Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Control tobacco to fight the myth

Loopholes in existing laws need to be addressed


Almost 40 years ago, I was a small-time crime reporter at an English language newspaper and had written a story on the sudden rise of the price of cigarettes produced by a multi-national company.

Embarrassed, the company immediately ceased inserting advertisements, and threatened to throw me out of the job, but refrained from issuing a clarification.

After several months, the newspaper owner apologized to the company’s chief executive to revert the decision on their advertisement ban. To the owner’s relief, the insertion of display advertisements resumed at the cost of a non-incremental of my salary.

This is one incident, among hundreds of incidents, of how the tobacco industry flexes its muscles with the patronage of the powerful ruling party politicians, and under the shadows of influential government bureaucrats.

Even today, the tobacco industry overtly flouts laws and restrictions in tobacco control policies. The government agencies responsible to monitor and punish the delinquent companies are playing the role of three monkeys -- see no evil, hear no evil, and speak to evil.

Well, if tobacco consumption or cigarette smoking pattern is analyzed based on KAP (knowledge, attitude, and practice) framework, then it could be determined that everybody has the knowledge that smoking is injurious to health.

The attitude of smokers tends to ignore the health warnings on smoking, despite some of their friends, relatives, neighbours, and colleagues have suffered from tobacco-related diseases.

Lastly, in practice, despite clear warnings, smokers deliberately smoke in public places, parks, restaurants, mass transports, office buildings, hospitals, and other non-smoking areas. They are rude when there are infants and children around.

Health scientists and researchers have concluded that women and children are the worst victims of second-hand smoking.

There is a need for immediate amendment of laws to control tobacco to achieve the targets set for Sustainable Development Goals -- SDG (2015-2030).

To achieve a successful landmark achievement in the SDGs, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has announced to make a tobacco-free country by 2040.

Despite her promise, the country is still lagging in effectively fighting tobacco consumption. The loopholes in existing rules and policy, and lapses in law enforcement are some reasons behind not reaching the goal.

Earlier, Bangladesh in 2003 signed the World Health Organizations (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) project.

In 2005, a tobacco law was introduced, and it was twice amended in 2013 and 2015 to update restriction and enforcement, which remains a challenge to ensuring a tobacco-free country. The challenge is that the tobacco industry contributes substantial revenue to the national exchequer.

The myth was busted after the Bangladesh Cancer Society in 2019 stated that the tobacco industry no doubt contributes Tk 22,810 crore as revenue, while tobacco-related diseases had to incur Tk 30,560cr in medical bills. Each year, the financial loss is staggering -- an estimated Tk 7,750cr to tobacco-related diseases.

Coupled with financial losses, tobacco-related deaths are nearly 126,000 people, and more than 200,000 become physically disabled due to diseases contributed from tobacco smoking.

On the other hand, second-hand smoking or passive smoking increases a non-smoker’s risk of getting lung cancer, and may also increase the risk of other cancers including the larynx (voice box) and pharynx (upper throat). Second-hand smoke can also cause heart disease.

Therefore, all sorts of advertisements by tobacco companies should be restricted in a bid not to encourage new smokers on display at the point of sales (POS). The tobacco producers continue to attract consumers through product display in POS.

The loopholes in the law allow the corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities of tobacco companies to indirectly promote their products.

The regulation needs to also address the emerging e-cigarette products available in convenience stores, and online markets.

These are the prime reasons to address the flaws in existing law.

First published in the Dhaka Tribune, 23 February 2021

Saleem Samad is an independent journalist, media rights defender, and recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He can be reached at saleemsamad@hotmail.com. Twitter @saleemsamad

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Re-interpreting Professor Ahmed Sharif


A century after his birth, there is much we can learn from him

The centenary of veteran scholar Professor Ahmed Sharif passed silently on February 13.

Dr Sharif, the legendary figure of the free-thinking movement in the country, was born on February 13, 1921 and died on February 24, 1999. He did his Masters and PhD in Bangla literature from Dhaka University in 1944 and 1967, respectively.

Dr Sharif was a celebrated academic, intellectual, and philosopher, who had immensely contributed to nation-building, enabling the creation of space for intellectual exercise for free-thinkers.

In present Bangladesh, there is a serious impediment to the intellectual exercise of free-thinkers. The absence of space for freedom of thought is rapidly reducing which is indeed alarming for a democratic society.

He was an outspoken rational humanist, who left behind a legacy for dissent, critiquing reactive and autocratic views and vehemently rejecting sectarian politics.

He was indeed a controversial and mostly misunderstood person. His thoughts were interpreted as anti-establishment and were thus blacklisted by the state-run electronic media.

