Southasiasphere is our monthly roundup of news events and analysis of regional affairs. If you are a member, you will automatically receive links to the new episodes in your inbox. If you are not yet a member, you can still get it for free by signing up here.
In this episode, we look at how the Pandora Papers were reported by the region’s media, and discuss the unfolding healthcare crisis in Afghanistan. In Around Southasia in 5 minutes, we look at Myanmar’s shrinking civil society, Pakistan’s growing start-up scene, an evidence bill in the Maldives, and the killing of a leading Rohingya activist in Bangladesh.
Plus, in our culture section Bookmarked, we discuss a Sri Lankan singer’s cover tune that recently went viral, the award of the Nobel Peace Prize 2021 to two journalists, and our monthly recommendations for reading and watching.
Raisa Wickrematunge: Hi everyone, and welcome to Southasiasphere, Himal Southasian’s monthly round-up of news events and developing stories across Southasia. I’m Raisa, and I’m joined by my colleagues Shubhanga, Marlon and Shwetha. Hi guys!
Shubhanga Pandey: Hello.
Shwetha Srikanthan: Hi.
Marlon Ariyasinghe: Hi.
RW: So, our big stories in this edition are how the Pandora Papers are being reported on in Southasia and the unfolding humanitarian and healthcare crisis in Afghanistan. In Around Southasia in 5 minutes we’re talking about how the military coup in Myanmar has impacted civil society organisations, Pakistan’s startup scene, an evidence bill being presented in the Maldives impinging on freedom of expression, and the killing of a leading Rohingya activist in Bangladesh.
Let’s begin with Pandora Papers.
MA: As you all know, the Pandora papers dominated all the headlines last week in the world and in Southasia. It was dubbed as one of the biggest leaks of financial documents that detail the secret wealth and dealings of some 35 current and former leaders and a number of public officials. There were some Southasian governments who promised to probe the revelations. If you look at the investigation, the ICIJ (International Consortium of Investigative Journalists) was coordinating with the simultaneous reporting from 150 media outlets in 117 countries, and they had started back in november 2020 to analyse the 11.9 million records. So, since most of the revelations have now become public knowledge, what we instead want to do in this podcast is to look at how it was discussed and reported in the region’s mainstream media.
RW: Marlon, you’ve been looking at Pakistan, right? So, how has the media been reporting the papers in Pakistan?
MA: Yeah. So, in Pakistan, the ICIJ’s partner was The News International. The reporting of the story across all media outlets was quite similar. When the news broke, Prime Minister Imran Khan responded by saying that he formed a high-powered cell to investigate the 700 Pakistani citizens named in the leaks. Now, since Khan was one of the first southasian leaders to respond to the Pandora papers, his statement was reported in almost all the major news outlets in the region. Some news articles also compared Imran Khan’s reaction to the previous Panama Papers five years back, which saw his political rival Nawaz Sharif implicated. Most reporting points out the irony that out of the 700 who are named, some are closely linked to Khan, which includes members of his cabinet as well.
SP: And what about India? They had quite a large number of people implicated as well, right?
SS: Yeah, that’s right. The ICIJ’s investigation linked to India by The Indian Express noted over 300 plus Indian names and the offshore holdings of over 60 prominent individuals, companies, former members of parliament and government officials.
So far, prominent Indian names revealed include Reliance ADAG head Anil Ambani, cricketer Sachin Tendulkar, the sister of fugitive businessman Nirav Modi, and the husband of Biocon founder Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, with more names to be made public in the coming days.
Meanwhile, the recent media coverage around the Pandora Papers in India centers around the government’s promise to begin investigations into the leak, and according to a statement by the Finance Ministry, because only ‘a few Indians’ have been named in the papers so far, the Ministry said the phased disclosures from the Pandora Papers appearing in the media will be monitored through a multi-agency group and claimed that the government will be engaging with foreign jurisdictions to obtain relevant taxpayer information.
