soniasarkar26

In the past three weeks, a lot of people have asked me, what happened, why are you touring so many countries together? What is this trip all about? Work or holiday? Are you really travelling solo or you have friends with you? Then there are people who have not asked direct questions but have given me enough indications that they really find it strange that I am travelling and having fun in a year when I have suffered a major personal loss, isn’t this supposed to be a year of mourning?

Well, this post is not any clarification but only a way of expressing myself. First, I have been travelling solo for close to 9 years now, locations may not always be exotic but I have realised, traveling solo is a learning experience. Like many trips before, this too has exposed me to some harsh realities of life and I have embraced them.

But it is not that I have been really planning for this trip for the longest time. I have stopped planning things because foreseeing future is not in my to-do list anymore, I have failed in it badly. I thought of Istanbul because I heard a lot about it; going to another neighbouring country was only a “paisa vasool” strategy for this poor scribe, so it was Greece. And Almaty just happened because of some major visa issue.

Why did I travel now — the whole idea was to get confused about time zones on my birthday! I made the plan in a way that I don’t get the real sense of time — whether I am ahead or behind India time — and by how many hours— when is the midnight for me on the 26th — because I knew, for the first time in my life, the person who loved me the most would not wish me on my birthday! I was not sure how would I handle this pain of not being wished by him.

But on the 25th night before going off to bed, when I sat down in silence and closed my eyes, I actually heard Baba’s voice — he did wish me just the way he wished me before— stressing on “r” and “a” while saying, “Happy Birrthdaaay, ” in a certain familiar rhythm. I can hear it even now while writing this.

Running away from realities don’t help. We need to know, people who love us don’t go away. They are with us, always around.

On the 26th, when I came back to my hotel around 9:30 pm after an all-day walking tour, a hotel staffer came to my room with this beautiful cake. He insisted I cut it.

I would remember this pleasant surprise, always. It was very touching!

 

P.C — Staffer at Byzantine Suites, Istanbul.

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By Sonia Sarkar, DW

Mai Khoi (pictured above) is not afraid to push boundaries in her native Vietnam. The 35-year-old musician is known for criticizing the country’s communist government and has built a large following on social media. Her latest album “Dissent” features titles like “Cuffed In Freedom” and “Re-education Camp.”

Re-Education Camp highlights how the communist government forcibly puts people into jails and controls free speech. It also suggests that the people who created these camps should be in jail,” she said.

However, artistic protest is risky in Vietnam. In March 2018, Mai Khoi was detained for eight hours at Hanoi airport by Vietnam’s immigration authorities after returning from a tour in Europe where she promoted her album.

Look at this cat,” said Khoi pointing to the album cover. “She is alert and anxious, just as we are in this country because we never know who is snooping on us.”

And Khoi has a new reason to be anxious. On January 1, Vietnam enacted a new cybersecurity law that requires internet companies to remove content the government deems subversive, and bans users from posting “anti-government” content that could “cause harm to national security, social order and safety.”

A new wave of censorship?

According to the law, Vietnam’s government can force technology giants such as Google and Facebook to hand over personal information of account holders, store user data and to censor anti-government posts.

On January 9, Reuters news agency reported that Vietnam’s Ministry of Information and Communication accused Facebook of violating the law by allowing users to post “slanderous” anti-government comments. Facebook reportedly has yet to respond to the ministry’s request that the posts be removed.

Hanoi keeps a close eye on its critics by tapping their phones, sending spies to private gatherings and intimidating artists who perform abroad.  Now social media, once a safe haven for artists to express their opinions and protest the government, is coming under state control.

Issues in Vietnam like the assault on free speech, arrests of human rights defenders and criticism of the government’s move to sell land to foreign investors, were formerly addressed by protesters on social media. But it is becoming increasingly difficult for them to protest online.

“Online space is a refuge in this repressive state,” Khoi told DW. “But this space is vanishing now.”

Last nail in the coffin’ 

Hanoi-based songwriter Ngoc Dai, who has been censored for his songs with “sexual overtones” and “anti-state” content, uses YouTube to release his music.  He thinks the new law is the worst form of state repression. “It was the last nail in the coffin,” he told DW.

Last year, 40-year-old poet Chieu Anh Ngueyn was detained by the police for half a day for protesting against the cybersecurity law.

“The space for free thinkers is shrinking further,” she told DW. Nguyen’s poetry is popular online for its harsh criticism of the state with prose that expresses contempt toward the “barbarous” who “steal and sell the motherland.”

A refuge on social media

For these artists, social media has allowed them to bypass vetting by authorities. In 2007, Mai Khoi couldn’t release her song, “Night Flower,” because of its language praising a woman’s body. In response, she stopped sending her songs to the Ministry of Culture for screening and released them directly on YouTube instead. Her most popular songs on YouTube include the 2014 “Selfie Orgasm.”

Similarly in 2013, Ngoc Dai released his album, “Thang Mo 1” (Village Herald 1), without the permission of the authorities because it suggested the state controls how people think. “We have to create a sense of freedom through our work,” he said.

Author Nguyen Vien, known for his criticism of the government through novels like “Dragon and Snake,” said it is important to talk about “forbidden” things. “It gives you a sense of liberation,” he told DW.