The absence of non-conformists such as Dr Sharif is felt today, with the rise of the Islamists, along with reactionary elements and anti-liberation groups showing their fangs.

The dark forces are active for a deadly strike to undermine secularism, democracy, pluralist society, and freedom of faith, for which the 3 million martyrs sacrificed their lives for the independence of Bangladesh.

Dr Sharif joined as a Research Assistant in the Bangla Department, Dhaka University in 1950, and retired as Chairman from the Department in 1983.

Obviously, he was very popular among his colleagues and academics. He was elected as member of the Senate and Syndicate, President of the Teachers’ Association and the University Teachers Club. He is the only academic who was elected Dean of the Faculty of Arts for three consecutive terms.

Indeed, he received many accolades and recognition for his outstanding contributions in medieval Bangla literature and contemporary socio-cultural-political essays.

Among the prestigious accolades, was one given by Rabindra Bharati University, India, and conferred upon him, Doctor of Literature, in 1995 for his outstanding contribution to Bangla Literature. Dr Sharif was an authority on ancient and medieval Bangla Literature and authored more than 100 research publications.

He never bothered about appreciation for his scholarly works. On the other hand, no one has ever questioned his intellectual honesty, although many pseudo-liberal democrats and secular intellectuals of the country rejected his scholarly contributions and suppressed his free thoughts.

His able academic son Dr Nehal Karim (former Chairman of Dept of Sociology of Dhaka University) aptly said: “He was considered an impractical man, seized with radical ideas but never 'clever' enough to understand his mundane interests as he never took any advantage of his scholarship position nor wielded his influence to become wealthy, famous, or powerful.”

Whatever Dr Sharif stated often caused a furore among intellectual circles and strong rebuttal for the vested groups.

The reputed educationist maintained a secluded life to avoid the wrath of the reactionary and reactive groups in the public domain.

For his outspoken statements against sectarianism, autocracy, and fascism, invited threats, especially when the Islamists and radicalized Muslims declared him as “murtad” (apostate).

Dr Sharif never compromised due to threats and intimidations. He was himself an institution and will be remembered for his modern thoughts.

Surely, his contributions to society will encourage liberal democrats and progressive intellectuals immensely. His huge scholarly contributions will surely enrich the researchers of Bangla literature in the years to come.

First published in the Dhaka Tribune, 15 February 2021

Saleem Samad is an independent journalist, media rights defender, recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He can be reached at saleemsamad@hotmail.com. Twitter @saleemsamad

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Checkmate for Suu Kyi

Her failure to own up to the crackdown on the Rohingya has sullied her reputation


A military coup in Myanmar was imminent for two reasons, which immediately invited widespread protests within the country and international condemnation.

First, the Tatmadaw (Myanmar army) since they took the reign of the country in 1962 failed an “election engineering” plan in favour of a pro-military political party. Secondly, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi gained popularity which brought her confidence in further reforms to democratize the nation, which the military generals were watching with frowns.

Suu Kyi, who spent 15 years under house arrest in the struggle to bring democracy to Myanmar, has been detained along with other leaders of her political party in a military coup.

Meanwhile, the anti-military coup protests swell in Myanmar, and riot police battle demonstrators in Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw and cities and towns across the country.

The supporters of Suu Kyi, leader of the pro-democracy National League for Democracy (NLD), call for a campaign of civil disobedience -- amidst a blockage of Facebook, fearing further anti-military street protests.

The Buddhist monks, doctors, nurses, teachers, have openly joined protests against the Myanmar coup, which has surprisingly grown louder every hour, since the military coup on February 1.

Myanmar has been a country of military coups and military rule -- shortly since independence from British colonialists in 1948.

In an uneasy power-sharing agreement in 2008, the military made a political partnership in running the country. The army had 25% of the seats in parliament.

Well, the 2015 elections established the road to democracy and installed the first civilian government after 50 years of global isolation and a ruthless military regime.

The February coup derails years of Western-backed efforts to establish democracy in Myanmar, where neighbouring China also has a powerful influence.

China was conspicuously silent in condemning the military coup, which occurred hours before parliament was due for the maiden session since the NLD’s landslide win in a November 8 election.

China was sceptical in strengthening bilateral relations with Myanmar, keeping Suu Kyi in power.

Suu Kyi’s party, the NLD won 396 seats out of 476 in the upper and lower houses of parliament, which has been interpreted by political observers as a referendum on Suu Kyi’s fledgling democratic rule.

Well, the main opposition party, the military-aligned Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), bagged only 33 seats (nearly 7%) in the last elections, eight fewer seats than in 2015.

