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Grading India's Neighborhood Diplomacy

By Vinay Kaura

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s charismatic personality and determined push for India’s economic development have made him immensely popular at home. Modi’s foreign policy initiatives are driven as much by his government’s domestic political strength as by India’s rising concern over rapid expansion of China’s economic clout and military might in Asia.

India’s rise is taking place in the shadow of China’s even more dramatic rise. China’s assertive, and often aggressive, behavior has been viewed as a huge challenge for India because it opens up the likelihood of China dominating India’s immediate neighborhood. By focusing a great deal of energy in the neighborhood, the Modi government is demonstrating that India has the capability to promote regional peace and economic integration. Rather than merely complaining about external intervention in South Asia, New Delhi is developing a regional strategy based on India’s natural geographical advantages, economic complementarities, shared cultural heritage, and preeminent strategic position. Modi is perfectly aware that New Delhi’s ability to deal with Washington and Beijing can be significantly enhanced if India achieves greater strategic confidence in South Asian geopolitics.

The “neighborhood first” policy is the striking feature of Modi government’s diplomatic approach. In his government’s strategic imagination, India’s relations with neighboring countries must receive topmost priority. If India does not resolve its differences with its small neighbors, it will only pave the way for China to exert growing influence in the region.

Modi often projects himself as an innovative and decisive leader who could make things happen. True to his style, he began his term as prime minister with a diplomatic first by inviting the leaders from the South Asian subcontinent to attend his inauguration in May 2014. After his first two years in office, Modi had already traveled to almost all of India’s neighbors in an attempt to establish India as a dominant regional power. His successful visits to South Asian capitals indicated that finally India had a leader for whom “neighborhood first” was not mere political rhetoric but a strategic necessity.

Sri Lanka

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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) and Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena interact during a meeting at the Presidential Secretariat in Colombo on March 13, 2015. India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged Sri Lanka's new leaders to grant greater autonomy to minority Tamils who suffered the most during decades of ethnic war. AFP PHOTO / ISHARA S.KODIKARA

Sri Lanka has long been in India’s geopolitical orbit, but its relationship with China has strengthened in recent years. As Western countries accused former President Mahinda Rajapaksa of gross human rights violations during the final stages of the civil war with LTTE, China extended billions of dollars of loans to the Sri Lankan government for new infrastructure projects, though these loans turned out to be economically unviable for the island nation.

In February 2015, Sri Lanka’s newly elected President Maithripala Sirisena undertook his first official visit to India, and Modi paid a return visit to Colombo in March 2015. He was the first Indian prime minister to do a stand-alone visit to Sri Lanka in 28 years. While there, Modi not only addressed the Sri Lankan parliament but also made a trip to the northern province of Jaffna. Modi visited Sri Lanka again in May 2017, when he inaugurated a specialty hospital built with Indian assistance and visited the Indian-origin Tamil community there.

Just ahead of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) summit in May 2017, Colombo refused to allow a Chinese submarine to dock. Under the previous dispensation, Sri Lanka had allowed a Chinese submarine to dock at the Colombo port, drawing protests from India. But Sri Lanka also sent its Prime Minister Ranil Wickremeshinghe to the Belt and Road summit, and was offered an estimated $24 billion in additional loans.

In early December, Sri Lanka handed over the strategic port of Hambantota, which is expected to play a key role in China’s BRI, to China on a 99-year lease. The opposition parties and trade unions in Sri Lanka have already dubbed the port deal as a sellout of their country’s national assets to China. It must be noted that Sri Lanka is struggling to pay back its existing $8 billion debt to China. Many critics feel that the lease could set a precedent for other small South Asian countries that owe money to China to accept deals that involve surrendering a part of their territory. In order to allay Indian concerns that the Hambantota port will not be used for military purposes, the Sri Lankan government has sought to limit China’s role to running commercial operations at the port while it retains oversight of security operations.

Beset by China’s offensive in its strategic backyard, the Modi government is determined to improve its ties with Colombo. Modi’s second visit to Sri Lanka in May this year was primarily aimed at reinforcing traditional ties at a time when China has been aggressively seeking to make inroads in the Indian Ocean region. Similarly, Wickremesinghe visited India in September 2015, his first overseas visit after being appointed as Sri Lankan prime minister. He has been a frequent visitor since. India is also likely to invest in Mattala airport in Hambantota district. It is hoped that India’s presence at the airport, which is just 30 kilometers away from the Chinese-operated port of Hambantota, will help New Delhi to monitor Beijing’s growing presence in Sri Lanka.


Maldives is one South Asian country that Modi has not visited since taking office. Although it was on the itinerary for his March 2015 Indian Ocean tour, the visit had to be canceled due to domestic political turbulence in Maldives. However, Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen visited India in April 2016 and the two countries signed agreements in the fields of defense, taxation, tourism, conservation of mosques, and space research.

India’s ties with Maldives have been impacted by China’s growing footprint on the island. China opened an embassy in Male, the Maldivian capital, only in 2011. Many countries have non-resident embassies either in New Delhi or Colombo; the Chinese embassy in Colombo took care of Maldivian affairs until 2011.

In early December, Maldives rushed a much-criticized Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with China through the Maldivian parliament at midnight, without any opposition members present. This is Maldives’s first FTA with any country, and also China’s second with any country in South Asia, after Pakistan. The manner in which China managed to secure this FTA is nothing short of a diplomatic coup by Beijing. On the sidelines of the FTA agreement, Yameen pledged full backing for China’s Maritime Silk Road (MSR), which is part of the BRI. Given its security impact in India’s strategic backyard, China’s foray into Maldives has already aroused concerns in New Delhi.

Following the unexpected FTA deal between Maldives and China, India’s foreign ministry issued a statement saying it is India’s “expectation that as a close and friendly neighbour, Maldives will be sensitive to our concerns, in keeping with its ‘India First’ policy.” Rather than allaying India’s concerns, the Maldivian government took the drastic step of suspending three local councillors for meeting with the Indian ambassador without seeking prior permission. In the past, Maldives would not have dared snub India in such a manner.


Modi’s initial outreach to Nepal in 2014 managed to strike the right chord, and captured the imagination of people and policymakers in Nepal. After the devastating earthquake caused great havoc in Nepal in 2015, India carried out extensive rescue operations and extended much-needed financial assistance for post-earthquake reconstruction projects.

However, things began to take an ugly turn when Nepal announced a new constitution, which, according to critics, disadvantaged ethnic groups such as the Madhesi people in the country’s Terai region. Consequently, Madhesi protesters’ blockade stopped all essential supplies from India from reaching Nepal and created a humanitarian crisis. Kathmandu blamed New Delhi for being complicit in an unofficial economic blockade and began to play the “China card” to balance India’s immense power over Nepal. In May 2016, the Nepali government went to the extent of cancelling the visit of the country’s President Bidhya Devi Bhandari to India and recalling its ambassador in New Delhi. This radical step was symbolic of the frosty relationship between the two countries.

The recent victory of the left coalition in Nepal’s parliamentary elections is expected to pose several challenges for the Modi government. Due to inconsistent policies and conflicting priorities from New Delhi as well as the emergence of a new crop of politicians and opinion makers in Nepal, India’s leverage in Nepal’s internal politics has shrunk to its lowest level. China is more than willing to fill this vacuum. Kathmandu has already signed on to the BRI plan, which is likely to cement China’s communication links with Nepal. It may be reasonable to argue that Nepal would prefer China’s model of economic engagement without political dictation to Modi’s “neighborhood first” policy.


On the way back from Afghanistan in December 2015, Modi paid a surprise visit to Pakistan, where he held a meeting with his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, in Lahore.


Leaders of India, Pakistan, China, and Russia meet pose for a photograph during the 2015 SCO summit in Ufa.(PTI file photo)

 The move sparked a great deal of enthusiasm in public opinion, but later proved to have little real impact on improving ties between the two nuclear neighbors. Since the Pathankot terror attack and the invitation for Pakistan’s intelligence officials to join an investigation into the attack, the bilateral relationship has hit a dead end. The talks between India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and his Pakistani counterpart, Naseer Khan Janjua, have stopped. Frequent violations of the ceasefire along the Line of Control have also contributed to the failure of talks. In fact, relations are perhaps the worst they have been since the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks.

The Modi government’s policy of diplomatically isolating Pakistan does not seem to be succeeding as Islamabad has stepped up its diplomatic efforts to engage Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran. Escalation of hostilities also inadvertently helps in reinforcing Pakistan’s narrative that India-Pakistan relations are facing a deadlock, which can only be removed if big powers intervene. New Delhi has always resisted international intervention in the bilateral dispute.

