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 what Russia’s war on Ukraine means for Southasian economies. In Around Southasia in 5 minutes, we talk about the junta’s crackdown on the People’s Defence Force in Myanmar, food insecurity in Afghanistan, and new regulations on video and streaming services in Bangladesh and Nepal.
Plus in our culture section Bookmarked, we discuss a new Bhutanese film Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom, a collection of films highlighting digital rights, plus our monthly recommendations for reading and watching.
Raisa Wickrematunge: Hi everyone, and welcome to Southasiasphere, our 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 story in this edition is on the economic implications of Russia’s war on Ukraine. In Around Southasia in 5 minutes, we’re talking about the junta’s crackdown on the People’s Defence Force in Myanmar, the food crisis in Afghanistan, and new regulations on video and streaming services in Bangladesh and Nepal.
I’m going to talk about what’s happening in Ukraine first, and how it impacts the region.
As you might already know, the UN General Assembly called for Russia to stop the war in Ukraine, passing a resolution with 141 nations voting for and five against, with 35 nations abstaining. From the Southasian region, Nepal, Bhutan, the Maldives, Myanmar and Afghanistan voted in favour of Ukraine and the UN resolution, while India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka abstained. Of course, each nation voted one way or the other based on a myriad of factors, including their pre-existing relationships with Ukraine and Russia – but the resolution and the sanctions that are being passed will affect the region in many ways.
SP: Yeah Raisa. And I think analysts and commentators looking at the situation broadly agree that changes like the increase in oil prices, or the exclusion of Russia from the SWIFT international payment system, will translate into across the board price increases in the domestic economies of all countries in the region. But it might be worth recapping some of the specifics of the different countries’ relations with Russia or Ukraine.
MA: I think we all saw that Imran Khan was on a two-day visit to Russia to meet Vladmir Putin. This visit was a bit bizarre on many levels. One, there was a real-time crisis going on and the Russian aggressions towards Ukraine were escalating. Two, just a few days before, the Pakistani ambassador in Ukraine assured Pakistan’s support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. So this visit was dubbed as ill-timed by the media in Pakistan and the region.
SS: And Marlon, wasn’t Imran Khan caught on camera saying he was excited to be in Russia when he landed?
MA: Yeah, this was shortly after he landed. He said “What a time to be here. I am excited to be here.” Of course, this made rounds in social media and news outlets, and Khan was vilified for his insensitive tone.
Now, apart from existing economic ties between the two countries, Pakistan also became the first country to sign a trade deal with Russia on wheat and natural gas imports. Further, Pakistan’s long-delayed, USD 2.2 billion North-South gas pipeline will be built in cooperation with Russian companies.
As we reported in our last edition of Southasiasphere, Pakistan is in the middle of an IMF deal. There were media outlets that speculated whether Khan’s visit could in fact impact IMF support since both the World Bank and the IMF have called for collective international action against Russia.
RW: And Marlon, I saw that the diplomatic missions in Pakistan had written to the government urging Pakistan to support the resolution.
MA: Yeah Raisa, this was a joint letter which was signed by 22 diplomatic missions. And there was quite a strong response from Khan at a political rally to this letter. He said: “What do you think of us? Are we your slaves … that whatever you say, we will do?” and he followed that up with “I want to ask the European Union ambassadors: Did you write such letters to India?”
SS: Russia is one of Bangladesh’s main trading partners and its biggest supplier of wheat and fertiliser. Russia also has a major presence in the country’s energy sector. Currently, Russia is building the Rooppur nuclear power plant in Bangladesh at an estimated cost of USD 12.65 billion, under the inter-governmental agreement signed in 2016, and this project is scheduled to begin operation next year.
Disruption in trade, especially export will be costly, but Bangladesh is likely to continue trade with Russia. For instance, the Finance Minister announced that they would try alternative measures such as a currency swap in the face of western sanctions banning several Russian banks from the SWIFT international payment network.
RW: Yeah Shwetha, and in an interesting development, I read that Bangladesh is also being penalised for not condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In past episodes, we’ve already discussed how Covid-19 vaccines have been used as a tool of diplomacy. We now see that Lithuania has backtracked on its decision to donate nearly half a million Pfizer vaccines to Bangladesh for abstaining from voting in the UN General Assembly. From a public health perspective Lithuania’s move leaves Bangladesh vulnerable, as only 54 percent of the population is fully vaccinated.
SP: Analysts talking about the impact of these sanctions on India generally tend to focus on the fact that India has been an important importer of Russian military hardware and technology. So obviously this is going to cause some issues in Russian suppliers fulfilling existing contracts, for example for anti-missile systems and defence frigates. Although one interesting detail I recently came across was that the frigates that India imports from Russia come with Ukrainian engines. So there’s more than one reason why these supplies might be hit.
But of course, there are other critical imports too, in the agricultural sector there are particular fertiliser chemicals and sunflower oil, whose import will be hit. And of course, there are industrial imports like steel, rare earth metals, crude oil, and natural gas. Then there’s the issue of Russia being cut off from the SWIFT wire payment system, which essentially means that Indian exporters will have difficulty receiving payments.