In response to military chief General Min Aung Hlaing’s claim that the November poll was an “election fraud,” however, Myanmar’s Union Election Commission rejected the claims of voter fraud.

The defenders of democracy fear that Myanmar’s army is likely to scrap the constitution, despite the army chief Gen Hlaing saying the 2008 constitution was “the mother law for all laws” and should be respected.

Its guarantee of military power makes the constitution a “deeply unpopular” document, according to Yangon-based political analyst Khin Zaw Win.

On top of the military junta’s strings of accusations against the pro-democracy leader, Suu Kyi is already accused of ethnic cleansing and genocide of the ethnic Rohingya Muslim population, which the United Nations said had “the hallmarks of genocide.”

She took the responsibilities for the infamous military crackdown on the Rohingya and denied genocide at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, and explained the claims as “incomplete and misleading.”

Soon after shouldering responsibilities of the Myanmar military, Suu Kyi fell from the grace of world leaders and as an icon of democracy, primarily because she mishandled the crisis when more than a million ethnic Rohingya fled the restive Rakhine state into neighbouring Bangladesh in 2016 and 2017, which the United Nations dubbed as a “textbook ethnic cleansing.”

While still hugely popular at home -- the daughter of the independence hero Aung San (who was assassinated in 1947) -- her international reputation has been damaged after she failed to stop the forced expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya from the western Rakhine State in 2017.

To judge whether she has failed the world, the democratization of the country, or is a saviour of the nation from the yoke of the military, is a matter of time.

First Published in the Dhaka Tribune, 10 February 2021

Saleem Samad is an independent journalist, media rights defender, recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He can be reached at saleemsamad@hotmail.com. Twitter @saleemsamad

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

What will President Joe Biden’s strategy be for South Asia?

President Joe Biden signs executive orders in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington/ Photo REUTERS

Hours after President Joe Biden took oath in Washington DC, the leaders of South Asia showered tribute to the new leadership of the United States.
Months before the formal swearing-in on January 20, there were frantic exchanges of diplomatic cables from the capitals of South Asian countries to the United States capital, eager to know the 46th US president’s strategy for South Asia.
Most South Asian think-tanks were of the opinion that the policy would be different from the outgoing president, Donald Trump. The regional leaders and think-tanks have mixed feelings on Trump’s policy on South Asia, which was dubbed as “out of focus.” Most of the think-tanks on South Asian affairs were confident that Biden’s foreign policy would be far more pro-active and pragmatic.
The new US president is likely to engineer a full-scale foreign policy plan to augment cooperation with the 8-member South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), 11-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), 55 member states of the African Union, 21-member state Organization of American States (OAS), 22-member Arab League, 6-member Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and so on and so forth.
Michael Kugelman, deputy director for the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars in Washington, DC, believes that Biden will fully back a rapidly growing US–India partnership that enjoyed much forward movement during the Trump years -- just as it had throughout every previous administration back to the Bill Clinton era.
Incidentally, Biden is a long-time friend of India’s, who once described the US–India partnership as the defining relationship of the 21st century.
On the other hand, thousands of bipartisan Indian expats in America, who are effectively influential in American politics and administration, were able to churn hard facts into a pro-active foreign policy towards India in South Asia.
The two countries have a shared concern over combating terrorism and the challenges that the emerging Chinese hegemony pose -- these will have Biden’s full-throated support. He will also increase pressure on Pakistan to shut down the India-focused terror networks on its soil, especially with the receding US footprint in Afghanistan.
Nevertheless, Washington’s delicate relationship with Pakistan won’t be upended by abrupt moves, such as a sudden decision to cut security aid. Like Trump, however, Biden strongly supports total withdrawal from Afghanistan.
However, when he was vice president of Barack Obama’s administration, he was a vocal opponent of his policy regarding additional troop deployment to battle the Taliban and the remnants of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.
He is expected to toe the line of Trump for a workable relationship with Pakistan that revolves around securing Islamabad’s diplomatic support in advancing a fragile peace process in Afghanistan with the jihadist Taliban.
Meanwhile, the rest of South Asia will receive strategic focus, as it did during Trump’s era. The attention will be largely framed through the lens of the US-China rivalry and, increasingly, the India–China rivalry amid Beijing’s deepening footprint across the region, fuelled by its controversial Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), says Kugelman at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre.
Washington’s radar will once again lay emphasis on democracy and human rights issues in South Asian states, an emphasis which was often overlooked by the previous administration.
Biden is likely to go relatively easy on India for strategic reasons, but Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka could find themselves subjected to sharp and frequent criticism.
Fortunately, climate change is another priority for Biden, which is a major threat to South Asia, especially Bangladesh, Maldives, India, and Sri Lanka, and this offers an opportunity for less tense US engagement in the region.
In short, the South Asian policy under President Joe Biden will be a rare case of a continuity program. It will definitely have an impact upon the incoming administration and will reset the US foreign policy, presenting both new opportunities and fresh challenges for the region.

