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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; 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; 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; 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; 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 Twitter @saleemsamad