Last year, Vien used a Facebook campaign to protest a government move to sell land to Chinese investors.

The struggle continues 

Although social media has made it easier for artists to express themselves, it also exposes them to critics and trolls.

Poet Chieu Anh Ngueyn said pro-state teachers often appoint college students to harass dissidents in exchange for good marks. She fears the new cybersecurity law will only embolden trolls and state propagandists.

Dissenting artists could also face imprisonment. In December 2018, police issued an arrest warrant for Nguyen Van Trang, a member of the banned group, “Brotherhood for Democracy,” for posting articles, photos and videos on Facebook. According to the government, Trang had misrepresented government policy, and incited protest.

Nguyen Vien has a strategy to deal with censorship. He said he would probably use the encrypted network Minds.com if Facebook banned him. Many internet users in Vietnam are meanwhile accessing YouTube through proxy networks. Groups like “The League of Independent Writers of Vietnam” plan to hold more sessions at cafes and members’ houses.

Despite the imminent crackdown, Vietnam’s artists feel that more dissent is needed to challenge the system.

Published in DW, January 18, 2019

https://m.dw.com/en/vietnam-artists-seek-liberation-from-cybersecurity-law/a-47119106

Image : The man in red Tee is Hanoi-based songwriter Ngoc Dai. He is at his home at  Hồ Tây.

2. The woman in Black Tee and pair of black trousers is pop singer Do Nguyen Mai Khoi at a Cafe in Ho Chi Minh City.
3. The woman in white top is poetess Chieu Anh Nguyen. She is at a cafe in Ho Chi Minh City.

4. The man in blue shirt is writer and activist Nguyen Vien.

(Picture credit: Sonia Sarkar)


Communism and Capitalism co-exist as the country makes a transition


By Sonia Sarkar

The morning sunlight pierces the windows of a glitzy skyscraper and falls on a colourful billboard featuring Uncle Ho — that’s how the people of Vietnam refer to the communist revolutionary leader, Ho Chi Minh. Both skyscraper and billboard are in the heart of Saigon city and reflect two contrasting realities of Vietnam today. One depicts the growing consumerism, the other is a reminder of the country’s communist legacy.

Vietnam has a single-party socialist republic framework. The general-secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam is the party leader and head of the politburo and holds the highest position in the one-party system. But here’s what’s happening — the communist regime is embracing corporatisation.

Visitors at Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

Visitors at Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Image: Sonia Sarkar 

There’s corporatisation in education, information and communications technology, infrastructure, oil and gas, railways, ports and healthcare. Foreign advertisement and PR firms have joined hands with local companies and entered the local market. Mid-market clothing brands such as H&M and Zara made an entry in 2017. Foreign F&B companies such as PastaMania, Chamichi, and Hokkaido Baked Cheese Tart and GS25 are hot favourites with locals now. Singapore realtors Maple Tree and Kepple Land, the Republic of Korea’s confectioners’ Lotte and Walmart equivalent, Emart, and Japan-based retailers Aeon and Takashimaya-VNA are making huge investments.

According to the manager of Pan-Asian financial services firm, Dezan Shira & Associates’ business intelligence department, Maxfield Brown, the Vietnamese government has prioritised divestment of state-owned enterprises and deregulation of restricted business lines across a wide range of industries over the last few years. It continues to simplify investment procedures, open up sectors to foreign investment, provide incentives for investors and integrate itself further into the global economy through a strong network of free trade agreements.

Brown says, “Recent legislative reforms such as Vietnam’s Law on Investment and Law on Enterprise helped to solidify Vietnam’s commitments in the World Trade Organization (WTO) and reassured investors in the European Union and the US that Vietnam is fully committed to supporting foreign investment.” Indeed, several US companies such as Intel and Microsoft have invested in Vietnam, though the overall investments are much less compared to the foreign direct investment or FDI from Asian countries.

In 2017, FDI reached $35.6 billion, while disbursed capital reached $17.5 billion, a 10-year high, according to Dezan Shira & Associates. The top three investors were all Asian countries — Japan, South Korea and Singapore. Till September 2018, the total cumulative registered FDI in Vietnam reached $334 billion, with disbursement at $184 billion. As of October 2018, 57 per cent of the total FDI focused on the manufacturing industry, catering mainly to the export industry.

It seems a new class of young consumers has sprung up with the inflow of FDI. They work in advertising, PR, IT, education and retail sectors. Consumer spending has nearly doubled since 2010, leading to an explosion of local and foreign businesses targeting Vietnam’s emerging middle class. According to a 2014 survey by the US-based Pew Research Centre, almost all Vietnamese people — 95 per cent of them — now support capitalism.

Saigon-based advertising entrepreneur Do Kim Dzung says big economic changes have started changing their lifestyle. “Global giants such as Starbucks, McDonald and Burger King have started ruling our lives. English classes are on offer everywhere in the major cities, where speaking the language has become essential to grow professionally. The lifestyle of the urban Vietnamese today is no way less than anyone living in the West.”

The first time Vietman opened its markets to the outside world was in 1986 — that was the Doi Moi or economic reforms campaign. It joined the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in 1995 and five years later it signed a trade agreement with the US, enabling trade to take off. From 2000 onwards, Vietnam approved the sale of state-owned companies. By 2006, it became member of the WTO, thus reaping its initial crop of foreign investments.

