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Sunday, February 26, 2023

China’s Neo-Economic Imperialism Shackles Defaulting Small Nations


Communist China for decades used to air propaganda on its state radio that the United States, Japan, Britain, and European countries are economic imperialists, warmongers and back autocratic regimes in third-world countries.

Political economists and several think tanks describe China has become an economic giant and definitely a new superpower.

There are reasons to be concerned about the dramatic rise of China as a military power in the Asia-Pacific region.

A British popular tabloid newspaper The Sun claims that China is “colonizing” smaller countries by lending them massive amounts of money, which they can never repay.

Developing countries from Pakistan to Djibouti, the Maldives to Fiji, all owe huge amounts to China and have fallen into a debt-trap.

Alarm bells are ringing for Pakistan’s public debt is piling up, while a new narrative taking shape in the West that the controversial Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is creating a debt trap for developing economies, many are quick to link Pakistan’s ballooning debt to loans incurred under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

The BRI flagship $62bn project in Pakistan links with the persecuted Uyghur Muslims in East Turkistan (now Xinjiang Province) of China and is being built through disputed territory in Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan-administered Kashmir, and restive Balochistan.

The ambitious project fails to address the participation of the fiercely independent Baloch people. Time will explain whether the full utilisation of Gwadar Port built by the Chinese will be feasible.

Now Pakistan will have to repay $100 billion to China from 2024 of the total investment of $18.5 billion, which China has invested on account of bank loans in 19 early harvest projects, under CPEC.

Very recently, Rhodium Group, a US-based research organization, reviewed 40 cases of China’s external debt renegotiations.

It was found that defaulters are being pressured into surrendering control of assets or allowing military bases on their land.

Sri Lanka is the best example of being riddled with debt. Owing more than $1 billion in debts to China seized control of Hambantota port for use by companies owned by the Chinese government on a 99-year lease.

The Sun article alleges that the defaulters have been pressured into surrendering assets and territory or allowing military bases on their land, thus increasing its military footprint in the region. There is only one other reported case of asset seizure from Tajikistan in 2011.

Meanwhile, the Doraleh Container Terminal in Djibouti has fallen into Chinese hands, particularly because it sits next to China’s only overseas military base. Djibouti is home to the US military’s main base in Africa.

A report from The Center for Global Development, a Washington DC-based nonpartisan, nonprofit think-tank offers some insight into the spreading China debt.

Researches exemplify how infrastructure project loans to Mongolia, Montenegro, and Laos have resulted in millions or even billions in debts, which often account for huge percentages of the countries GDPs.

Well, most of the projects are linked to the BRI and undertake work on roads and ports with part-funding from China, a bold project to create trade routes through huge swathes of Eurasia, with China at the centre.

China’s economic empire is visible in the Pacific region, prompting fears the country intends to leverage the debt to expand its military footprint into the South Pacific.

Australia expressed alarm at this move, which would effectively increase Chinese military presence on a key gateway to Australia’s east coast.

Sydney’s Lowy Institute think-tank, which has closely monitored China’s activities in the Pacific, estimates Beijing has poured nearly $ 1.74 billion into Pacific countries since 2006.

Among the projects this money funded was the largest wharf in the South Pacific – considered capable of accommodating aircraft carriers.

China approached Vanuatu about setting up a military base. The country owes $238.32 million to China.

Tonga also carries some big debts and has already admitted to struggling with repayments.

Other big debtors include Papua New Guinea, which owes roughly $621.30 million in development and aid debt, Fiji, which owes $606.23 million, and Samoa, with a debt of  $225.77 million.

Critics, however, dismiss China’s lending practices explaining the Chinese were “sincere and unselfish” in mega-projects in countries that are unable to repay loans.

The change of heart from a third-world leadership to “economic imperialism” cause fear among the poor and developing countries.

First published in The News Times, Dhaka, Bangladesh, February 26, 2023

Saleem Samad is an independent journalist and a media rights defender. A recipient of the Ashoka Fellow (USA) and Hellman-Hammett Award. Twitter @saleemsamad; Email:

Sunday, February 12, 2023

Is Freedom Of Expression Worsening In Bangladesh?


Freedom of expression in Bangladesh has been a constant feature of our nation’s recent political history.

In the recent past, the global media and organisations at the national front, as well as in the international arena are agog on the issue of freedom of expression.

The international bodies including United Nations, foreign embassies, and human rights groups did not hesitate to be outspoken critics of the state of freedom of expression and also the status of press freedom in Bangladesh.

Well, a section of pro-government intellectuals and news organisations promptly blasted the national and international organisations for damaging the image of the country.

