Southasiasphere is our roundup of news events and analysis of regional affairs, now out every two weeks. If you are a member, you will automatically receive links to new episodes in your inbox. If you are not yet a member, you can still get episode links for free by signing up here.
In this episode, we talk about the violence in Manipur in the past few weeks, and the latest developments following Imran Khan’s arrest in Islamabad.
For ‘Around Southasia in 5 minutes’, we talk about the recently held Karnataka Assembly election and Adani Ports’ recently completed sale of its port in Myanmar – at far below the value of the conglomerate’s initial investment. We also talk about the impact of cyclone Mocha in Myanmar and Bangladesh, a string of high-profile arrests in Nepal in connection with what is being called the ‘refugee scam’, new statistics on rising poverty in Sri Lanka, and the recently held Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meeting in Goa.
For ‘Bookmarked’, we talk about the movie ‘Jinpa’ by the renowned Tibetan filmmaker Pema Tseden, who passed away recently.
This is a machine-generated, unedited transcript of the episode and may contain inaccuracies. For exactness, please refer to the recording.
This episode was recorded on 16th May 2023.
Raisa Wickrematunge: Hi everyone, and welcome to Southasiasphere, our fortnightly roundup of news events and regional affairs. I’m Raisa and I’m joined by my colleague and fact-checker and researcher Saheli. Hi Saheli!
Saheli Wikramanayake: Hi Raisa!
RW: So this episode for our big stories, we’re talking about the violence in Manipur over the last few weeks, as well as developing events related to Imran Khan’s arrest For Around Southasia in Five Minutes, we’ll unpack the Karnataka elections, talk about Adani’s sale of its investments in Myanmar, a high-profile scam involving refugees in Nepal, the doubling of poverty in Sri Lanka and the recently held SCO Summit in Goa.
SW: Let’s begin with what’s happening in Manipur.
RW: So on Sunday, May 14th, the chief minister of Manipur N Biren Singh met Union minister Amit Shah along with four other MPs to discuss the situation that was unfolding in Manipur. Now on May 14th, curfew was also partially relaxed during the day, but internet services remained suspended until at least May 16th. This is all after a mass rally organized by the All Tribal Students Union Manipur turned violent on May 3rd. Although there had been a bit of a lull in the interim, between May 13th and 14th, there were fresh incidents of violence reported, including the burning of houses. So far, around 45,000 people have been transported to safety in different areas, and around 26,000 people are sheltering in relief camps. The death toll, as it stands, is around 71 people and around 1,700 houses have been burned. Now, this unrest is being described as an ethnic clash between the Meitei and Kuki communities. But there are a few underlying factors that sparked the violence, one being that the Meitei approached the high court to give them scheduled tribe status, which would give them access to government reservations, and the court ruled in their favor.
Now, Manipur has three major ethnic groups. The Meitei make up around 50 percent of Manipur’s population, and the Naga and Kuki communities make up around 35-40 percent. Because of their larger population, the Meitei also make up around two-thirds of the Manipur assembly, and this has made the tribal communities feel excluded from the decision making process. Apart from these ethnic differences, this is also partly a land issue. At the moment, the Naga and Kuki communities oppose reservation, or at least some of them do, for the Meiteis, because it would give them the right to buy land in the hill areas. At the moment, the Meiteis are mostly settled in Imphal Valley, and they want to buy land in the tribal areas as well. In February, Manipur’s Forest Department actually evicted residents of a Kuki tribal village, alleging that they had encroached on the Churachandpur-Khoupum protected forest area. So, there’s many different intersecting issues at play. It’s being described as an ethnic conflict, a hill versus valley conflict, and tribal communities in the hills feel that their areas are more underdeveloped, that their issues aren’t addressed adequately in parliament, and that they are more economically deprived than the Meiteis. These are just some of the factors that have led to mistrust between the different communities, and the violence is likely to lead to further suspicion. At the moment, all 10 Kuki MLA’s are calling for separation from the state, claiming that Manipur’s Chief Minister failed to protect tribal groups. As a Meitei woman from Waikurok village in Thorbung recounted to the Wire, “we may get some money to rebuild our house, but our worry is bigger than just getting a roof over our head. It is the fear of living as a minority in the village. The mutual trust is gone.” So, it’s definitely a very volatile situation, and one that we’re going to keep watching closely.
We’d also like to talk about an article that we published in 2016 called “Majoritarianism in Manipur”, and we’ll link to that in the episode notes, so do revisit that as well.