SP: So there were a few interesting things in the Nepali press as well, which was focused around the 16 nationals whose name came up in the Pandora Papers and the business groups these people were associated with – and no politicians in the list of names. The reporting itself was led by the Kathmandu-based non-profit Center for Investigative Journalism (CIJN) in collaboration with the ICIJ – and this is a model that CIJN has followed for the last many years now in doing some of the most important investigative stories in Nepal. Often the reporters themselves are employees of other news organisations, which was also the case this time around, and the stories are produced by the CIJN and then published on their website. Some other portals republish them, presumably with their permission. So that was the model this time, too.
What I found interesting this time around was that Kantipur daily, which is probably Nepal’s largest circulating newspaper, they’re also listed as a media partner from Nepal on the ICIJ website, but you wouldn’t know that from just reading their reporting. What’s true is that some of the reporters were working with CIJN for this particular project, but there was nothing distinct about Kantipur’s reporting itself, which was limited to a story in the business section of the paper. On their website itself, along with that story, they linked a few stories from the CIJN website, a few more detailed pieces. So I found that interesting.
But I think it also raises some important questions about how much investment there is and what kind of infrastructures there are within the country’s media organisations for doing such work. Because if you need to rely on global collaborations which are by their nature occasional, how much can you do stories that are much more national and where you don’t have this kind of global support?
RW: That’s quite interesting, Shubhanga. In Sri Lanka, news of the Pandora Papers was met with indifference, and there were even people tweeting that powerful people being corrupt was hardly breaking news. There was also some discussion about how there was this factual error in the story written by the ICIJ staff on the date of origin of Sri Lanka’s civil war, which is a bit of a doomed project – to try to talk about the origin of conflict, because you could just keep going back in time. But this discussion did end up derailing talk about the actual contents of the report, which implicated a former MP and her husband, who are closely related to the Rajapaksas. I believe that Nirupama Rajapaksa is the President’s niece.
MA: Didn’t Anura Kumara Dissanayake also say something about their connection to the Rajapaksas in Parliament?
RW: Yeah, he specifically mentioned the previous regime. He mentioned both Basil Rajapaksa and UNP MP Ranil Wickremesinghe as well by name, and his comments where he spoke about their links to this couple. This was covered in the media, but it was quite telling that he actually played down the president’s connection to the couple – I think it’s a bit of an arbitrary distinction to make because they’re all siblings, so it’s a bit silly to say that one sibling is not as close to the rest.
There was also this very powerful editorial in the Daily FT, which highlighted public apathy towards corruption, and it spoke about how when the previous coalition government led by Maithripala Sirisena, when he didn’t deliver, members of the Rajapaksa family were actually voted in again in 2019 despite being unseated in 2015 due to corruption. So it kind of shows that people have short-term memories when it comes to these issues, even though they turn elections.
And the state-run Daily News focused on the President’s order to the Bribery Commission to conduct an investigation into the allegations made by Pandora Papers. But on Twitter, there were several people including the former human rights commissioner, who pointed out that the President shouldn’t be able to order a supposedly independent commission to conduct investigations. Some of them even said that appealing to the commission was just another way to bypass judicial process, and they pointed to a long history of government commissions with no consequences for wrongdoers, as evidence for that.
Meanwhile, there’s a humanitarian and health crisis unfolding in Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover. Shwetha, could you give us the latest on that?
SS: Sure, Raisa. So, international aid groups have warned that the health care system in Afghanistan is on the edge of collapse, thousands of health care facilities have run out of essential medicines and Afghan doctors have not been paid in months.
After the Taliban takeover, the country has been plunged into an economic and financial crisis. International donors including the World Bank, EU and IMF froze funding for new projects, including $600 million in healthcare aid. The Biden administration has also frozen Afghanistan’s central bank assets that are held in the US.
While the US is granting two licences allowing various groups to provide humanitarian assistance to the country – without access to foreign reserves and funds, the interim government in Kabul can’t finance vital food imports.
And given that recognition from the international community seems elusive at the moment, this crisis indicates just how quickly basic services can unravel as international donors struggle with distributing aid without placing funds in hands of the Taliban, and this is happening while 18 million Afghans, more than half the population in the country are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance.
