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 growing protests in Sri Lanka, their political implications, as well as the no-confidence motion against Imran Khan in Pakistan. In Around Southasia in 5 minutes, we talk about the termination of citizenship for high-profile dissidents by Myanmar’s military regime, the tragic resurgence of communal violence in India, Nepal’s upcoming local government elections, and more.
Plus in our culture section Bookmarked, we discuss the 25th edition of Film Southasia held in Lalitpur, Nepal, 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 from Colombo, Sri Lanka, as well as our Engagement Editor Aimun from Karachi, Pakistan, and our Multimedia Editor Sana from New Delhi, India. Hi guys!
RW: So, our big story in this edition is on unpacking the protests and the political implications around Sri Lanka’s economic crisis, as well as Pakistan’s successful no-confidence motion against Imran Khan. In Around Southasia in 5 minutes, we’re talking about the military junta in Myanmar targeting high profile dissidents by stripping them of citizenship, the tragic resurgence of communal violence in several states of India, Nepal’s upcoming local government elections, and recent air strikes targeting civilians in two different Afghan provinces. In our cultural section Bookmarked, we’ll be talking about our coverage of Film Southasia which was held recently in Nepal.
Let’s talk about what’s happening in Sri Lanka.
Sounds of protesters chanting ‘Go Home Gota’ from Colombo, Sri Lanka
Marlon Ariyasinghe: For our listeners who have been reading up on Sri Lanka and seeing distressing videos and images, along with apocalyptic analysis on local and international media about the state of Sri Lanka, and since we have four members on our team who are currently based in Sri Lanka, I think guys, we can confidently declare that it’s all true and we are in fact in crisis. Am I right?
RW: I think that would be a fair assumption – yes.
MA: Yeah, and just today, as we’re recording this (May 9, 2022), we’ve just seen attacks against peaceful protesters by pro-ruling party supporters in Colombo and also in Kandy. And we’ve just got reports that the Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa has also resigned. So, as you can see, it’s been very eventful for us in Sri Lanka and it still is a developing story.
I think it’s not been so much fun for our team members, Aimun and Sana, who is not based in Colombo – they’ve been subjected to this every day in our daily meetings. Sorry guys, but the current crisis has taken over completely and it has consumed everything we do. I mean, if I walk outside my house right now, there’s a queue stretching for miles from the fuel station, and this has been our reality for the past few months. Sri Lankans has been waiting in queues for fuel, for gas, for milkpowder and even passports. Just two weeks ago, I had to wait from midnight to 3.30 in the morning to get fuel. So I think talking about queues would give us a good starting point to where this all began, because they would offer us insight into the protests that have swept across the country, ending with today’s events.
According to a protest tracker maintained by Watchdog, there have been more than 500 protests that have taken place all over the island, and the first signs of dissent were shown at these queues, which have mutated into islandwide protests. So why are Sri Lankans waiting in queues?
Shubhanga Pandey: Thanks, Marlon for that background. If people have been following even a bit of what’s going on in Sri Lanka, they will have some rough idea about the outlines of what’s been happening. But just to recap: Sri Lanka is currently facing the worst economic crisis in its modern history. This is principally seen in the shortages regarding gas, fuel, medicine, there have been power cuts across the country for a few months now, and this is largely because the country’s foreign reserves have been severely depleted over the past few months, especially because the country has been servicing its various debt obligations in foreign currency, and as the country relies on imports for a lot of these essential items, all of which need to be paid in foreign currency (principally dollars), the country is seeing all of these shortages. In fact, only today, the country’s largest gas supplier announced that they’re officially out of cooking gas and they’ve been urging people to no longer wait in queues. The reason, broadly speaking, is due to economic mismanagement by the past few governments, but principally the current government which took a few decisions that really took the country over the edge, and also because of the effects of Easter attacks, but even more so the COVID-19 pandemic.
I think the news of protests are also something that have been around and in the international press as well. What is perhaps a bit less obvious in most of these reporting is just the changing nature of the protests on the ground. And again, as people who are based here in Colombo, perhaps we can say a few things about the remarkable aspects of the ongoing movement and how things might evolve in the coming days?