The ruling Awami League and the government agencies rebuked the organisations raising the issue of freedom of expression as a conspiracy against the country, which the authorities describe that freedom and democracy are running parallel and media is enjoying wide freedom.

Frankly speaking, they do not have enough information, nor do they understand the parameters of freedom of expression to counter the global outrage over the draconian laws which is shrinking the space for freedom of expression.

When the election is around the corner in January 2024, the government is poised to promulgate yet another law Telecommunication Regulatory Commission Regulation For Digital, Social Media, and OTT Platforms.

Similarly, the government months before the 2018 parliament elections passed the repressive Digital Security Act.

The cyber security law incorporates blasphemy, defamation and secrecy act which contradicts democracy, secularism, and pluralism.

The notorious Digital Security Act (DSA) criminalises the right to freedom of expression, dissent and critiquing the authority in any digital format. The worst victims were journalists, opposition politicians and netizens (social media users).

Politicians and journalists ranked the highest and were neck-to-neck in terms of those accused – at least 287 politicians and 280 journalists.

The draconian law recorded 1,109 cases filed under the DSA, of which around 60 per cent were over Facebook activities. A total of 2,889 individuals were accused, according to a study by the Centre for Governance Studies (CGS).

This study and other activities of CGS invited the state security agencies to haunt Zillur Rahman, executive director of CGS and a volley of criticism by intellectuals and ruling party politicians.

Meanwhile, the members of the global alliance Media Freedom Coalition (MFC) recently participated by envoys of Canada, Denmark, Germany, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Envoys from member countries of the MFC met early this month in the capital Dhaka to launch the MFC’s Diplomatic Network Initiative for their support of press freedom.

The diplomats discussed the current media landscape, including the censoring of online news portals and recent cases of harassment and intimidation of journalists.

The MFC was established in July 2019 at the Global Conference for Media Freedom and now comprises over 50 member states from six continents that have signed the Global Pledge on Media Freedom.

Last week, the United States Ambassador Peter Haas came down heavily at a discussion on “Online Freedom and Business Investment in Bangladesh” which jolted the upper echelons of the Awami League.

He frankly stated the United States government is concerned about the regulations for digital, social media, and over-the-top platforms the Bangladesh Telecommunications Regulatory Commission and the Ministry of Information have introduced, as well as the draft Data Protection Act.

What worries is that the “Data Protection Act, if passed with strict data localisation requirements, may force some US companies currently operating in Bangladesh to leave the market.”

The online platform regulations “will similarly dissuade companies from investing in their businesses here, if they face criminal liability for user content.”

The law threatens over 2,000 startup companies to be put out of business, and services that Bangladeshis use millions of times every day could become inaccessible.

The worst of worst came, the statement of Irene Khan, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression was released on 6 February on Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (draft) regulation for digital, social media, and OTT platforms.

Khan categorically said the proposed Data Protection Act is contradictory to Bangladesh’s obligations to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

Many of the categories of prohibited content in the draft Regulation are vaguely defined. Such broad and vague definitions as “racially or ethnically objectionable”, “offensive, false, or threatening and insulting or humiliating” or “hurts religious values or sentiment” are well beyond the restrictions permitted by international law.

Such clauses will encourage the removal of content by intermediaries as well as self-censorship among users, thereby having a direct chilling effect on freedom of expression, she observed in her report.

She urged the Bangladesh authorities to provide feedback on how the Digital, Social Media, and OTT Platforms Regulation is consistent with the obligations under international human rights law, especially the requirements of the Covenant.

Will the authority respond to the observation of Special Rapporteur Irene Khan? Bangladesh does not have the culture to respond to queries from international bodies.

First published in The News Times, Dhaka, Bangladesh, February 12, 2023

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

Tuesday, February 07, 2023

Iran Plunged Into Darkness When Khomeini Returns From Exile


Contrary to belief, dark clouds had overcast the skies of Iran when the Shia (or Shiite) Islamist leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned from exile 44 years ago on 1 February 1979.

The so-called Islamic Revolution which is believed to have ousted the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, on 11 February 1979, is a myth – not an actual political history of Iran.

The charismatic leader of the Iranian revolution returned to Iran after 14 years in exile, indeed was an important turn point in the history of Iran.

Born around the turn of the century, Khomeini was the son of an Islamic religious scholar and in his youth memorised the Quran. He was a Shia — the branch of Islam practised by a majority of Iranians — and soon devoted himself to the formal study of Shia Islam in the city of Qom.

In 1941, British and Soviet troops occupied Iran and installed Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as the second modern Shah of Iran.

