kyi?
Burma’s upper house of Parliament recently approved the formation of a new Peace Committee. Ostensibly, the body will be responsible for mediating a settlement in the decades-long strife between the government and several armed ethnic groups, one of the more active ones being the Karen National Union (KNU).
While many are sceptical about the committee’s potential impact, the main question in recent weeks has been whether its membership should include Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy leader. Among others, Naw Zipporah Sein, general-secretary of the KNU, along with Aye Maung, chairman of the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP), which has a stronghold in southwestern Burma, have supported Suu Kyi’s presence on the committee.
Having raged off and on for more than six decades, ethnic conflicts have overshadowed political developments – such as the widely publicised 19 August meeting between President Thein Sein and Suu Kyi, described by both sides as ‘friendly’. Interestingly, the Burmese government’s conflict with the armed ethnic groups has only escalated since the controversial November 2010 elections, making tangible advances by the new Peace Committee seem less likely.
In an open letter to the president in August, Suu Kyi herself hinted at her readiness to be involved in helping to resolve ethnic conflicts. The question on everyone’s mind now is whether her involvement would lend legitimacy to the Naypyidaw leadership? On the other hand, if she stays away, some would criticise her for keeping her vast influence away from potentially important negotiations between the ethnic groups and the government. Convincing Suu Kyi to take part would undoubtedly be a victory for Naypyidaw, even before its new committee actually achieves anything.
The September floods in Sindh have threatened an outbreak of dengue fever similar to the epidemic that has recently ravaged parts of Punjab. To help out, Sri Lankan health authorities arrived in Pakistan in mid-September, ready to share their expertise from having combated the disease in their country over the past two years. The 11-member team was to be in Punjab for about two weeks, instructing and training Pakistani health officials and distributing spraying machines and insecticides brought from Sri Lanka. Last year in August, Colombo also sent a 15-member medical team to tackle general health problems arising after the floods.
More than 4000 cases of dengue fever have been reported in the last two months in Punjab, after the province was hit by floods in mid-August. Compare that number with just 1700 cases of dengue reported in Punjab over all of 2010. Health officials in Sindh are now concerned that a similar outbreak could overtake the province. The ongoing floods have displaced 5.5 million people and about 200 people have died, compared to 20 million displaced and about 1700 dead in last year’s floods.
In what has been called a ‘kind gesture of friendship’ by a Colombo-based news source, President Mahinda Rajapakse ‘personally assured’ the high commissioner of Pakistan to Sri Lanka that a team of experts would be made available. It appears that no other Southasian country has given any substantial aid to Pakistan during the late-monsoon 2011 floods. Meanwhile, Iran and China have pledged USD 100 million and USD 4.7 million, respectively. Last year, China had provided USD 200 million for flood relief. The UN has also launched an appeal – though a full month after the onset of flooding – to raise around USD 356 million towards relief efforts for Sindh and Balochistan, which was hit by separate floods in February this year.
Parsing the waters
The saga of the Kishanganga project in India continues. The International Court of Arbitration (COA), an independent organisation that was established to resolve cross-border business disputes, has yet to decide on the legality of the 330 MW Kishanganga hydroelectric power project (KHEP).
KHEP is being constructed by India in Baramulla district of Jammu & Kashmir on the Kishanganga River, a tributary of the Jhelum, also known as the Neelum in Pakistan. It is scheduled to be completed by 2014. Pakistan, the lower riparian state, claims that the upstream dam is in violation of the 1960 Indus Water Treaty, which specifies that any manipulation of the river has to be done with the consent of both parties. Authorities fear that the dam will cause water shortage for its downstream hydroelectric project, which is under construction.
After several failed bilateral negotiations, Pakistan approached COA in January. But in what came as a shock to many in the country, the team never brought up the demand for a stay on the Kishanganga dam. Pakistan failed yet again in April to submit its objections, which led the media and experts to question the competence of Kamala Majidullah, the special assistant to the prime minister who is representing Pakistan in the court.
When the court met again in August, the judges raised concern over the environmental impact of the dam and asked India to submit a report on this issue. In early September, both sides received acknowledgement from the court that it had received additional information, but no decision regarding the stay order has been reached.