Moreover, Modi, during a recent election campaign, cast aspersions on a private dinner hosted for a visiting former foreign minister from Pakistan by Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar and attended by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh along with retired Indian diplomats. In this climate, the risks of losing valuable intellectual and constructive inputs into the making of Modi government’s Pakistan policy are real. One cannot dispute the fact that India’s external affairs ministry is not the only source of wisdom on foreign policy, and such politically motivated allegations can destroy creativity in framing strategic thought vis-à-vis Indo-Pak relations.


Afghanistan is a real success story of Modi government’s neighborhood policy. Afghanistan underwent a change in its political leadership when Ashraf Ghani was elected president in September 2014. Ghani came to India for his first official visit in April 2015. Modi’s first Afghan visit came in December 2015, during which he inaugurated the Afghan Parliament building that was constructed with Indian assistance. In June 2016, Modi made another trip to Afghanistan and inaugurated Salma Dam in Herat, proclaiming that “Your friendship is our honor; your dreams are our duty.” India’s assistance for reconstruction and development in Afghanistan stands at $2 billion, making New Delhi the biggest donor among regional countries.

Ghani has been extremely eager to reduce landlocked Afghanistan’s reliance on Pakistani territory for trade and to corrode Pakistan’s undesirable influence over Afghan affairs by improving ties to India. New Delhi and Kabul have decided to improve transport connectivity through Iran’s strategically located Chabahar port, which is likely to ramp up trade between India, Afghanistan, and Iran in the wake of Islamabad denying New Delhi transit access for trade between the two countries. Ghani has even gone to the extent of threatening Islamabad that Afghanistan would block Pakistan’s access to Central Asia if Afghanistan is not permitted to trade with India via Wagah-Attari.

By reaching through Afghanistan into Central Asia’s road and railway network, India has the potential to shape events as a counterweight to Pakistani and Chinese influence. The first phase of Chabahar port has been recently inaugurated by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. This important milestone in India’s foreign policy came after the first consignment of wheat from India was sent to Afghanistan through Chabahar in October.

In view of Pakistan denying access through its territory, India and Afghanistan have also launched an air freight corridor in June this year. The decision to establish an air cargo route was taken in December 2016 when Modi met Ghani ahead of the Heart of Asia Conference held in Amritsar. Besides giving a boost to bilateral trade, the air corridor is also expected to help Afghan students seeking to pursue studies and patients seeking treatment in India. Growing convergence between India and the United States on resolving the Afghan conflict, as reflected in the Trump administration’s recently announced South Asia policy, is another shot in the Modi government’s diplomatic arm.


The real benefit for India of “neighborhood first” approach is that Bangladesh has provided great strategic opportunity to change South Asia’s geopolitical situation. In July 2014, New Delhi and Dhaka accepted the judgment of International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea and settled a long-standing maritime order dispute. In June 2015, when Modi visited Bangladesh, the two countries exchanged the instruments of ratification on the historic land boundary agreement. In April this year, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina visited India, during which India announced a new credit line of $4.5 billion with an additional $500 million for Bangladesh’s defense hardware purchase.

Bangladesh continues to be bright spot for India’s neighborhood, policy despite attempts by pro-Pakistan radical groups and ISI-sponsored elements to derail the flourishing bilateral relationship. Bangladesh is now at the forefront of India’s counterterror strategy. Bangladesh has emerged as a key gateway for India’s sub-regional initiatives, the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) and the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal (BBIN) initiative. Showcasing ties with Bangladesh as a testimony to India’s official policy of “neighborhood first,” India’s Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar has rightly said that “If there is one example where the neighborhood first policy has yielded good result, it is in case of Bangladesh.”

Despite growing bonhomie, the long-standing deal on the sharing of waters of the Teesta River is yet to be signed between the two countries. While New Delhi and Dhaka have been on the same page, the proposed deal has become hostage to West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s reservations. As general elections are due in Bangladesh in December 2018, the Hasina government would try to push the Teesta deal to deny the opposition parties a chance to play the anti-India card. In order to brighten the electoral prospects of the India-friendly Hasina regime, the Modi government must expedite the deal making process on Teesta.

Countering China’s Push

China has embarked on a series of infrastructure development projects, most as part of its BRI, which many strategic experts fear can leave India isolated regionally and encircled by Chinese allies. India has serious apprehensions over growing ties between China and Pakistan, which are seen as compromising India’s national security. There is widespread concern in India’s policymaking circles of Beijing’s expanding presence in Pakistan and Nepal and now in Maldives. China’s relentless attempts to establish formal engagement with Bhutan has also highlighted Beijing’s aggressive posturing.

There are many reasons behind China’s ability to move much faster than India, including an authoritarian one-party governing structure that gives President Xi Jinping decision-making power far beyond what Modi is able to command. Besides the fact that Indian economy is only a fifth of China’s in size, India suffers key institutional constraints, including a notoriously slow and cumbersome bureaucracy. Hence, it is no surprise that India has been struggling to compete with China across different regions, where many nations are now economically dependent on China.

Despite this, Modi’s achievements in South Asia have been significant, if not exceptional. Some of his initiatives have admittedly fallen short, but they do not taint his larger record. The “neighborhood first” policy has seen some intense engagements with neighbors that are a high point of Indian foreign policy in recent decades. Yet these relationships need constant nurturing amid China’s relentless expansionism. As China has deeply entrenched its economic and strategic footprints in South Asia, the Modi government has a long road ahead of it to try to bolster India’s regional leadership.

Vinay Kaura, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor at the Department of International Affairs and Security Studies, Sardar Patel University of Police, Security and Criminal Justice, Rajasthan. He is also the Coordinator at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies in Jaipur.


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How young women in Delhi are fighting street harassment

When Pooja*, a teenager in New Delhi, was 15, she would walk a roundabout route home from school. That way she could avoid harassment from boys lurking in a shadowy lane nearby.

"That corner over there, I wouldn't take that right," she said, pointing at a street near her home in a working-class neighbourhood where residents live cheek by jowl in brick buildings amid webs of electric wires.

Her parents' protective mindset added to Pooja's frustration: they wouldn't let her go out to play sports or meet friends.

Three years later, Pooja, who aspires to be an actress and speaks with dramatic flourishes, recounted how she helped stop harassment near her house by joining other teenagers to tell their neighbours about the problem.

The community chipped in for a streetlamp that deters sketchy passers-by. Meanwhile, Pooja has been travelling around New Delhi to play touch rugby with a co-ed team she helps to coach.

Her new-found freedom began with a programme called "Safer Cities" that helps girls improve their own safety.

Established by Plan India - a child rights organisation - in 2014, and run in partnership with local non-governmental organisations, the programme has almost 10,000 active members, including 8,300 girls and 1,400 boys, in 40 community-based clubs in India's capital New Delhi.

It's been so effective in Pooja's community in Mangolpuri, an area in northwest Delhi where 3,000 youth participate in activities coordinated with the help of the Dr AV Baliga Memorial Trust, that she and other girls believe street harassment near their homes has been reduced by more than half.

That's a notable change in India's capital, which grew notorious for being one of the worst cities in the world for violence against women after the brutal gang rape of a 23-year-old woman in the back of a bus in December 2012.

Safety continues to be a major concern for women and girls in New Delhi, where more than 95 percent report feeling unsafe in public spaces.

Street harassment is so bad in parts of the city, including Mangolpuri, where men follow girls down narrow streets, that some parents prefer to pull their daughters out of school than have them walk there.

Over the last five years, many women's advocacy groups have responded with community-based programmes like 'Safer Cities' that aims to reduce violence against women and girls with activities focused on shifting social norms.

"Things like violence against women or sexual harassment are often thought of as a woman or a girl's problem only, (but) battling it requires a larger community effort," explained Shruti Kapoor, founder of Sayfty, an organisation focused on changing perceptions of violence against women in India.

Putting safety on the map
As part of "Safer Cities", separate workshops are arranged for teenage boys and girls to sensitise them on gender norms, including stereotypes that girls belong at home.

Volunteers then conduct safety audits of their community together by making maps that document problems like poor lighting, cracked pavements and areas where men congregate to harass girls.

Next, they speak to their parents, neighbours and the authorities about fixing them. In Mangolpuri, they convinced shopkeepers to install lights and CCTV cameras in unsafe areas. They also spurred city officials to fix broken street lamps and clean dirty public toilets.

