Archive for the ‘Bangladesh’ Category
New York- Three years ago today I trekked into northern Syria’s rebellious Idlib Governorate from Hatay Province in Turkey. I had to put immense trust in my fixer who was living in a Turkish Red Crescent camp at the time with his family after having fled the town of Binnish where he’d been a school teacher in peacetime. When I asked how many other journos he’d taken where we were headed, he said just one, the legendary Times correspondent Anthony Loyd. When I badgered about who else, he’d said Peter Bouckaert, Human Rights Watch’s emergencies director. Not bad company, I thought to myself.
These dudes were famous and if they trusted M_____d than I thought I could too. As with any of these situations though, there’s just an element of risk that cannot be subtracted. Besides the obvious dangers (and this was before Syria had become a beheading ground for the most unfortunate outsiders), there was the sheer physicality of it all. The mountain, the rain, the snow, the razor wire, the fear, the paranoia. Why was this worth doing? I was following a chain of events since early 2011 in which stultified regimes in the world’s most politically stagnant Arab-ruled states.
The so-called ‘Arab Spring’ involved far more than the ‘Arab Street’ of the early 2000s. Libya had its Tubu, Tuareg and Amazigh (Berbers), Syria had its Kurds and so forth. None of these places were ethnically homogenous. Plus there were the fleeing guest workers from Bangladesh and other forlorn states that had grown dependent on a remission economy as they bled out economic migrants. It was a broad movement that caught fire with local characteristics. Social media met kalashnikovs at dizzying rate. There were notable exceptions of course, like Algeria where it was posited that the populace had tired of the bloody war from the 1990s thus not having the stomach for a prolonged clash with the Bouteflika regime.
Returning to the Syrian border in October 2014, I wouldn’t have dared to cross it. The country had transformed from a place that welcomed foreign journalists when it was once the least covered uprising to the most feared place to work in the world. Even little Bahrain was a more fashionable topic when Syria kicked off nearly four years ago. The uprising began the day I returned to Alexandria from Benghazi on March 15, 2011 and I recall it as a minor news item. By the time I reached Syria three years ago after much of my own work in 2011 was focused on Libya, the media was still referring to the war there as a ‘crackdown.’
At the risk of sounding ultimately naive, there seemed to be an innocence about the rebel fighters I met. They welcomed me with the hospitality I remembered upon first traveling the region as a backpacker in the late 1990s. They sought to overthrow the Assad dictatorship. Yes, they were Sunni men from the countryside but they didn’t frame their struggle as a religious one when I spoke with them. I feared it might turn into a sectarian conflict with the history of the scorched earth suppression of the Ikhwan in the late 1970s, culminating with the destruction of Hama in 1982. Just as the Abu Salim prison massacre in 1996 had helped propel the Libyan war, Syria’s past would eventually come back to haunt it.
Syria’s war in 2015 is an intractable, fissiparous mess. It needn’t have been. But after decades of one man, one party style rule, even if the FSA rebels had coalesced under a properly hierarchical leadership, the country may have just morphed into a different version of chaos. We will never now. When the rebel commander asked me why the West wasn’t eager to assist his men as they had so willingly in Libya (as it appeared from a Syrian perspective), I made a cynical retort: “Look at the map. Libya borders places like Niger and Chad to its south that no one in the West gives a damn about save for energy interests. Your country borders Israel to its south (west). This makes assisting your people in an armed humanitarian intervention infinitely more complicated.”
New York-The reverberations of the misguided American policies following 9/11 paired with the continued spread of anti-authoritarian Arab salafism, South Asian Deobandism, evolving Levantine takfirism and the like amongst the global Sunni community*–both in terms of rhetoric and ground reality–are being felt today.
*Although it must be noted that actual adherents to kinetic radicalization are very few in absolute numbers relative to the global population of Islam’s principle denomination.