First published in the Dhaka Tribune, 26 January 2021

Saleem Samad is an independent journalist, media rights defender, and recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He can be reached at saleemsamad@hotmail.com; Twitter @saleemsamad

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Should China apologise to Bangladesh?

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman greeted by Mao Tse Tung, chairman of the Peoples Republic of China, during his goodwill visit to Beijing in 1957


The Chinese were desperate for a kind of “wolf-warrior” diplomacy to take diplomatic and economic ties with Bangladesh to a new height during the post-Mujib era. In subsequent years, China emerged as the major economic partner in mega-infrastructure development projects in Bangladesh.

In the meantime, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina told her officials that Bangladesh should give a second thought regarding any multi-billion dollar development projects offered by China. 

Not very long ago, she reassured the Indian journalists that India is an “organic” friend of Bangladesh; they jointly shed blood during the brutal birth of Bangladesh, and China is a development partner -- there is no conflict of interest with the two countries.

Recently, the PM reiterated that marauding Pakistani troops must make an apology for committing war crimes during Bangladesh independence. Pakistan had received unlimited military supply and political support from China to suppress the people in Bangladesh. The brass-coated “Made in China” bullets were responsible for several million martyrs -- for a crime to dream of an independent Bangladesh.

The architect of Bangladesh’s independence, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman took charge of a war-ravaged nation with a promise to feed the hungry people and the task to rehabilitate the millions of refugees that slowly trickled back home from India. However, even after the return of Bangabandhu from Pakistan’s prison, China continued to politically and diplomatically harass the newly independent nation.

The trouble started when Bangladesh sought membership in the United Nations in 1972. China vetoed Bangladesh’s membership at the UN when the country desperately needed international aid for rehabilitation of the returnees from India. 

To withstand China, Sheikh Mujib, to add diplomatic clout, joined the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), the Commonwealth, and the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), which helped strengthen Bangladesh’s image.

Even after diplomatic recognition by Pakistan under the duress of Islamic nations’ leaders in 1974, China continued to intimidate the government of Sheikh Mujib.

Overtly, the pro-Beijing communist parties in the country received political blessings from CCP. Why? Because the left parties opposed the Liberation War and expressed dissent on the government of Sheikh Mujib, blaming him to be a “stooge of Indian expansionist ideas.”

Mujib, as he stated in his book Amar Dekha Naya Chin (New China As I Saw) had visited China twice. First, in 1952 and the second visit in 1957. During his visit, he met the founder of New China, Mao Zedong, along with Zhou Enlai and other key figures of CCP. 

He was confident that the Chinese leaders would listen to his request to recognize Bangladesh.

Sheikh Mujib opened diplomatic channels to win the hearts of CCP. Pakistan’s veteran envoy to Beijing (1969-1972), Ambassador Khwaja Mohammad Kaiser was Mujib’s special emissary to Chinese leaders. Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai confided to Ambassador Kaiser that he should understand his difficulties. Kaiser, however, returned to Beijing, as Bangladesh Ambassador in 1984 for two years.

Mujib also dispatched journalist and poet Faiz Ahmed to Beijing. Faiz had friends in high places among CCP leadership when he was working in Radio Peking (now Beijing) Bangla Service in the 1960s. Faiz, despite being a radical left, was Mujib’s play-card partner in prison during 1966-1969. Unfortunately, he too returned home with an empty hand and the mission reached a dead end.

China was among the last few countries to recognize Bangladesh on August 31, 1975. Well, not to an elected government of Sheikh Mujib, but after his brutal assassination in mid-August 1975. China, unfortunately, recognized an illegal regime headed by the assassins of Bangabandhu.

China should admit certain responsibility for the genocide perpetrated by Pakistan’s military hawks in Bangladesh due to CCP’s policy for providing military aid to Pakistan during the Liberation War. CCP should also regret intimidating Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s government.

First published in the Dhaka Tribune, 19 January 2021

Saleem Samad is an independent journalist, media rights defender, and recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He can be reached at saleemsamad@hotmail.com; Twitter@saleemsamad

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Madness, mayhem, and manipulation

It is a grim outlook for a new year, but it is not completely hopeless


Should the citizens of the global village expect anything in 2021?

