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 Southasia’s contentious relationship with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in the face of recent economic crises. In Around Southasia in 5 minutes, we talk about the junta’s prosecution of election officials in Myanmar, crackdowns on freedom of the press in Kashmir, India’s 2022 Budget and a new bill from the Maldives that seeks to suppress the ‘India Out’ campaign.
Plus in our culture section Bookmarked, we discuss the viral daily word guessing game, Wordle, Amazon’s decision to shut down the Indian publishing house Westland Books, plus our monthly recommendations for reading and watching.
Raisa Wickrematunge: Hi everyone, and Happy New Year! This is the first edition of Southasiasphere, our monthly round-up of news events and developing stories across Southasia for 2022. 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 Southasia’s contentious relationship with the IMF. In Around Southasia in 5 minutes, we’re talking about the junta’s prosecution of election officials in Myanmar, crackdowns on freedom of the press in Kashmir, India’s 2022 Budget and a new bill from the Maldives that seeks to suppress protest against the MDP’s foreign policy.
Let’s begin by talking about the IMF.
MA: So at the beginning of this month, the IMF approved a USD 1 billion loan to Pakistan, which is part of a 39-month loan programme. This was the 6th tranche of the USD 6 billion bailout package which was to be paid in the course of 3 years. This bailout was agreed back in 2019, but it stalled and was suspended for some time owing to delay in the Pakistani government complying with the requirements of IMF, but it was renewed in November last year. Back in April 2020, the IMF released USD 1.4 billion to Pakistan, helping it handle an economic crisis amid a surge in fatalities from the COVID-19 pandemic. While the IMF comes up with best practices, at times the overall impact of large fiscal tightening can push these economies into recession. So in this edition, we thought we would take a look at the role of the IMF in the region and bring out some of the inevitable debates that spring up when the IMF is involved.
RW: Marlon, how is the IMF and its role perceived in Pakistan?
MA: That’s always an interesting question, Raisa. Since IMF interventions are often fiercely debated, and this was the same case in Pakistan. For example, like I mentioned before, just last year there were negotiations and renegotiations between the Pakistani government and the IMF, even after the deal was agreed.
But in general, some of the major criticisms directed at the IMF are that the conditions that are tied to the loans and at times the structural changes that the states must effect like privatisation of state owned enterprises, deregulation, and bureaucratic processes. Another criticism is how these bailouts may lead to moral hazard, which refers to the possibility of bailouts encouraging more borrowings – this is especially true when it comes to corporates that are deemed ‘too big to fail’.
RW: That’s really interesting, Marlon. In Sri Lanka also this is relevant because there’s currently this debate going on about whether or not to seek a bailout from the IMF, because if you’ve been following Sri Lanka, we are currently grappling with a serious economic crisis due to Sri Lanka’s dwindling foreign currency reserves, which is largely due to debt repayments – a lot of which are due in the next few years. The impacts of this are already being felt – in the past month, there have been unscheduled regular power cuts, price inflation and there’s also a shortage of some medicine, milk powder, kerosene and other essentials.
Despite all these difficulties, there is still this very strong debate on whether or not to go to the IMF at all – with some arguing that ‘the cure might be worse than the disease’ given the very stringent conditions IMF will likely put in place, as in Pakistan. Unspoken here is that many of the people who are floating this narrative do not want to see reduced activity or even a crash in the stock market. It’s mostly members of the business community and traders who are floating this theory. But there are others who are saying that Sri Lanka has no other option given its shortage of foreign currency reserves. Some economists have also been advocating that Sri Lanka default on its sovereign debt and instead use its foreign currency to buy essentials like fuel and medicine, but there’s also been really strong opposition to that idea as well.
SP: Yeah Raisa, but I was curious what the government’s or the Central Bank’s stance on this whole issue and on the IMF is? Have they been making any official statements?
