Southasiasphere is our roundup of news events and analysis of regional affairs, now out twice a month. 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 several steps towards accountability for corruption and money-laundering in the region, from Myanmar to the Maldives. But a closer look reveals that the timing of these charges are significant. In Around Southasia in 5 minutes, we talk about the Taliban ban on education for women, Pakistan’s early to bed early to rise policy, the Rohingya crisis at sea, the Tamil Nadu government’s decision to tie India’s Aadhar ID card to public benefit schemes, and the Dalai Lama’s recent visit to Bodh Gaya. And in Bookmarked, we discuss Kite Tales, an online storytelling initiative from Myanmar.
Stealing Paradise – Al Jazeera Investigations Unit
Reframing the Burma question by Thant Myint-U – Himal Southasian
Sri Lankan power couple piled up luxury homes, artworks and cash offshore as ruling family rose and rose – ICIJ
Chennai corp lets pvt agency collect citizens’ biometric data without a contract? – The News Minute
Nepal’s biometric future by Abha Lal – Himal Southasian
Buddhist anxieties in Bihar by Kushal Choudhary and Govind Sharma – Himal Southasian
This episode is now available on Soundcloud, Spotify, Apple Podcasts and Youtube.
Recorded on 9 January 2023.
Raisa Wickrematunge: Hi everyone, and welcome to Southasiasphere. I’m Raisa, Deputy Editor of Himal Southasian and I’m joined by my colleague Saheli from Colombo. Hi Saheli!
Saheli Wikramanayake: Hi Raisa!
RW: This month we saw significant steps being made towards accountability for corruption in the Maldives. Now, corruption has long been embedded in politics across the region, and arguably globally as well, but it’s important to note that such charges when they come can be politically motivated, with the intention of decimating opposition. And you can see this in the sense that those who are levying the charges often continue to mirror the actions of their political opponents. Of course, in many countries there’s no accountability at all, even when evidence of corruption comes to light. This is something that we’re looking at in our main story this episode.
SW: And in Around Southasia in 5 minutes, we’ll be talking about the ban of women from Afghanistan’s universities, Pakistan’s early to bed early to rise policy, the plight of Rohingya refugees, the Tamil Nadu government’s decision to tie the Aadhaar card to government benefit schemes, as well as the Dalai Lama’s return to Bodh Gaya. In Bookmarked we’ll be talking about a storytelling project from Myanmar, Kite Tales. Raisa, do you want to start off with what’s happening in the Maldives?
RW: Thanks, Saheli. One of the main stories most recently is that the former Maldivian president Abdulla Yameen, was sentenced to 11 years in prison on charges of money laundering and corruption. Now, his lawyer said that they would be appealing the charges as soon as possible. Yameen was actually convicted in 2019 for embezzling as much as USD 1 million in state funds and this was related to the leasing of a resort island. But he was acquitted of this in 2021.
SW: Raisa, wasn’t there a documentary about this case?
RW: That’s right, Saheli. So in 2016 actually, the Al Jazeera Investigation Unit released this documentary called ‘Stealing Paradise’ which really went in depth into the corruption that Yameen’s regime had, and it featured several people who came forward and exposed details pertaining specifically to this case, which was about leasing a resort island, and some of the funds were I believe channelled to his personal bank account. His party, meaning Yameen’s party, the Progressive Party, has criticised the recent verdict, calling it a political witch hunt, and they’ve also been saying that India has influenced the trial. Now this is significant because the Progressive Party has been leading a campaign known as the India Out campaign, which has been very vocal in trying to highlight and oppose Indian influence in the Maldives, and there’s been a lot of reporting and analysis about this, including some discussion that Yameen is moving away from India and towards more pro-China policies. So this is the context for him saying that India is somehow involved. But in the more immediate term, the main discussion that is now coming up in the Maldives is the presidential elections, which are set to happen in 2023, and that is because Yameen is the Progressive Party’s candidate and the recent conviction would effectively bar him from running. This is why the timing is significant, because as we were saying, this kind of story came to light as early as 2016, but the fact that the conviction came just before a key presidential election is significant.
SW: Yeah, I think the timing is definitely an interesting aspect of this story, and it does raise a few question marks. And it’s interesting, I think that slight parallels can be drawn to what’s happening in Myanmar right now with the sentencing of Aung San Suu Kyi. So on the 30th of December the Myanmar court sentenced her to 7 more years in prison on the grounds of corruption in the use of state funds. This concluded 18 months of trials against her for various different charges, and it takes her total jail time to 33 years. Now a few days before the final charges, on the 22nd of December, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution on Myanmar demanding, firstly, an end to the violence in the country, and secondly, for all political prisoners including Aung San Suu Kyi to be released. Now Aung San Suu Kyi is still widely popular in Myanmar, despite of course her complex relationship with the military, including when she notoriously defended the military in the International Court of Justice for atrocities against the Rohingya. But once again the timing of these charges against her is particularly interesting.