Does it not seem that it will be another series of new episodes, like last year, beset by the madness, mayhem, manipulation, and tyranny that dominated 2020.

For most, the future will be knitted from experience gathered from a year of facing the coronavirus pandemic.

While the regimes were busy doing damage control, everything seemed to have gone haywire; they were unable to control the virus outbreak, or the frustrations of the people. The governments, both in developed and developing countries, gradually took charge of the crisis.

The world leaders were left defenseless in the face of government bureaucrats and elected officials who dance to the tune of their corporate overlords and do what they want, when they want, with whomever they want, all at taxpayer expense.

Now that the people have slowly begun to trust scientists, pharmaceutical producers, United Nations bodies, development economists, health care experts and services, and development partners, the governments with advisers and politicians need to get back on the drawing board to redo the plans on how to live with the Covid-19 virus.

In the broad political spectrum, politics and politicians must come forward with sustainable solutions to the new dimensions of global crises, which is impacted by the pandemic.

Such rethinking has surfaced when the nations’ history, politics, and politicians add problems due to attempting quick-fix solutions, which are not sustainable.

Let the politicians and bureaucrats understand that people will not digest any kind of hypocrisy, double standards, or delusional belief. Nonetheless, the politicians and bureaucrats initially had hiccups when the pandemic was ravaging the economy. There is also no denying that the government wasted crucial time, funds, and effort to get things back on track.

Citizens of developing countries have tolerated injustice and abuse which befell upon them due to the government machinery such as police harassment and brutality, corruption, criminalization of politics, robberies from infrastructure development projects, forcible occupations and invasions of homes and properties of the weak and the minorities by politically-backed hooligans, state security surveillance, unfair taxation -- and the list grows on and on.

Global citizens have been utterly helpless in the face of government injustice meted out, both at home and abroad. Indeed, the systemic violence being perpetrated by the state and non-state actors demoralises any nation-state, writes John W Whitehead, founder and president of The Rutherford Institute.

Until we can own that truth, until we can forge our path back to a world in which freedom means something again, we are going to be stuck in this wormhole of populist anger, petty politics, and destruction that is pitting us against each other.

First published in the Dhaka Tribune, 12 January 2021

Saleem Samad is an independent journalist, media rights defender, recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He can be reached at saleemsamad@hotmail.com; Twitter @saleemsamad

Monday, January 11, 2021

Peace remains elusive for hill people in the CHT


The Adivasis continue to suffer in pain and agony for non-compliance of the much talked about peace accord signed 23 years ago with the autonomy seeking armed ethnic minorities of the Chittagong Hill Tracts.

For the hill people, peace continues to remain a far cry as the Bangalee settlers from the floodplains, on the behest of the Bangladesh Army, continue to enjoy blessings of the military, civil administration and ruling party politicians.

When the peace accord was signed on 2 December 1997, the BBC Bangla radio and Dainik Ajker Kagoj interviewed me for my long experience reporting on the insurgency and peace process since 1980. I said the treaty will not be implemented even after 25 years, because of the nonchalant military and civil bureaucracy.

However, my comment was taken seriously neither by the government nor by the Shantu Larma led Parbatiya Chattragram Jana Sangati Samity (PCJSS). Both parties dismissed my concerns and claimed they would start implementing the accord soon enough.

That soon never came into the life of Shantu Larma — the supremo of Shanti Bahini. His party created a paramilitary force waging a bush war across one-tenth of Bangladesh.

It was understood that after the surrender of Shanti Bahini combatants along with their weapons, who once reigned unchallenged in the hill forest, that the accord would see the light of the day.

After several years, the accord was only implemented through the piecemeal measure of ‘pick and choose’ which frustrated several groups, mostly youths, leaders and former combatants.

The youths and student leaders launched a violent movement to pressure the government to realise the accord’s implementation, which reached a critical stage.

Eminent citizens of the country at various events, marking the 23rd anniversary of the CHT Accord in 2020, commented that the expectations created in 1997 through the signing of the CHT Accord have turned into frustration and anger as it has not been implemented even after 23 years and the Jumma people are being ruled, exploited, deprived and oppressed.

Bangladesh authority did not take much initiative to implement the CHT Accord. Not a single meeting of the CHT Accord Implementation Committee, the CHT Land Commission and the Task Force, formed under the CHT Accord, was convened.

Nonetheless, only a few clauses and sub-clauses of the accord have been implemented in the last 23 years since the Government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh and the PCJSS signed the historic CHT Agreement. Two-thirds of the clauses remain in grey section.

The fundamental provisions of the accord are either ultimately unrealised or have been partially implemented.