Some reports indicate that the government has now formed an inter-ministerial panel to look into new sources for these imports, and also into alternative arrangements for receiving and making payments.
RW: In Sri Lanka, the war on Ukraine has impacted its income from tourism, since Russian and Ukrainian tourists were among the largest markets to tap into this year. Russia is also the second largest market for Sri Lankan tea. A Central Bank official said that external trade with Russia and Ukraine amounted to around USD 461 million, of which around USD 179 million are exports – amounting to around 1.4 percent of exports in total. Sri Lanka is facing a foreign exchange crisis this year as it struggles to meet debt repayments and to purchase essentials like fuel and medicine, so the lack of income from tourism will definitely impact the country.
SS: Yes Raisa, and the impacts on tourism will also be severe in the Maldives – which was among the destinations which suffered the highest immediate cancellation rates since (February 24) the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine. This was supposed to be a year of recovery for the country’s travel industry, but the Maldives Tourism Minister stressed that 20 percent of their tourist market comprises of tourists from Russia and Ukraine, adding that their top tourist market this year was Russia, and that the war will significantly impact the country’s tourism sector. The short-term impacts for the Maldives are flight cancellations, diversion of air routes and surge in crude oil prices which will make travel more expensive. But the long-term consequences for the travel industry could be far reaching.
RW: Yeah, and that’s similar to the situation in Sri Lanka too – especially because tourism was also impacted by the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings as well. As a result, Sri Lanka has really been feeling the crunch with several debt repayments due this year. In fact, as we’re recording this, yesterday there was a massive protest led by the opposition, but there have also been people just coming out on the streets and protesting things like the daily power-cuts.
But more to the point of what we were talking about, this is perhaps one reason that Sri Lanka abstained from the UN resolution on Ukraine. And shortly after the vote it was reported that Sri Lanka had requested around USD 300 million of a credit line to purchase crude oil, gas and coal from Russia. Now, it’s not clear whether this request was made before war was declared, but to outsiders it certainly looked like Sri Lanka was taking a neutral position in order to ask for money to keep the lights on (literally). A Russian trade delegation headed by the Deputy Minister of Industry and Trade also visited Sri Lanka in the first week of March.
RW: Moving on to our next segment, Around Southasia in 5 minutes:
Around Southasia in 5 minutes
SP: Reports from Myanmar indicate that the military regime is intensifying its attacks on People’s Defence Forces, which is the armed wing of the resistance movement against the February 2021 coup. Earlier this month, the junta government reportedly decided on pursuing a new round of military campaigns against the PDF forces, largely in the northwestern Sagaing Region, which borders northeastern India, and which has seen about 40 percent of the overall casualty since the military coup. Media organisations covering Myanmar have described this campaign as one aimed at ‘elimination’ of the resistance forces. Irrawaddy magazine has in fact called it ‘Kill All, Torch All’ mission, and they report that the aim is to eliminate resistance in the region before the annual Armed Forces Day on March 27. It should be noted that several townships in this region have now experienced internet slowdowns and shutdowns for months, and more recently the internet block that has been extended to all but four cities in the region.
SS: In Afghanistan, acute malnutrition is spiking across the country, with 95 percent of households experiencing food insecurity, and nearly 23 million Afghans at risk of famine. The fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (like the supply chain issues and shifting global interest to Ukraine) could also compound the hunger crisis in Afghanistan as foreign aid is diverted to help refugees in Europe. There have been several reports over the last two months on the desperate measures taken by people, such as selling organs to support their families. A new Human Rights Watch report on censorship and violence against Afghan media notes that many journalists said they or their colleagues had been beaten for trying to report on rising food prices, among other subjects that cast Taliban officials in a bad light.
RW: In Nepal, the government has introduced new regulations making it mandatory for what they term online television channels, which could potentially include YouTube channels, to receive an operating licence. The government has also set a fee of Rs. 500,000 to receive an operating licence. The new broadcast regulations also make it mandatory to classify the programmes broadcast. While these regulations have ostensibly been introduced to prevent the spread of disinformation and false news, they will likely impinge on freedom of expression and reduce the diversity of online news and YouTube content if they are implemented.
MA: Over in Bangladesh, in early February, the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) drafted a set of rules for over-the-top (OTT) media platforms. As the Dhaka Tribune reported, the guidelines would require OTT platforms to register after obtaining a security clearance and they will also have to follow rules regarding obscenity, defamation and hurting religious sentiment.
A lot of criticism is levelled against this draft bill. Access Now, representing an international coalition of 45 organisations, has urged BTRC to scrap the bill. Some of the cited repercussions of the bill could involve lack of privacy in online communications that will impact individual privacy and business, and the adherence to traceability which will leave the Bangladeshi digital ecosystem exposed to cyber threats, and the overall compliance cost of the regulation to service providers.