Today, the red flag dots the cityscapes of Saigon and Hanoi as do giant advertisements for luxury goods, commercial banks, real estate companies and telecommunication firms. A kilometre away from the Independence Palace, which became the citadel of the Communist Party after it was overtaken by soldiers of the People’s Army of Vietnam and the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam in 1975, stands the swanky Saigon Times Square.

A jewellery shop inside the premises of Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

Hasina’s government introduced religious education in state schools, edited out literature that conservative Islamists deemed atheistic and recognised Qawmi Madrasa degrees


Dhaka’s historic Suhrawardy Park was quite the set of a spectacle last month. The smiling Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, sat comfortably on the dais, her neatly pinned golden pallu covering half her head. The man seated beside her had his entire head and face covered with a white scarf. Maulana Shah Ahmad Shafi is the leader of the radical Islamist group, Hefajote Islam, and talking to women or even looking at them is against Hefajote’s code of conduct. In a first, though, he was sharing stage with a woman. What is more, he even bestowed on her an honorific — Qawmi Janani or mother of the qaum (in this case, the Islamic collective as well as the nation).

Qawmi Madrasas are Islamic seminaries. There are around 14,000 of them in Bangladesh and their teachings are considered orthodox, nudging the country’s youth towards a radical path. Hasina had announced last year that the Dawra-e-Hadith, the highest qaumi degree, will now be recognised as a postgraduation degree in Islamic Studies and Arabic. That day in November, the chairman of the Qawmi Madrasah Education Board said: “You are the ‘Mother of Qawmi’. If you were not there… people who are the Jamaat, pro-Moududis would not let it happen.”

In the run-up to the December 30 general elections, Bangladesh has witnessed an ideological flip-flop of sorts. The secular ruling party, Awami League, has been cosying up to the Islamists, while the main Opposition led by Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), has joined hands with the secular alliance, Jatiya Oikya Front.

“Indeed, this election has thrown up big surprises. The two big parties have made a major shift in their political ideologies,” says Jatiya Oikya Front head Kamal Hossain, who is a freedom fighter and former Awami League leader. He asserts it is the Awami League’s changing political ideology that has forced secular parties to form an alliance against Hasina. Hossain adds, “If she were committed to the secular, liberal and socialist ethos of Bangladesh, and not pandering to the Islamists, we would have had no need to form this front.”

Indeed, Hasina’s proximity to the Islamists has increased during her last two terms as prime minister. In 2011, the Bangladeshi Parliament passed a bill seeking retention of Islam as the state religion, as well as the phrase “Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim” in the Constitution, both legacies of the military regime of 1988. In 2017, Hasina’s government introduced religious education in government schools, edited out poems and stories that conservative Islamists deemed atheistic and, most recently, recognised the Qawmi Madrasa degrees.

Hasina also gave in to the demand of the Hefajote Islam to remove the Statue of Justice outside the Supreme Court building — a blindfolded woman dressed in a sari — on the grounds that it was idolatry and, therefore, un-Islamic. And when Islamist forces threatened and killed atheist bloggers, she said nothing. “The muted reactions to the blogger killings in 2015 and warnings to bloggers to restrain themselves instead of protecting them, indicate how her government tries to appease radical Islamists,” says Bangladeshi journalist and blogger Supriti Dhar.

Typically, it was the BNP that courted the Islamists. To be more specific, the Islamist religious and political party, Jamaat-e-Islami. In 1991, Jamaat had bagged 18 seats and emerged as a power player. It had extended support to the BNP to form government. In the 1996 elections, it nominated 300 candidates but won only three seats. But in 2001 it once again bagged 17 seats.

So how would one explain the BNP’s current altered stance? Former Election Commissioner, Brigadier M. Sakhawat Hossain, puts it all down to poll strategy. Says Maruf Mallick, political analyst and visiting research fellow at the University of Bonn, Germany, “The BNP was never interested in an alliance with the secularists… It was compelled to do so because party chief Khaleda Zia is in jail and there is a leadership crisis.”

Mallick asserts that the Awami League too has used religion in election campaigns before this. During the 1996 elections, the Awami League used a part of the Islamic Kalma, La Ilaha Illallah and rhymed it with Noukar Malik Tui Allah (Allah is the owner of boat) for its election slogan. (The boat is the election symbol of the Awami League.) In that campaign, a portrait of Hasina wearing a headscarf and holding a tasbih — a string of holy beads — was widely used in posters. According to Brigadier Hossain, the Awami League started to woo the anti-Jamaat Islamist groups in right earnest from 2001.

Political scientist Ali Riaz points out that the Awami League is indulging Hefajote Islam because it wants to bring the Islamist forces into its fold and deprive the Opposition of their support. Also, the party doesn’t want to look un-Islamic in a bid to be secular. “Hasina wants to bank on these Islamists who have the capacity to mobilise people especially Qawmi Madrasa students and teachers in large numbers,” says Riaz, who is also distinguished professor of Political Science at the United States’ Illinois State University.