I recently appeared on BBC Arabic in my colleague Murad Shishani’s report on the first documented American suicide bomber in Syria, a young guy originally from West Palm Beach, Florida named Moner Mohammad Abusalha.
Clearly the only thing the Bush-era/neoconservative speak did was further polarize vulnerable communities and individuals. Suicide bombing has long since metastisized from somewhat of a curiosity among those studying war-fighting in the historical/tactical realm to such a common practice it is barely worth a mention in the news cycle unless its victim is someone of great importance.
The NYPD’s terribly clumsy spying program here on New York City’s masjids has only made immigrant communities here turn inward, wary of interlopers. Instead of developing methods of genuine inter-communal dialogue (while keeping in mind the now radioactive concept of ‘assimilation’ on which there is no longer a broadly accepted societal compact on just what that precisely means today), there seems to have only been an unfortunate increase in radicalization.
Judging by outward appearance in the outer boroughs, some hijabis are becoming niqabis and young dishdasha-clad boys in Air Jordans who hail from a lungi-wearing and shalwar kameez cultural milieu are being indoctrinated by agenda-bearing mentors. (I’m very narrowly referring to my personal observations of the minority but growing pro-Bangladesh Jamiat-e-Islami sector of the Bangladeshi Sylheti and Chittagonian community here.)
Last week Dr. Abdullah Abdullah’s presidential campaign convoy was attacked by suicide bombers outside the Ariana Hotel in Kabul just before this weekend’s runoff election that will hopefully finally signify an end to the stultified malaise of the Karzai era. And this morning we learned that ISIL had gained control of large swaths of Mosul in Ninewa Governorate in a post-America Iraq that seems to be falling apart save for Basra and parts of the deep south.
The world as a whole cannot seem to move beyond impudent, self-destructive polemical tracts with the vitriolic terminology they entail. As we are presently witnessing in Ukraine, there is apparently a fight between ‘fascists’ and ‘terrorists’ there. The language being employed by all sides in that conflict spans from Stalingrad to the Chechen wars.
These unhelpful, reductive terms obscure reality and inflame conflict.
Barcelona- Partly out of boredom and partly out of the itch to simply create something new out of old, I threw together this photo montage over the weekend. In this era of digital photography where one shoots thousands of frames rather than analog hundreds, I was reflecting on how almost all of the images I make will never see the light of day in this regard. I put this video together in a largely random fashion with images that have been just sitting in my laptop for years. I put the photos in the order they came to me as I grabbed them one by one from various folders containing my view of many of the biggest news events of the last 10 years.
Interspersed with them are much more sublime moments of everyday life around the world. An elephant in Thailand, an aged priest in Ethiopia, a glitzy office tower in Manhattan. This has been my reality and is our collective reality. Globalization and social networking simultaneously accelerate worldwide travel and technological integration while hyper compartmentalizing our lives. We speak more so to only those who we want to and listen to those with whom we already agree.
No one knows just where any of this is going. Billionaire fraudsters suddenly imprisoned, social revolutions springing up from seemingly nowhere (though not quite), calcified dictatorships counted on for decades in the interests of “stability” suddenly crumbling to pieces, it seems as if the entire world order is in question.
New York- I have a new story out in today’s Asia Times Online about an alleged Chinese spy who was detained and deported from India in what seems to be a very curious case that has received no attention in the Western media that I know of. I came across the story while working on the new issue of Militant Leadership Monitor and decided that it was worth devoting a full article in and of itself.