RW: Yeah. So the government, as usual, is issuing contradictory statements. While the Central Bank governor Nivard Cabraal has said that Sri Lanka will not seek financial assistance from IMF, the Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa has seemed quite open to the idea, and indeed a team from IMF was expected to visit the country to provide technical assistance – which, Cabraal is saying is just a routine programme on macro-fiscal capacity building. He’s continuing to deny that Sri Lanka will seek an IMF loan. And in the meantime, the Central Bank has artificially pegged the Sri Lankan rupee at around LKR 200 to 1 USD, and this doesn’t appear to be giving investors confidence. This is particularly so as some media have reported that more money is being printed in order to maintain this artificial rate, which is only leading to further devaluation of the rupee.
MA: That’s interesting because it’s very similar to what happened in Pakistan. Now one of the preconditions of the IMF was a devaluation of the Pakistani currency, which according to them was artificially valued. The IMF proposed a market-based exchange rate mechanism which will see limited intervention by the Central Bank. Four days after the deal was agreed in 2019, the Pakistani rupee weakened and dropped by almost 4 percent. But on the other hand, in the last quarter of 2021, when the government was trying to renegotiate the IMF deal, the currency weakened once again to record levels and the inflation rate became the fourth highest in the world, as reported by The Economist.
RW: Yeah, and currently even Sri Lanka’s inflation has been quite high, as I mentioned earlier. Coming back to the Sri Lankan case, so far, what Sri Lanka is doing is they’re trying to use tools like currency swaps to ease their debt. India has so far offered Sri Lanka about USD 1 billion through various lines of credit, including a currency swap amounting to around USD 400 million and a debt deferral of USD 515 million for two months. On the other hand, China has also entered into a currency swap with Sri Lanka, of around USD 1.5 billion (which is about 10 billion yuan) as of March 2022. But critics say this is only a stop gap measure, especially with foreign debt obligations exceeding USD 7 billion just this year alone. Sri Lanka has of course also turned to more creative ways of paying off its debt – in December, it was reported that Iran had agreed to accept Ceylon tea as payment for past oil imports, to the value of USD 251 million.
SS: And meanwhile, Afghanistan is facing its worst economic crisis yet. Before the takeover in August, public services in the country relied heavily on international aid, but much of that funding has been frozen to comply with sanctions imposed on the Taliban, who don’t have the volume of resources or the external recognition needed to resume basic functions of government. Most donors, and the World Bank and the IMF halted planned transfers of funds. Commercial banks are for the most part closed, and with the currency depreciating, people are unable to afford basic goods.
This Saturday, 12 February protestors gathered in Kabul to condemn Joe Biden’s orders directing half of the USD 7 billion in Afghan assets held in the US for families of America’s 9/11 victims. The order allocates the remaining USD 3.5 billion for humanitarian aid, to a trust fund managed by the UN.
Many have criticised the move, claiming that there were alternative ways to legally allow for those funds to perform their function, i.e to support Afghanistan’s national currency, given that the reserves rightfully belong to the people of Afghanistan – not a government or group.
By trying to split the difference between domestic political pressures, the Biden administration’s move could chart the worst-case outcome for the economy, making Afghanistan entirely reliant on small amounts of foreign aid.
SP: So the global aid economy has been quite caught up in domestic politics in Nepal as well, although in this particular case it is not exactly with regards to the IMF or other multilateral agencies. Instead it is the fate of a grant by the US-supported Millennium Challenge Corporation (or MCC), which is at the center of Kathmandu politics these days. And recently it appears to have also been shaping everything from what happens to the ruling coalition, to talking points about the next elections.
SS: And I think we’ve briefly also mentioned the controversy over the MCC in a previous episode of the podcast right?
SP: Yeah, right Shwetha. Just to recap for people who have not followed up on this: a compact for a grant worth USD 500 million, largely for building electricity transmission lines, was signed in 2017 between the Nepal government and the MCC, which is a US-government-run aid agency. But the compact also needs to be ratified in the Parliament, which is something that has been deferred and delayed so far – and this subject has suddenly become controversial over the last few years, largely because of the narrative about growing power competition between the US and China in Nepal, but also broadly in Southasia and Asia. And all of this of course is helped by a lot of misinformation. The recent development is that the US State Department warned that further delay beyond the month of March could mean a cancellation of the grant, and I think more crucially, a review of US-Nepal relationship.