Sounds from protests in Colombo, Sri Lanka
MA: I think one of the most unique aspects about the protesters is that they come from all segments of society, across demographics, and there is truly an organic feel about it. If you talk about the Mirihana protests which happened over a month ago, this was one of the first large protests to take place. Families had come out with their kids for protests. And to maybe give an example to show how diverse these protests are and the protesters, I can give an example of a friend who is pregnant and would be giving birth next month, she has been regularly going to these protests despite her difficulties. She’s also an artist, and at Gota Go Village in Galle Face, she initiated this collective large mural painting project and there were people of all ages who took part in colouring this mural. This is only one story out of thousands of similar stories from all over the island, but I think it shows how diverse and how organic these protests are.
RW: Yeah, that’s right Marlon. I think it’s really important to highlight that there’s lots of different types of protests that are taking place, and not just in Colombo. I think there’s been a lot of media attention focusing on Gota Go Gama (gama meaning village) at Galle Face, but it’s important to note there have been several similar sites which have been mushrooming across the island, in areas like Matara, Galle, Kandy and Kurunegala, and the rallying cry from all of them is for members of the Rajapaksa families to step down.
Shwetha Srikanthan: That’s right Raisa. In recent weeks, different protests have been taking place outside Colombo. On 28 April and 5 May, trade unions across the country including health, electricity, railways, education and manufacturers were on strike demanding the President’s resignation. Today (6 May) 2,000 trade unions are to withdraw from services and launch an indefinite strike from midnight.
It is also important to note that the demands for accountability don’t end at the financial crisis. Sri Lanka’s political minorities from around the island have also been extending their support to the protests. This includes the families of the disappeared in the north and east who have been challenging the state and protesting continuously for 1900 days, with no answers. Their protests, which have been ongoing since 2017, have received little support and often met with disproportionate violence. And during the attacks that took place today that, Marlon talked about, tents set up by the families of the disappeared were also demolished among the other tents that were put up by protesters.
Sana Amir: Thanks Shwetha. I’m curious – how has the media been reporting these protests and the violence?
SP: Specifically on the question of violence and how that has been reported, I think at least until today, that has been somewhat slightly vague, especially when the reporting came from international press, in some cases characterising a complete movement as violent quite inaccurately. There were incidents of violence instigated by the state, in the case of two provincial towns, by the police. More recently and specifically today, there has been a slightly more larger scale violence by groups of supporters of the ruling party who went after peaceful protesters, and that is being extensively covered domestically and slowly I think beginning to be covered internationally as well. So I think we’ll have to wait and see how that evolves and how the coverage of that evolves as well.
Aimun Faisal: So I just wanted to ask, what political action can be taken based on the protesters’ demands?
RW: Yeah Aimun, at the moment, or rather even before today’s events, there were three main options being discussed. One is for the President to resign voluntarily, with Parliament electing an interim president in his place. However, the President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has thus far refused to step down. So apart from that, there have also been two no-confidence motions which have been initiated by the main opposition party, the SJB against the government and the president respectively, although the opposition didn’t really have the numbers to carry either one through by the last count. However, these were the main options being considered before today. The situation has changed somewhat since Mahinda Rajapaksa has just announced his resignation, which if it is accepted would mean the Cabinet stands dissolved. That situation is still uncertain at the moment because people are saying that it remains to be seen whether it will be accepted by his brother. Apart from that, a few MPs have also tendered their resignations following the announcement of Mahinda’s resignation.
MA: Yeah, and Raisa, before this there were some talks of impeachment, right?
RW: Yes, so another option being discussed was of filing an impeachment motion against the president but that process is quite complex – it requires several conditions to exist in order for it to be successfully carried out. Within parliament it would at least need a two-thirds majority, or for at least half of the MPs to vote in favour and for the Speaker to be satisfied that an impeachment motion is warranted.