A formal meeting of the CHT Land Commission was scheduled to be held at Bandarban on 3 February 2020. However, the event was cancelled when the Bangalee settlers backed by local administration blocked the entrance.

Nevertheless, countrywide coronavirus outbreak, extended official holidays and lockdown overshadowed the government’s activities in 2020.

There is no respite from the operations of the military, paramilitary border guards and other law enforcement forces in the CHT even as the pandemic rages.

Thus in 23 years, the expected resolution to the CHT conflict remains elusive. Instead, according to the PCJSS annual statement released in the first week of January, the problem has become more complicated.

The PCJSS laments that, following the previous governments, the current government has been implementing Islamisation policy and intensified the CHT’s militarisation —threatening the Jumma people’s national, religious and cultural identity.

It has been alleged that all matters of general administration, law and order, development of the CHT, have been handed over to the army and security services deployed in the region.

The annual report also said that the army has undertaken initiatives to revive the camps once withdrawn after the CHT Accord. Many camps had been reconstructed on the same site in the last few years, including seven new camps in 2020.

In CHT, apparently, a de facto military rule continues, and ‘Operation Uttaran’ has not been withdrawn, even though it was agreed in the accord to stop targeting the hill people. The authorities are engaged in anti-accord activities with the settlers as an excuse to provide security and protection.

On the eve of the accord’s silver jubilee, not a single full-fledged Hill District Council has been formed by direct votes. The interim Hill District Councils were formed with hand-picked ruling party members last December. This undemocratic and partisan path demonstrates the lack of political commitment on the part of the government.

The PCJSS blames the ruling Awami League government, which deserves credit for getting the rebels to sit for peace talks, signing the accord, and organising a surrender ceremony at Khagrachari. However, it has not taken enough measures to implement the CHT Agreement.

In recent years, it has been alleged by PCJSS that, with knowledge of the security forces, government agencies are sheltering the JSS (MN Larma) known as Reformist, the UPDF (Democratic) and the Mog Party.

Widespread human rights abuses, including illegal detention, extrajudicial deaths, enforced disappearances, legal harassments and assaults against the hill people continues unabated.

The Bangalee settlers were responsible for inciting sectarian tensions in the region and remains upbeat with the moral support of the military and the civil administration.

Parbatya Chattagram Nagorik Parishad (CHT Citizens’ Council) has gained notoriety for forced conversion of Adivasi girls into Muslims, kidnapping for ransom, looting farm produces from the hills, grabbing of lands of the ancestors and the list goes on and on.

The refusal to register cases against the settlers is an everyday norm, especially when the Adivasis go to a police station. When the hill people approach the military with complaints, they are asked to back off and are treated as a potential threat to the military.

Instead of a political and peaceful solution to the CHT crisis by implementing the CHT Accord, the government has taken the initiative to solve the problem through repression like the previous regimes. So far, there are no signs of the government opting for an alternative, peaceful path in the foreseeable future.

First published in the Shuddhasha portal, Norway on 11 January 2021

Saleem Samad is an independent journalist and media rights defender. Recipient of Ashoka Fellow and Hellman-Hammett Award. He could be reached at saleemsamad@hotmail.com; Twitter @saleemsamad

Tuesday, January 05, 2021

The Earth speaks but we refuse to listen

Sunderbans/Photo: SYED ZAKIR HOSSAIN

When will society wake up and take climate change seriously?


Remember the three wise monkeys -- Japanese pictorial maxims, embodying the proverbial principle: “See no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil.”

The three monkeys are Mizaru, who sees no evil, covering his eyes; Kikazaru, who hears no evil, covering his ears; and Iwazaru, who speaks no evil, covering his mouth.

Human beings have taken a weird position regarding the Earth's destruction, which ushers imminent ecological disaster. Unfortunately, the people refuse to listen, to see, and to speak up. 

There is no doubting the scientific and academic evidence and information about climate change -- global warming, deforestation, pollution of water, degradation of soil, and extinction of wildlife are all obvious signs that society has created an unsustainable world for future generations.

Remember when illegal miners extract sand from the river beds, the river, in vengeance, tears down villages and croplands, erodes vast tracts of the banks, and changes its course.

The ancient civilizations on the banks of the Indus and Euphrates vanished after the wise men forcibly exploited the river resources for economic gain to sustain the kingdom.

The civilisations on the Nile and Yellow River ("China's Sorrow") remain in history and archaeological discoveries. Nature does strike back in anger for overexploitation of its natural resources.

Most of the deltas and mangrove forests such as the Sundarbans are endangered because of human interference for economic exploitation. 