[News clips from Pakistan]
SW: Our next big story is from Pakistan, where on Tuesday, 9 May, former Prime Minister Imran Khan was arrested by paramilitary forces inside the Islamabad High Court. The arrest was reportedly in connection with charges against Khan by the National Accountability Bureau. This is following events in March, where police tried for days to enter his house and arrest him, while his supporters surrounded his residence. Now, following his arrest, there was widespread unrest seen throughout Pakistan. At least nine people were killed in the violence, and more than 4,000 people were arrested. According to Khan’s lawyers, at least 10 PTI leaders were also arrested. Social media sites were blocked, and an internet shutdown was ordered.
Now, on Thursday May 11, the Supreme Court declared that Khan’s arrest was illegal and unconstitutional, and the next day he was granted bail by the Islamabad High Court, in this case and in three others, and the court also ordered that authorities couldn’t arrest him again in any case until the next Monday. Now, Khan has been granted bail several times in connection with more than 100 cases brought against him, since he was removed from the post of Prime Minister. Some commentators and critics have argued that the judiciary is biased towards Khan, and the court’s reaction to his arrest has sort of added to this theory. Supporters of the ruling coalition are staging a protest outside the Supreme Court, and on May 15, the National Assembly, which is the lower house of the parliament, approved a resolution to file a reference against Chief Justice Umar Ata Bandial over alleged misconduct.
Another notable aspect of the recent events surrounding Khan’s arrest is how openly blame is being placed on the very powerful army. PTI supporters attacked the army headquarters in Rawalpindi, and a top army officials’ house in Lahore. Khan himself said that the army chief, General Syed Asim Munir, ordered his arrest based on a personal vendetta.
We published a brief in December 2022 by Salman Rafi Sheikh discussing how the tussle around the appointment of Munir as army chief led to Khan’s ouster as PM, and another piece by Salman in January 2023 discussing the army’s role in Pakistani politics. Do check those out for a bit more context on the recent events. They’re both linked in the episode notes.
And now for our next segment, Around Southasia in Five Minutes.
RW: On May 13, Congress in India won 135 out of 224 seats in the Karnataka Legislative Assembly, securing around 43 percent of the vote. This was around 5 percent more than the 2018 elections, while the BJP were only able to garner 66 seats. Now, part of the reason for BJP’s loss according to analysts was high prices, especially for gas cylinders. Corruption too has been seen as a major local issue in the state, with Congress often referring to the ‘40percent sarkar’, referring to the bribe allegedly taken by BJP officials to green light state-funded infrastructure projects. Apart from that, a spokesman for the BJP has conceded that party infighting and a lack of leadership at the local level contributed to their downfall in Indian Express. Also in focus are some of the decisions that were imposed by the BJP government in Karnataka, including the hijab ban on Muslim students, and anti-conversion laws, plus the scrapping of a 4 percent reservation in government jobs and educational institutions. Now, while this is being celebrated by Congress as a victory for secularism, analysts are divided about how much the result will impact the 2024 Lokh Sabha polls. However, the win has certainly boosted the confidence of the Congress party. Although there’s also been some discussion floating around on some of the candidates who will come forward as the Chief Minister, which suggests that these problems aren’t going to be solved just by Congress being elected.
SW: In Myanmar and India, on 4 May, Adani Ports announced that it had completed the sale of its port in Myanmar for 30 million US dollars, a far lesser sum than the approximately 150 million US dollars invested in the project. The company had to pull out of the project because of sanctions imposed following the 2021 military coup. It announced in 2021 it would be selling its stakes in the Yangon port project, but Justice for Myanmar, which has extensively reported on Adani Ports’ continued involvement in Myanmar, reported in May that even after announcing its withdrawal, Adani Ports continued to work with the military junta on developing the Yangon port and even explored expanding its activities in the country after the coup.
To better understand Adani Ports’ involvement in Myanmar and the rest of the Southasian region, do revisit our Southasian conversation that we hosted on this topic linked in the episode notes.
Also in Myanmar, tropical Cyclone Mocha caused widespread devastation across the western regions of the country and also in neighboring Bangladesh. Though the damage was less extensive than predicted in some areas including near Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, where major flooding and damage to refugee shelters was predicted, other areas particularly in Myanmar faced extensive damage. Officials and aid workers in Myanmar said that the damage was mostly in the Rakhine state and the Chin State and other areas in the west. A rescue worker told the New York Times that at least 90 percent of the Sittwe townships were destroyed. Reuters reported that a local said that more than 100 Rohingya were killed, though military officials are reporting far lower numbers. Estimating the full extent of the damage has been difficult though, because communication towers were damaged affecting internet and phone services. The United Nations said that Cyclone Mocha was one of the strongest cyclones on record for Myanmar. Scientists say that strong storms like this will only become more frequent with climate change.
