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In this episode, we talk about the silent strikes in Myanmar marking two years since the country’s military coup. We also look at security in Pakistan in the wake of a suicide bomb blast in Peshawar, and the spiralling impact of the country’s debt crisis on the wellbeing of citizens.
In ‘Around Southasia in Five Minutes’, we discuss the impact of a report by Hindenburg Research accusing the Adani Group of stock manipulation and marketing fraud, the Indian National Congress’s recently concluded Bharat Jodo Yatra, the controversy surrounding the citizenship of the politician Rabi Lamichchane in Nepal, the release of the Sri Lankan student activist Wasantha Mudalige, the contentious Maldivian presidential primaries, and much more. For ‘Bookmarked’, we talk about the documentary ‘The Elephant Whisperers’, shot in the Nilgiri Mountains in Tamil Nadu, which has been nominated for an Oscar.
This episode was recorded on 6th February 2023.
Raisa Wickrematunge: Hi everyone, and welcome to Southasiasphere. I’m Raisa Wickrematunge, Deputy Editor of Himal Southasian and I’m joined by my colleague and researcher Saheli Wikramanayake from Colombo. Hi Saheli!
Saheli Wikramanayake: Hi! So this week for our big story, we’ll be looking at Myanmar two years on since the military coup. We’ll also be continuing our conversation from the last episode on the crisis in Pakistan, specifically the rise in militancy and worsening economic crisis. In Around Southasia in Five Minutes, we’ll be looking at the fallout of the Hindenburg report on Adani Group, the arrests of Siddique Kappan in India and Imran Riaz Khan in Pakistan, the citizenship saga of Rabi Lamichhane in Nepal, the release of Wasantha Mudalige in Sri Lanka, and the presidential primaries in the Maldives. For Bookmarked, we’ll be talking about the documentary, ‘The Elephant Whisperers’ that was recently nominated for an Oscar. But let’s start off with what’s happening in Myanmar.
[Sound clips from the Myanmar Coup and protests]
RW: February 1st actually marks two years since the military coup in Myanmar. So on Twitter we actually saw some people posting that very well-known aerobics video where an instructor was dancing and you could see people driving into the palace, and remembering this day. But on a more serious note, since that day, there’s been a crackdown on freedoms of speech, association and assembly. So far at least 17,000 protesters and activists who have been resisting the coup have been arrested and 2,900 killed. These figures are according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, which is a non-governmental group. The security forces have carried out arbitrary arrests, torture, sexual violence, mass killings and other abuses that amount to crimes against humanity, according to Human Rights Watch. This includes the blocking of humanitarian aid to displaced people in conflict areas like Rakhine State. The day itself this year was marked with silent strikes across Myanmar, from Yangon to Monywa and Mandalay. Businesses remained closed and residents stayed indoors, although there were some pro-regime rallies held in Yangon and Mandalay. This is the fourth silent strike since March 2021, despite the junta threatening business seizures and prosecutions, and the aim of it was to show that people don’t support the military regime.
SW: Yeah, and looking ahead at the year for Myanmar, on February 1st, military leaders announced that the state of emergency that was imposed after the coup would be extended for another six months. This essentially means that the elections that were announced for later this year will be delayed. So really, all signs point to another very bleak year ahead of Myanmar and its citizens. If you’re interested in reading about life in Myanmar after the coup, check out our previous coverage linked in the episode notes.
[Sound clips from Pakistan]
RW: In Pakistan, there’s been this series of crises, especially in terms of security. On January 30th, there was a suicide bomb attack at a mosque in Peshawar, which was built for police and their families. The death toll initially was reported at 100, but was later revised back down to about 88. It was nevertheless described as the deadliest incident in the area for a decade. Police confirmed that the bomber entered the compound in a police uniform and wasn’t checked. The police chief of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Moazzam Jha Ansari, confirmed the bomber was actually part of a military network without giving more details apart from acknowledging a security lapse. Now this attack is the latest in an increasing number of attacks carried out by militant groups. The TTP, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan first took responsibility for the attack and then denied involvement saying that they didn’t target religious institutions. Daesh, or the Islamic State faction in Pakistan also took responsibility and said that the bomber came from neighbouring Afghanistan. Now in 2022, the TTP carried out over 260 attacks killing 419 people according to the Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies, despite being in peace talks with the Pakistan government, mediated by the Afghan Taliban. Rather than peace, the Taliban take over Afghanistan seems to have strengthened militant presence, and this has led to people standing in protest as we discussed in our previous episode of Southasiasphere.
SW: And Pakistan also continues to feel the effects of the ongoing economic crisis. In late January, it was reported that the country only had enough foreign reserves to cover three weeks of imports. The government is moving ahead with reforms pushed by the IMF to get funding. This includes removing controls on the exchange rate, which resulted in a drastic drop in the value of the Pakistani rupee. So on January 26th, the Pakistani rupee fell 9.6% against the dollar, the biggest one-day drop in two decades. And this is likely to exacerbate the already soaring inflation. Pakistan is also facing powercuts and long fuel queues. The story of debt crises continues to make headlines across the region. Bangladesh recently secured a 4.7 billion USD loan from the IMF. Sri Lanka is progressing in talks with its creditors, who all expressed willingness to participate in debt restructuring talks. It’s a critical time for all three countries. If you’re interested in learning more about debt restructuring and the debt crisis across the region, check out our latest Southasian Conversation linked in the episode notes.