"Viewing it on a map, visualising it, makes you look at the problem very differently," said Elsa Marie D'Silva, founder of SafeCity, an online platform that crowdsources stories of sexual harassment and abuse from Indian cities, including Delhi, and places them on a map.

Compiling information from a handful of women or girls harassed in the same place can be enough to push police and others to respond, she explained. "When we go with our individual stories, it's easier for people to point fingers at us, putting the onus back on us for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, wearing the wrong clothes, et cetera."

On a walk around their neighbourhood, Pooja and her friends Swati*, 17, and Roopa*, 16, point out changes sparked by the programme, including buildings that community members have declared as 'safe houses' where girls can seek shelter from harassment. They also point out concerns they plan to discuss with city officials in monthly meetings.

Swati regularly attends appointments with police officers where she raises safety concerns alongside as many as 25 other children.

She's played a role in convincing police to throw drunkards out of a local park so children could use it, as well as to patrol her school between morning and afternoon shifts when boys would take advantage of crowds to grope girls.

The process has transformed Swati, who has a slender frame and aspires to go into banking. Three years ago, when she first got involved, she worried about whether the police would listen.

"We were so scared and we used to sit in the last row," she recalls with a smile. "… Now, I'm one of the most talkative ones."

Breaking the gender divide
In Mangolpuri, teenage girls and boys attend school in different shifts and are discouraged from socialising with one another. Getting to know one another and discussing gender issues have changed their perspective, according to some of the boys and girls involved in the programme.

"Now, we tell our friends that we shouldn't (harass) girls and that it isn't right," one boy in his late teens explained. "If someone teased you like that, how would you feel?"

Critically, telling men and boys about the effect of harassment can help reduce it, said Sohini Bhattacharya, president of the Breakthrough Foundation, which carried out research on perceptions of sexual harassment in a neighbourhood in New Delhi.

"Unemployed young men who don't have anything else to do think of (harassment) as an effective time-pass" and "don't really think it's harmful enough to make parents take girls out of school," she said.

In some cases, girls have also learned to cut harassment short with spunk. Boys frequently stand outside Roopa's school, where they comment on girls' clothing and body parts, she said.

She used to silently endure it, but, since discussing it with older girls at 'Safer Cities', Roopa, who is petite and hopes to be a teacher, pipes up. "I reply straight back to them and they get on their way," she grinned.

Barriers to widespread change
Even as community projects create pockets of change like that in Mangolpuri, patriarchal norms mean progress is slow.

"There is no quick fix," said Priya Varadarajan, founder of Durga India, an organisation focused on helping college students respond to sexual violence and harassment.

Pooja, Swati and Roopa are keenly aware of the challenges ahead. They find people look at and speak to women and girls with less respect as soon as they leave their immediate neighbourhood.

There are also issues closer to home. Some neighbours gossip about how the girls interact with boys and leave their house for extracurricular activities. They also question the kids' motives when they conduct safety audits.

But positive shifts in their families' attitudes keep them optimistic. Pooja says when her mother learned about the programme, she attended parents' meetings and volunteered to help.

"Before my mom didn't support my playing sports. Now she does and tells me to go for everything."

*The names of all children in this story have been changed due to security concerns

Source: Al Jazeera

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Benazir Bhutto assassination: How Pakistan covered up the killing

By Owen Bennett Jones

27 December 2017

Benazir Bhutto was the first woman to lead a Muslim country. The decade since an assassin killed her has revealed more about how Pakistan works than it has about who actually ordered her death.

Bhutto was murdered on 27 December 2007 by a 15-year-old suicide bomber called Bilal. She had just finished an election rally in Rawalpindi when he approached her convoy, shot at her and blew himself up. Bilal had been asked to carry out the attack by the Pakistani Taliban.

Benazir Bhutto was the daughter of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan's first democratically elected prime minister. His political career was also brought to a premature end when he was hanged by the military regime of General Zia-ul Haq. Benazir went on to become prime minister twice in the 1990s, but she was always distrusted by the military, which used corruption allegations to remove her from power.

At the time of her death, she was making a bid for a third term as prime minister. The assassination caused widespread civil unrest in Pakistan. Bhutto's supporters took to the streets, putting up roadblocks, lighting fires and chanting anti-Pakistan slogans.

The general and the 'threatening' phone call
A decade later, the general in charge of Pakistan at the time has suggested people in the establishment could have been involved in her murder.

Asked whether rogue elements within the establishment could have been in touch with the Taliban about the killing, General Pervez Musharraf replied: "Possibility. Yes indeed. Because the society is polarised on religious lines."

And, he said, those elements could have had a bearing on her death.

It's a startling statement from a former Pakistani head of state. Normally military leaders in Pakistan deny any suggestion of state complicity in violent jihadist attacks.

Asked whether he had any specific information about rogue elements in the state being involved in the assassination, he said: "I don't have any facts available. But my assessment is very accurate I think... A lady who is in known to be inclined towards the West is seen suspiciously by those elements."

Musharraf has himself been charged with murder, criminal conspiracy for murder and facilitation for murder in relation to the Bhutto case. Prosecutors say that he phoned Benazir Bhutto in Washington on 25 September, three weeks before she ended eight years in self-imposed exile.

Long-serving Bhutto aid Mark Seighal and journalist Ron Suskind both say they were with Bhutto when the call came in. According to Seighal, immediately after the call, Bhutto said: "He threatened me. He told me not to come back. He warned me not to come back.

Musharraf said he would not be responsible for what would happen to Bhutto if she returned, Seighal told the BBC. "And he said that her safety, her security was a function of her relationship with him."

Musharraf strongly denies making the call and dismisses the idea that he would have ordered her murder. "Honestly I laugh at it," he recently told the BBC. "Why would I kill her?"

The deadly plot

The legal proceedings against Musharraf have stalled because he is in self-imposed exile in Dubai. Benazir Bhutto's son and political heir, Bilawal, has rejected his denials out of hand.

"Musharraf exploited this entire situation to assassinate my mother," he said. "He purposely sabotaged her security so that she would be assassinated and taken off the scene."

While Musharraf's case is on hold, others have been acquitted of the crime. Within weeks of the assassination, five suspects had confessed to helping the 15-year-old Bilal assassinate Bhutto at the behest of the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda.

The first person to be arrested, Aitzaz Shah, had been told by the Pakistan Taliban that he would be the suicide bomber chosen to kill Bhutto. Much to his annoyance, he was kept in reserve in case the attempt failed.

Two others, Rasheed Ahmed and Sher Zaman, confessed they were mid-ranking organisers of the conspiracy and two Rawalpindi-based cousins, Hasnain Gul and Rafaqat Hussain, told the authorities that they provided accommodation to Bilal the night before the killing.

Even though these confessions were subsequently withdrawn, phone records showing the suspects' locations and communications in the hours before Bhutto's murder seem to corroborate them. Hasnain Gul also led the police to some physical evidence in his apartment.

DNA from Bilal's body parts gathered after his attack and tested in a US lab matched the DNA on some training shoes, cap and a shawl Bilal had left behind in Hasnain's residence when he put on his suicide vest.

Just a few months ago prosecutors were confident these alleged plotters would be convicted. But in September the case collapsed, with the judge declaring that procedural errors in the way the evidence was gathered and presented to the court meant he had to acquit them.

The five are still in detention pending an appeal.

Who was Benazir Bhutto?

A dominant figure in Pakistani politics, Ms Bhutto served twice as the country's prime minister, from 1988 to 1990 and from 1993 to 1996.

Young and glamorous, she successfully portrayed herself as a refreshing contrast to the male-dominated political establishment.

But after her second fall from power, she became associated in the eyes of some with corruption and bad governance.

Ms Bhutto left Pakistan in 1999 but returned in October 2007 after then-President Musharraf granted her and others an amnesty from corruption charges.

She was set to take part in an election called by Mr Musharraf for January 2008.

But her homecoming procession in Karachi was bombed by suspected militants. She survived the attack, which killed well over 150 people, but would be assassinated two months later.

The husband who became president

In Pakistan, it is commonplace to hear people accuse Benazir Bhutto's widower Asif Zardari of having organised the assassination. The claim is normally based on the observation that since he became president after her death he was the one who benefited most.

The conspiracy theorists, however, have not produced a single shred of evidence to indicate that Asif Zardari was in any way involved in his wife's death. He has denied the allegation in the strongest possible terms. Those who make the allegation, he said, should "shut up".

