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Monday, July 27, 2020

What is the ‘golden ring’ axis?

China continues to consolidate power and strengthen ties with Asian countries
In a geopolitical response to the decline of the Western influence in South Asia and West Asia, China, Russia, Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey envisage a “golden ring” axis to expand their hegemony on South and West Asia.
The vision of the golden ring of China, Russia, Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey was first disclosed recently by Iran’s ambassador to Pakistan.
The effort to forge an alliance surfaced after Afghanistan refused to be drawn into the golden ring axis. Kabul does not trust their immediate neighbour Pakistan and the nation has not forgotten the ruthless Russian occupation installing a puppet regime.
Afghanistan squarely blames Pakistan’s elite security agency in Rawalpindi GHQ for aiding and abetting ruthless Taliban militia.
Kabul is equally not comfortable with the Islamic Republic of Iran. The assassinated General Qasem Soleimani of the elite Al Quds military had recruited Afghan Shia militia to fight the Kabul government, which Iran believes is a stooge of the Americans, and thus an enemy of Islam.
Contrary to US perceptions, the Kremlin realizes the importance of Pakistan for a peaceful settlement of the Afghan conflict. Unfortunately, Afghanistan seemed to have disappeared from the White House radar in the run-up to the US Presidential Elections.
The US author Robert D Kaplan wrote in his book, The Revenge of Geography: “Pressure on land can help the United States thwart China at Sea.” But post exit from Afghanistan, America will lose that advantage since its “pivot Asia” will be largely reduced to the high seas.
Well, the US has been an undisputed global power since the collapse of the Soviet Union. China has risen from Mao’s anti-capitalist policy into a strong rival to the US. The Trump administration’s aggressive foreign policy is pushing away China and pulling closer allies who were never their loyal partners in economic development.
China has strengthened its ties with countries that were ignored or bullied by America. Therefore, the emergence of a new golden ring of China, Russia, Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey is becoming a reality.
China has fathomless pockets to fund economic development, and forging ties with Iran, Pakistan, Russia, and Turkey to join the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
In 2019, Iran formally joined China’s “One Belt One Road” initiative. Tehran announced that it has partnered with Beijing for the strategist Chabahar port in Iran. It will make Iran an integral part of the BRI, linking China with Europe via Turkey.
Turkey, despite being an ally of the NATO military alliance, has drifted from Washington in recent times.
Ankara’s occupation of Northern Cyprus for more than four decades, military assistance to rogue rebel General Haftar opposed to UN-backed Libyan government, intermittent military strikes against Kurds -- the bravehearts who fought the dreaded Islamic State marauder -- has angered not only the US, but also European nations.
America could have said “checkmate” when US aircraft carriers and hosts of battleships were joined by naval forces of Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Indonesia to take strategic control of the South China Sea, where China wanted its hegemony of the disputed sea.
Meanwhile, after the Galwan Valley face-off between India and China, India has readied its naval fleet in the Indian Ocean, rallying with US frigates from the Seventh Fleet, a tacit threat to China maritime for oil shipment from Iran. The manipulative geopolitical strategy in Asia may yield dividends which could be measured with a yardstick. Eventually, it needs to be understood about who will reap the maximum gain from the golden ring axis.