RW: Nepal has seen a string of high-profile arrests connected to a case where Nepalis were being cheated out of millions of rupees in exchange for being sent to the United States posing as Bhutanese refugees. On May 3rd, Nepalis police arrested Tek Narayan Pandey, the Secretary of the Vice President’s Office, for being implicated in what is being called the ‘Refugee scam’. While on May 10th, Congress politician Bal Krishna Khand, the former Home Minister was also arrested. Arrest warrants have also been issued for CPN-UML Secretary Top Bahadur Rayamajii, his son Sandeep and Prateek Thapa, the son of the former Home Minister, as well as Indra Jit Rai, adviser to the former Home Minister and his son Niraj. Now many of them are accused of accepting bribes in order to facilitate this scam, and around 875 Nepalis have been cheated out of their money. After the 1990s, Nepal saw a large influx of Nepalese-speaking Bhutanese refugees called Lhotsampas, who were driven out by their government in what has been described as an ethnic cleansing drive. Now from around 2007 onwards, the UNHCR began settling these refugees in third countries, mainly in the US and Europe, so the scam involved Nepalis posing as these refugees. The five primary accused in the case turned informer about their political benefactors and provided the police with audio records, phone logs and messages, which is what was used to justify their arrests. It will be interesting to see what happens to the top officials who have been implicated in terms of accountability.
SW: In Sri Lanka, new statistics are revealing the extent of the impact of the economic crisis and new policies on citizens. The World Bank estimates that the poverty rate doubled between 2021 and 2022, pushing an additional 2.5 million people into poverty. Urban and rural poverty are estimated to have tripled and doubled respectively. Meanwhile, the World Food Programme said in its latest report that 6.3 million people in Sri Lanka were acutely food insecure in 2022, which is almost one-third of the population. For comparison, in 2019, food insecurity was at 10 percent. Meanwhile, the newly formed Sectoral Oversight Committee on Alleviating the Impact of the Economic Crisis said that 1 in 3 school students of Sri Lanka do not have a sufficient meal for breakfast or don’t have breakfast, and that 1 in 5 children are malnourished.
[Sound clips from the SCO Summit]
On May 4th and 5th, all eyes were on Goa in India as it hosted the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation’s Foreign Ministers meeting, where Pakistan Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari was scheduled to attend. Zardari is the first Pakistani Foreign Minister to visit India since 2011, but any hope for the thawing of relations was short-lived, as there were no planned bilateral meetings between the countries during the summit. Rather, analysts noted that Zardari’s presence underscored the importance that both India and Pakistan gave to the SCO in furthering their respective interests. In addition, India’s external affairs minister, S. Jaishankar, made several comments about terrorism and financing terrorism, which were interpreted as thinly veiled digs at Pakistan. However, the two countries did come together to call on Afghanistan’s Taliban-led government to ensure representative government and preserve the rights of women and minorities – only slightly ironic. Jaishankar also met with Chinese and Russian counterparts ahead of the summit, discussing the border dispute in Ladakh and reviewing bilateral and multilateral cooperation.
And now for our next segment, Bookmarked. Saheli, do you have anything to recommend?
SW: Yes, I do. So this week I’m recommending Jinpa, directed by Pema Tseden, who passed away recently. He was one of the few Tibetan directors working in Tibet, meaning that his films had to pass, you know, the very strict scrutiny of Chinese government censor boards. So his films, including Jinpa, aren’t overtly political, but it’s a rare insight into life in Tibet. Now, this movie is about a truck driver named Jinpa, who picks up a hitchhiker, who also shares the same name, who tells the driver that he is on the way to get revenge for the murder of his father. Pema Tseden is known for using really long takes in his films, and I think it works really well in Jinpa. For example, in the beginning of the movie, there’s these long takes of the deserted road that the truck driver is traveling down, and it creates this slow, dream-like atmosphere of the movie. So I think he, like his cinematography and his style, really complements the setting, and it’s a rare insight into a region that we rarely see.
[Clip from the Jinpa trailer]
RW: Yeah, I watched it too, and I really enjoyed it. Like you said, it’s a very slow-moving film, and it was quite philosophical. I feel like it was talking about, you know, this concept of murder, revenge, and karma. So the first half was quite straightforward, and then the second half went a bit more abstract, both in terms of the story, but also in terms of the way it was shot. The shots were kind of very abstract and beautiful, and the ending was left open to the viewers to interpret. But I think what it’s basically kind of talking about is, you know, what happens when you are so fixated and focused on revenge for a wrong that was done to you. And it’s kind of reflecting on that. So yeah, I was also thinking about how this kind of fixation on revenge has played out across the region in different kinds of instances, including even communal violence, since we’re talking about Manipur this week and ethnic conflicts. So I was thinking about that, and I feel he was trying to send a specific message in terms of what happens through the plot. But it’s also left kind of open-ended, so that was interesting.
And on that note, that’s it for this episode of Southasiasphere. See you next time. Bye!