Asif Zardari faces another accusation: that despite having the powers of the presidency, he failed to properly investigate his wife's murder. Secret official documents relating to the investigation and obtained by the BBC show that the police inquiries were so poorly managed as to suggest they never wanted to find guilty parties beyond the low-level plotters they had already arrested.

The inadequacies of the police investigations were especially apparent after an unsuccessful attempt on Bhutto's life on 18 October 2007 - two and a half months before she was killed. Two suicide bombers attacked her convoy and killed more than 150 people. It remains one of the deadliest attacks ever mounted by violent jihadists in Pakistan.

The police work was so half-hearted that the bombers were never even identified.

The leader of the inquiry, Saud Mirza, has said that one man he established to have been a bomber had distinctive features, suggesting he came from a long-standing but small Karachi-based community of people of African descent. This potentially significant clue about the suspected bombers identity was never released to the public.

Former President Zardari answers criticisms about the thoroughness of the police work by pointing out that he encouraged the work of Scotland Yard in relation to the murder and secured the appointment of a UN commission of inquiry to examine the circumstances of her death.

That inquiry, however, says it was repeatedly and blatantly blocked not only by the military but also Zardari's ministers. "There were many people in the establishment that we wanted to interview but they refused," said Heraldo Munoz, the head of the UN commission.

And he said some of the obstacles came from the politicians as well as the military. As the investigation progressed, he said, the safe house the UN team used was withdrawn, as were the anti-terrorist personnel who were protecting the UN staff.

A trail of dead people...

That there was a cover-up is beyond doubt. A BBC investigation found evidence suggesting that two men who helped the teenage assassin reach Benazir Bhutto were themselves shot at a military checkpoint on 15 January 2008. A senior member of the Zardari government has told the BBC that he believes this was "an encounter" - the term Pakistanis use for extra-judicial killings.

Nadir and Nasrullah Khan were students at the Taliban-supporting Haqqania madrassa in north-west Pakistan. Other students associated with the seminary who were involved in the plot also died. One of the most detailed official documents obtained by the BBC is an official PowerPoint presentation given to the Sindh provincial assembly.

It names Abad ur Rehman, a former student at the madrassa and bomb-maker who helped provide the suicide jacket used to kill Benazir Bhutto. He was killed in one of Pakistan's remote tribal areas on 13 May 2010.

Then there was Abdullah who, according to the Sindh assembly presentation, was involved in the transportation of the suicide vests ahead of the Rawalpindi attack that killed Bhutto. He was killed in Mohmand Agency in northern Pakistan in an explosion on 31 May 2008.

One of the most high-profile deaths related to the assassination was that of Khalid Shahenshah, one of Bhutto's security guards. Shahenshah was within a few feet of Bhutto as she made her final speech in Rawalpindi. Phone footage shows him making a series of strange movements for which no one has offered any reasonable explanation.

Although he kept his head completely still, he raised his eyes towards Bhutto while simultaneously running his fingers across his throat. Pictures of his gestures went viral and on 22 July 2008, Shahenshah was shot dead outside his home in Karachi.

The next victim was the state prosecutor, Chaudhry Zulfikar. A lawyer with a reputation for high degrees of both competence and doggedness, he told friends he was making real progress on the Bhutto investigation.

... and one who turns out to be alive

Finally, there is a man who was said to be dead but, in fact, is still alive. In their confessions, the alleged plotters said that on the day of the murder a second suicide bomber named Ikramullah accompanied Bilal. Once Bilal had succeeded in his task, Ikramullah's services were not required and he walked away unharmed.

For years Pakistani officials insisted that Ikramullah had been killed in a drone strike. In 2017 chief prosecutor Mohammad Azhar Chaudhry told the BBC evidence gathered by Pakistani investigating agencies, relatives and government officials established that "Ikramullah is dead".

In August 2017, however, the Pakistani authorities published a 28-page list of the country's most wanted terrorists. Coming in at number nine was Ikramullah, a resident of South Waziristan and involved, the list said, in the suicide attack on Benazir Bhutto.

The BBC understands that Ikramullah is now living in eastern Afghanistan where he has become a mid-ranking Pakistan Taliban commander.

So far the only people punished in relation to the murder of Benazir Bhutto are two police officers who ordered the murder scene in Rawalpindi to be hosed down.

Many Pakistanis regard those convictions as unfair, believing that the police would never have used the hoses without being told to do so by the military.

It suggests, once again, a cover-up by Pakistan's deep state - the hidden network of retired and serving military personnel who take it upon themselves to protect what they consider Pakistan's vital national interests.

Source: BBC

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Climate change threatens tea, but its DNA could save it

The world's most popular drink (after water) is under threat.

We already know much about the threat of climate change to staple crops such as wheat, maize and rice, but the impact on tea is just coming into focus.

Early research indicates that tea grown in some parts of Asia could see yields decline by up to 55% thanks to drought or excessive heat, and the quality of the tea is also falling.

The intensive use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers in tea plantations has also led to soil degradation at an average annual rate of 2.8%. This also causes chemical runoff into waterways, which can lead to serious problems for human health and the environment.

DNA to the rescue

However, hope may be on the horizon now that scientists at the Kunming Institute of Botany at the Chinese Academy of Sciences have sequenced the entire tea genome.

Mapping the exact sequence of DNA in this way provides the foundation for extracting all the genetic information needed to help breed and speed up development of new varieties of the tea plant. And it could even help improve the drink's flavour and nutritional value.

In particular, the whole tea tree genome reveals the genetic basis for tea's tolerance to environmental stresses, pest and disease resistance, flavour, productivity and quality.

Breeders could more precisely produce better tea varieties that produce higher crop yields and use water and nutrients more efficiently. And they could do this while widening the genetic diversity of tea plants, improving the overall health of the tea plant population.

This is also an important milestone for scientists because it provides a deeper understanding of the complex evolution and the functions of key genes associated with stress tolerance, tea flavour and adaptation.

Larger than coffee

The new tea genome is very large, with nearly 37,000 genes -- more than four times the size of the coffee plant genome.

The process of evolution by natural selection has already helped the tea plant develop hundreds of genes related to resisting environmental stress from drought and disease.

These genes are like molecular markers that scientists can identify when selecting plants for use in breeding. This will allow them to be more certain that the next generation of plants they produce will have the genes and so the traits they want, speeding up the breeding process.

Sequencing the genome also raises the possibility of using genetic modification (GM) technologies to turn on or enhance desirable genes (or turn off undesirable ones).

The same principles could also be used to enhance the nutritional or medicinal value of certain tea varieties. The genome sequence includes170510152616 tea cup exlarge 169 genes associated with biosynthesis. This is the production of the proteins and enzymes involved in creating the compounds that make tea so drinkable, such as flavonoids, terpenes and caffeine. These are closely related to the aroma, flavour and quality of tea and so using genetic breeding techniques could help improve the taste of tea and make it more flavorful or nutritional.

For example, we could also remove the caffeine biosynthetic genes from the tea plant to help to breed of low or non-caffeine varieties.

By boosting certain compounds at the same time, we could make tea healthier and develop entirely new flavours to make caffeine tea more appealing.

An estimated 5.56 million tons of tea is commercially grown on more than 3.8 million hectares of land (as of 2014).

And its huge cultural importance, as well as its economic value, mean securing a sustainable future for tea is vitally important for millions of people.

The first successful sequencing of the tea genome is a crucial step to making tea plants more robust, productive and drinkable in the face of massive environmental challenges.

Source ; CNN

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Non-interference with judiciary is a dire need in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka: A comprehensive understanding of non-interference with judiciary is a dire need in Sri Lanka

By Nagananda Kodituwakku and Basil Fernando

It was heartening to hear from the incumbent Chief Justice, Priyasath Dep, that Sri Lanka’s judiciary is free from any interference. This statement comes as a relief, given that we can recall a long period of the most despicable forms of the interference with the judiciary in Sri Lanka and how, unfortunately, even the Supreme Court learned to adjust to such interference. It all started with JR Jayawardene, the first Executive President, who believed that being the Executive President meant having the judiciary under his thumb. The whole constitutional design was changed to achieve this purpose. Unfortunately, this constitutional design still remains intact. Other Executive Presidents followed President Jayawardene’s example since then.

The worst betrayal of the very notion of the independence of the judiciary happened when a Chief Justice – Sarath Nanda Silva as Chief Justice – sacrificed the very notion of an independent judiciary and became a servant of the Executive Presidential system. The then government made the path clear for him by leapfrogging him from the office of President of the Court of Appeal to the office of the Chief Justice.