First published in the Dhaka Tribune, 27 July 2020

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

Friday, July 24, 2020

Shahjahan Siraj, plastic bag killer

If citizens are talking about Bangladesh's independence, if they are talking about the pro-democracy movement in 1969, if they are talking about the protest against misrule during post-independence, surely they are talking about career politician Shahjahan Siraj.
Once a fiery student leader of the mid-1960s has changed political hats, changed political allegiance, but maintained his political clout.
In post-independence, I met him in 1973 at Dainik Gonokantha newspaper office in Wari, in the old Dhaka. The newspaper was founded by Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal (JSD), an opposition party. The only daily newspaper in Bangladesh was sold at a double price at the newsstand.
In later months he remembered me very well, possibly for asking curious questions. At Gonokontha office I also introduced to JSD stalwarts Serajul Alam Khan, ASM Abdur Rab, Kazi Aref Ahmed, Monirul Islam, Hasanul Haque Inu, Sharif Nurul Ambia and host of other student leaders.
His chequered political career led him to win five general elections to parliament from Kalihati, Tangail. After winning the 2001 parliamentary elections, he was made Minister of Environment and Forest (10 October 2001 - 6 May 2004) in the cabinet of the pro-Islamist regime of Khaleda Zia.
During his tenure as the environment minister, the production and use of plastic shopping bags were banned in Bangladesh, polluting two-stroke three-wheeler taxis were withdrawn from the road, and tree plantation turned into a social movement.
The politician accepted a challenge to contribute to an environmental cause. At that moment the minister was approached by Hossain Shahriar, an environment journalist who is also executive director of the Environment and Social Development Organisation (ESDO).
Meanwhile, the capital Dhaka suffered from water-logging in the monsoon season. The newspaper blamed tons of discarded plastic bags dumped indiscriminately has clogged the city drains and unable to remove the rainwater quickly.
Environmental groups say the millions of polythene bags, food packages disposed of every day are blocking drainage systems in cities, posing a serious environmental hazard.
The eminent politician and a journalist concluded that plastic bag production, sale, and use have to be axed to save the people from a health problem.
Together they developed a long-term plan to ban plastic shopping bags, commonly known as polythene bags.
Environmental campaign activists argue that, without tougher environmental legislation, it will be very difficult for the government to attain any success in its fight against plastic bags.
The non-degradable shopping bags were introduced into Bangladesh nearly four decades ago, quickly replacing jute bags and paper bags (known as tonga) produced from recycling paper.
The production of the plastic bag has thrown out tens of thousands of self-employed workers producing paper bags, recycled bags from heavy packaging materials, and also traditional bags made from jute, the golden fibre.
Environment Minister Shahjahan Siraj explained that the decision to ban plastic bags has been finalised to save the metropolis from an imminent environmental disaster.
Researchers found that plastic bags in agricultural lands have reduced fertility in the soil, raising concerns about farm produce.
They also posed a serious threat to human health, especially to people involved in the production and recycling of polythene.
Industry leaders debated that the dangers were exaggerated, though they admitted the plastic bags were the main cause of water-logging.
Minister Shahjahan Siraj dismisses the industry leaders' claim, saying the losses would be temporary. He stated: "We will be able to employ far more people through reviving the declining jute industry, producing environment-friendly jute bags."
The minister while pushing the giant ball up the hills was warned of the repercussions from the trade bodies. Simultaneously the Commerce Ministry, Industries Ministry, and hosts of lawmakers stood against Shahjahan Siraj's initiative.
Journalist Hossain Shahriar along with a team of bureaucrats selected by Shahjahan Siraj after months of hard labour, finally placed a draft law to ban the plastic bag in the parliament.
The use and production of plastic bags continued unabated under the Bangladesh Environment Conservation Act 1995.
The enactment of the 2020 law ensures a complete ban on the production, import, marketing, sales, display, storing, distribution, transportation, and use of polythene of less than 55-micron thickness for business purposes.
The enforcement of the complete ban on the sale and use of plastic bags in the Dhaka, the consumers were getting used to alternative shopping bags instead of plastic bags.
All shopping malls, grocery chain stores, superstores, clothing stores, bookstores do not give plastic bags as such violations invite hefty penalty and imprisonment.
The new consumerism culture is a major shift from plastic bags to alternative biodegradable low-cost bags is visible.
Thus Bangladesh became the first country in the world to implement a ban on plastic bags and many other countries begin to follow suit.
Shahjahan Siraj died at the age of 77 after prolonged cancer ailments on 14 July 2020.