There have been rumours that some members of Hefajote Islam wanted to contest elections but it didn’t happen because of a conflict between two factions of the group. Hefajote’s secretary-general Junaid Babunagri tells The Telegraph, “We are an apolitical organisation. We have no role to play in the elections.”

An Awami League supporter carries a photograph of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina during an election rally in Dhaka.
An Awami League supporter carries a photograph of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina during an election rally in Dhaka. (AP)

No matter what the official line, there can be no denying that Hefajote has benefited from having a sympathetic ruling party. To begin with, the government stopped pursuing cases against Qawmi Madrasa leaders — many of them had been accused of organising religious clashes, giving hate speeches against bloggers, threatening bloggers and molesting minors. Liberal thinkers, political opponents and human rights activists were targeted instead. Lawyer Sara Hossain stresses how even after a landslide victory in 2009 and initial pledges of zero tolerance for rights violations, the government didn’t live up to the principles of the Constitution. There were several cases of abuse of human rights; Hasina also resorted to regressive laws such as the Digital Security Act to attack free speech. Says Sara, “The government tried to segregate the country into two parts — people who are for the government and those against it. People who are against Hasina were labelled enemies of the state.” According to her, even now, the official narrative is — if you don’t support the Awami League, you don’t love your country and you are anti-Liberation.”

It must be understood that in Bangladesh, politics is always being played on the basis of who supported the Liberation movement of 1971 and who didn’t. Jamaat being an anti-Liberation force was always kept at an arm’s length by Hasina.

Jamaat had won two out of the 300 parliamentary seats in the 2008 elections. But its registration as a political party was cancelled in 2013. This time, some Jamaat members are fighting on the BNP symbol — the paddy sheaf — but by and large the BNP seems to be distancing itself from Islamists.

Nagorik Oikya is part of the 20-party alliance that includes the BNP. Says convener Mahmudur Rahman Manna, “In the past years, the BNP has been banking on its alliance with Jamaat to bring its Islamist supporters to the polls, but in doing so, it ignored the votes of non-Islamist constituents. This time, it was its strategy to join hands with our secular front to gain maximum advantage because nobody can ignore that there is an anti-incumbency factor against the Awami League and the next big political party is the BNP.”

“If you are talking about the BNP-Jamaat alliance, you are holding the wrong end of the stick,” says BNP leader Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir. “There is a strong anti-Awami League sentiment among the people and we are only giving them a democratic alternative,” he tells The Telegraph over phone.

Both the Jamaat and Hefajote are problematic for Bangladesh, according to political scientist Riaz. “Hefajote Islam is more fanatic than Jamaat, even though there is no denial of the latter’s role in heinous war crimes,” he says. Then adds, “Jamaat is an opportunist Islamist party. It wants a political fight by staying within the secular democracy, unlike Hefajote, which is a regressive party and does not believe in the Constitution.”

Senior Awami League leader Amir Hossain Amu, says, “Hefajote Islam had no role to play in the Liberation War unlike Jamaat, which is internationally known for its role in war crimes.” He asks, “Also, one party [BNP] practiced communal politics for more than 21 years while in power, why don’t you talk about that?” He emphasises that none of the Islamic parties are part of “our grand alliance”. An Islamic Democratic Alliance, however, has been formed to support the Awami League .

No matter how Amu would like to explain away his party’s affiliations, it is evident that, on the one hand, Hasina waged a war against home-grown terror outfits, while on the other, she curried favour with the radicals. “One doesn’t need to organise terrorist attacks if one can radicalise society and Hefajote is doing it by interfering in policy-making,” says Manna of Nagorik Oikya.

Many local observers believe that Hasina’s survival tactics pose a threat to Bangladesh’s secular values and to freedom of religion and belief. Says journalist Dhar, “There is no space left for critical comments about religion. It is the radical Islamists who are shaping public discourse.”

Dhar and many others are afraid the country will be made to pay for this.

 

Far away from home in the United States, the former Chief Justice of Bangladesh, Surendra Kumar Sinha, stays abreast of all news related to the home elections scheduled for December 30. He reads Bangla dailies online, meets Bangladeshis from the neighbourhood and holds political discussions fearlessly. In a tiny apartment in New Jersey’s Paterson, Sinha has found his lost freedom.

In October 2017, the 67-year-old was ousted by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed for not toeing the government line. Over phone from Paterson, he says, “Here, I am able to speak freely. Nobody is recording my conversation with you.” Indeed, in the US, there is no Directorate General of Forces Intelligence, the military intelligence agency of Bangladesh, tapping phone calls or sniffing around one’s inbox.

In his autobiography, A Broken Dream: Rule of Law, Human Rights and Democracy, Sinha has written in detail about the intimidation and threats he faced in Bangladesh from the Awami League government led by Hasina. In the book, which he self-published this year, he shares how he was forced to go on leave first and then resign at the Singapore airport en route Canada.

After staying with his daughter in Canada for a while, he sought political asylum in the US and shifted to his brother’s house in Paterson.

Sinha’s political persecution intensified in 2017, after he upheld a high court verdict that declared the 16th Amendment to the Constitution of Bangladesh “illegal”. The amendment, introduced in 2014, had granted the Parliament sweeping powers to remove Supreme Court judges for misbehaviour and incapacity. The high court verdict came in May 2016. In January 2017, the government challenged the verdict by filing an appeal with the appellate division, and in July a Supreme Court bench headed by Sinha unanimously rejected the appeal.