In a most sophisticated way, he sacrificed the independence of the judiciary by severing the procedural law from the substantive law, thereby making procedural law a plaything in the hands of the Executive President. This, accompanied by the most dramatic forms of bullying of the lawyers, and also some litigants, created a very abnormal judicial system in Sri Lanka. The most glaring examples of this bullying were the two cases relating to contempt of court, which brought Sri Lanka into international disrepute. The cases were those relating to Michael Emmanuel Fernando (known to the public as Tony Fernando) and SB Dissanayake, who was then a minister in Chandrika Bandaranayke’s cabinet.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee, in their Opinions, condemned both these judgements of the Supreme Court, declaring them to be violations of the human rights of the two persons concerned and recommending to the Sri Lankan government that they should make contempt of court laws in keeping with international norms and standards.

The trend of interference took an even uglier form during the regimes of Mahinda Rajapaksha. The culmination of this was the creation of a Chief Justice with the name Mohan Peiris, who even went before the newly elected government of Maithripala Sirisena to declare that he was willing to do anything that the Executive wanted him to. Such is the sad tale of the interference with the independence of the judiciary in Sri Lanka. What Mohan Peiris was saying to the new government was that he was willing to do what he did for Mahinda Rajapakshe’s regime. It is a credit to the new government that they not only rejected the offer, but that both President and Prime Minister themselves stated publicly the offer being made by Mohan Peiris. Under these circumstances, it is further heartening to hear from the incumbent Chief Justice that there is no longer any such interference with the judiciary.

However, the issue that needs to be considered is that such long years of terrible interference do not fail to leave traces within the system. What is required of any people concerned about what is at risk when the judiciary is interfered with is to do their utmost to reflect, in the most honest fashion possible, as to whether everything of such a dark period has been erased and gotten rid of so quickly.

In this, it is essential to consider what interference with the judiciary means in a comprehensive sense. Interference does not merely mean not receiving telephone calls and other forms of direct instructions on how judges should decide cases. The real test is as to whether the system of law and the administration of justice have gotten back to the point where it can be honestly claimed that the system functions well and that every element of the system has gotten rid of the corruption that it had been exposed to. Such victories should not be lightly claimed for all aspects of individual freedoms and the whole life of the nation depends on such things, like the way blood runs through the human body. The most essential element to consider is whether the competence of the judiciary that has suffered past interference has been restored fully.

In scrutinizing this aspect, it is essential to consider the fact that one of the most prominent ways of interfering with the judiciary was to make political choices about judicial appointments. For a litigant that goes before the courts, and for the lawyers who represent them, their faith in the system will very much depend on their belief that the judiciary has overcome the problems of the unprincipled way in which some judges were appointed in the not-so-distant past and that the practice has been brought to an end. This task of scrutinizing the system is not only a task for the Executive, but also for the Judiciary itself, and also the legal profession and the public at large. They should all be able to say that a damned and dark period is over, and that we are in a period where new light is shining. The real question is as to whether such a claim can be made honestly.

Does the legal process in Sri Lanka function sufficiently well that we could claim today that the due process of law can be assured within our system? If one is to go by the large numbers of litigants, who are the ultimate judges on this issue, we cannot yet claim such a situation has dawned.

There is an even clearer test. Can it be said that the administrative and political systems of Sri Lanka have gotten rid of corruption as a major issue? Of course, given the level of corruption that prevails throughout society, no one can claim that we have arrived at that point. The test of the independence of the judiciary is the test of the efficiency of the legal system to control corruption, abuse of power and the interferences into the freedoms of the individual.

The real test that the system is beyond the interference of anybody is, ultimately, whether the administration of justice is functioning well. In a practical sense, the test is as to whether the country’s corruption-control body (CIABOC) is adequately competent and efficient to investigate allegations of corruption and prosecute the cases successfully. If the CIABOC is at fault, the country’s judiciary shall take it to task.

*The recent report furnished to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights by the activist-lawyer, Nagananda Kodituwakku, who fights government corruption in all three organs of the government suggests that there is a long way to go to.

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Universal Basic Income Could Work In Southeast Asia — But Only If It Goes To Women

By Tamara Nair

The universal basic income debate has been raging for some years, with politicians and people hotly divided over the notion of their government paying every citizen a set amount of money on a regular basis, without requiring work to be completed.

The idea of everybody, including society’s most marginalised, being able to afford their basic needs is popular with mostly libertarian and progressive politicians, and there is some empirical evidence that it can quickly increase a country’s productivity and reduce domestic inequality.

Conservative economists, however, reject the idea, citing its “impossibly expensive” nature.

Economic feasibility is a critical question for any government program, of course, and it is particularly relevant in the developing world, where universal basic income (UBI) has been suggested as a development tool.

One reason that Southeast Asian countries, for example, have struggled to improve gender equality (despite avowals of committment to the idea) is increased economic insecurity, which has widened the gap between men and women and separated women from opportunities.

Might UBI be one way to both empower women and reduce hunger in the region?

Money in the hands of women

My research focuses specifically on women from the region who live below the poverty line, which, for East Asia and the Pacific, the World Bank defines as living on less than US$3.20 a day.

In Cambodia, Laos, the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam – among the poorest Southeast Asian nations – between 13% and 47% of the population is living in poverty. The number is significantly lower in better-off Brunei and Singapore.

On the whole, women in these countries fare well enough compared to their peers in other developing regions in terms of literacy, employment, political participation and the right to organise. But this has not translated into greater gender equality.

Here, heteronormativity reigns, dictating that men and women (and only men and women; all other gender identities are discounted) have distinct and complementary roles in life, from economics and education to politics.

P 2

A woman carries a basket of bread for sale on her head on a street in Hanoi.

 Women are primarily seen as wives and mothers, a gender stereotype reinforced in both everyday experiences and in the theological texts of the main religions in the region.

That perspective also seems to dominate within the Association of the Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Though women feature strongly in ASEAN’s socio-cultural community line of work, there is very little debate about the role of women in the economic or political sphere.

By giving women the financial freedom to act as “agents” of development in the region, universal basic income could be a tool that ultimately paves the way for their future economic and political involvement.

Women as agents of development

This process would start with something simple (and seemingly uncontroversial): women being able to put food on the table.

In poor families in Southeast Asia, up to 80% of household income is spent on food, yet under-nutrition remains a huge problem in Cambodia, Laos, the Philippines, Indonesia and, to a lesser extent, in Vietnam.

If women were provided with sufficient income to feed their families, it would translate into better nutrition, health and general well-being for children and others entrusted in their care, and by extension, their communities.

P 3 Children eat free meals distributed by group World Mission Community Care in a slum in Manila.

 Creating economic security for women is also key to a country’s development. Southeast Asian women in poorer income brackets generally have access to very few jobs, outside of traditional occupations such as farming and housekeeping. And, today, even these jobs are threatened by climate change and a growing movement to ban the export of foreign domestic workers.

Digitisation may lead to further unemployment among men, particularly in Southeast Asian manufacturing economies, exacerbating hunger and malnutrition.

There is evidence that giving women a specifically calibrated amount of money – regularly, and with no strings attached – could make a big difference in such settings.

After the NGO GiveDirectly first started its UBI program in a Kenyan village in 2016, it offered some residents US$22 a month The entire community quickly saw positive effects, according to a February 2017 assessment of the program in the New York Times. And residents hope that the experiment, which is scheduled to last for 12 years, will gradually lift them out of poverty.

UBI in Southeast Asia

Tacked onto the state’s existing social safety nets, UBI can give much needed specific attention to women’s broader economic empowerment, which is vital to a developing country’s growth.

The first step toward doing so in Southeast Asia would be to identify women living below the poverty line. Next, as in Kenya, each of these woman would be given a sum of money in the form of electronic cash transfers.

Accessible through cheap mobile phones, this money can be used to purchase food and other basic necessities in participating shops, which may be incentivised to participate with credits or subsidies of their own.

P 4 Small businesses, like this restaurant in the Philippines, should be encouraged to take part in the UBI scheme.


To prevent abuse of a program intended to empower women and support families, the cash transfers must be either non-transferrable or transferrable only to another female family member, and only women will be able to spend the money (in approved shops).

Evidence from other countries suggests that, in some cases, men waste this “free pay” on alcohol, gambling and other non-essentials.

Programs must also be designed to be cognisant that, when women in traditional societies are empowered, violence against them may increase, as men see women with money as a threat to their role in family and society.