First published in the Daily Asian Age, 24 July 2020

Saleem Samad, is an independent journalist, media rights defender, recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. Email:; Twitter @saleemsamad

Monday, July 20, 2020

Will a vaccine save the economy?

covid-19 vaccine

Development Economist Dr Atiur Rahman sharing his mind said that once the availability of the coronavirus vaccine becomes a reality, the world economy will recuperate and Bangladesh will also make a dramatic turn-around.
However, a challenge remains of generating new employment and regenerating the labour market. The challenge could be bridled with a long and short term economic preparation, by an energetic team of planners and social managers selected.
The government has to develop a recovery plan of action to generate jobs and employment in both formal and non-formal sectors, says Atiur Rahman, a former governor of Bangladesh Bank.
Atiur says the expectation from the discovery and availability of the coronavirus vaccine has increased exponentially.
Meanwhile, over 100 influential global leaders have joined Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus after he launched an international campaign to make the Covid-19 vaccine a global common good.
The campaign on behalf of Nobel laureates and organizations of Nobel laureates, civil society leaders, and world moral leaders urged all the global leaders, international organizations, and governments to adopt legal measures and declare Covid-19 vaccine as a part of the global domain.
What the founder of the “bank for the poor” meant was that the vaccine should be available at a cheaper price for the developing countries, but not for the West only.
As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc across mother earth, there is an explosion of research activities and clinical trials to find cures and vaccines, says Prof Yunus.
The platform urged the World Health Organization (WHO) to design a World Action Plan on the Covid-19 vaccine and appealed to set up an international committee responsible for monitoring the vaccine research.
The research for a vaccine is a long process. The estimated time for the development of a Covid-19 vaccine is about 18 months or so.
Prof Yunus’s campaign has received pro-active responses from more than 25 Nobel laureates, scores of former presidents, former PMs, creative artists, social justice activists, business leaders, leaders of international organizations, academics, and hosts of political and faith leaders from all the continents.
Obviously, private sector research laboratories engaged in the development of vaccines will be expecting a return on their investments. The research results should be in the public domain, making it available to any pharmaceuticals that pledge to produce vaccines under strict international regulatory supervision.
Prof Yunus believes that if the vaccines are free from patent rights, the price will be affordable in the third world. Most of the developing countries’ hospitals are overwhelmed providing health care to coronavirus patients on their shoe-string budget.
The pandemic exposes the strengths and weaknesses of health care systems in different countries, as well as the obstacles and inequalities of access to health care.
Therefore, the campaign understands the cash-strapped developing countries will not be able to buy the vaccine in bulk. The global leaders demand that the availability of vaccines is a right and there must be free universal access to the vaccine for all.
Governments, foundations, international financial organizations like the WB, and the regional development banks have been urged to develop a strategy on how to make the vaccine available free of cost to inhabitants from all walks of life, be they from urban or rural areas, men or women, or living in rich or poor countries.
The campaign underpins the moral responsibility of the global leaders to develop an unambiguous procedure to determine what would be a fair level of this return in exchange for putting the vaccine in the public domain.

First published in the Dhaka Tribune, 20 July 2020

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

Monday, July 13, 2020

Are extremists exploiting the pandemic?