SP: I think this question of international recognition continues to be a significant hurdle, even though the Taliban government has been making some attempts to address that. In late September, they actually sought a seat at the UN General Assembly, which was eventually turned down. What’s interesting is that over the last few years, the Taliban has had thick engagement with various governments around the world, as part of their talks in Doha, and some of this even included trips to places like Uzbekistan, Iran, Russia, Turkmenistan, China and Pakistan. But all the governments it seems, including those that they were dealing closely with, are much more cautious now and will likely significantly impede their efforts to raise funds.
RW: Right, this topic of international recognition and the impact of sanctions was actually part of this discussion which happened at a webinar held recently, organised by the Pakistan India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy, and it included panelists from Afghan civil society who are still in Kabul.
Mahbouba Seraj from the Afghan Women Network spoke very powerfully about how the country was on ‘a fast train to destruction’ due to the lack of urgency in recognising this rapidly emerging humanitarian crisis due to a lack of funds, and she said there needed to be a distinction drawn between money released for governance, and money released in order to meet the urgent needs of civilians, including for food and medicine. She also condemned countries like Pakistan, and more recently Tajikistan for allowing geopolitical considerations to prevail even during this unfolding crisis.
There was also some very interesting insight from the former urban advisor to Afghanistan from India, Pushpa Pathak, who gave an overview of how humanitarian aid has decreased since 2009 as foreign troops’ presence decreased on the ground. And she also spoke about how so far there’s been about 1.2 billion dollars pledged for humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan, but there’s a lot of scepticism about how that money is actually going to reach people in need of urgent assistance, and whether they’ll even be able to reach people, and how that money is going to be used. So in this sense, she actually said that Southasian civil society has a role to play in advocating for continued funding to reach people in urgent need, irrespective of the government in place.
And now, moving on to our next segment Around Southasia in 5 minutes.
Around Southasia in 5 minutes
SP: Thanks, Raisa. So let’s start with Myanmar, where the civil society is going through a period of serious crisis, as was expected after many months of crackdown by the military government. A recent survey of civil society groups in the country actually found that nearly one-fifth of the surveyed organisations had closed and 16 percent had suspended their activities, which basically means that civil society activities have shrunk by over a third. Of course, the situation is much worse for groups and individuals working on democracy and civil liberties. Over a hundred of their members are in military detention at the moment, and further restrictions in law and more surveillance is also expected. One interesting point that I read from a recent report is that while some civil society groups have been involved in health, social services and education sectors – basically activities seen as being apolitical even during the military regime, it seems that the military is keen on institutions like the monasteries to be more involved in these service provisions.
RW: Over in Bangladesh, one of the most well-known community leaders to highlight the suffering of Rohingya refugees, teacher and activist Mohib Ullah was killed in a camp in Cox’s Bazar on September 29. The Bangladeshi government has so far arrested five Rohingya in connection with the killing and said they were ‘probing’ links to an armed group. Mohib Ullah’s family has said they believe the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, which is a group behind several attacks in Myanmar, to be behind the killing as they were ‘enraged’ by his growing popularity, and they’ve also said they have subsequently received death threats for identifying ARSA as the potential killers. Meanwhile, this group contends that it was ‘unidentified criminals’ who were responsible.
MA: So there is some good news from the Pakistani Tech industry, that is experiencing exponential growth in 2021. So far, Pakistani start-ups have secured at least 240 million dollars in investment in 2021 alone compared to 66 million raised in 2020. Among the startups, there is Bazaar, a B2B online platform for grocery store owners of Karachi. CreditBook an app to help small businesses digitise their bookkeeping and Abhi an online platform that allows employees to access their earned wages before their payroll date.While this is good news, it will be interesting to see how this will unfold and what the future of Pakistani tech will be, especially given that some of the global tech giants threatened to leave Pakistan over new regulations on social media and the internet just last year.
