* Despatches

Dhaka’s attempts to send back Rohingya fail as refugees think they won’t be safe in Myanmar

Two years ago, Bangladesh was a welcoming place for displaced Rohingya. Now they are perceived to be a drag on the host and a security threat. Bangladesh made a second attempt in August to send them back, but no refugee boarded waiting buses in the southeastern district of Cox’s Bazar to head home. There are no signs of a successful repatriation on the horizon.

That’s bad news for the country, apparently fatigued by the refugee crisis lingering since August 2017. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina openly expressed frustration over Myanmar’s broken promises and failure to build trust among the Rohingya people. “It is regrettable that we are passing yet another year without any solution to the Rohingya crisis,” Ms. Hasina said at an event, alongside Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad in New York on September 24.

The mass expulsion of Rohingya by Myanmar’s security forces created a major humanitarian emergency in Bangladesh. Around one million Rohingya, from the latest and previous exoduses, live in a cluster of densely populated camps in Cox’s Bazar. Humanitarian efforts by local and international aid groups have successfully addressed the immediate priorities. Life-saving essentials — food, water, sanitation, shelter and basic health services — are now in place. Camps are much better prepared than before against rains: drainage has been improved and roads through the camps have been surfaced.

But patience is running thin in Bangladesh with the government fearing new security risks. In her speech, Ms. Hasina emphasised that the Rohingya crisis is a political one and deeply rooted in Myanmar. “And the solution has to be found in Myanmar.”

On September 1, the Bangladesh telecom regulator ordered operators to shut down mobile phone services in the camps within seven days, citing security reasons. The next day, the telecom regulator ordered the operators to shut down 3G and 4G services in the camps each day between 5 p.m. and 6 a.m.

The government actions appear to be in response to recent incidents involving the Rohingya, according to the Human Rights Watch. A highly publicised attempt by the Bangladesh government to repatriate Rohingya refugees to Myanmar on August 22 failed because the refugees believe that the current conditions in Myanmar make their return unsafe.

In no time, a local leader of the ruling Awami League’s youth wing in Teknaf, Omar Faruk, 30, was murdered allegedly by a group of Rohingya refugees. In response, law enforcement officers then killed six Rohingya refugees who they said were involved in the murder, the HRW said in a report on September 18. Separately, police shot dead a detained Rohingya couple on September 22 linking them to a robbery gang.

Genocide charges

Meanwhile in New York, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir came down hard on the Myanmar authorities bringing charges of genocide against them. The Rohingya faced untold brutality and were at risk of seeing an entire generation wiped out. “Some were able to escape but these lucky ones are now unable to return to their homes,” he said.

The Myanmar authorities still have not addressed the fundamental issues of the Rohingya being denied citizenship, freedom of movement, security and other basic rights, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group said in a recent report. For his part, Mr. Mahathir called for Myanmar to demonstrate that it is serious in alleviating the crisis. In doing so, repatriation should be the main priority, he said.

“The failed repatriation attempts have not only created an atmosphere of anxiety among refugees in the camps, they have demonstrated insincerity on part of the Myanmar authorities at enabling conditions for safe, voluntary, dignified and sustainable return of the Rohingya refugees,” Saad Hammadi, South Asia campaigner at Amnesty International, told this reporter.

Fighting between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army, a militant outfit that draws its support mainly from the ethnic Rakhine population (a mostly Buddhist group distinct from the Rohingya Muslims), has escalated sharply since January. The Rohingya in Rakhine are caught between the warring parties, according to the Crisis Group.

That creates a further impediment to the refugees’ return. The conflict also has pushed repatriation down the list of priorities in Naypyitaw, which is currently focused on the Arakan Army insurgency and the national elections in 2020.

A monk’s cremation on a temple’s premises, in violation of a court order, has triggered protests

The recent passing away of a Buddhist monk in Sri Lanka and his subsequent cremation in the northern district of Mullaitivu has brought to the fore an old concern — the power wielded by the Buddhist clergy and the impunity shielding them. It wasn’t the monk’s cremation that was the problem, it was the site.

On Monday, a group of saffron-robed men, led by controversial monk Gnanasara Thero (in picture) of the Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force), gathered near the Neeravi Pillaiyar Kovil (temple) well in Mullaitivu, even as their supporters swiftly made arrangements for the cremation to be held there. They completed the final rites, defying a court order barring it on the temple’s premises. Around noon the same day, the Mullaitivu magistrate court had ruled that the cremation be held by the sea, near the Army camp facing the temple.

“When I returned from the court to the temple, I was shocked to see the monks going ahead with the cremation there, despite the court ruling against it. There were some 40 bikkus (monks) and maybe around 200 supporters with them,” said Kanagarathinam Sugash, attorney-at-law, who appeared for the temple administration in the case.