A lot has happened in the world since I have been pecking away at my laptop. The Finest supermarket in Kabul’s Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood was suicide bombed last Friday that killed at least eight (or nine). While covering Afghan politics in 2009, I survived on provisions from the Finest Shahr-e-Nau location which often had the only working ATM in the city and was walking distance along dust-choked streets to the places I was holed up while filing stories. The Finest stores are owned by Sayyed Mansoor Nadiri, the head of Afghanistan’s Ismaili community and cater to Westerners in the city, making them an obvious target of Deobandi suicide attackers. I met and photographed Nadiri briefly while he cast his vote for Karzai on election day in Kabul and instructed all of his followers to vote for Karzai as well in one of Karzai’s many back room palace deals he cut with warlords and religious leaders to guarantee his “reelection.” I used often drive by the Wazir Akbar Khan location coming back into the city center from Jalalabad road and sit by the traffic circle nearby and observe Western mercenaries mingling in the parking lot after a hard day of tooling around the city intimidating Afghans and looked upon them with disdain. In any war zone, mercenaries are the bottom of the barrel in the hierarchy of “war tourists” and are a favorite target for insurgents. A deadly conflation appears when mercenaries, as fellow Westerners, consume the same goods and services as journalists, diplomats and aid workers and the wished for, supposed distinction of identity washes away and one target becomes indistinguishable from another in a highly chaotic environment. Kaboom!
Then al-Qahira (a.k.a. Cairo) where a day of rage has turned into days of rage and the Obama administration has consistently been “not out in front of this thing” to use my favorite political cliche of late. Mubarak has been the tallest hypocritical cornerstone in America’s bogus democracy promotion agenda for a long time. The last time I was in Egypt was after traveling there via Jordan after the American invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003. Iraq was singled out by neoconservative ideologues as an unpalatable dictatorship that had to be overthrown by force and at once, largely because it was a dictatorship or so the world’s public was told (depending on the day and which way the wind was blowing). Egypt and Jordan, an authoritarian presidential patronage state and a constitutional monarchy respectively, are dictatorships that are stood up by the U.S. taxpayer due to their pliable leadership and peace treaties with Israel, another highly unegalitarian state. Here in the United States, every Zionist, anti-Arab pundit is desperately scrambling to play the Muslim Brotherhood card to confuse and frighten an unfortunately, largely naive public. These pundits views are as out of date as the Brotherhood’s. They only believe in democracy promotion so long as it fits their very narrow idea of democracy, an impossible fantasy in most of the world. Throughout the Cold War, we were told that the Arab world was not ready for democratic and open society because it would create a dangerous vacuum filled by the then boogey man de jour, communism. Now plenty of such Cold War-reared pundits are having a field day warning that the American public should not cheer on a liberation revolution on the streets of Egypt’s cities because surely nefarious Islamists will fill the dangerous void if Mubarak flees, say, to Saudi Arabia, another dictatorship. Then there are those that say things like “well we don’t know if Arabs are ready for democracy” which is akin to those who asked in 2008 whether American voters were “ready” for a black president. Basically, soft racism. The revolution in the Arab states of North Africa and the Middle East is being televised and it is nearly irrelevant what a White House press secretary says in a reactive rather than proactive statement at this point.
New York- The BBC is reporting yet another round of violence against the stateless Rohingya being perpetrated by the Bangladeshi authorities. One of the most violently persecuted people in the world today, the Rohingya cannot seem to find safe quarter anywhere. Every so often, the Bangladesh Rifles and border police seem to like to go into one of their ad hoc refugee settlements and give them a good thrashing to put them in their place. Bangladesh is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and does not feel the need to adhere to people’s most basic human rights. The Rohingya have not feared much better upon landing ashore in Thailand where many of them have been pushed back out to sea by the Thai armed forces to drown. Two years ago I reported on the plight of the Rohingya for the Huffington Post; first on the underground migrant scene in Karachi, Pakistan, and then on the squalid refugee camps of Bangladesh’s deep southeast. Apparently nothing has improved for these immensely desperate people and nothing looks to change in the near term. After coming back to New York from South Asia in the spring of 2008, I just happened to meet Ismat Jahan, who was then the Bangladeshi ambassador to the UN and politely but firmly asked her to assist these people in what I termed a South Asian Darfur. She demurred saying that the UN was sending her on a good governance junket to Sierra Leone while her own country festered. Isn’t the international system just fabulous!