Finally, women must be able to “graduate” from a UBI scheme. The idea is to empower participants, giving women a leg up to become active members of society – not to incapacitate them.

In the Kenyan case, for example, many women (and men, too) used the allocated income to start small businesses. This opportunity could be developed as part of a potential UBI in Southeast Asia, considering both public- and private-sector partnerships.

The ConversationIf a universal basic income program really works, then women may even become contributors to programs in the future, and not just their beneficiaries.

 Tamara Nair, Research Fellow in Non-Traditional Security Studies at RSIS, Nanyang Technological University.

PICS: Reuters


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India's Neighborhood-First Diplomacy Coming Apart at the Seams

By Surajkumar Thube

With talk of inviting ASEAN members for the upcoming Republic Day celebrations in India, New Delhi’s diplomatic overtures toward the Southeast Asian countries are increasingly clear. At the same time, with India set to look for greener pastures beyond South Asia, it’s hard to ignore the palpable fissures developing in the so-called “neighborhood-first” policy. The grand initiative to increase bonhomie with neighboring countries since 2014 has become hopelessly mired in episodic yet fundamental practical diplomatic hurdles. This anxiety can be sensed through recent developments, beginning with Nepal and Bangladesh.

The victory of the “left alliance” in Nepal has been seen as a failure of Indian diplomacy in the region since 2015. Former (and likely future) prime minister K.P. Oli’s frosty relations with the Indian government, especially during their intervention in the constitutional crisis and the five month economic blockade that followed, further intensified the already existing tension between the two countries. The left alliance is much closer to the Chinese, and especially intent on not relying on Indian investment — almost akin to King Gyanendra’s positive relationship with the Chinese authorities in 2005. Oli continues to evince a similar interest in opening up the economy in a big way to the Chinese.

Nepal is one existing unresolved issue; another issue concerning Bangladesh has the potential to spoil a relatively stable relationship. The Rohingya crisis has been conveniently ignored till date by both parties. However, both of them will be compelled to address the issue soon, especially with the first draft of the National Register of Citizens of Assam now on the negotiating table. The Indian government faces the dilemma of either fostering a peaceful domestic situation or protecting one of its few stable relationships with a neighbor. The possible Indian option of deportation can exacerbate this nervousness, as Bangladesh has been vocal recently in expressing their displeasure with India for not pressuring Myanmar to take back the refugees.

Apart from dealing directly with its neighbors, India has to deal with the overweening economic clout of China. Along with China’s continuing diplomatic heft across Asia, it has also significantly managed to increase its presence in the Indian Ocean. The recent China-Maldives Free Trade Agreement is a case in point. The covertness and the suddenness with which it was made public has irked the Indian establishment. Another development saw the handing over of Hambantota port in Sri Lanka to the Chinese state-run company, China Merchants Port Holdings. In its relationship with China, Sri Lanka has made it amply clear: Colombo is not relying entirely on economic assistance coming from India. In fact, there has been virtually no progress on India’s comprehensive economic partnership with Sri Lanka. India seems to have fallen back again as the Chinese FTA with Sri Lanka is underway.

The Chinese seem to be winning not just economically but also in the diplomatic race, especially when one takes into account the ambiguous position of Bhutan vis-a-vis the stationing of around 8,000 Chinese troops spread across the Chumbi valley. Bhutan, even while stating clearly their stable relationship with India, cannot afford to incense the Chinese, thus sidelining the immediate, tangible economic investment on offer. India-Bhutan relations, irrespective of the Chinese factor, have seen tensions develop in the recent past with Bhutan’s reluctance to give a green signal to the BBIN network over “environmental issues.” India has still not been able to convince Bhutan over the larger benefits of this initiative.


 China and India have been engaged in a standoff in the Doka La area near the Bhutan tri-junctionsince June.

In Afghanistan, the country with which India has arguably the best relationship in the region, the economic investment in the Zerang-Delaram highway will not easily translate into political cooperation, let alone a geopolitical strategic partnership. Plus, Pakistan’s Gwadar port, propelled by the increasing consolidation of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, appears more commercially viable than Chabahar port in Iran, which is envisioned as a way to link India and Afghanistan’s trade. Meanwhile, India will struggle to make Afghanistan more politically stable. Iran, which is showing no real signs of supporting India on the geopolitical front, let alone dealing with the Afghan Taliban directly, will leave it to India to bridge this all important gap.

At the moment, the optimism surrounding the invitation to SAARC countries for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s swearing-in ceremony in 2014 has petered out. Some of these developments are largely of India’s own doing, while the rest emanate from a rapidly rising China. In either case, India has to re-imagine its neighborhood policy afresh.

Surajkumar Thube recently completed his post graduate work in Political Science from Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. He has previously contributed to India Today’s DailyO, Countercurrents, Raiot, The Hoot and The Book Review magazine.

PIC: MEA India


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In Their Absence: Families of the Disappeared Share Treasured Keepsakes

Photos and content courtesy Maatram.org

As of today, the families of the disappeared have been protesting, across the North and East. In some areas, it has been over 290 days. Their pleas, to provide details about what happened to their families, have yet to be answered. Five of the protesters have died since the protests began. In light of Human Rights Day, which falls on December 10, Groundviews translated this series, to highlight their continuing struggle

All names have been withheld to maintain the privacy of the individuals interviewed.


“Do you have anything that reminds you of your son/daughter/husband/grandchildren? Something that they used?”


“I have, son. I kept it safely. I washed my son’s blood-stained shirt, and kept it with me.”

“Yes, brother. I have one brother’s camera, and the other’s comb. I have my husband’s shirt as well.”

“We only had our clothes when we crossed over to the Army side, right? We didn’t have anything else. We thought our son would return, and that’s why we handed him over to the Army.”

“I have the blazer that we made for him to wear for his elder brother’s wedding. Since that’s all I had left in my suitcase, that’s the only thing I have to remember him.”

“I have the bedsheet my husband used. When she thinks of him, my daughter covers herself with this sheet.”

“This is a shirt my son sewed himself. He used to make clothes for me as well.”

The relatives of those who have been forcibly disappeared live on. They live surrounded by treasured possessions, each a reminder of their loved one’s absence. They pass by the places they once walked, and meet people their missing ones loved.

Recently Maatram visited these families to ask them a difficult question – if they would share their loved one’s possessions to be photographed. Upon asking this question, they wept bitterly. Their pain cannot be described with words.

Still, they came forward with these treasured belongings, wet with tears. They believe their loved ones will return. It was with great relief that their loved ones had survived, through bullets and shellfire that they handed them over to the Army. Now, since they haven’t returned, they are suffering.

Their sadness is immeasurable.

This is their story.


“During the last stages of the war, we handed our family over to the Army ourselves – my two younger brothers, aged 27 and 29 years, and my 30-year-old husband. Believing that they would question them and then release them shortly, we got into the bus and went to the IDP camp. At that time, I was 7 months pregnant with my second child (a daughter). My father said, “We can’t wait here without food or drink, let’s go back. They’ll return soon.”

They still haven’t come back. We have had to submit their documents to so many Commissions of Inquiry, and each time it costs us Rs. 300 or Rs. 400. They ask us who we handed our family over to, if we remember any names, and if we can remember any medals or symbols they were wearing. At that time we didn’t even have clothes to change into. We were going through such hardship, so how can we be expected to remember all these details?

Instead of making us search all this time, they should tell us whether our loved ones are alive or not. My children are always asking for their father. My daughter is now 8, and she still hasn’t seen her father. My son is 11. Whenever there is an event at school, he always sings about his father. They ask me if I have his phone number. If I die without finding my husband, I can manage. But at least if they can find one of my brothers, my mother and father can die at peace.

People who remember those who were lost in Mullivaikkal will remember in a month, 6 months, or a year. For us, we remember our family every day with sadness, and we will do so until we die. I still wear my pottu and wedding thali, thinking that I will see my husband again. My mother and father give me courage to keep going. If not for them I don’t know what I would do.”


“My son’s name is Nalinikanth. At home, we call him Vijay. He is well-known in our village by that name. In 2007, the LTTE forcibly recruited him. He was just 19 years old. I never saw him again, but someone met him after I last saw him. He told them that he would be surrendering to the Army, and asked them to let me know. I never saw him again. Some people from the fourth floor (Editor’s Note: referring to the infamous fourth floor of the CID) came and said they had details about someone in their custody. The area was right, the Grama Sevaka Division was correct, even my name and my husband’s was correct, but the name of the person concerned was Vinothkanth, not Nalinikanth. They said they would clear up the confusion and let us know, but they never came back. We will only find peace when we know if our children are alive or dead. Since we don’t know, our minds are in tumult.”