There have been other more long-term political solutions being discussed. One of them has been a discussion of abolishing the system of executive presidency, which actually has been another of the protesters’ demands. We’ve seen a few of the protesters carrying posters and talking about this over the past month. In line with that, the Cabinet has supposedly been developing an amendment which is very similar to the 19th Amendment of the Constitution which was passed by the previous government. There have also been a couple of Private Members’ Bills with different iterations being proposed. But of course, none of this has been made officially public. I’m saying of course because unfortunately our legislative process has traditionally been a bit opaque and there’s been a lack of consultation, so it’s usually been through Twitter or on other social media platforms that drafts have been made publicly available, and because of that it’s never clear whether these are the latest versions, and there is skepticism that any of these proposed measures are going to be carried out.
MA: Yeah, just to add to that Raisa, I think we should also talk about how the opposition parties have been acting throughout this whole saga. There is a general feeling from the people that they are not doing everything in their power to pressurise the government to resign, and most of their actions including this proposed 21st Amendment to the Constitution is also seen as quite ineffective. So there is a general consensus among the people that the opposition parties themselves, especially led by the main opposition party which is the Samagi Jana Balawegaya, is not doing everything in their power or are incapable of doing anything to put more pressure on the government.
RW: Thanks Marlon. And from Sri Lanka we are moving on to Pakistan, which is also seeing turmoil and political uncertainty after a no-confidence motion against Imran Khan succeeded. We actually held a Twitter space last week on this which was moderated by Aimun. Aimun, do you want to just walk us through a little bit of what happened?
AF: Yeah, thank you Raisa. We spoke to Umair Javed, Reema Omer and Jibran Nasir who are research experts in the political and legal field, and we gained a multifaceted understanding of the political crisis that Pakistan is currently facing. We kept in mind the legal and political fallout of the ousting of the PTI government and we traced the historical processes that led us to this moment. The conversation is now available as a separate podcast on our website, so the audience can go to himalmag.com and access it there.
I think we can move on to our next segment which is Around Southasia in 5 minutes.
Around Southasia in 5 minutes
SP: Thanks, Aimun. We’ll begin with Myanmar. So Myanmar’s military government’s persecution of dissidents continues, and in recent months they appear to have used the termination of citizenship as a tool for political repression. Recent reports from the country note that since March this year, over 30 dissidents, including officials, diplomats who are unwilling to cooperate with the military or those associated with the government in exile, groups of these people have been stripped of their citizenship, which is of course a serious breach of international human rights laws and various protections against statelessness. According to several state media reports, these citizenships were terminated ostensibly because they committed “acts that could harm the interests of Myanmar”.
On a related case, the Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has also been recently found guilty on 11 counts of corruption, and the appeal against the five-year sentence has now been rejected by the Union Supreme Court. She now faces a range of other charges, again related to corruption, which could potentially bring with it over 100 years in prison sentences. So that’ll be something to follow up and see how it develops.
SS: Over in India, on 10 April, during the Hindu festival of Ram Navami, several Indian states (including Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Jharkhand and West Bengal) witnessed some deeply disturbing events related to anti-Muslim attacks and hate speech. On 16 April, further violence was seen in Delhi, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh, followed by more violence in Maharashtra against Muslim communities. The clashes left two people dead, and resulted in homes and shops being set on fire and attempts to raise saffron flags outside mosques. In Jahangirpuri and other affected areas in Delhi, the administration responded by sending bulldozers to demolish Muslim-owned shops, business, houses, even after the Supreme Court ordered a halt to operations.
Last week, over 97 people were arrested after communal tensions heightened in Rajasthan’s Jodhpur, before Eid on Tuesday. Authorities have also suspended mobile internet services and imposed a curfew in areas under the jurisdiction of 10 police stations across the city.
SA: That’s right, Shwetha. On 9 May, the administration in Delhi also sent bulldozers in the Muslim-majority Shaheen Bagh area of Delhi in what it calls an “anti-encroachment drive”. Shaheen Bagh is the same iconic place which became the epicenter of the nationwide protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in India in 2019-20. The demolition drive was halted after amidst protests. There was also news on some protesters being detained by the police. The Supreme Court refused to entertain a petition filed by the CPI(M) or the Communist Party of India (Marxists) against the demolition drive and has asked the party to approach the Delhi High Court.