I went to another taping of Real Time with Bill Maher down the street at CBS’s Television City primarily to hear Nobel Prize winning economist Muhammad Yunus. After scoring the tickets, I saw that MIA had been added to the lineup I assumed to talk about the devastation of Tamil Eelam in northern Sri Lanka. Indeed Bill had MIA sit down for the first segment but he wasted the first few minutes asking her frivolous questions regarding her appearance at the Oscars. MIA, who is normally very confident, some would say even strident, actually appeared quite uneasy talking about the war in her ancestral land and seemed to have virtually no talking points prepared. Having recently written about the crisis myself I thought her appearance would be a continuation of her somewhat infamous Tavis Smiley segment in February. Bill then made an awkward analogy comparing Sri Lanka with 1994 Rwanda not comprehending that in Colombo, the government is run by the Sinhalese majority whereas in Kigali, it was precisely the opposite scenario with a Tutsi-led minority government. Bill may have been thinking of pre-1948 colonial Ceylon when it was considered that the British favored the Tamils in their divide et impera strategy? Not bloody likely. As usual, the context gets lost in the noise. Rwanda and Sri Lanka took very different post-colonial paths. When Ceylon became independent, it was by a Sinhalese-speaking majority thereby breaking the chain of British minority favoritism. Rwanda’s inherited divide and rule format was absorbed as policy upon independence. Both ways were paved paths to disaster. One a short outburst of hyper violence and the other a long war of attrition with a climatic ending.
The banker from Bangladesh, however, did not disappoint. Muhammad Yunus railed against overt materialism and capitalism devoid of a social context. While he was likely preaching to the converted, his message of banking with a conscience seems to resonate in a recession to a Western audience in a way that it may have otherwise not. He briefly mentioned bringing his Grameen Bank to New York which would account for the Grameen America office I spotted in Jackson Heights, Queens several months ago. Jon Meacham of Newsweek and economist Simon Johnson of MIT seemed to agree. Meacham cited the unifying qualities of the Great Depression and World War II taking Yunus’s point a line further in the notion that with great crises comes great opportunity. Within this shattered economy, there is a chance to reevaluate the descent of American virtue into the abyss. In Yunus’s Bangladesh, the quintessential global basket case, micro finance has brought a thousand points of light across a socio-region that otherwise may have taken generations to adapt by poor people traditionally being stifled in a politically and culturally top-down hierarchical society with an insular familial power structure. Meacham commented that Wall Street was also a top-down system that has failed us. A mix of a faltering, headless financial core with people in poverty whether in the United States or South Asia, is where micro finance can fill much more than what was originally considered by many to be a niche. The Grameen concept is an attempt to create an economic land bridge between traditional markets and what is referred to by Indian economists as the “Unorganized sector” which is a fanciful way of saying “People who do not pay into the taxation system nor receive anything from it.” Many Americans are forming a new unorganized sector here in the United States and they are doing it not by choice.
I’ve got a new piece out with the folks at the Jamestown Foundation in Washington on a seemingly obscure insurgent movement in Northeast India that has been active for three decades and shows few signs of dying out anytime soon. Not all militant movements are Islamist nor are they confined to operating in nations outside the G-20 and/or failing states. Take a look at the article here…
Burma’s stateless minority under the tip of globalizations’ spear
A column of frail women and children in brilliant cotton tunics deftly balance aluminum jars atop their heads as they trundle down a steep, eroded jungle hillside. They are spending most of their day in search of the area’s most valuable commodity, clean drinking water. After hours of searching, what they most often find are muddy, stagnant pools. These are the Rohingya, a people you have never heard of, striving to subsist in a place you’ll never visit, inhabiting a violent landscape of crisis completely devoid of human rights.