“My daughter was forcibly recruited by the LTTE, after finishing technical college. In 2008, she came for a relative’s funeral. We saw her for the last time around the end of 2008. When I went to the IDP camp, I heard she was at the Mannar hospital. I went and looked for her. She wasn’t there, but her name was registered by some police stationed at the hospital. Someone had come and taken her. A number of people from Ottuchutan were at the hospital. I showed them my daughter’s picture and asked if they had seen her. They said they recognised her, and said that her hand was injured. I heard from others that she had been shifted to the Pambaimadu detention camp. When I went there, I met a girl with the same name as my daughter, but it wasn’t her. This girl was from Trincomalee. I am still searching for my daughter.”

PIC4 1

“My son’s name is Johnson Idaydaas, from Thazhayadi, Jaffna. My husband, son and I were one of the unfortunate few trapped in the middle during the last stages of the war. We escaped by boat. It was only when we alighted that we realised that our son wasn’t with us. First, we put a notice in Virakesari newspaper. We didn’t receive a reply. In 2011, we put a notice in the Uthayan newspaper, with my contact number. One night, at around 11 pm, he called me. First, I heard a voice speaking in Sinhala, then the line was cut. I redialled the number, and said, “Sir, sir” to the person on the other end. He replied, “Five minutes only, five minutes only,” and gave the phone to my son. I asked him where he was. He said, “Don’t search for me. I don’t know if they would allow you to see me even if you did search for me. In any case it will be difficult due to your age. I am alive.” He said he didn’t know where he was, but said he was with 53 others. “There is a shortage of food and clothes. If you can get in touch again, please bring some clothes,” he told me. I asked him, “Why do you sound different?” He said “They are giving me injections.” I wanted to check if it was him, so I asked if he could remember his younger sister. “Why, we lost her in the tsunami, why are you reminding me now,” he said and began crying. I started to cry as well, and the line was cut. From that day to this, I have not been able to contact him. I am surviving with the thought that he is still alive.

This government has to do something. Not just for my son, they should tell everyone whose family is missing whether they are alive or dead. I just want to know whether he is alive or dead, that is my only wish.

Recently my elder son wore Johnson’s blazer to go for a family wedding. Before that, when he was going to Colombo, I asked him to wear one of his younger brother’s shirts. I told him it would bring him good luck. We made this blazer for his elder brother’s wedding, in 2007. When we were displaced, this blazer and four sarees were all I had in a bag. This is all I have of his possessions.”


“On April 28, 2009, we were in a bunker. The Army came and took us away. One of our sons passed away, and it was our other son who made all the funeral arrangements. After the funeral, he put his brother’s wife and children into the last ship, but he stayed behind. At that time, he was 23 years old. I still don’t know where he is. On April 12, 2009, he came and left his sarong and shirt at home. To this day, I keep them to remember him. When I look at his clothes, I feel that he is alive. No one can tell me he is not alive. I know that he is.”

“My son disappeared during the last stage of the war in 2009. So far, we have not heard any information about his whereabouts. He was just 17 years old, and was sitting for his Advanced Level examinations. We have lodged complaints everywhere – with the ICRC, numerous Commissions, the police and CID. I want to know if he is alive or dead. We have all his possessions, his clothes in a box. When we look at them, we remember him.


“During the last stage of the war, I was injured when we were crossing to the Army side. They took the injured people separately, so I got separated from my son. I begged them to let me travel to the hospital with my son. Since that day, I don’t know where he is. Someone said he was in the detention camps. I went to 8 camps and looked for him, but he wasn’t at any of them. He was sitting for his Advanced Level examinations at that time. My son isn’t a member of the LTTE, so he has to be alive, I believe that. Only God knows whether the Government would give any information.”


“My son sat for his Advanced Level examinations in 2006. In 2008, he was forcibly recruited by the LTTE. That same year, in Manalaru, the LTTE sent him to dig for an underground bunker. That area was shelled and he lost a leg. After that, the LTTE released him, and he was with us. Our son went missing during the battle of Mullivaikkal. On that day, he went with a friend to the beach. He never came home after that.

Two of my granddaughters were in the Sencholai children’s home which is in Puthukudiyiruppu. When the Army surrounded the area, they were displaced. One of them went missing in the chaos. We have yet to find her as well.”


“My husband was a member of the LTTE. I handed him over to the Army. My husband said, “If I go, I won’t return.” I told him, “If everyone is surrendering to the Army, why do you think only you won’t come back?” I feel guilt because I am the one who convinced him to surrender although he didn’t want to. I recognised my husband in a photo Virakesari published - he was fourth in a row of people. I took the photo and lodged complaints everywhere, including the ICRC. I too was a member of the LTTE, but was released from the camp because I have two young children. After being released, the CID continuously harassed me. I told them, ‘I have registered everywhere as a member of the LTTE. If you want to arrest me, then please find my husband and bring him so that he can look after the children. Then you can arrest me.

Once you hand over someone to the Army, they should give details about what happened to them. Though I was a member of the LTTE, I didn’t hide anywhere. I stayed in my house, because my husband would know to find me there. If I leave, he wouldn’t be able to find me. So until the Government releases him, I will stay here. When my daughter thinks of him, she uses his bedsheet to cover herself.”


“I have one son. The LTTE continually asked us to give him to them. The last time, instead of taking my son, they took my daughter. She was in grade 9. During the final stages of the war, I saw her but once the fighting intensified, I lost track of her. I searched for her in many camps after the war, including the Ambepussa camp. I went to Colombo as well, but did not find her there. I don’t know what happened to her.”


“I have four daughters. It was the eldest who disappeared. She used to support the family with her income. She went missing during one of the more intense battles near the end of the war, when shellfire was heavy. Many people said that they saw her near Vattuvaagal. Since it was a border area between the LTTE and the Army, I still believe she is alive and in a detention camp somewhere. My husband is now paralysed, suffering with depression because of the loss of our daughter.”


“My son worked as a tailor for 15 years. This is a shirt he made himself. He used to make clothes for me and even my daughter’s children. May 17, 2009, we crossed to the Army controlled area, and handed our son over to the Army. We did so believing that they would release my son. After that, we never saw him.”

The families of those who have been forcibly disappeared await answers.

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Can the Maldives save its coral reefs?

Alongside the famed Great Barrier Reef, the Maldives is also home to some of the most enchanting and diverse coral reefs in the world, its crystal clear waters bursting with colour and life.

However, since 2014 this tropical paradise has been struck by severe coral bleaching, affecting between 60 percent and 90 percent of its coral, depending on the area.

Rising temperatures

Corals become bleached when under stress because of changing conditions, such as rising seawater temperature. This causes the coral to expel the algae living in its tissues, turning white.

The coral is not dead, but it is starving, as the algae provide up to 80 percent of its nutrients. Prolonged higher temperatures can kill the corals completely, with a cascade of negative effects on the many species that depend on them, including the human communities that they support.

Bleaching episodes typically last one year, but the most recent has been going since 2014. Australia's Great Barrier Reef has also been affected, with more than two-thirds of it experiencing "shocking" amounts of bleaching.

"In 2014 reefs around the world were hit with one of the worst coral bleaching events on record", said Thomas le Berre, a French coastal oceanographer who is responsible for some of the top environmental projects in the Maldives.

The previously vibrant corals, which help attract over one million tourists a year to the archipelago, have turned into a ghostly shadow of their former self.

Le Berre says part of the blame goes to El Niño, a cyclical weather event that takes place every few years resulting in warmer waters passing through the Pacific and the Indian Ocean. Combined with global warming, it has seen water temperature reach new highs of 34 degrees in some area, causing the corals to go beyond their thermal limit, which results in bleaching and sometimes death.

A study conducted by the University of Exeter confirms that, as a result of a strong El Niño in 2016, an increase in surface ocean temperatures has led to a major coral die-off in the Maldives. It has also found that some species of fish, particularly parrotfish, are eroding the reefs more intensely following the bleaching event.

Coral nurseries

According to Le Berre, although bleaching is "quite low on the government's list of priorities" he is working closely with them with them to ensure it is on their agenda. His project, the Reefscapers Coral Reef Restoration programme, aims to make the Maldivian reefs resilient to these changes in temperature and increase their rate of regeneration.

Using metal frames, small branches of coral can be attached and spread out to create 'coral nurseries'.