There were also communal tensions being witnessed in the Indian state of Maharashtra and Karnataka. This time it was around the use of loudspeakers in mosques, so members of the far-right political parties in these states are boycotting the use of loudspeakers in mosques by playing Hindu devotional songs on loudspeakers in front of mosques. So that has created some tension in these areas.
RW: Thanks for that Sana and Shwetha. Meanwhile in Nepal, Nepal is preparing for local government elections which is scheduled for May 13th. Over 100,000 candidates have filed nominations. The nomination process itself saw some turmoil particularly for the governing coalition of Nepali Congress, CPN (Maoist Centre), CPN (Unified Socialist), Janata Samajbadi Party and Rastriya Janamorcha, who weren’t often able to agree on candidate selection. Some partner parties fielded so-called ‘rebel candidates’ against the alliance’s official candidates instead, and some of these prospective candidates were talking about arrogance among the alliance partners. Comparatively, for the opposition it was somewhat smooth sailing as it has only forged alliances in a few areas like Jhapa, Chitwan, Butwal and Birgunj. The party, however, did face criticism for fielding some controversial figures like Keshav Sthapit in Kathmandu and Krishna Thapa in Pokhara. Sthapit in the past has twice been accused of sexual harassment while Thapa has run into controversy for calling to release individuals who were detained for caste-based discrimination.
SS: In Afghanistan, on 29 April, the Sahib Khalifa Mosque in Kabul became the latest target in a series of terrorist bombings over the past four weeks. Security officials said at least 10 people were killed and 30 wounded inside the mosque. Millions across 11 provinces in Afghanistan faced blackouts on 30 April after two power transmission towers were blown up near Kabul. Before this, there were major attack across Afghanistan, with over 70 Afghans (including children) killed and more than 160 wounded. The attacks targeted areas of Kabul and Kunduz that is home to a large Hazara community, including one high school and education centre and two other mosques.
These recent attacks suggests that the Taliban’s months-long crackdown has not been able to curtail ISIS-K activity. Not only is the Taliban directly threatening Hazara community, it is also unable to protect them and other minorities against these attacks as the threat of violence grows in Afghanistan.
And now for our culture section, Bookmarked.
SP: Thanks, Shwetha. We’ll begin with Film Southasia 2022, which is Southasia’s most interesting and important documentary film festival, which I can also say comfortably because FSA is a sister organisation of Himal. So the film festival was held in Lalitpur in Kathmandu Valley a couple of weeks back, and it brought together filmmakers and film lovers from around the region and around the world. It featured over 70 documentary films that were selected from around 3000 documentaries which came in as submissions. And to cover the event and the films, we sent our Multimedia Editor Sana to Kathmandu. So Sana, what did you see at FSA and what was your appraisal of it?
SA: Thanks Shubhanga. It was nice to finally attend an in-person film festival and interact with filmmakers.
The films at FSA covered a wide range of issues and I think it was a testament to what the Southasian region has been facing in terms of cultural and political movements in the past few years. There were films that showed how people coped with COVID-19 such as Windows of Time, Stories from the Second Floor, and Mahalle’s School: Family Going Live which specifically focused on the challenges of e-learning during the pandemic. There were a series of films that questioned gender roles, binaries and choices. To name a few – there was Decoding Gender from Bangladesh, Blues of Pink from Nepal, and Gay India Matrimony from India.
Sound from ‘Strike With the Beat’
There were also a number of films that documented how people organised political movements in Southasia. There was Strike With the Beat from Burma that documented young drummers protesting the Myanmar coup as it happened in the 2021 Spring Revolution. Then there was A Bid for Bengal from India that traced the rise of Hindu nationalism in Bengal and the citizenship protests that took place in 2020. It was quite a powerful film also because it sort of explains how the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) has been fueling hatred through social media and other marketing tools to expand its base in cities.
I also enjoyed watching This Stained Dawn (in Urdu it was titled Dagh Dagh Ujala) from Pakistan that focused on the challenges of organising a women’s march and feminist movements in Pakistan and how they tackle the propaganda from state, media and radical religious groups.
Sound from ‘This Stained Dawn’
I thought that apart from the story, the film was very well-produced and edited. It used a lot of rap songs by female Pakistan artists to capture the mood of the film. There was another film Amid the Villus from Sri Lanka, which was being discussed a lot at the festival. I couldn’t watch it though. Shwetha, I think you have seen that one, right?
