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In this episode, we unpack the recent elections in Nepal by discussing the newly formed parties, key campaign issues, and the likely outcome of these results at a time when the country is facing various political and economic challenges.
In Around Southasia in 5 minutes, we talk about protests against an Adani-backed seaport project in Vizhinjam, Kerala, and the wider influence of the Adani Group in Sri Lanka. We also look at how China’s COVID-zero policies have been received in Tibet, the reimposition of Sharia law in Afghanistan, and Pakistan’s appointment of a new Chief of Army Staff.
Plus in our culture section Bookmarked, we discuss two documentaries by EastMojo marking one year since the Mon massacre in 2021, and ‘Moshari’, a climate-horror short film from Bangladesh.
Raisa Wickrematunge: Hi everyone, and welcome to Southasiasphere, our monthly round-up of news events and developing stories across Southasia. This episode was recorded the week of 12 December.
I’m Raisa, Deputy Editor of Himal Southasian, and I’m joined by my colleagues Marlon, Shwetha and Saheli from Colombo, as well as Aimun from Karachi. Hi guys!
RW: Our main story this episode is on the recent Nepal elections. We’ll also talk about protests around an Adani-backed seaport in Kerala, and the wider influence of the Adani Group in Sri Lanka, how China’s COVID-zero policies have been received in Tibet, the reimposition of Sharia law in Afghanistan, and Pakistan’s appointment of a new Chief of Army Staff.
Let’s begin with what’s happening in Nepal.
[Audio from news clips on Nepal elections 2022]
Aimun Faisal: Thanks Raisa. Nepal held elections for its House of Representatives and seven Provincial Assemblies starting 20 November, with the Nepali Congress party winning the most seats and incumbent Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba set to continue for a sixth term. However, the incumbent five-party ruling alliance was able to secure only 136 seats, two short of the 138 needed to secure a majority in parliament.
Political observers said that despite this, it was likely the ruling alliance would be able to form a government by aligning with other parties. Nepal elects its legislators in two concurrent ways – a portion of them through direct voting for declared candidates, and another portion through a system of Proportional Representation based on votes for particular parties. Under the PR system, the main opposition party, the Communist Party of Nepal-United Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML), received quite a lot of votes.
Marlon Ariyasinghe: That’s right, Aimun. And a lot of analysts are saying that the monopoly of the traditional political forces in the country has been challenged by new political parties. Raisa, would you be able to put that into perspective?
RW: Right, Marlon. Something that has been quite widely discussed is that newly formed parties were able to gain quite a number of seats in this election. This was interpreted by political analysts as a disruption to the status quo, signalling that voters were disenchanted with traditional parties, particularly around issues like corruption and inflation. The Rastriya Swatantra Party (RSP), or the National Independent Party and the Janamat Party were some new entrants that seem to have benefited from this, with the Rastriya Swatantra Party in particular gaining a good number of seats in the House of Representatives. This is quite an impressive achievement given that the party was formed within the last 6 months.
Saheli Wikramanayake: Raisa, what were some of the key campaign issues these new parties were raising?
RW: So, The Rastriya Swatantra Party actually said that they were prioritising the proper implementation of fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution, and they also spoke about moving towards the provision of free health and education. Another issue they were talking about was clearly demarcating rights between the centre and the provinces.
Apart from that, the party is also headed by a prominent TV star, Rabi Lamichhane, which probably contributed to its appeal. The Janamat party, led by the former secessionist C K Raut, also prioritised free health and education. He spoke about attempting to stop corruption, and he also raised compensation for poor farmers as an issue, and his party made significant gains in the Madhes, in the south of the country.
Shwetha Srikanthan: Thanks Raisa. This election has been presented as pivotal and transformative for Nepal, so what might be the likely outcome of these results at a time when the country is facing various political and economic challenges?
RW: So far, the consensus still seems to be ‘It’s too soon to say’. I was listening to a post-mortem chaired by the South Asian Women in Media (Nepal chapter), and some of the journalists and political commentators who were speaking there felt that while the result might be seen as a sign of progress, it wasn’t necessarily indicative (or rather it is too soon to say) of a transformation in Nepal’s politics. There was some concern being expressed that the political instability could deepen as the leading parties would have to form alliances to form a majority in parliament, potentially with parties who don’t necessarily agree with each other, which might pose a challenge for the prime minister.