RW: Saheli, isn’t Myanmar going to be having elections soon?
SW: Yeah, exactly. So Myanmar is set to have elections this year, most likely in August, when the state of emergency imposed after the 2021 coup expires. The junta has been promising that these elections will be “free and fair” “in line with the constitution” and that once they’re concluded “that work would be undertaken to hand over state duties to the winning party in accordance with the democratic standards.” Now this has been met with mixed reactions, really. Many do consider this to be a sham. And based on historic experience, there is validity in this scepticism. I was reading an article from our archives called ‘Reframing the Burma Question’ by Thant Myint-U. Even though this was published in February 2007, the point that he makes, and the explanation about the complex history of the Myanmar military in the country, it does provide important context today to understand where the country is going. And with the 2023 elections, even just the way that Aung San Suu Kyi is being handled, it does raise questions about how genuine these upcoming elections will be.
[Audio from the 2022 protests in Sri Lanka]
RW: Meanwhile in Sri Lanka, there’s been news reports about former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa reapplying for US citizenship. He gave up citizenship in the US in order to run for the Presidency in 2019. Now, accountability for bad economic policies was something that was really highlighted by the protesters who eventually forced him out. You could see that for example, once he was elected, he introduced these sweeping tax cuts, as well as a ban on chemical fertilizer overnight. These two policies alone, which were kind of hastily implemented without considering long-term impacts, including economically, they’re both seen as key contributors to Sri Lanka’s economic crisis. Not to mention that some of his relatives have also been implicated in corruption and money laundering. For example, most recently through ICIJ’s Pandora Papers, where one of Gotabaya’s relatives was found to be setting up shell companies and funnelling money through them. So as we can see over in Sri Lanka, there is no interest in accountability for corruption, sadly, despite it being a key demand by most of the protesters.
SW: And in a slightly different vein, on 9 December, the US imposed sanctions on two Chinese officials for their alleged involvement in human rights abuses in Tibet. The two officials are the former CCP Secretary of the Tibetan Autonomous Region and the Police Chief since 2018. In retaliation, China imposed sanctions on two US citizens and accused the US of interfering in China’s internal affairs.
RW: So as you can see when you’re looking back on these stories, corruption is certainly not a new issue in the region. But specifically this month, we’ve seen some consequences for some political leaders. But as we were saying at the beginning, I think it’s important to note that the timing in each of these cases is significant. In Yameen’s case, this case has been building since 2016, and in Aung San Suu Kyi’s case, her fresh sentencing comes in the backdrop of protesters highlighting her as Myanmar’s democratically elected leader after the coup, despite her very complex relationship with the military. So perhaps a takeaway here is that corruption remains entrenched across the region and consequences, when they come, usually follow a transition in power.
RW: Now for our next segment, Around Southasia in five minutes.
Around Southasia in 5 minutes
[Audio from news and protests after the Taliban banned women from universities]
SW: In December, the Taliban continued the trend of restricting women’s rights in Afghanistan. On 20 December, a ban was introduced on all female students at all government and private universities. This triggered widespread protests, walk-outs from university classes, and resignations by university professors. On 24 December, the Taliban announced that female aid workers were banned. Aid groups condemned the move and some, including Save the Children, suspended their work in the country. The United Nations announced soon after that some time-critical programs have had to be halted due to capacity constraints after the ban.
RW: Over in Pakistan, there has been a new policy introduced called Early to Bed, Early to Rise, in an attempt to cut down on electricity consumption. Now the Defence Minister, Khawaja Asif, said that the policy could save the country as much as 62 billion Pakistani rupees annually. This is key, because funding from the IMF has been delayed since October over disagreements on energy sector reforms. As part of these reforms, there has been discussion of closing markets and restaurants as early as 8.30 pm, and wedding halls at around 10 pm. According to our Engagement Editor, Aimun, from Pakistan, this is something that’s been introduced for a while. And amusingly, it’s kind of led to people actually shifting their wedding celebrations to private homes in order to allow their celebrations to go on later. They’ve even introduced some kinds of restrictions on the food that can be served, or the amount of food that can be served, which is leading to people choosing to spend more on decor instead. Because you know, the main thing is that there has to be this major display during wedding days.