But I’m mentioning this news because it has potential implications for Nepal’s relationship with its creditors, which means several multilateral banks including the IMF. And that’s primarily because: the US and close allies are important stakeholders in these institutions; but also because it raises questions about the Nepal government’s ability to honour past deals. What’s worth noting is that, while Nepal’s external debts are nowhere as high as Sri Lanka’s or Pakistan’s, their overall debt levels have actually tripled in the last five and a half, six years.
Now, this has become a really important concern, and there’s a renewed push by the largest party in the coalition – which is the Nepali Congress – to ratify the compact, even though its coalition partners, which includes the Maoists and another breakaway faction of a Communist Party, even though the coalition partners are so far against it. So we’ll have to wait and see how things develop over the next few days.
RW: Thanks Shubhanga. Moving on to our next segment, Around Southasia in 5 minutes.
Around Southasia in 5 minutes
MA: Over in the Maldives, the government headed by the Maldivian Democratic Party, wants to introduce a bill to outlaw protests against the government’s foreign policy on grounds that they endanger national security. This bill is clearly aimed at the ‘India Out’ movement which protests against growing Indian military presence in the Maldives.
These protests have been going on for about two years against the MDP government’s perceived proximity to India, and the ‘India Out movement’ believes that India has a large military footprint on Maldivian soil. The movement also points towards the agreement between India and The Maldivian government to develop and maintain a coast guard harbour and dockyard at Uthuru Thilafalhu, a strategically located atoll near the Maldivian capital of Malé.
SP: In Myanmar, the military regime has started prosecuting a large number of individuals who oversaw the 2020 general elections – the number could be as many as 2500 according to them. This includes the election commission leadership and other officials, many of them appointed during the NLD government’s rule. But it also includes political leaders like the President U Win Myint and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, and other state and regional chief ministers.
Clearly this is in line with the government’s larger unsubstantiated argument that there were electoral frauds that actually led to the NLD’s victory, which is the argument they also used for cancelling or annulling the election results. Earlier this month, a junta court fined 12 election sub-commissioners from the Shan State, again for frauds during the election. And it is expected that many more will face trials in the days ahead.
Interestingly, the Irrawaddy, which is a Myanmar-based publication, reports that the election fraud charges have so far been only brought against civilian election commissioners, even though many former military officers and other bureaucrats were involved in the electoral process. So it basically seems like a way to completely undermine the Union Election Commission (UEC), which is the independent constitutional body for overseeing elections in Myanmar.
RW: In Kashmir, the editor of news portal The Kashmir Walla Fahad Shah, was arrested by police on February 4 in Srinagar, for posting ‘anti-national content’ according to them, seemingly for his coverage of a police raid which left four people dead. While the military described them as militants, Shah had interviewed one of the victim’s family members noting that he was a civilian.
The arrest is only the latest in a crackdown on press freedom in Kashmir. Just last month, Sajad Gul, also a contributor to The Kashmir Walla, was also arrested over his social media posts. While he was granted bail on January 15, he remains in detention as police filed another case against him. Also in January, a group of journalists forcibly entered the Kashmir Press Club with the help of police and paramilitary and announced themselves as interim office bearers. The fate of the Kashmir Press Club remains uncertain with elections for new office bearers originally scheduled to be held this month. Several organisations including the Editors Guild of India, Mumbai Press Club, and FreeSpeech Collective have condemned the move.
SS: This week, India presented its annual budget for 2022, which goes into effect on 1 April. The budget was heavily focused on infrastructure projects with no specific initiatives to boost employment or agriculture – which are India’s most pressing economic needs after the pandemic and the devastating lockdown in 2020.
In late January several people protested in Bihar and UP states by setting fire to trains, claiming that the railway sector is biased towards candidates with college degrees, where the minimum requirement was lower. This recent unrest and new budget has implications for the five state elections taking place in the coming weeks, particularly in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, where farmers spent much of last year protesting the new agricultural reforms. While the farm laws were repealed late last year, budget cuts for rural development programs and decreased food and fertiliser subsidies could create fresh grievances for farmers.
SS: And now for our culture section, Bookmarked.
MA: So, did you guys know that Wordle can actually save lives?