I think it’s also important to note that while the new parties might not seem to have the numbers to make a significant difference immediately, their performance could signal the start of a shift in Nepali politics, away from the establishment parties, including the Congress, the Maoists and the CPN-UML. That might mean more substantial change in future elections, though these parties also still have to prove themselves and make clear exactly what they stand for.
Moving on to our next segment, Around Southasia in 5 minutes.
Around Southasia in 5 minutes
SS: Over in Kerala, the four-month long protests by fishermen, and the Thiruvananthapuram Latin Catholic Church and activists against the Adani group’s seaport project in Vizhinjam was suspended temporarily on 6 December. The move came a week after the protests escalated with more than 80 protesters and police injured, and protesters held discussions with Kerala’s chief minister, where several demands were raised.
The port, which is seen as a potentially lucrative rival to ports in Dubai, Singapore and Sri Lanka, has the Adani group covering a third of the project’s cost under a 40-year agreement to build and operate the port, and the rest of the cost will be borne by the state and federal governments.
While construction began in 2015, building has been halted for more than three months after villagers raised concerns that the port’s development would cause coastal erosion and undermine locals’ livelihoods. And now, this temporary truce was called as the state government refused to yield to the protesters’ key demand that construction work on the USD 900 million project be suspended until a report by experts on the port’s impact on the region’s fisheries sector is released.
RW: That’s right, Shwetha. And on November 9, Sri Lanka began construction of a USD 700 million terminal project, which was partly funded by the Adani group, and this project was supposed to be completed by 2025. Adani holds a 51 percent stake in the West Container Terminal at Colombo Port, and the Sri Lankan conglomerate John Keells Holdings has a 34 percent stake, and the rest is owned by the Sri Lanka Ports Authority. This deal has been pretty controversial given that just last year a deal for the East Coast Terminal at Colombo fell through, with Sri Lanka saying the Adani Group had shown a lack of flexibility in ironing out the details of a tripartite Memorandum of Cooperation which involved Japan and India.
We should also note that powerful port unions pushed for this project to be built by the state, and this likely played a role in the earlier deal falling through. However, after Ranil Wickremesinghe assumed the presidency after widespread protests linked to Sri Lanka’s economic crisis, a new deal was inked for the West Container Terminal, and this is what’s going ahead.
MA: Over in Tibet, the Chinese government’s zero-COVID policy has caused a scarcity of essential medicines and led to other hardships. While Tibetans in exile have expressed solidarity with people in China who have been recently protesting against this policy, which also led to the government abruptly rolling it back. In New Delhi, there were protests by Tibetan exiles. The demonstration was organised by the Tibetan Youth Congress, which supports the Dalai Lama. Now the question is how the Chinese government will handle an expected spike in COVID-19 cases as the zero-COVID policy is phased out – including in Tibet, where the local population has suffered decades of oppression.
SW: In Afghanistan, the Taliban ordered judges to fully implement Sharia law punishments, including public executions, stoning, floggings, and amputation of limbs. In November, two instances of public lashings were reported – one involving 19 people in Takhar province, and another involving 12 in the Logar region. The alleged crimes of those punished included theft, and what officials described as “violating social behaviour rules” and “illegal relationships.” On 7 December, authorities carried out the first public execution since the Taliban takeover last year. A man in Herat convicted of murder was shot three times by the father of the victim in a crowded sports stadium. Punishments like public lashings and executions were common during the Taliban’s rule in the 1990s.
AF: In Pakistan, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif appointed General Asim Munir as the country’s 17th Chief of Army Staff on 24th November. Munir, who replaced General Qamar Javed Bajwa, is presently expected to serve a three-year term. The appointment comes after a long stretch of political tension, which included the ouster of the PTI government under Imran Khan earlier this year. Khan had reportedly tried to have his preferred candidate, General Faiz Hameed, installed as the new army chief instead. Bajwa leaves office as an unpopular figure, whose seven-year long term was marred by the Pakistan military’s intervention into democratic processes, attempts to curb free press and violence against vulnerable communities.