SW: Of course.
RW: It’s also pretty interesting how part of this policy is also talking about cutting streetlights. As much as 50 percent, I believe, of the streetlights are going to be switched off. And you can see that happening in Sri Lanka as well. If you are walking around in Colombo, a lot of the streetlights are being switched off and some of the traffic lights are also not working. Which, you know, it raises some safety concerns, but these are the kind of measures that are being introduced in an attempt to cut down on energy usage.
[Audio from news reports about Rohingya refugees]
SW: December saw a rise in numbers of Rohingya fleeing from Myanmar and Bangladesh. The United Nations said that 2022 was one of the deadliest years for Rohingyas at sea. Reuters reported that at least five boats sailed from Bangladesh in December. One boat, with more than 100 refugees was rescued by the Sri Lankan Navy on December 18. The refugees are reportedly being held at detention centres in Colombo. Another 180 refugees are feared to have died after their boat went missing at sea in December.
RW: Meanwhile in Tamil Nadu, on 20 December, the government announced that Aadhaar identification is going to be necessary to receive benefits under government schemes. Now this is despite [the fact that] the use of Aadhaar and tying it to benefits has caused numerous problems. For instance, issues raised around the provision of free school meals and school uniforms when Aadhaar was first rolled out, and when the Indian government was first talking about tying it to benefits. There were also delays in providing rice subsidies in Jharkhand because of issues around the use of the Aadhaar system. We’ve already seen that tying it to government benefits and making it a mandatory document is cutting off some of the most vulnerable people from accessing benefits. But beyond that as well there’s also privacy concerns. Now the NewsMinute published a report on 29 December talking about how the biometric data of citizens is being held by a private company, Impact Technologies, which is being engaged to collect data of potential recipients of benefits under, for example, the Resettlement and Rehabilitation Scheme of the Tamil Nadu Urban Habitat Development Board. So this is just one example of how these private companies are now getting access to citizen data and there’s little concern being raised around privacy. It was further found in this investigative report that Impact Technologies has been contracted by state agencies bypassing the normal tender process as well. We’re seeing similar kinds of stories around this across the region. For example more recently in Nepal there was this attempt to introduce digital IDs there as well. And again, it highlighted marginalisation, because getting one of these digital IDs also required having citizenship documents. And those who didn’t have citizenship documents, many of them women or members of ethnic minorities, face these additional barriers in order to just be counted as citizens. We actually explored this in a piece published in August 2022 called ‘Nepal’s Biometric Future,’ written by Abha Lal, so do check that out if you haven’t already.
SW: Our final story for this segment is about the Dalai Lama who visited Bodh Gaya for the first time in two years. During his visit the Dalai Lama met with BJP leaders to lay the foundation stone for the Dalai Lama Center for Tibetan and Indian Ancient Wisdom. While he was there, he also made remarks accusing China of trying to destroy Buddhism in the country. During his visit a Chinese citizen was arrested by the Bihar police in connection to an alleged security threat to him. In June 2022 we published a piece discussing Bodh Gaya and Buddhist anxieties and claims to it, so do check that out.
RW: Now for our next segment, Bookmarked.
RW: Saheli, do you have any recommendations this month?
SW: Yes, I do. So this month I recommend Kite Tales which is a storytelling project from Myanmar recommended to me by our colleague Shwetha. Kite Tales is essentially a series of interviews that kind of show the impact of the military coup on the ordinary citizen. It’s interviews with ordinary citizens, about their daily lives and experiences. It’s run by two journalists and it gives an interesting insight into what life in Myanmar is like right now, beyond what makes it into the headlines.
RW: Yeah, I agree. I was reading through some of these entries as well. I think even the format is really interesting. It’s almost like a diary and it tells stories from across Myanmar, just highlighting things that you wouldn’t normally read in the news. For example, one mother talks about having to deliver a baby while in hiding and on the run, and other families are talking about what it’s like to carry children and run into the forest, and how they’re describing to children that the shell fire that they’re hearing is actually thunder to kind of calm them down. But also just how difficult it is to continue journalism if you choose to remain in Myanmar. That too was very powerful. People were talking about how they had to hide equipment and they themselves had to hide in different safe houses, because the military saw journalists as threats and would often raid their houses and arrest them. So all of this gives a much more personal insight into how difficult life is. There’s also stories about skyrocketing prices as well. So just talking about what daily life is like after the coup.
SW: Kite Tales is available online. So I definitely recommend that anyone interested check it out and read some of the entries.
RW: Thanks Saheli. That’s it for this edition of Southasiasphere. Bye!