SS: Yes Sana, thank you for that, and also it was really great to see a few Sri Lankan documentary entries at Film Southasia this year, including the filmmaker Kannan Arunasalam’s film called Sri Lanka’s Rebel Wife. The other film that you just mentioned, I got to watch earlier this year – it’s by filmmaker, performer, poet and academic Sumathy Sivamohan, and it’s called Amid the Villus.
Just to give some brief context for our listeners on what the documentary is about – In the 1990s the LTTE ordered thousands of Muslims in the Jaffna peninsula to leave their homes, and when the civil war in Sri Lanka ended in 2009, this displaced community of Muslims got to return to Palaikuli, a village in northern Sri Lanka’s Musali South, and this documentary tells the story of this displaced community, it’s about their work and survival; understanding their history, memory and their struggles.
I think Sumathy expertly captures the harrowing experience of eviction of Northern Muslims and the problems that they continue to face, and it’s told through their own voices. And this is one of the many consequences of the war that is rarely discussed, with little action taken by the government to remedy the injustice. So this documentary is my recommendation for the month – do check it out if you get the opportunity to catch a screening of Sumanthy’s film.
SP: Thanks Shwetha for those details. What I particularly also liked the FSA this time around was that even though it was an in-person event, and I think a highly awaited in-person event after the pandemic, they also actually made all the films available online for the period of the festival, so that was quite nice.
The festival concludes with several awards, including the Ram Bahadur trophy for the best documentary film. Sana, what do we know about these winning documentaries? Can you maybe briefly talk about them?
SA: Yes Shubhanga. The winner of the Ram Bahadur trophy for Best Film at Film Southasia was Taangh (Longing) by Bani Singh from India. I was very lucky enough to catch the film at the festival. It beautifully captures the filmmaker’s journey as she tries to trace down friends of her father, who was actually a member of the first Indian hockey team to win Olympics gold. Through her journey, she reflects on India-Pakistan partition, love, loss and friendship. It was quite an emotional film. We also have an interview with the filmmaker Bani Singh on Himal’s YouTube channel, so for those who want to take a look at it, they can check our YouTube channel.
RW: Yeah Sana. I managed to watch Taangh as well, since some of the documentaries were streamed online, and that one was available so I watched it. And I agree, I thought it was very powerful because it captures a personal experience of Partition and it really captured the invisible pain that was caused within even a single team that ended up being splintered by Partition. I also liked that it had a fully fleshed out story – some of the shorter documentaries that I watched were more slice of life reportage, and while those can be nice as well, this felt like a fully fleshed out story and it was also beautifully shot and captured the director’s journey at documenting her own father’s story and her own tenacity in tracking down these details.
I also really enjoyed Strike with the beat, which you mentioned before as well, which captured the street protests in Myanmar after the military coup. It also recorded important details such as the crackdown on those protesters and recording the names of people who lost their lives.
I was also interested to note in that documentary that they had this slogan that has been used a lot in Sri Lanka as well, which is “you messed with the wrong generation”. Seeing that being reused makes me wonder whether some of the protesters have been watching footage coming out from Myanmar. There’s been some criticism from Sri Lanka, of using that kind of slogan given that there has been a history of protest movements and pushing back against state repression, but I just found it interesting and unexpected to see a slogan that we’ve seen a lot in Sri Lanka being used in Myanmar as well.
I also watched Blues of Pink and Come for a Drink, Kaanchi, both of which were Nepali documentaries, where the directors had an empathetic gaze towards their subjects and both of them tackled gendered issues. Come for a drink, Kaanchi was about unpacking stereotypes around alcoholism among women from the Nepali Rai community, and Blues of Pink was about the story of a member of the hijra community living in Janakpur.
Does anybody else have any other recommendations?
AF: I don’t have a recommendation; I just have a request. As Sana mentioned earlier, all of this is up on our YouTube channel. We have film reviews, interviews with filmmakers, we have an insight into how Film Southasia panned out. So go check it out, and also, as the old saying goes: like and subscribe.
RW: 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!