SS: Over in the Maldives, on the 28th of September, journalist organisations and NGOs in the Maldives issued a statement calling for authorities to drop new provisions of the proposed Evidence Bill which is currently being debated in parliament.
The provisions in Article 136 of the Evidence Bill would empower the courts to demand journalists and media outlets to reveal their sources if the court determines that the “public interest of revealing a journalist’s source” outweighs negative impact to sources. The statement noted that vague language of the proposed provision also leaves room for intimidation and harassment of journalists and their sources, who will be deterred from speaking the truth.
And now it’s time for our culture section, Bookmarked.
SP: Thanks, Shwetha. And let’s begin with a bit of good news for journalists around the world, but especially two journalists – Maria Ressa, founder of the news website Rappler, which is based in the Philippines; and Dmitri Muratov who’s the editor of Novaya Gazeta, a newspaper based in Russia. The two were awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace last week “for their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace” according to the Nobel committee. That’s great news that the Nobel committee recognised working journalists, particularly those working in independent media outfits, and places that focus on investigative reporting and scrutinise their governments. And it’s also worth noting that the Norwegian politician that nominated Maria Ressa mentioned that she was “both a symbol and a representative of thousands of journalists around the world.” So I think it’s great news, especially following the solid reporting we saw after the Pandora Papers.
MA: Yeah. So, if you guys haven’t been living under a rock for the last few months, you would have surely heard Manike Mage Hithe by Yohani. Currently the song is taking the world by a storm. The song has nearly 150 million views on Youtube, it has been covered a million times by other singers from around the region. I think I first came across Yohani when she covered Pana Senehasa by Dushyanth Weeraman, which is one of my favourite songs, and I think it was her cover of Drill Team’s Deviyange Bare which kind of put her on the radar, especially her rap in it. So, what do you guys think?
SP: My own feeling was that – and maybe why it might have been so popular – is that it’s a nice, simple, memorable tune. I don’t know the lyrics, so you guys can say more about it, but what I do know is that I regret not doing a Nepali-language version of it and missing the boat on some global popularity.
RW: Yeah. I think like you said Marlon, it was her cover of Drill Team which made her gain some kind of recognition within Sri Lanka, like before Manike Mage Hithe went viral, because people realised that she could rap and I think she got this nickname of ‘rap princess’ after that song went viral. But at the same time, this is something we see in general with women who take up space as public figures, even as she got more popular, she also faced a lot of online harassment, which she also talks and sings about in her debut single Aaye. After she had signed with a new record label, she specifically raps about how the focus was not on her rap and her music, but rumours that her nudes were being leaked, that this is what people were interested in. And this kind of online harassment and bullying, unfortunately we see it a lot with women, especially women celebrities. But at least now she has gotten some positive attention and she’s travelling, touring in India and even voicing a Bollywood song, which is pretty cool.
MA: Yeah, I think I saw her recently with one of the bollywood stars, Salman Khan.
SS: Yeah. And I first came across her cover on TikTok, where there have been hundreds of covers of the song in all Southasian languages from Tamil, Malayalam, Nepali, Bangla, and even Dhivehi. Do you guys have a favourite cover of the song?
RW: I can’t say that I have a favourite cover, I just like that everyone’s taking it doing their own language version, like you said Shwetha, I think that’s really cool. Although, actually there has been a parody which has been imitating several of our politicians singing it, which is kind of funny …
MA: Oh really, I haven’t seen that
RW: Yeah, that went viral. It’s basically the president, the prime minister, and Ranil if I’m not wrong, who are singing it, so that was quite funny. I guess that would be my favourite.
MA: If Shubhanga had done a cover, I think by default that would have been our favourite cover. But I loved the Rowdy Baby mashup that was done, that was superb, I don’t know whether you guys came across that.
RW: Yeah, I heard that one got a lot of traction as well.
MA: So, I have a question for you guys. From Sri Lanka, who would you bet to go viral next? Out of our current crop artists.
RW: Out of our artists? I mean when you say viral it’s really difficult to predict because our politicians say the wildest things, so it could literally be anything.