MA: And now for our culture section, Bookmarked.
MA: So let me start things off. I have a movie recommendation from Bhutan – it’s called Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom. I was actually supposed to talk about it last month, but since I couldn’t watch it then, we didn’t actually talk about it. So when I finally got around to watching it, it was nominated for an Oscar in the International Feature category. This film is directed by Pawo Choyning Dorji, and it marks the first Oscar nomination for Bhutan. The Academy had to actually update its website since it did not have Bhutan or Dzongkha, the official language of Bhutan, so Dorji could submit the film.
Talking a little about the film, I think what I really liked was its cinematography. It’s really amazing – the sweeping landscapes, the expansive mountains are shot beautifully, and I also listened to an interview by the director, who explained how difficult it was for the crew to shoot the film because the trek up to Lunana is actually eight days, this is mentioned in the film as well, and they had to take all the equipment including solar panels and batteries for the equipment up the of the mountain. I won’t go into the storyline much but it’s quite simple and not completely original. It’s basically a city dweller who goes to a utopian village and has revelations about life, but it’s a bit difficult not to like this film, and I guess the ending is not so predictable, so I won’t say much more than that. And I also really liked the music – there’s actually a folk song that the main character has to learn and it’s really really beautiful. After the film, I actually checked out some of the other folk songs on Youtube. So this is my recommendation for the month.
RW: Thanks Marlon. So my recommendation is TechTales, which is an initiative by Engage Media, a non-profit organisation which supports digital rights, open and secure technology and social issue documentaries. TechTales is a series of short films which highlights digital rights issues across the Asia Pacific region, which includes the Southasian region as well. So for instance they have an animated short video about a trishaw driver who is always on his smartphone and what happens when he just clicks yes on every permission the app asks him, or rather all the apps that he’s using. He’s a frequent user of different kinds of apps and it’s kind of told from a child’s perspective, which is interesting. And there’s another one on Myanmar and the internet and information blackout after the military coup a year ago, and how it has impacted daily life. That one was anonymously produced and the whole video is shot in dim light so you can’t see the main characters – which really underscores how what is considered an online restriction can bleed into everyday life, and that’s something the film shows in terms of its content as well. Even the videos outside of the region are still quite relevant, talking about topics like online gender-based violence, facial recognition systems and biometrics, and legislation being used to arrest social media users, including cartoonists, journalists and musicians. In terms of the style of the series, it’s actually a mix of documentary, skits and animated videos, but the common thread is that they’re talking about different aspects of digital rights. So if that’s something that interests you, I would recommend checking it out.
MA: Just a quick question about the trishaw driver who clicks yes on every permission on the app, because I do that! What happens to the guy?
RW: So he kind of flees the country because he suddenly realises that he’s being tracked everywhere and he tries to escape from it. So he tries to get on a plane and flee to another country and then only to realise that it follows him everywhere. Then the ending is somewhat idealistic in a sense – it visualises this future where everybody who’s interested in this topic comes together, and in the cartoon, since it’s done through a child’s perspective, it’s like they all built this great umbrella, which I think is referring to privacy advocates. There are certainly initiatives which, across borders, where people have worked together to try to stop oversight of tech platforms and things like that, but I don’t know whether it’s that possible to really achieve what they depict in the cartoon – which is protection over everybody. But it’s definitely something that will make you think before you, hopefully, click yes and accept all the permission.
MA: But those agreements are so long, you can’t read them.
RW: They are so long, but you know, there’s a widget that kind of breaks it down for you in summary. There’s a Google widget that does.
MA: So all the rights that you are signing off.
RW: Yeah, you can see what exactly you are signing off on. And of course, there’s ways to go back and change permissions on different platforms as well. But yeah, in reality, people don’t really think about it and people also don’t really see it as a problem. In that sense, I think that’s what this video is trying to combat – It’s trying to get people to stop and think before they do it. It’s just a tool, I’m not entirely sure that it’s actually going to change anything, but it’s just a different medium I guess.
SS: Thanks Raisa, that sounds really interesting and I think I’ll definitely be watching the documentaries. And my recommendation for this month is a collection of short fiction called My Pen is the Wing of a Bird: New Fiction by Afghan Women. The stories in this collection were developed over two years through Untold’s ‘Write Afghanistan’ project’, a programme that works to amplify work of writers marginalised by community or conflict. This is the first anthology of short fiction by Afghan women in English translation, and the stories, translated from Dari and Pashto, draw from real-life events and experiences, the day-to-day and themes of family, friendship, work and sexuality in contemporary Afghanistan. What I liked about the stories is that it gives these writers agency to define their experiences and identities at a time of violence and repression under the Taliban – this is also something that’s captured in one of the lines in the afterword by Lucy Hannah, the programme director, she write that “someone asked me ‘why would people carry on writing at a time like this?’ And the answer is that … stories help us make sense of our world, particularly in the face of uncertainty and fear.” So that’s my recommendation for the month.
RW: 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!