As the news spread, several locals — mostly Hindu Tamils — gathered around the temple in protest. “When I tried to draw the monks’ attention to the court order, one of them, speaking in broken Tamil, turned very aggressive towards me and told me — ‘This is a Sinhala Buddhist country and monks come first, they are above all’,” recalled Mr. Sugash, who was assaulted in the ensuing clash. The Jaffna-based lawyer found the monk’s remarks most telling. “He [the monk] was effectively telling me that monks are above the courts, above law and order.”

By then, dozens of policemen had gathered at the spot. “They didn’t allow me or the people to enter the temple,” said Shanthi Sriskandarasa, the Mullaitivu parliamentarian from the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), representing Tamils of the north and east. “Some of our youngsters were very angry. Instead of ensuring that a court order is adhered to, the police were busy protecting the monks,” said the MP, who plans to initiate legal action.

“The whole incident showed us how Buddhist monks in this country can get away with just about anything, it is very worrying,” she added. Ms. Sriskandarasa’s concern has to be seen in context.

Presidential pardon for monk

In May this year, President Maithripala Sirisena pardoned Buddhist priest Gnanasara Thero, who was serving a prison term after being convicted for contempt of court. The monk is notorious for hate speech targeting minorities, particularly Muslims, and is also accused of inciting anti-Muslim violence in the past.

Monday’s incident has heightened anxiety among Tamils, who see the monk’s assertion of authority as yet another attempt towards “Sinhala colonisation” of the island’s Tamil-majority north and east.

In the post-war decade, locals have often pointed to new Buddha statues emerging in different parts of the north and east, where most residents are Tamil Hindus, Christians, and Muslims. In several cases, the military has erected the statues, residents said.

When contacted, a police officer-in-charge (OIC) in Mullaitivu said, “An inquiry is being conducted to look into what happened on Monday.” The BBS, according to local news reports, has claimed its leader was “not aware” of the court order at the time of the cremation.

Meanwhile, lawyers in the north and east are striking work, protesting against the violation of a court order. They have decided to raise the matter with the Attorney General before returning to courts.

Reacting to the developments, Northern Province Governor Suren Raghavan urged politicians not to create communal and religious tensions ahead of the presidential election. “At the moment, southern politicians are in the north in order to stir up things with regard to the final rites of the chief incumbent of Gurukanda Nayaru Rajamaha Viharaya. These are primitive and tribal political campaigns. We clearly know that the northern votes are a decisive factor in presidential elections,” the state-run Daily News quoted him as saying.

The Tamil vote may be crucial in the polls, but that has not prompted any strong condemnation of the monks’ questionable actions by national leaders. The people of Mullaitivu, along with many others elsewhere, are watching how the judiciary and state will respond to a blatant defiance of a court order.

With financial aid and integration of villages with agri parks, China is transforming its countryside

Outside a giant exhibition hall near Dai village, in Shandong province, where local agri-produce — ginger, capsicum and much more — are displayed, Wang Chuanxi is a much sought after man. In the soft light of an early September morning, he was mobbed by visiting local and international media, keen to understand how China has fought ingrained poverty at the grassroots.

Mr. Wang — a local hero and a member of the Communist Party of China (CPC) since 1997 — had for years served as the party’s secretary in the village. Under the local leadership, Dai village, once a remote and poor outpost of the eastern province of Shandong, has morphed itself into prosperity. So how did this humble hamlet’s rags-to-riches story begin? The answer may lie in a combination of a dedicated local leadership, backed by a strong Central government, well- known for thinking big.

Instead of seeking village development in isolation, a bolder plan was drawn to transform the area, which would integrate the village into a much larger Lanjing National Agriculture Park (LNAP).

Drawing on experiences

“We had to draw from national and international experience to finalise our plans. Since we were already in an era of reforms and opening up, our teams visited several advanced countries, including Israel, Germany, France and Japan. We also learnt from India’s experience in agriculture,” says Mr. Wang.

The second strategic decision was to lower the village’s reliance on agriculture.

Farming had to be complemented with agro-tourism and green development, in tune with China’s new obsession with green mountains, clean air and water, as well as a massive reduction of the carbon footprint to meet the country’s climate change goals.

Generous financial support, arrival of broadband Internet and the growing profile of e-commerce have also contributed to the transformation of this backwater of eastern China. “We got financial support from China Agriculture Bank, but there have also been local agriculture banks that have given us financing,” says Mr. Wang. That includes the local Linyi agriculture bank, which has parcelled a three-year loan of around $140 million.

Farmers will use the cash for startups, food processing and logistics, including setting up cold chains for perishable products. “We already have 50,000 trucks, including refrigerated vehicles, to transport the agricultural products,” Mr. Wang said.

The local official, designated by the government as a “model worker,” points out that 20-30% of products of the agricultural park are now sold online through the e-commerce channel.

The dramatic transformation of LNAP can now be measured in numbers. The average per capita income, from a very low base, has now surged to nearly $9,500, while the annual revenue shot up to $393 million.