Sinha had allegedly been pressurised by Hasina to pass the order in her government’s favour. Recalling the meeting organised at Bangabhaban, the official residence of the President of Bangladesh, a day before the judgment, he tells The Telegraph, “On July 1, 2017, I got a call from a person who identified himself as the military secretary to the President. He requested me to attend a meeting with the President on the same day at 7.30 pm. When I reached there, I was stunned to see the Prime Minister, law minister Anisul Huque and attorney-general Mahbubey Alam, alongside President Abdul Hamid.”

Sinha told Hasina that the amended Article 116 — it allows the President control over postings and promotions of district magistrates and judges in the lower courts — had already led to political interference in the judiciary. He made the point that the Supreme Court should be spared. He also urged her to restore Article 116 to its original form, wherein the control of the lower judiciary rested with the Supreme Court.

Says Sinha, “But she told me Article 116 cannot be touched because her father changed it through the Fourth Amendment. And she requested me to give the verdict on the 16th Amendment in favour of her government.”

That, of course, did not happen. Sinha scrapped the 16th Amendment, but even that was not the only reason why Hasina was irked. It seems Sinha made a reference to the contribution of the “founding fathers” while delivering his 16th Amendment judgment. And this, Hasina considered unpardonable. Why? Because she apparently doesn’t encourage talk of the sacrifices of other leaders during the 1971 War (referred to in Bangladesh as the Liberation War), other than her own father, the first President of Bangladesh, Mujibur Rahman. Points out Sinha, “Mujibur Rahman is known as the Father of the Nation. But there are many founding fathers — Kamal Hossain, Barrister M. Amir-ul Islam…”

Sinha is not a great fan of Mujibur Rahman, who is commonly referred to as Bangabandu or Mujib. According to him, the seeds of autocracy in Bangladesh were sown by him in the form of the Fourth Amendment. He also tells me how Mujib, besides diluting Article 116, also altered Article 11. “In its original form, it stated that Bangladesh as a republic would ensure democratic values, freedom and dignity of human person, and elections at all state affairs. But the Fourth Amendment removed the election system from this guideline, thus abolishing democratic philosophy from the Constitution.”

Sinha believes Mujib, who served as both President and Prime Minister, was power hungry. “He never tried to strengthen democracy or minimise racial differences and establish peace in the country as stalwarts elsewhere in the world such as Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela did.”

In 1974, Mujib allowed only a select few national dailies to operate. Arrest warrants were issued against journalists of newspapers critical of him. Sinha says Hasina’s way of functioning is not entirely dissimilar to her father’s. He talks about how she too tries to control the press and enumerates the cases of enforced disappearances of journalists, arbitrary arrests and so on.

The most recent case is that of photographer and artist Shahidul Alam. Alam, who openly opposes Hasina’s autocratic ways, was arrested this August. He got bail only last month. Says Sinha, “Hasina is a megalomaniac. She doesn’t want anyone to criticise her. Her idea is, praise (me) or perish.”

Sinha enjoyed Hasina’s confidence so long as his judgments made her happy. For instance, his judgment on the assassination of Mujib. In 2015, she appointed him the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court — in fact, he is the first Hindu to hold this post. But after the verdict on the 16th Amendment, the benefactor turned chief detractor. Sinha accuses Hasina of using military intelligence to harass him and finally forcing him to leave the country.

Many allege that Hasina is using the judiciary to settle scores with Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). There are two graft cases against Zia. The BNP-led 20-party alliance has demanded their leader be released before the polls — she has been charged with corruption and has been in prison since February this year — but that hasn’t happened yet.

There are allegations that the Election Commission (EC) is also under Hasina’s control. Despite repeated appeals by opposition political parties to delay polls for another three months, the EC set the December 30 date. Many say this will be a farcical election just like the one in 2014. Sinha agrees: “Elections can never be free and fair in the current circumstances.”

During our conversation, Sinha often refers to constitutions of different countries, especially of the US, and famous judgments — to explain how a democracy should function. He also tells me how he wrote his autobiography after being inspired by the Glimpses of World History by Jawaharlal Nehru, My Life: Law and Other Things by M.C. Setalvad and The Idea of Justice by Amartya Sen.

Pirated copies of his self-published book are available in Bangladesh but nobody can sell his book openly there. The government has levelled against him 11 allegations related to money laundering and financial irregularities. “Corruption is the tool she [Hasina] is using to harass me,” Sinha says. He talks about the rampant corruption in the Bangladeshi government. And adds, “But anyone who questions her government is an anti-national.”

I tell him that we in India are familiar with such things, but Sinha says that Indian public offices are not as compromised as their Bangladeshi counterparts. “I feel Bangladesh is the mirror image of Pakistan. No matter how much Hasina hates Pakistan, she is actually turning Bangladesh into a Pakistan in every possible way — by stifling free speech, giving unnecessary powers to the army and making it a police state.”

According to him, the Prime Minister’s recent appeasement of the radical Islamist group, Hefajote Islam, is another indication of how Bangladesh is slowly transforming into a “fundamentalist” state like Pakistan.