Mohammad Reza in 1963 launched the “White Revolution,” a broad reforms programme that called for the reduction of religious estates in the name of land redistribution, and equal rights for women. These reforms irked anger among the Islamic clerics in Iran.

In fiery dispatches from his seminary in Qom, Khomeini called for the overthrow of the Shah and the establishment of an Islamic state. In 1963, the Shah imprisoned him, which led to anti-Shah riots, and on 4 November 1964, expelled from Iran.

Khomeini settled in An Najaf, a Shia holy city across the border in Iraq, and sent home audio recordings of his sermons that continued to incite his seminary student and disciples.

In the 1970s, the Shah of Iran further enraged Islamists in Iran when he replaced the Islamic calendar with a Persian calendar.

As discontent grew, the Shah became more repressive with critics and dissidents, while public support for Khomeini grew. In 1978, massive anti-Shah demonstrations broke out in Iran’s major cities. Disgruntled citizens of the lower and middle classes joined the radical students, and Khomeini called for Shah’s immediate overthrow.

The Shah and his family fled the country two weeks before the return of Khomeini, and the jubilant Iranian revolutionaries were eager to establish a fundamentalist Islamic government.

With religious fervour running high, Khomeini consolidated his authority and set out to transform Iran into a religious state – pushing once a modern Iran towards the 7th-century medieval era.

In December 1979, a new Iranian constitution was approved, naming Khomeini as Iran’s political and religious leader for life.

Under his strict Islamic law, Iranian women were denied equal rights and required to wear hijab (Muslim veil), Western culture was banned, and strict Islamic Sharia law and brutal punishments were imposed.

In suppressing opposition, Khomeini proved as ruthless as the Shah, and thousands of political dissidents, critics and opposition were executed during his decade of rule.

The dangerous political decision taken by the revolutionaries caused immense harm to the nation. The unlimited pain, agony and suffering endured by millions of Iranian who believe in life and freedom.

The Islamic Republic denied democracy, pluralism, secularism, inclusive elections, and criminalised freedom of expression. LGTBQ and other forms of pro-choice lifestyle were also criminalised.

Earlier, the anti-Shah revolutionaries were drawn from the Marxist Tudeh Party and leftist Mojahedin-e-Khalq (MEK) which were banned by the Islamic Republic.

All progressive movements were brutally suppressed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards, dubbed as ‘Khomeini’s children’.

The MEK was founded on 5 September 1965 by like-minded leftist students in Iran and affiliated with the freedom movement of Iran to oppose the American-backed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

The MEK engaged in armed conflict with Shah’s regime in the 1970s and contributed to the collapse of Shah during the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

Simultaneously the communist leadership of the Tudeh Party organised the working class, including the thousands of Taxi drivers to revolt against despot Shah’s regime.

The communist also organised the civil bureaucracy, police administration and military to show dissent against Shah’s regime.

After the fall of the Pahlavi dynasty, the MEK boycotted the December 1979 Iranian constitutional referendum and Khomeini prevented Massoud Rajavi and other MEK members from running for office.

By 1981, authorities had banned the MEK and begun a major crackdown on the group’s members and supporters, driving the organisation underground. Islamic Republic arrested and executed numerous MEK and Tudeh Party leaders, members and sympathisers.

From his home in exile outside Paris, the defiant leader (Khomeini) extended offers to United States President Jimmy Carter. “Iranian military leaders listen to you,” he said, “but the Iranian people follow my orders.” Khomeini feared the nervous military and believed the royalist top brass hated him.

He urged Carter that if he could use his influence on the military to clear the way for his takeover, Khomeini suggested, he would calm the nation and stability could be restored. Reiterating America’s interest and US citizens in Iran would be protected.

Khomeini wanted Shah’s chief benefactor (US) to understand that he had no quarrel with America.

“Khomeini explained he was not opposed to American interests in Iran,” according to a 1980 CIA analysis titled Islam in Iran, partially released to the public in 2008.

At that time, the Iranian street protests were chaotic. Protesters clashed with troops, shops were closed, and public services were suspended. Meanwhile, labour strikes had all but halted the flow of oil, jeopardising a vital Western interest.

Persuaded by Carter, Iran’s tyrannical ruler, Shah, finally fled the country – thus ending the so-called Pahlavi dynasty for 2,500 years.

The Americans had extensive contact with Ayatollah Khomeini before the Iran revolution, writes the Guardian newspaper, which had access to the secret documents.

Documents seen by BBC suggest Carter administration paved way for Khomeini to return to Iran by holding the army back from launching a military coup.

Despite assurance to the US establishment for normalisation of diplomatic ties, on 4 November 1979, the 15th anniversary of his exile, students stormed the US embassy in Tehran and took the staff hostage.