The increasing reliance on online sale mirrors the growing presence of China’s e-commerce giants in the countryside. Of the 20 million new users Alibaba gained in the April-June quarter this year, China’s smaller cities and rural areas contributed more than 70%.

In the nearby town of Longquan, the Shandong Donghua Cement Company has signed up with Alibaba Cloud Computing to promote an entire building materials industry chain under a smart cement project.

The local initiatives in Shandong are part of a much larger national plan to eliminate poverty in China by 2020. In Beijing, Professor Zhang Qi, president of the China Poverty Relief Institute of Beijing Normal University, told the media during a recent event organised by the All China Journalists Association that there has been a dramatic reduction in poverty — from 98 million in 2012 to 16 million currently.

“This is a very remarkable achievement. By the end of 2019, it is estimated that 300 poor counties will get rid of poverty. By 2020, all the remaining poor counties will get rid of poverty so as to achieve our goal to walk out of poverty. This is dream long cherished by the Chinese people. It is also the sacred commitment made by the Communist Party to the Chinese people,” he said.

Mr. Zhang pointed out that China was dovetailing its anti-poverty programme with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) of the UN. “In the international community we have SDGs, which have five or six items related to poverty reduction. So our initiative is also in line with the UN sustainable development agenda.”

For many Afghan women, Khodayari’s act of protest symbolised their own struggle for equality

The stadium in Kabul was packed, as thousands of football fans gathered to watch the latest edition of the Afghanistan Premier League (APL), which kicked off earlier this month. Not too long ago, this stadium was used as a venue for public executions, including that of women, by the Taliban, during their regime in the late 1990s.

However, since the fall of the extremist group in 2001, the city’s stadiums have come a long way, now reclaimed by the Afghan youth, including women, who attend as well as take part in several sports, on grounds earlier forbidden to them. This sentiment has reverberated across the stadium every year during the APL and other competitions that witness massive crowds. However, this season, the acclamations by women fans carried a stronger message — solidarity with their Iranian counterparts, who are still prohibited from entering a stadium. Several Afghan women, attending the APL on September 13, raised hand-drawn placards expressing support for the actions of Sahar Khodayari, a young Iranian woman football fan who had died after immolating herself just days earlier.

Khodayari, who is now being referred to as the ‘Blue Girl’, a nickname given to her in reference to the jersey colour of the team she supported — Esteghlal FC — set herself on fire in protest against arrest for trying to enter a stadium. Ironically, the word esteghlal in Persian translates to ‘independence’ and the stadium that she tried to enter was called Azadi (freedom) Stadium. Khodayari’s death gave rise to a stronger call from the international community against Iran’s discriminatory policies, including from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. “What happened to Sahar Khodayari is heart-breaking and exposes the impact of the Iranian authorities’ appalling contempt for women’s rights in the country. Her only crime was being a woman in a country where women face discrimination that is entrenched in law and plays out in the most horrific ways imaginable in every area of their lives, even sports,” Philip Luther, director at Amnesty International, said in a statement, urging FIFA, and the Asian Football Confederation to take action.

Empathy and sisterhood

In Kabul, meanwhile, Khodayari found empathy and sisterhood, as her campaign was received with much enthusiasm at the stadium. Many Afghan men joined the women, amplifying their voices by carrying posters with the words #BlueGirl. For the Afghan women, who have lived through an extremist regime, and still continue to experience discrimination and challenges, the protest represented their own struggles. “We have a common culture and we speak the same language, so why shouldn’t we raise our voice for the women in Iran?” Mariam Atahi, an Afghan women’s rights activist who participated in the demonstration at the stadium, told this writer.

“Going to a stadium and watching a football match is not a crime... [I]t is not banned in Islam either. Islam doesn’t say anywhere that women should not go to the stadium and watch a match,” she asserted, adding that Afghan women were familiar with the struggles of Iranian women. “We had a dark time during the Taliban regime. Women were not allowed to get out of their homes or study or even express themselves,” recalled Ms. Atahi, who lived through the years of the Taliban.

For Ms. Atahi and her compatriots at the stadium, their act of solidarity was a way to reassert their voice in the international community. “Afghan women have an identity, which should be considered during the peace process and reconciliation. At the same time, we will also continue to stand for human rights around the world. We will raise our voices not just for ourselves but also for all women who are denied basic rights,” Ms. Atahi said.

“We have many problems here [in Afghanistan] but it should not matter where one lives and where are we geographically located, everyone has a responsibility to raise their voice for women’s rights.”

Like many women in the country, Ms. Atahi fears a possible return of the Taliban. However, Afghan women remain adamant that they won’t surrender their rights and allow the progress made in the last 18 years to be rolled back. “Over the past 18 years, Afghan women have achieved so much and struggled a lot to get to where we are today. We fought, we advocated for rights and we stood up and now, we are not going back to a time when we were not allowed in the stadiums,” Ms Atahi said. “We won’t give up.”

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