RW: I did not know that. Wait, are you talking about that news story about the kidnapping?
MA: Yeah, so last week in Chicago, a daughter of an eighty-year-old became suspicious when her mother didn’t send her a Wordle update in the morning and apparently she was held hostage. It’s a crazy story if you want to check it out – she had been held hostage for like 17 hours and the police was alerted by the daughter. And good news, the woman was rescued. So yeah, Wordle can actually save lives.
I know we’ve all jumped into the world bandwagon because this is what we kind of talk about now for the last few weeks – our morning meetings, we start with Wordle updates. So, I guess the first thing I would want to ask you all is, why do you like it? That’s number one. And I have heard that there’s so many variations of it – I’m a bit boring, I’ve just stuck to the standard version, and I think I saw so many variations that have been shared on social media; I saw that there’s one that is made on excel also. I haven’t really ventured into the Wordle multiverse, so I guess the second question is what are the other Wordle variations that you guys have tried?
RW: Okay, I guess I’ll start. I think I’ve already said this before, but the reason that I like it, in answer to your first question, is that I kind of play it first thing in the morning and it gives me this strange feeling of accomplishment that at least I can guess a five letter world, if nothing else goes right.
We were also saying (no spoilers for those who haven’t guessed it yet), but today’s word is very appropriate given today is Valentine’s day.
MA: It’s ‘cynic’ by the way.
RW: Oh, you guessed it! I didn’t want to say it in case I spoiled it.
So that was in answer to the first question. And the second one, yeah, I’ve heard of lots of different variations. I haven’t really tried them yet, but I’ve looked at a few. I think most recently the one that I saw and checked out was Word-leh in Singaporean English, which uses a very specific mixture of Malay, Chinese and English. They just launched their version and people have just started playing it, so that one seems fun. There’s also one for Pokémon but that’s quite complex because you have to guess the generation and different statistics, and it looks quite complicated. But if you are a Pokémon fan, there’s a version called Squirdle, and there’s so many different versions.
SS: And, I’ve come across and attempted (unsuccessfully I might add) two Tamil versions of Wordle. One is relatively easy, you have to find the hidden four letter word in six attempts and there’s another version with unlimited tries for a five letter word. Now because the Tamil script is syllabic, with over 200 compound syllables, there’s too many potential combinations – or at least that’s what I’m telling myself.
MA: Shubhanga, what about you?
SP: I’ve been hearing about a few variations, but the one I’ve tried most recently is Wordle in Hindi. This one is actually quite simplified, so maybe it’s still something in development although it says there’s a new word every day. So you have to fill in three letters and they actually make it quite easy because they fill in the vowel markers, and so I actually gave it a go today and I got the word in one go because it’s a very obvious word.
MA: So do they give some sort of clue or just…
SP: No, you just guess and there’s unlimited tries. The nice thing about Wordle is actually it made me think about what other variations could work, not just in Wordle but all kinds of crossword related genres, because depending upon the way the script works, I guess you could imagine really wild variants in different languages and scripts. But yeah, I too haven’t ventured out too far.
I heard of a new, much more different variation which is more like a cartographic variant. It’s called Worldle, and I think you attempt based on the outline of a territory, you say where in the map it is, and it tells you how far off you are…
MA: So it gives you a picture or?
SP: Yeah, so you basically get a vector graphic, like an outline. But I guess we’ll see more of these going ahead.
MA: And how do you guys feel about the acquisition? I think we have to talk about that.
RW: Yeah, it was certainly concerning because they kind of hinted that it might not remain free for much longer. So far, of course, they just somewhat sneakily one day made the shift and one day people just were greeted with the New York Times URL. A few people also lost their streak.
MA: Yeah, and plus I think there’s some change, right? Like, for some reason my thing changed; like the keyboard changed…
RW: Yeah, the design is subtly, slightly different. But also, if you didn’t use the same URL, a few people lost their streaks – that was a bit annoying as well for people who have been playing at the stretch.
MA: So, what if they put it behind a paywall? Would you guys pay to play Wordle?
RW: No, I don’t think I would pay. I think there’s plenty of other free options. Or you could play one of the variants.