RW: Thanks, Saheli. So yes, in short, like we were saying, Pakistan seems to be beset by crises and it’s affecting residents’ economic well-being and physical security. It’s also perhaps exacerbated by political instability after Imran Khan’s surprise removal. Now, we recently published a piece on this by Salman Rafi Sheikh on how Pakistan should go back and revisit the 2010 reforms and significantly do away with the military’s role in politics. This piece is a reminder of Pakistan’s long struggle for political stability and it’s particularly relevant given the very recent news of Pervez Musharraf’s death. Do look out for that in the episode notes as well. We’re also hosting a Twitter space with Salman Rafi Sheikh on this topic, so keep your eyes peeled for that as well. And if you’re looking for more context to Musharraf’s death, do also revisit our piece from 2014 on the difficulties and implications of trying a military ruler in Pakistan for added context.
And now for our next segment Around Southasia in Five Minutes.
Around Southasia in 5 minutes
SW: In India, billionaire Gautam Adani’s business empire was left in a crisis after a report by Hindenburg Research accused the Adani group of “brazen stock manipulation and accounting fraud.” Since then, stocks in Adani companies have plummeted. According to Bloomberg, as of February 6th, Adani Group has lost $118 billion USD, which is more than half of the market value of its companies. Gautam Adani lost his status as Asia’s richest person falling below Mukesh Ambani, and he is no longer one of the top 10 richest people in the world. The report has also had political consequences domestically in India. Adani is long reported to have had a close relationship with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This has become an issue in both houses of the Indian Parliament, which were adjourned recently after the opposition called for a probe into the allegations made in the report. The Indian National Congress announced that it will be holding protests on February 6th and accused Modi and his government of using public money to help the Adani Group.
The INC also recently concluded its 135-day Bharat Jodho Yatra March from Tamil Nadu to Indian-administered Kashmir. The INC said that this March was in protest against the nationalist policies of the BJP.
Also in India, Siddique Kappan was released on bail after more than two years. He was arrested in Uttar Pradesh when he was covering a story about the rape of a Dalit woman. He was arrested under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. Similarly in Pakistan, journalist Imran Riaz Khan was arrested on charges of hate speech and inducing violence under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act. Soon after on February 3rd, the Lahore High Court ordered his immediate release. Both the UAPA and the PECA have been criticized as tools for the state to curtail freedom of expression, including of journalists.
RW: In Nepal, a member of the fledgling Rastriya Swatantra Party Rabi Lamichhane found himself briefly stateless after the Supreme Court ruled that he had not applied for Nepali citizenship after giving up his US citizenship to contest in the elections. However, he was able to complete the process within two days and he was promptly reappointed as party head, although he lost his cabinet position as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Home Affairs. Analysts questioned why he had been allowed to contest and why he hadn’t applied for citizenship before deciding to contest. Just another day in turbulent Nepali politics!
SW: In Sri Lanka, student activist Wasantha Mudalige was released from cases against him under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act on January 31st. He spent five months in custody under the charges. The Chief Magistrate who released him said that the evidence suggested that the PTA was being wilfully misused against him to keep him imprisoned. Mudalige was a key figure in the Sri Lankan protests last year. On January 30th, 12,000 affidavits seeking his release were handed over to the Attorney General. The PTA has long been used against minority Tamil and Muslim communities in Sri Lanka and the government is now using it as a part of its effort to quash protests, especially against the economic crisis.
RW: From the Maldives on January 28th, the Maldives held presidential primaries with the incumbent President Ibrahim Solih pitted against former ally Mohamed Nasheed. Solih won the closely fought race, but Nashed accused him of rigging and bribery. Central to this allegation was a removal of some 39,000 people from the party’s registry, with Solih saying this was done in accordance with a recent electoral law that required party members to register with finger-printed membership forms. Political observers feel the fallout may split the Maldives Democratic Party ahead of the presidential election in September. This is given the very bitter mudslinging which was involved in the campaign.
SW: And now for our next segment, Bookmarked.
SW: Raisa, do you have any recommendations for this week?
RW: Thanks Saheli, yes, I do. So this week my recommendation is ‘The Elephant Whisperers,’ directed by Kartiki Gonsalves. The reason I’m recommending it is because there’s been a lot of hype recently on ‘RRR’ being nominated for the Oscars and the two other films from the region, being ‘The Elephant Whisperers’ and ‘All That Breathes,’ they’ve kind of got overshadowed. So I thought that we should throw some light on these documentaries. ‘The Elephant Whisperers’ in particular follows the story of an orphan elephant called Raghu and a couple, Bomman and Bellie who are tasked with caring for him. It’s set in the Theppakadu Elephant Camp in Ooty. It’s a really heartwarming story about how they built this bond with this young elephant and treated him as a member of the family. So it’s about coexistence, how they live in balance with nature. It’s a very heartwarming story about elephant conservation as well. As I watched it though, I couldn’t help but also recall that poaching is a big issue in the Southasian region. At least in Sri Lanka, similar sanctuaries have sadly become a vehicle for elephants to be trafficked to temples and be given over as kind of gifts to the wealthy. And sadly, after the presidential election laws were reversed to allow this to happen again. So I was thinking about all of that while I was watching this and the darker side to it. But I think this movie really shows what happens when a family can build a good rapport and really nurture these young orphaned elephants.
SW: Yeah, I watched it as well and I have similar thoughts on it. I also couldn’t help but think about the human-elephant conflict itself and how the documentary kind of brushes over the issue. It had the opportunity, I think, to maybe delve a little further into it. But I still enjoyed it. I think it was very heartwarming and I loved the way that the relationships between the humans and the elephants are portrayed and the relationships between the humans themselves was portrayed. It was very sweet and a nice watch, let’s say.
RW: Yes, a very wholesome watch and a good counterpoint to all the madness that we’re reading in the news. And on that note, that’s it for this edition of Southasiasphere. We’ll be seeing you in two weeks. Bye!