The current government, under Shehbaz Sharif, claims that Munir has been appointed to the position because of his seniority in the military hierarchy. However, the long history of military interference in Pakistan’s politics has created skepticism regarding the military’s recent promises to stay out of politics in the coming years. It is obvious that the civil-military relationship once again hangs in the balance in the country. It remains to be seen how Munir’s relationship with the political leadership in the country plays out in the coming years. This is something we’re exploring in an upcoming piece for Himal Briefs by Salman Rafi Sheikh – so watch out for it!
And now for our next segment, Bookmarked, our cultural segment where we discuss what we’re watching and reading from the region.
RW: My recommendation this month is a couple of documentaries shot by the digital news portal EastMojo on the Mon massacre in 2021. December 4 marks one year since Indian security forces killed over a dozen civilians in Oting village, in the Mon district of Nagaland. The security forces characterised the initial killings, of six men, as a case of ‘mistaken identity’. More people were killed, including a soldier, in the violent unrest that followed. The Mon massacre led to renewed calls for the repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, which grants security forces impunity across large parts of India’s Northeast.
[Audio from the documentary Mon massacre: through the eyes of Oting]
This year, across Manipur and Nagaland, the Naga community gathered to observe a black day and lit candles in remembrance. One year on from the massacre, parts of Assam, Manipur and Nagaland are no longer categorised as disturbed areas under AFSPA, meaning the act no longer applies there. But the impact of AFSPA lingers in the Northeast. The documentaries by EastMojo include interviews with eyewitnesses and survivors, and highlight the brutalities perpetrated under AFSPA over many years. You can find it on the EastMojo website – the two documentaries are called Mon massacre: through the eyes of Oting and One year of Oting.
Does anybody else have any recommendations?
SS: Yes, my recommendation for this month is a climate-horror short film called ‘Moshari’, directed by Nuhash Humayun and is also Bangladesh’s first Oscar-qualified film. And it’s set entirely in Bangladesh. Without giving away too much, the film is about two sisters surviving a post-apocalyptic world affected by climate change, where they are terrorised by these vampiric mosquitos and the only way to survive them is by sheltering inside a moshari (a mosquito net). I think that’s really unique and brilliant conceptually – because the moshari is a familiar household object around southasia, and by taking this culturally specific element and combining it with the very real and current threat of climate change – it makes for really great visual storytelling.
Have any of you guys watched it?
MA: I watched it. I really liked it too – it reminded me of ‘Get Out’, and then I see that Jordan Peele is one of the executive producers. So, I’m all for this horror renaissance which tells compelling stories and tackles social and political issues.
At first I thought it was something to do with dengue – just what’s been happening in Sri Lanka and Southasia in general, but then (this is a spoiler) the finger comes through! Then I realised it was something else altogether.
Even the cinematography is great. In the beginning, there was these expansive shots of the landscape but then it becomes claustrophobic – the narrow corridors, the closet, and of course the moshari, like you said, is something very familiar to us. I hate them, by the way. I’ve never been able to use one and I agree with the sister it feels really suffocating, it feels like you can’t breathe. I think the claustrophobia also ties well with what the younger sister kept repeating, ‘This is my space, give me my space’ in the closet. I think that took the film in a completely different direction like gender-based violence and gender norms. And yeah, I really liked the film.
[Audio from Moshari film trailer]
RW: I was also thinking that it could relate partly to climate change, and they made that reference when there was that announcement in the beginning, but also even with regards to the pandemic because it is about your world coming to a standstill by forces beyond your control and also about viruses evolving, so I was thinking of that as well when I was watching the movie.
And even the content of that announcement where it said ‘even the West was not able to persist against these forces, but thanks to the moshari and using these local solutions, we were able to survive’, I thought was interesting.
SS: Yeah. If you guys think this sounds interesting, definitely do check it out, because it is available online. And it’s also only 20 minutes long, but there’s so much packed into it. So yeah, that’s our recommendation for the month.
RW: That’s it for this edition of Southasiasphere. Follow us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, YouTube, SoundCloud and our social media channels to make sure you don’t miss the next episode. Do head to our website himalmag.com to see more of Himal’s work. You can support our work by becoming a member of Himal as well. Check out our membership plans at himalmag.com/membership.
Thanks everyone. Bye!