Hasina loyalists, however, allege that it is Sinha who has strong links with Jamaat-e-Islami, the other radical group. “This is cooked up by Hasina’s sycophants to erode my image,” retorts Sinha.

We are far from done but it’s 1pm in Paterson, time for Sinha’s lunch — his favourite dish is shorshey ilish or hilsa cooked in mustard. Finding ilish in the US is not a problem, he tells me, what is elusive is the Bangaliana or Bengaliness typical to Dhaka and Calcutta.

Going back to Dhaka seems impossible for now, but Sinha wants to get political asylum in Calcutta. He had intimated the Indian ambassador to Bangladesh, Harsh V. Shringla, expressing his wish, but hasn’t heard from him yet.

Sinha says, “Calcutta is my dream city. I enjoy everything there — the shingara, the long walks on the grounds of the Victoria Memorial, shopping for books in College Street.” Then adds, “It’s a liberal space.”

 

https://www.telegraphindia.com/culture/why-bangladesh-is-the-mirror-image-of-pakistan/cid/1679626?fbclid=IwAR1yqiMhsBcf8e9Q7gXSF7kk8i-LvwVNC6RyuAdkQljQOK6wOSH9MW3IMzc

There is a trend among some Buddhist monks to rage against Muslims on social media

By Sonia Sarkar

Radical rage: Bodu Bala Sena monks clash with police while calling for the release of Gnanasara Thero

Lately, Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka have been losing their temper a little too often. There was that incident from March this year, when a young monk raised a battle cry against Muslim Sri Lankans. “The sword at home is no longer to cut jackfruit; so, kindly sharpen it and go,” he exhorted. In September, when three men bared their bottoms at the sacred Buddhist site of Pidurangala Rock, had pictures taken and posted them on Facebook, the Buddhist clergy erupted. The flashers were eventually arrested. In the first case, the violent message was put out on YouTube and Whats-App. In the second, social media seethed with hate and threats.

Many violent posts by the monks have been reported in the past one year. These related to national politics, loss of Sinhalese lives in the civil war against Tamilians and anti-Muslim rants. The last category is probably the most rampant and robust. (The Sinhalese are the ethnic group native to Sri Lanka.)

One Facebook post said, “Kill all Muslims, don’t even save an infant.” A photograph of some makeshift weapons against a list of targets was circulated on WhatsApp by a monk. It read: “Thennekumbura mosque and the mosque in Muruthalawa tonight. Tomorrow, supposedly Pilimathalawa and Kandy.” Another YouTube video shows the high-profile monk, Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero, roaring, “They (Muslims) have destroyed Buddhist countries like Afghanistan, now they have come here to pray. They say this is close to their culture. They want to claim that their faith is like ours…”

Earlier this year, monks also circulated posts on Facebook accusing Muslim shopkeepers of mixing sterilisation pills in food meant for Buddhist customers. Around the same time, a truck driver at Medamahanuwara in Kandy was beaten up over some petty traffic dispute, but monks spread the fake news that Muslims had killed him. Reason cited: apparently it was part of their larger strategy to wipe out the country’s Buddhist majority.

That as many as 25 Buddhist monks are in jail for committing some hate crime or the other is proof that not all is well between Sri Lanka’s communities.

Most of the radical posts have come from monks who believe in the extremist ideology of Buddhist groups such as Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), Ravana Balaya, Sinhala Ravaya and Mahasohon Balakaya.

Buddhist monks have set out on a mission to “protect” the motherland and they are trying to enlist mostly uneducated and unemployed youth from the lower middle classes into their fold. A senior Sinhalese monk tellsThe Telegraphover phone from Colombo, “Inn ko jawani ka josh hai… These monks are young and hot-blooded.” He does not sound appreciative at all.

In March, soon after violence instigated by social media posts went out of control, the Sri Lankan government declared a state of Emergency and temporarily blocked access to social media platforms. Facebook, which has over 55,00,000 users in Sri Lanka, was also asked to introduce more filters on Sinhalese content and hire Sinhalese-speaking content screeners besides instituting a direct point of contact with local authorities.

Post crackdown, some Facebook pages have become dormant. Messages to the Facebook pages maintained under the BBS name remain unanswered. According to those in the know, BBS is one of the most violent groups.

Amalini De Saryah of the Colombo-based civil society group, Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), studies these groups and their activities on social media. She says, “While we can’t be sure which of the dedicated hate pages and groups have been created by the monks themselves, we’ve seen both public profile and personal profile pages in monks’ names, sometimes sharing posts with violence or hate speech and commenting in support of other posts that do the same.”

Researchers who have been studying changes in Sri Lankan society point out that “religious confrontation” has started to supersede ethnic confrontation post-2009 — when the Sri Lanka Armed Forces defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

In fact, a paper titled “Self, Religion, Identity and Politics” by the Colombo-based International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES) states, “What was considered to be ‘radical’ in the 1980s was no longer valid twenty years later. There are also certain kinds of “radicalism”, which the Buddhist public may find acceptable… For some sections of the Buddhist polity, even the actions of the BBS were legitimate and valid, and the BBS activism was a justifiable intervention to prevent what they saw as the erosion of Buddhist values and the place of Buddhists and Buddhism in our country.”