Social Media Photo: Bigstock
Conspiracy theories and disinformation are spreading at an alarming rate
When Sara Khan, lead commissioner for an independent Commission for Countering Extremism (CCE) in a flagship report “Challenging Hateful Extremism” talked of how effective existing British laws are in dealing with hateful extremist activity -- policy-makers and government officials in Britain were dumbfounded.
The report, launched on June 10, observes that the far right to the far left and Islamist groups have fully exploited the global coronavirus crisis to promote dangerous conspiracy theories and disinformation, mostly online.
A private study has been posted by the United Kingdom government’s official website, which says CCE advises the government on new policies to deal with extremism, including the need for any new powers.
The non-governmental organization, CCE, supports society to fight all forms of extremism and has closely worked with the British Police Department.
The extremists joined in separate social media space, joined by #CovIdiots across all spectrums. From far right and far left, all are agog in 5G conspiracy theories on platforms such as Telegram, a multi-platform messaging service platform.
Conspiracy theories need just the right ingredients to take off within a population, and the Covid-19 pandemic has been a breeding ground for them.
The independent commission has pulled together several other pieces of research to draw a broader canvas of the extremist threat during the pandemic. A narrative spread like wildfire on social media that the wireless network 5G technology fuelled the coronavirus pandemic.
The conspiracy theory on the Covid-19 outbreak believes that the virus pandemic is part of a strategy conceived by global elites - such as Bill Gates - to roll-out coronavirus vaccines with tracking chips that would later be activated by 5G, the technology used by mobile technology networks.
Such mindless #CovIdiots in Bangladesh are equally active in social media. They are active in posting conspiracy theories in attempts to inject into the novice minds of young and old, rich and poor that coronavirus is a Western conspiracy by Christians and Jews responsible for funding research in Wuhan labs.
Well, wearing masks, using sanitizers, washing hands, and testing for coronavirus are selling points of multinational companies and their accomplices in the country.
What about those millions who are infected, hospitalized, and dying from coronavirus? The #CovIdiots mysteriously remain silent and dish out stereotypical responses to such pressing issues.
The study further emphasized that hateful extremists have used divisive, xenophobic, and racist narratives to sow division and undermine the social fabric of Britain.
Unless the British government urgently invests in counter-extremism measures, extremists will seek to capitalize on the socio-economic impacts of Covid-19 to cause further long-term instability, fear, and division in Britain.
For a democratic government, in the United Kingdom, the impact of extremist propaganda and disinformation shouldn’t be undermined. These conspiracy theories are harmful, dangerous, and are used by extremists to cause division and breed hate, reiterated Sara Khan.
Now a social media strategy needs to be developed to challenge dangerous conspiracy theories based on the harm they cause. This will enable practitioners on social media platforms to better challenge harmful conspiracy theories before they escalate.
Bangladesh shouldn’t miss the opportunity to join the global effort to classify dangerous conspiracy theories. 
A fresh counter-extremism strategy must include an assessment of how extremism manifests locally, the harm it causes, the scale of support for extremist narratives, and how best to pre-empt extremist activity.
The assessment should also include the people most vulnerable to extremist narratives, to deliver vital interventions to engage and support these guiltless people. 

First published in the Dhaka Tribune, 13 July 2020

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

Friday, July 10, 2020

Deep-rooted issues hamper Bangladesh’s recovery

Even as the number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise, healthcare workers in Bangladesh struggle to get their hands on good quality personal protection gears. The tendency to cover up irregularities and mismanagement has led to a prevailing culture of corruption.
Recently, Bangladesh crossed the grim milestone of 1,62,000 confirmed coronavirus cases. With a population of 160 million, the developing economy has been grappling with formidable challenges that have only been exacerbated by the outbreak of COVID-19.
Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB), a civil society organisation dedicated to fighting against corruption, has squarely blamed the government’s poor coordination for the current crisis.
The rot within
Data shows that 26 percent of the frontline healthcare workers in Bangladesh, including doctors, nurses, and hospital staff, did not receive personal protection gears, even as the number of COVID-19 cases has been on the rise. Also, the protection materials supplied to government hospitals were deemed to be of inferior quality.
At least six doctors who brought up the issue via Facebook posts were suspended or transferred to non-COVID hospitals as punishment for speaking out. Eventually, at the intervention of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the Anti-Corruption Bureau and anti-crime forces were shaken from their siesta. They raided dozens of places – including government warehouses – to find fake protective materials and stolen medical products.
“If the government wants to tackle this crisis, the right to get and publish accurate information must not be diminished,” said Dr. Iftekharuzzaman, executive director of TIB. The tendency to cover up irregularities and mismanagement through restrictions on disclosure of information encourages corruption.
Stitch in time
In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, TIB analysed seven indicators of governance, including rule of law, responsiveness, capacity and effectiveness, coordination and participation, accountability, transparency, and control of corruption. “The government failed to make adequate preparations even after getting three months’ time,” noted Dr. Iftekharuzzaman.
“The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have been largely ignored in the budget allocation for the health sector,” remarked Dr. Fahmida Khatun, executive director of the think tank Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD). “The outbreak is a lesson for us, which has made it clear how much strength we have to tackle the crisis,” she said.
The Daily Star, an independent newspaper, in an editorial recently wrote: From the onset of the pandemic, citizens have been confused and frustrated about the government’s lack of vision and direction in addressing the health and socio-economic implications of COVID-19 holistically. The newspaper came heavily on the government’s casual handling of the risk of spread at the initial stages, declaring general holidays and non-binding lockdown.
The arbitrary policy decision at every stage, the editorial observed, have left ordinary citizens as well as experts in bewilderment as to what the government is thinking and what it wants to achieve in the near and far future.
Prof Abul Kalam Azad, Director General of Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS) drew flak from ruling party leaders when he recently said, “COVID-19 situation in Bangladesh will not go away in two or three months, rather it is likely to stay for two to three years.”