MA: Yeah, I want to try out the excel one. This guy just made an algorithm on excel, and it works just like Wordle.
SP: The other important cultural update over the last few days is the closure of the publication Westland Books. This was a publication house that was taken over my Amazon a few years back, and its unexpected and sudden closure has raised a lot of discussion about whether this was a financial move, or whether this was linked to the kind of political and cultural changes we’re seeing in India, with scrutiny and attack on free expression and critical writing.
For me, the more important conversation around this is people talking about the viability of publishing models and where we go ahead, because even with Westland, if it was a financial issue, clearly having a few bestsellers under their belt isn’t enough. And there have been several people who have been talking about what might be the way to go ahead, some suggesting there’s a need to have a stronger collection of what’s called the middle list books. Amish Mulmi, who’s also a contributor and also in the publishing industry, had an interesting thread about that.
So far, I think Amazon hasn’t really given a clear answer to why it closed down, beyond saying something about the financial situation.
RW: Yeah, there has also been a lot of discussion about what to do about the existing catalogue, particularly the non-fiction catalogue, and a lot of people saying that you need to save the books and everyone’s going and buying the books. Some people have also pointed out that, firstly, Westland has been owned by different profit-motivated entities for years now, so maybe if it’s to save them and to prevent them from potentially being pulped, if that is the concern, that maybe the better thing to do is to try to donate it libraries. I think after people made that recommendation, then lots of people started galvanising to do that, which is good to see. Also, a lot of discussion about finding alternatives in a situation like this when a publication house suddenly has to close down and a lot of interesting books might suddenly have to go out of print, whether there’s some kind of a virtual library or something like that, although that’s quite controversial because of copyright and author’s don’t necessarily always like that idea. But something to give places like that a life beyond potentially being pulped or just going out of print.
MA: To your point Shubhanga, I think it’s a very challenging industry, especially to sell non-fiction – I think that’s another discussion for another time maybe. For example in Sri Lanka, there are so many publishing houses, especially after the pandemic hit, who are struggling to sell anything and most have basically closed down.
SP: I also read a news story recently in the Sri Lankan press about prices of paper reams going up significantly and that is impacting the independent publishers a lot more, but even the big players now.
RW: Yeah, for sure. It probably also impacts newspapers as well because lots of publishers have to get newsprint, imported newsprints.
On that depressing note, maybe we should move on to our recommendations. I guess I’ll start. My recommendation for this month is a website set up by the International Tibet network, which is a coalition of more than 120 Tibetan organisations. It’s called ‘I will not watch’ and it’s been set up to offer an alternative to watching the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, as part of a broader campaign. So this website includes links to documentaries on Chinese repression in Tibet, East Turkistan and Hong Kong, and it also has music from these areas plus book recommendations and even an alternate opening ceremony which you can watch.
SS: And my recommendation for the month is a new anthology featuring voices from the Myanmar revolution, called Picking off new shoots will not stop the spring: Witness poems and Essays from Burma/Myanmar (1988–2021) edited by Ko Ko Thett and Brian Haman. They began this project in February 2021 following the military coup in Myanmar, and published the collection this month marking one year since the Spring Revolution. The book itself is a collection of witness poems and essays by some of Myanmar’s most important contemporary writers such as Ma Thida who has written for Himal in the past, and other cultural figures, people on the ground, and in the diaspora documenting their experiences and also the traumas that they’ve experienced over the years. And the publishers have made the ebook available for free, for those who are interested in reading this collection.
SP: My recommendation is not a recent book and it’s very online. So over the past day or so, there’s been a lot of Twitter conversations about the fact that the very well-known anthropologist of Southeast Asia James C Scott was actually writing reports for the CIA back in the 60s. But it has kind of sparked a conversation around the role of social scientists and US intelligence and military strategy. Related to this, there’s this book from 2016 by David Price called Cold War Anthropology: The CIA, the Pentagon, and the Growth of Dual Use Anthropology, and it’s a really fascinating account of how a lot of anthropologists were in some cases directly and in some cases directly working for the US State Department, CIA and the broader intelligence community in the 60s and 70s. So that’s my recommendation.
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!