Some regard the involvement of Buddhist monks in hate politics as a recent development and a response to Islamist fundamentalism. These people allege that Muslims are attacking pagodas, destroying Buddhist colonies, cutting their sacred peepal trees and constructing mosques everywhere.

But traditionally, Muslims in Sri Lanka have been accommodative and maintained cordial links with Sinhalese Buddhists.

From time to time, Sinhalese Buddhists have argued that they are the majority in Sri Lanka and therefore they must rule. They also say that there is no other country for Sinhalese Buddhists, and hold that they are a minority in the world and must protect their race. It seems, in this fight to protect their kind, some monks are going to extremes and are unprepared to heed saner voices even from within the community.

Social scientist Pathiraja explains, “Earlier, monks played a significant role in the village temples. They were considered leaders of villages. With time, temples have become irrelevant. But the monks wanted to get back their lost recognition in society. How else could they do it other than by using religion as a tool? And that is why they created the notion of an ‘enemy’ by showing people that the growing Muslim population is trying to eliminate the Buddhists from their own land, by extremism.”

YouTube video shows the high-profile monk, Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero, roaring, “They (Muslims) have destroyed Buddhist countries like Afghanistan, now they have come here to pray.
YouTube video shows the high-profile monk, Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero, roaring, “They (Muslims) have destroyed Buddhist countries like Afghanistan, now they have come here to pray.”Image: Facebook

Recalling a conversation he had had with the hardliner, Gnanasara Thero, a professor of Buddhism at Colombo’s Buddhist and Pali University, he says, “When I asked him to change his way of speaking, he used cuss words I have never heard before.” Gnanasara Thero is currently languishing in jail on charges of contempt of court. Adds the professor who does not want to be identified, “They (radical monks) are doing it in the name of nationalism.”

That’s not a new phenomenon. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Anagarika Dharmapala, the father of Buddhist Protestantism in Sri Lanka, founded Buddhist schools and strengthened the Sinhala language and Buddhism. When the Sri Lankan Constitution was framed in 1972, it said Buddhism has the foremost place and, accordingly, it shall be the duty of the state to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana. A Sinhala army song, said to be composed by a Buddhist monk, goes thus: “Linked by love of the religion and protected by the Motherland, brave soldiers, you should go hand in hand.”

Mario Gomez, executive director at the Colombo-based research group, International Centre for Ethnic Studies, talks about how these violent monks enjoyed tacit support of the State under Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidentship — especially between 2009 and 2015. Rajapaksa’s brother and former defence minister, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, is considered close to the BBS monks. He was also the chief guest at the opening of Meth Sevana, the Buddhist Leadership Academy of the BBS, in 2013.

With the political equations fast changing in Sri Lanka, the fear is that radical monks will get a new lease of life. Some reports suggest that an appeal has been submitted to the government by hardline monks to release Gnanasara Thero on bail. “It’s a lull so far as violence by monks is concerned, but it might be unleashed the moment he is out,” says the professor from Pali University.

A young monk, Ratana Nanda Bhante, who has chosen to separate himself from his violent peers, says, “BBS is bringing a bad name to the entire community. People think all Buddhist monks are violent. The problem is some monks apply their intellect to save the nation, some adopt militancy. But in Buddhism, there is no place for militancy.”

Published in The Telegraph, November 25, 2018

Link: https://www.telegraphindia.com/culture/sinhalese-monks-unleash-a-new-brand-of-nationalism-in-sri-lanka/cid/1676393

Interview of Mario Gomez on State’s relationship with Buddhist monks:

Q.  Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka have always participated in the national politics and charted hate politics in Sri Lanka. What are the recent changes noticeable in their conduct?

 

A. Buddhist monks have always played a role in politics: they were involved in the assassination of a Prime Minister in the 1950s and have been Members of Parliament! Yet, it would be incorrect to say that they have always advocated ‘hate politics’.  There are many political opinions within the Buddhist sangha. Some have been vocal, violent and have advocated strong nationalist positions. Others have been moderate and have advocated for more tolerant views and the celebration of diversity, more in line with the Buddha’s precepts and teachings. Unfortunately, the more extreme views have dominated the public discourse and the media, especially in recent times. In recent times, mainly because of tacit support from the State (especially between 2009 and 2015) the more radical groups have engaged in hate speech and other violent  activities against other ethnic and religious groups. There was impunity till very recently: the Buddhist clergy were seen as being above the law. However, recently the courts have become more independent and robust. There was a particularly important judgement in August 2018 where a well-known radical Buddhist monk was convicted of contempt of court under the Constitution. This is probably a ‘first of its kind’. There was also a recent case (July 2018) where a religious minority (the Jehovah’s Witnesses) succeeded in a fundamental rights case on the grounds of illegal arrest and the violation of equal protection of the law. One of the problems in Sri Lanka has been the lack of law enforcement, especially in the case of anti-Muslim violence. Police have stood by and let mobs attack Muslims. In some case they have actively participated in the violence. Law enforcement officers need to enforce the law, and the Attorney General’s Department needs to prosecute violations of the law, if ethno-religious relations in Sri Lanka are to improve. 