Corals compete for the nutrients in the immediate environment around them, so by spreading them out, they can recover faster. Using this method, researchers here have seen a four-fold increase in growth rates, over an array of about 560 frames.

Lost habitat

Recovery can take a long time. The last severe bleaching event was in 1998 and it took almost 12 years for the reefs to recover.

Worryingly, the bleaching affects not just corals: "Habitat for small fish is also lost," said Shiham Adam, the Maldives' Minister for Fisheries and Agriculture.

Great Barrier Reef 'cooking and dying' as seas heat up, warn scientists

"Long-nose hawk fish feed exclusively on live corals, and they are now almost gone. Butterflyfish abundance also is gone."

The Four Seasons and The Banyan Tree in the Maldives are both leading the charge, with their own team of researchers leading coral recovery programs: "it's very difficult for us to monitor the coral bleaching so it's important for us to work very closely with some of the resorts," sad Thoriq Ibrahim, Minister of the Environment.

But some relief most come from a more global perspective: "The Paris Agreement was a huge milestone for us in progress to minimizing global warming," Ibrahim added.

"This is what we need to happen in order to save our reefs."

Source : CNN

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What Buddhism teaches about peace and war

Adherents of a peaceful religion have been finding cause to fight

BUDDHISM is generally regarded, with good reason, as the most peaceful of world religions. Like other South Asian faiths, it stresses the principle of ahimsa, the “non-injury” of other living things. Yet its teachings also emphasise that violence harms the spiritual state of the perpetrator, as well as the victim.

Malicious thoughts or deeds are regarded as obstacles on the path to nirvana, the self-transcendence which is the end-point of all spiritual endeavour. Early Buddhist history contains strong pacifist messages. The faith’s founder, Gautama Buddha, is said to have stopped a looming war over water supplies with a rival clan, the Koliyas. After converting to Buddhism, Emperor Ashoka, who ruled over south Asia in the third century BC, is believed to have felt remorse for the bloodshed he had caused in his earlier life.

More recent history is rather different. In Asia, Buddhist monks have been in the front line of bloody inter-communal conflicts, as Buddhist 2propagandists or even as participants. In Sri Lanka zealous groups such as Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force) have propagated the view that a small Muslim community is a deadly danger to the country’s integrity as a Buddhist nation. Hard-line monks took a militantly anti-Tamil stance during the country’s civil war which ended in 2009. Last month a Buddhist monastic in Sri Lanka was arrested and charged with attacking a centre for Muslim refugees. In recent years, militant monks have also stormed mosques, slaughter-houses and places of learning.

In Thailand, Buddhist monks have been victims and protagonists in a conflict that has raged in three southern provinces where the population is mainly Muslim. It is not unknown for monastics there to brandish weapons under their robes. The killing of two monks in 2004 triggered an escalation of fighting.

But it is in Myanmar where Buddhist violence has become most familiar of late. A monk called Ashin Wirathu has led demands for a harsh response to a perceived Muslim threat. His organisation, Ma Ba Tha, has supposedly been banned, but it still presses the authorities to take the hardest of lines against the Rohingya Muslims, of whom over 600,000 have been expelled to Bangladesh. Ma Ba Tha disseminates the idea that Myanmar’s overwhelming Buddhist majority is threatened by the Muslim minority. The stance is criticised by some Asian Buddhists. The Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, has rebuked his coreligionists for persecuting the Rohingya, saying they should “remember Buddha”. He insisted that the faith’s founder would “definitely help those poor Muslims”.

Like every other important religion in history, Buddhism engenders powerful protective feelings among its followers, especially when sacred history and national history become intertwined, as happens in Sri Lanka. In the collective memory of Sri Lankan Buddhists, the emergence of their nation is seen as linked with the advent of their faith in the era of King Ashoka, if not earlier. And whenever people feel a threat to their identity and origins, they can easily be induced to lash out with disproportionate force, just as medieval Christians marched to war when told that their faith's holiest places in Jerusalem were being desecrated.

Moreover, as with any vast corpus of sacred texts and annals, things can be found in the Buddhist tradition to justify violence, at least in self-defence. Medieval Japan, for example, had its Buddhist warrior monks. And even the Dalai Lama agrees that one can take limited action in self-defence. If a man is aiming a gun at you, he once said, you can shoot back, but to wound rather than kill.

Source: The article was first published in the Economist on November, 17.

Photo Credit: Reuters




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From owning a home to feeling at home

By Meera Srinivasan
(The Hindu)

S. Indira Gandhi owns a brand-new house now. She is one of the first few from Sri Lanka’s hill country Tamil community – that has a two century-history in the island – who can call this home, and the piece of land beneath it, her own.

A full-time worker in a tea estate, the 33-year-old, along with her husband, is busy giving finishing touches to her cement-walled home in Dayagama, in Nuwara Eliya district in the Central Province. They have recently cut a path leading to the entrance of their home, where saplings bearing sprightly pink flowers pop up from either side. For the young couple, the home is much more than a secure place of residence, or a permanent dwelling.

Longstanding demands

From the time the British brought down hundreds of thousands of Tamils from south India in the 19th century to Sri Lanka, successive generations have been toiling in the country’s plantations. Even today, most of them live in colonial-era line rooms — closely packed match-box like dwellings on the hills — and many still work in the estates in difficult working conditions and with poor wages. Their story is better known as the global rise of the famed Ceylon Tea, a product that fetches precious foreign revenue, about $1.2 billion in 2016.

Following the transition from being stateless to becoming citizens in 2003, the ongoing change from being landless to owning a modest house on a small plot marks another significant shift for the community. Neither was an outcome of state benevolence. In fact, both followed persistent struggles by the nearly million-strong community and larger political dynamics.

Houses such as Indira Gandhi’s have been built by the Indian government as part of an initiative to construct 14,000 dwellings for Hill Country Tamils, to supplement the Sri Lankan government’s own efforts towards providing housing in the region. In an earlier project, India built 46,000 homes in the island’s Tamil-majority North and East for the war-displaced.

Malayaha (Hill Country) Tamils are quick to appreciate India’s attention to their community. As Tamils of most recent Indian origin here, they have been invisible not just to the Sri Lankan state, but also to New Delhi and Tamil Nadu for most part. Without doubt, they feel some affinity towards Tamil Nadu and India, through ancestral and cultural links. “My father gave me that name because I was born the day Indira Gandhi died,” says her namesake, smiling brightly.

All the same, many in her generation feel that the oft-used “Indian-origin” tag is both dated and distant. “Even my national ID defines me as a ‘Sri Lankan estate worker’,” says her husband, K. Vijayakumar. “We are people of this country.” That is how they would like to frame their demands to the state – in the unmistakable voice of a rightful citizens, without tags that bear the baggage of uneasy histories.

In an apparent recognition of that emphatic voice, the Maithripala Sirisena-Ranil Wickremesinghe government put out an ambitious National Plan of Action for the social development of the plantation community, spanning five years beginning 2016. Among other initiatives, the plan envisions building 1,60,000 homes, financed partly with a government grant and the remaining with a 7.5% interest-loan. About 30,000 homes have been constructed so far.

For pensioner E. Sellappan, his new home in Hauteville Puram, built by the Minister of Upcountry New Villages, Estate Infrastructure and Community Development, is the only asset for his children. “This sonda veedu (own home) is the first recognition of my labour for my 36 years’ work at the estate,” he says.

The road ahead

The government points to its share of challenges. Despite a widespread campaign from workers for 20 perches land each, the government could manage only seven (about 2,000 square ft). “Finding land is our main challenge. The plantation companies are rather reluctant to part with productive land, or end up giving land that has no easy access to the main road,” says M. Vamadevan, an adviser to the Minister.

The gap between required resources and the actual allocations is also glaring. While the national action plan points to an estimated 15 billion Sri Lankan rupees investment in 2018 needed for the project – it will cost 70 billion rupees over five years – the annual allocation in the recent budget is only 2 billion rupees.

Housing is only one of the many long-ignored demands of the workers, who face historic neglect and exploitation. From education, to health to fair wages, many of their concerns remain unaddressed.

“Even if wasps attack us, we have to put in our own money and get treated. Our struggle for a minimum wage of 1,000 (Sri Lankan) rupees earlier this year also failed after our political leaders signed a collective agreement with the companies. We are now stuck with 630 rupees a day,” says estate worker R. Pushparani, squinting her eyes against the glaring sun, while she rapidly plucks tea leaves with both hands.

In pointing out their current reality, she highlights the difference between a few workers owning homes, and all of them feeling at home.


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