With Khomeini’s approval, the radicals demanded the return of the Shah to Iran and held 52 Americans hostage, for 444 days. The Shah died in Egypt of cancer in July 1980.

After Ayatollah Khomeini died on 3 June 1989, Ali Khamenei became Supreme Leader. He is still the lifelong supremo of Islamic Iran with an iron hand.

Presently Iran has plunged into a nationwide protest against tyrannical rule by Mullahs where freedom of speech and equal rights of gender has been criminalised.

Will have to wait for how the Islamic Republic manages damage control after the global outcry of the brutal suppression of #IranRevolution, which broke out after a teenage girl Masha Amini was tortured to death recently by moral police for the inappropriate wearing of the hijab.

First published in The News Times, February 7, 2023

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

Sunday, February 05, 2023

Shahbag Square Thunderous Slogan ‘Joy Bangla'


On 5 February 2013, suddenly Shahbagh intersection become lively as thousands of angry and frustrated young people thronged the place to demand maximum punishment of war criminals indicted for war crimes and a crime against humanity during the brutal birth of Bangladesh.

On the tenth anniversary of Gono Jagaron Moncho, remembered for the revival of the war cry of Bangladeshi nationalism ‘Joy Bangla’ was significant. Tens of thousands of young people from all walks of life have turned up to protest the life sentences handed out to Islamists.

The platform for trial and punishment of Bangladesh-born henchmen of occupation Pakistan armed forces imbibed millions of young people despite they were born after the liberation war. They did not forget what the war criminals have committed to their motherland.

Popular belief suggests that Bangladesh is a conservative Sunni Muslim majority. The melee of thousands of young women at the square belies this. The women are there, with children in tow, on their lap or shoulder way past midnight.

The deafening roar of the youths at Shahbag Square, the epicentre of protest in Dhaka, is awe-inspiring. Mainly because over one lakh youth chanted “Joy Bangla” (Long Live Bangladesh) throughout the day and night.

Joy Bangla was the war cry of the Mukti Bahini (Bangladesh Liberation Forces) during the 1971 bloody liberation war.

The Joy Bangla slogan became taboo after the assassination of independence hero Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1975.

“Today I walk in the streets shouting the slogan without fear, prejudice or being bashful,” Shamsuddin Ahmed, journalist and writer tells me. “I haven’t heard that slogan in over 40 years since the country was liberated.”

The revival of the war cry of Bangladeshi nationalism is significant. Young people from all walks of life have turned out in their thousands to protest the life sentences handed out to an Islamist war criminal by the Bangladesh International Crimes Tribunal.

If the tribunal persists, Bangladesh could become the world’s first Muslim nation to bury political Islam once and for all. It is a devil which needs to be contained. And here’s why they were at Shahbag.

The struggle against the Islamic Republic of Pakistan was sparked off in its erstwhile eastern province in March 1971. Nine months later, the new nation of Bangladesh emerged, after a bloody gruesome war for millions of Muslims, Hindus, Christians and Buddhists and Adivasis alike.

Pakistan’s marauding army with their local henchmen committed genocide, crime against humanity and forced abductions for nine months of the independence war, nearly 4.5 lakh women were victims of rape as a weapon of war, and intellectuals were murdered and abducted.

Bangladesh war historian Prof. Muntasir Mamoon claims genocide of three million people. These were people whose only crime was to believe in the independence of Bangladesh. The marauding Pakistan forces and their henchmen were blamed for the genocide.

The peasants and students fought the elite Pakistan military forces and their auxiliary forces, largely recruited from among the Bangalee Muslim population in the country.

Their spirits were not dampened and we have demanded the trial of these henchmen, collaborators of war crimes. For forty years our voice was not heard. But most underestimated the new generation.

Their thunderous cry is not just audible over Shahbag Square. It echoes over social media, Twitter and Facebook. It is an angry voice demanding justice.

In the Arab Spring, the protests were anti-government. The Arab protester’s objective was to achieve democracy, freedom and justice. In Bangladesh, the scenario is dramatically different.

The protester’s quest is to seek justice for crimes committed in 1971, when Bangladesh, formerly the Eastern province of Pakistan, attained its independence. The crowd listens patiently to the chorus, poetry recitation and brief speeches for hours. Thousands chant slogans repeatedly.

Today Gono Jagaron Moncho which bonded millions of youngsters is a history, despite the controversy and myths around the movement. Forty-two years after its difficult birth, Bangladesh witnessed a rebirth in Shahbag Square.

First published in The News Times, February 5, 2023

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