Q. Are they using social media as a tool to spread hatred as their target is the youth because youth shapes the nation?

A. Radical Sinhala Buddhist groups are increasingly using social media to spread hatred. In the recent riots in Digana, Kandy, social media was used to incite people to commit violence. They are targeting youth and other groups that may subscribe to their ideology of ‘hate’. Building a counter-narrative to hate speech is important, both in the social media and other domains.

Q.  Are  these radical monks taken seriously by the youth of Sri Lanka? Do they have enough followers? What impact do they have on the youth?
A. Some radical monks have a following. It is unclear however, to what extent. In recent times, many of the radical monks received prominence because of tacit support from the State.  While radical monks will continue to advocate for their extreme positions, support from the state exaggerates the influence they have and their importance.  My sense is that most Sri Lankans favour moderation. Yet sometimes the space for moderate voices to speak is missing.  All institutions of the state need to celebrate diversity and promote a culture of tolerance for ethnic and religious diversity. The Police and the Attorney-General’s Department need to act impartially and ensure that law and order is maintained, and that perpetrators of hate speech and religious violence are prosecuted, irrespective of whether they are members of the clergy or not. 

 

Pic — Kamalasagar

His dark skinny fingers clutch the barbed wires. The tips of his fingers move up and down, as if to some inaudible melody. His body swings left, and then right, and left again, but his eyes remain fixed on me. In his accented Bengali, Mohammed Joy tries to convince me that he has mastered some lessons in astrology from his kabiraj (ayurvedic practitioner) father.

He tells me, “You are an Aquarian. You are very close to getting a new opportunity but there are hurdles. To clear the hurdles, stop eating eggs. To know more, you must call up my father.” He insists I take his father’s phone number, accept his visiting card. But our man in uniform stops me. “Nahin, Madam, yeh allowed nahin hai… This is not allowed, Madam.”

We are on the zero line in Kamalasagar, 28 kilometres from Agartala town. The BSF jawan with the prominent Adam’s apple keeps a firm gaze on me to ensure I don’t walk up to Joy. But Joy, who is from Brahmanbaria in Bangladesh, is not ready to give up. “My father solves problems of many Indians. He can help you too,” he boasts. Joy’s words make me laugh out loud. In India, the government would have us believe that Bangladeshis are the real problem today.

Here, in Kamalasagar, Indians and Bangladeshis meet every Sunday “officially” to buy and sell sarees, cosmetics, vegetables, fruits and more. (For some, this border haat or bazaar is also a place for reunion with relatives from across the border.)

The small restaurants on the Sonamura border serve ilish from Bangladesh Image: Sonia Sarkar

A common grievance of the locals is that the much-raved-about ilish, or hilsa, of Bangladesh is not available in this weekend bazaar. That, however, doesn’t mean you cannot savour the delicately flavoured ilish of Bangladesh elsewhere and anywhere in Tripura. The small restaurants on the Sonamura border claim they get their ilish from Comilla in Bangladesh, only seven kilometers away. The waiter at Hotel Shankar in Agartala, in his accented Bengali reminiscent of Joy’s, says the restaurant sources its ilish from river Padma, the pride of Bangladesh.

The ilish has made me digress. The moot point I am making is this — Tripura’s connect with Bangladesh goes beyond fish.

Apparently, the idol of Tripura Sundari, the presiding deity of the state, has come from Chittagong, also in Bangladesh. During the 2018 Tripura Assembly elections, local BJP leaders appropriated Tripura Sundari to garner Hindu votes. After winning the elections, they attributed their victory to the goddess. (Mind you, Bangladeshi migrants were dubbed termites by party president Amit Shah.) And this Diwali, the state government organised a two-day religious extravaganza at the Tripura Sundari temple, apparently to “restore” the cultural identity of the state.

The new chief minister, Biplab Kumar Deb, too has a Bangladesh connect — his parents belonged to Chandpur in Chittagong, though he was born in Tripura. The newly-built museum at Ujjyanta Palace, one of the former abodes of Tripura’s Manikya kings, has a separate section on the 1971 Liberation War with special emphasis on the contribution of the people of Tripura to the movement.

Food and culture, people and gods, history and heritage, there is more than one thing enforcing the India-Bangladesh connect in general and the Tripura-Bangladesh connect in particular. In fact, so closely connected are we that at the Agartala-Akhaura border, barely six kilometers away from the palace, the filth of our swachh Bharat flows into Bangladesh through a canal.

Agartala–Akhaur border

After a three-day tour of this northeastern state, I am sitting at the departure lounge of the Maharaja Bir Bikram Airport, waiting for my flight. At this point, India’s fastest mobile network has given up and my phone picks up signals of Robi Axiata — the cellular network of Bangladesh. It reminds me how the moment I stepped on the zero line at Kamlasagar, my smartphone had flashed: “Welcome to Bangladesh!”

Once again, I remember Joy’s words — opportunity, obstacles, no eggs. And that’s when it occurs to me that he was bluffing all along. How do I know? Because to begin with I am no Aquarian. The realisation and the subsequent relief sweeps over me. I won’t have to deprive myself of my routine fix of sunny side up, after all.

 

Link — https://www.telegraphindia.com/culture/on-the-zero-line-between-tripura-and-bangladesh/cid/1675620

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