The government, politicians, multinational companies, and the bourgeoisie society to get rich quickly are plundering natural resources and there are clear signs of a refusal to adopt a green and sustainable mandate.

Most governments and politicians in developing countries also do not feel the urgency to fix the problem. When state and non-state actors ignore their social responsibility, this threatens humanity, leading towards a dysfunctional society.

The stakeholders also deliberately ignore the warning signs, for which we don’t need a scientist to interpret and get it published in the media to cater the messages to the grassroots. Despite the deteriorating air quality in urban areas, food security, and the crisis of safe drinking water, it appears that it is not enough to shake up humanity.

Interestingly, when a group of people takes time off for the ancient practice of meditation on hilltops under the open skies, they are spiritually connected with the earth. Amid tranquil surroundings, the meditation practitioners can exchange and interact with nature -- feel, hear, and listen to the earth.

It's time for the government, politicians, and the society at large to reconnect with the earth.

Dr Michael A Bengwayan, a practising environmentalist and writer based in New York, writes that nature has been waiting for this connection, this healing, since the moment you were born. “As you reconnect, no matter how many years you have been in your absence, you will find that you will not be scolded, reprimanded, or punished.”

Social scientists have said that when people are disconnected from humanity, they cannot listen, hear, and see that the Earth is groaning in pain.

First published in the Dhaka Tribune, 5 January 2021

Saleem Samad is an independent journalist, media rights defender, recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He can be reached at saleemsamad@hotmail.com. Twitter @saleemsamad

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

'Pandemic' word of the year 2020


The word ‘pandemic’ has become a part of all our lives now

The task to decide a single word or words in the year 2020, roiled by a public health crisis, an economic downturn, racial injustice, climate disaster, political division, and rampant disinformation -- was a challenge.

For the editors at Dictionary.com, the choice was overwhelmingly focused. From our perspective as documenters of the English language, one word kept running through the profound and manifold ways our lives have been upended -- and our language so rapidly transformed -- in this unprecedented year.

The editors, based on online searches, concluded that the “2020 Word Of The Year” was “pandemic” and defined it as “a disease prevalent throughout an entire country, continent, or the whole world.” The year 2020 was indeed painful. And yet, the loss of life and livelihood caused by Covid-19 pandemic defies definition.

Nearly 80 million confirmed cases, the pandemic has claimed over 1.75 million lives across the globe and is still rising to new peaks with the fresh outbreak dubbed as Covid-20.

No doubt the pandemic has severely dented social and economic life on a historic scale and scope, globally impacting every sector of society -- not to mention its emotional and psychological toll.

All other events for most of 2020, from the protests for racial justice to a heated US presidential election, were shaped by the pandemic. Despite the hardships, the pandemic also inspired the best of humanity: Resilience and resourcefulness in the face of struggle.

Languages evolve and adapt to new realities and circumstances. This deadly coronavirus outbreak has been reflected in our language, notably in the word pandemic itself. As the world was shaken from the pandemic, the searches for the word “pandemic” skyrocketed 13,575% on Dictionary.com compared to 2019.

It appeared to have jumped out of history textbooks, and joined a cluster of other terms that users searched for in massive numbers, whether to learn an unfamiliar word used during a government briefing or to process the swirl of media headlines: Asymptomatic, CDC, coronavirus, furlough, nonessential, quarantine, and sanitizer, to name a few.

"The pandemic, despite causing havoc, agony, and trauma among millions worldwide, surprisingly has united the world of vocabulary into one global village, eagerly waiting for the vaccine and an eventual solution for the pandemic."

As the pandemic upended life in 2020, it also dramatically reshaped our language, requiring a whole new vocabulary for talking about our new reality.

Among all searches, the volume for pandemic sustained the highest levels on-site over the course of 2020, averaging a 1000% increase, month over month, relative to previous years. Because of its ubiquity as the defining context of 2020, it remained in the top 10% of all lookups for much of the year.

Glossary and vocabulary researchers, based on a prediction by epidemiologists to virologists agree that the pandemic defined in 2020 will dominate the years to come. It is a consequential word for a consequential year.

In the spring, the pandemic introduced a host of new and newly prominent words that, normally, only public health professionals knew and used.

Expanding the glossary for daily life included: Air bubble; antibody tests; antigen test; antimalarial drugs; asymptomatic; conspiracy theory; contact tracing; corona-cure; Covid-dedicated hospitals; Covid-19; Covidiot; debunk fake news; diagnostic tests; disinformation; distance learning; endemic; epidemic; epidemiologist; face masks; fake health remedies; fake health tips; flatten the curve; frontliner; hand sanitizer; handwashing; health facilities; healthcare; herd immunity; hydroxychloroquine; infodemic; isolation; lockdown; mutation; N95; novel coronavirus; PCR test; PPE; public health; quaranteam; quarantine; second wave; social distancing; strain; superspreader; take-out; vaccine; ventilator; virologist; virtual court; webinar; work remotely; Zoom; so on and so forth.