First published in the Health Analytics. 10 July 2020

Saleem Samad, is an independent journalist, and health fact-checker, recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He could be reached at ; Twitter @saleemsamad

Monday, July 06, 2020

No quick fix democratic reforms in Pakistan

Photo: Reuters
When Pakistani Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, in an off-the-record briefing with journalists in March 2018, was quoted as saying that the 18th Amendment was “more dangerous than Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Six-Points political agenda, except the veteran politicians of the 60s,” none in the Islamic Republic understood what the Rawalpindi GHQ chief meant.
The Six-Points was deemed a threat to national security and unity of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan by the Hawks of Rawalpindi GHQ. The Hawks believed that when the Awami League in a landslide victory in 1970 elections won an overwhelming majority, both in provincial assembly as well as in national assembly.
Hawks understood regional parties which won in three other provinces of Balochistan, Sindh, and North-East Frontier Province (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) also would be upbeat to demand greater autonomy. The implementation of the Six-Points would be fuel in fire to the simmering independence movement in Balochistan, a princely state forcibly occupied in March 1948.

What is the 18th amendment?
After an unceremonious exit of General Pervez Musharraf in 2008, Pakistan’s new civilian government and opposition parties were united in creating several hurdles for the military to seize power again.
During his iron-fisted reign, Musharraf toppled an elected government, dismissed judges, suspended the constitution, and imposed emergency rule to consolidate his power.
In 2010, President Asif Ali Zardari enacted sweeping constitutional reforms that undid provisions that military dictators had introduced to tighten their grip on power and legitimize their coups.
Under the 18th amendment, the president no longer had the authority to dissolve parliament and impose an emergency rule on his own. The courts no longer had jurisdiction to validate suspensions of the constitution and powers were transferred from the presidency to a prime minister and their cabinet. The amendment also transferred power from the centre to the provinces, restored parliamentary democracy, and closed off paths to generals overturning the civilian rule.
Now, a decade on from that landmark move, there are fears that the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan, who is backed by the military, is seeking to roll back the changes, which are widely seen as the bulwark of the democratization process.
The ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) has called for a review to “fix” what it perceives as flaws in the 18th amendment, including restoring federal authority over legislation and finances.
Ian Bremer recently wrote in Time magazine: “Army leaders equate the new powers granted to provinces with the ‘Six-Point’ movement, which led to the creation of Bangladesh, a stinging blow for Pakistan’s military.”
Opposition politicians have accused the powerful military of manipulating the 2018 elections to help the PTI win. The opposition parties also condemned Imran Khan’s political catchphrase “Naya Pakistan.”
Amid the coronavirus outbreak which gripped Pakistan, it has immensely delayed the politics of “quick fix” of the 18th amendment.
Michael Kugelman, South Asia senior associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars in Washington DC, argued that reining in the amendment would “amount to a demoralizing defeat for the forces of democracy in a nation where such forces have long struggled to secure a sustained foothold.
“The 18th amendment has long endured like a brave and bold achievement that showcases the very real potential for strong democracy in Pakistan.”
Fortunately, the Naya Pakistan government does not have a two-third majority in both the national assembly and senate that it would take to repeal or amend the 18th amendment.
As Ian Bremer writes, the Pakistani army has long had concerns over the 18th amendment.
So it did not surprise that Khan’s government, which relies on the army’s support to remain in power, has been pushing to make revisions to the law.

First published in the Dhaka Tribune, 6 July 2020

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