MA: Yeah, I think we’ve been viral so many times – our parliament – remember the book throwing incident?
RW: Yeah, we have been viral so many times. Most recently, I guess for just the food emergency and things like that. But also for absolutely insane things that happen here.
MA: I mean artists
RW: From Sri Lanka’s current crop of artists, I’d hope that it would be another Sri Lankan artist that would get a lot of traction in a positive way.
MA: Let me throw some names around. How about Umaria?
RW: That would be awesome, I love her voice. But we do have a lot of talented rappers, their songs have been getting some attention within Sri Lanka. I personally really like Drill Team – they rap about a lot of social issues. Yohani covered Deviyange Bare, which is one of their songs which talks about gambling and debt. I kind of like Jayamardhanapura Wanuma, which I listen to after I read the news – that’s my go-to song to just listen to, to channel the frustration. And there’s quite a lot of songs like that from new artists who speak about a similar frustration with corruption. So I would like for them to go viral. It would be cool if people went and explored Sri Lankan music after Yohani. And actually there was this post that went viral, which was a comment on another musician, I think Ridma Weerawardena’s music video, saying ‘Hi I’m from India, and I’m here after watching Manike Mage Hithe’, so will people try to explore different artists after this. That would be really cool if more of our artists got attention after this. So, we’ll see.
SP: Shall we move on to our recommendation?
SP: So, my recommendation this month is an interesting paper by this historian from Berkeley called Vanessa Ogle. She’s been working on what she calls offshore capitalism, so basically the history of the creation of these tax havens that have been in the news over the last several weeks. It’s a paper called ‘Funk Money’: The End of Empires, The Expansion of Tax Havens, and Decolonization as an Economic and Financial Event’. So basically what she is doing is she is looking at how, in the decades following decolonisation, there was a kind of money panic among the largely white settlers, businessmen and officials that had investment in the colonies, and that were distrustful of the newly independent nations. So they started to liquidate their assets and move the capital out of the colonial world, which she argues is linked to the creation or expansion of some of these tax havens. So what we’re seeing today is actually in some ways a continuation of a longer post-1950s, 1960s history. So I think that’s an interesting thing to read right now.
RW: My recommendation would be Scratches on Celluloid, which is directed by Vindhya Buthpitiya and Timothy Cooper. It’s a film which looks at cinemas halls in Lahore and Jaffna as spaces of resilience amid insurgency, war and infrastructural breakdown. What I found particularly interesting about it is that I didn’t realise how these smaller cinemas continued even during the worst of Sri Lanka’s civil war. But what I found really interesting was how there was this exchange between actors and actresses between Pakistan and Sri Lanka, and how Sri Lankans would often fly to Pakistan and vice versa, and shoot films here to kind of have a different backdrop for their movies, which I didn’t know, and I found that really interesting, So if you’re interested in cinema, I would suggest checking that out.
SS: And my recommendation for this month is Anthropologist Nayanika Mathur’s new book titled Crooked Cats: Beastly Encounters in the Anthropocene. She builds on fifteen years of research across India, and locates a series of multispecies encounters to ask new questions about how stories of crooked cats – a term she uses for big cats that prey on humans or rather cats that have gone off the straight path – she uses these stories to deepen our understanding of the climate crisis and opens out the debates on the Anthropocene.
Because often “scientific” works dictate how we understand human-animal relations and the increase in what is problematically termed human-animal “conflict” has taken a particular form, with policy, and conservationist voices taking a lead in it, what this book does is it presents a different story by engaging with knowledge practices that are usually kept separate from one another and explores what happens to our understanding of humans and big cats relationships, but also broader subjects like species extinction and the climate crisis, when we center voices and narratives that are ignored in discussions about the future of life on Earth. So I highly recommend this book. It’s not only a timely read but it’s a really sharp and creative piece of ethnographic writing.
RW: That’s great, Shwetha. And on that note, that’s it for this edition of Southasiasphere. Do head to our website himalmag.com to see more of Himal’s work, and while you’re at it, check out our membership plans and support us.
Thanks everyone. Bye!