The resilience and resourcefulness people confronted the pandemic with also manifested itself in tremendous linguistic creativity. Throughout 2020, the editorial teams of various dictionaries have been tracking a growing body of so-called “corona coinages” that have given expression -- and have offered some relief from tragedy, some connection in isolation -- to the lived experience of a surreal year.

First published in the Dhaka Tribune on 29 December 2020

Saleem Samad is an independent journalist, media rights defender, recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He could be reached at saleemsamad@hotmail.com; Twitter @saleemsamad

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

"How long can Pakistan hold out in the east (Bangladesh)”


A conversation between Henry Kissinger and General Westmoreland about the birth of Bangladesh

Three days after a full-scale war between India and Pakistan in the eastern frontier and Bangladesh-India jointly against Pakistan in the eastern theatre, Henry Kissinger asked how long could the Pakistan troops hold in Bangladesh.

The meeting held in Washington DC, in the morning of December 6, 1971, was attended by senior officials of departments of state, defence, joint chief of staffs, CIA, USAID, and others.

US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, at the onset of the meeting asked Gen Westmoreland: “What is your military assessment? How long can Pakistan hold out in the east” (Bangladesh war zone)?

Gen Westmoreland candidly said up to three weeks. Once the Pakistan Army runs out of supplies, all the troops in East Pakistan [Bangladesh] will become hostage. The officials discussed whether there were any possibilities of Pakistan troop's evacuation. Gen Westmoreland responded in negative.

A senior official of the State Department asked Gen Westmoreland that assuming the Indians took over Bangladesh, how did he think it would happen?

Gen Westmoreland replied, “I think their primary thrust will be to cut off the seaport of Chittagong. This will virtually cut off any possibility of resupply. Then they will move to destroy the Pakistan regular forces, in cooperation with the Mukti Bahini. They will then be faced with the major job of restoring some order to the country. I think there will be a revenge massacre — possibly the greatest in the twentieth century.”

Kissinger asked whether the Indians would withdraw their army once the Pakistan forces were disarmed.

Gen Westmoreland replied that he thought they [Indian] would leave three or four divisions to work with the Mukti Bahini, and pull the remainder back to the West.

The officials expected that the Indians would pull out as quickly as they could. Once the Pakistan forces were disarmed, the Indians would have a friendly population. They could afford to move back to the border areas quickly.

Another official predicted that after the Indian Army had been in Bangladesh for two or three weeks, they would be accepted as a “Hindu army of occupation.”

Kissinger asked: “What will India do with Bangladesh? Will they see it as an independent state or have them negotiate with Islamabad?”

An official responded that India had already recognized Bangladesh as an independent country. Kissinger said then that there was no hope for Pakistan to negotiate with Bangladesh. The objective of the Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s government was to force a surrender of the Pakistani troops in Bangladesh within 10 days.

In a telegram from New Delhi on December 6, US Ambassador Kenneth Barnard Keating reported that Indian Foreign Secretary Triloki Nath Kaul had expressed “disappointment, shock and surprise” that the United States had tabled the resolution it did in the UNSC.

On December 5, the Soviet representative on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) vetoed an eight-power draft resolution that called for a ceasefire and mutual withdrawal of forces, as well as intensified efforts to create the conditions necessary for the return of refugees to their homes.

The United States sriously wanted to stick with withdrawal and ceasefire, not a surrender of Pakistan troops. Kissinger assured the Pakistan regime that they were doing the best they could do diplomatically.

The resolution, which was tabled by Argentina, Belgium, Burundi, Italy, Japan, Nicaragua, Sierra-Leone, and Somalia, garnered a vote of 11 to 2 with 2 abstentions but was not adopted because of the negative vote of the Soviet Union (USSR). However, the UN Security Council accepted on December 6 that an impasse had been reached in its deliberations on the conflict in South Asia, and referred the issue to the General Assembly.

An estimated 93,000 Pakistan troops and civilians made an unconditional public surrender in Dhaka on December 16, 1971, which is observed as Victory Day each year.

First published in the Dhaka Tribune, 22 December 2020

Saleem Samad, is an independent journalist, media rights defender, recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He could be reached at <saleemsamad@hotmail.com>; Twitter @saleemsamad