The most common image of the plight of human migration portrayed in cooperate media these days is what’s known as “South to North”: Guatemalans passing themselves off as Mexicans trying to enter California’s vast produce engine or Cameroonians traversing thousands of miles up the African continent to look for work in a Parisian suburb are but a few odd examples that come to mind. However there is another scenario that is far off the radar of Lou Dobbs and his ilk who appear to advocate blatant xenophobia as part of a Pavlovian response to their own fears and misconceptions about the pace of an increasingly integrated global economy.
Referred to as “South to South” migration in think tank parlance, these massive underground movements are an example of the complex patterns of today’s transnational human exodus across political and cultural boundaries. South to South migration is an economic indicator writ large conveying the severity of poverty (and often state repression) of people struggling to earn $2 a day in the “Global South.” This ambiguous term, which may be new to some, is what we used to refer to as the “Third World” during the Cold War. These human movements and refugee outflows are only likely to increase in the 21st century across this vast region. This Darwinian competition strains the world’s economic and human resources in parity with the ascendancy of these pragmatic Asian market states. With particular reference to the Republic of India and the People’s Republic of China, these furiously accelerating economies are further less inclined to institute a faintly moral foreign policy in light of the wishes of their leadership and the needs of their respective billion-plus populations. Rather than promoting liberty and idealism as the triumph of human desire, the search for natural gas fields and connectivity of deep-sea ports are a core strategic component in the rise of these mega states.
In ten years of travel and reportage at civilization’s fraying and violent crossroads, I’ve witnessed an array of struggles of people burning in the smoldering embers of post-World War II decolonization and the last great upheavals of the post-Berlin Wall paradigm shift. From meeting depressed Iraqi refugees living in a dark hotel in coastal Syria, to nowhere Palestinians in brick and mortar “camps” in South Lebanon, I have never personally encountered a situation as dire and a people as desperate as I have on a recent expedition to the far south of Bangladesh. There, near the country’s last settled town of Teknaf, I went to meet a stateless minority from western Burma called the Rohingya. With the advice of people from the United Nations’s High Commissioner for Refugees and Doctors Without Borders, I ventured into a squalid, ad hoc settlement along the Naf river. The Naf is not only a political boundary between Bangladesh and Burma (though the name Myanmar is the preferred nom of the country’s military dictatorship), but it is also a civilizational boundary between Muslim and Hindu South Asia and Buddhist Southeast Asia. This miserable aggregation is known locally as the “makeshift camp” indicating that it survives outside the recognized protection of the U.N. The refugees who “live” there remain in permanent legal limbo. The U.N. is severely limited by an understanding with the government of Bangladesh on specifically who and just how many Burmese it is allowed to help. The U.N.’s writ here is tenuous at best since Bangladesh has refused to acquiesce to the 1951 Convention on the Refugee (when it was then Pakistan’s deprived, untenable eastern wing) and its subsequent 1967 protocol. In other words, from Dhaka’s perspective, the world should be satisfied by the fact that a portion of refugees are being helped at all since Bangladesh is under no international or legal mandate to do so.
The Rohnigya are a Muslim people originating in Arakan state on Burma’s west coast. Arakan has since been renamed Rakhine State by the junta in favor of the ethnic Rakhine Buddhist majority. Since Burma’s independence from the British Crown in 1948, the Rohingya have been persecuted by the central government in several violent fits over the last six decades. The essence of the dispute, for lack of a better term, being that the junta does not consider the Rohingya to actually be Burmese citizens in large part because the are Muslim and it is therefore well justified in using ethnic cleansing to force them off of their farms and out of their villages in Rakhine State. This push factor throws the vulnerable Rohingya into neighboring Bangladesh and as far west as southern Pakistan (which we will visit in Part Two of this piece). Although Bangladesh is a majority Muslim republic to which the refugees feel a large degree of cultural, linguistic and religious affinity, they are hardly welcome there. The Rohingya refugees surviving in this dreadful camp are considered by the Bangladeshi authorities to be “illegal economic migrants” according to Shannon Lee, a Doctors Without Borders officer operating a therapeutic nursing center for under and malnourished children near the camp’s roadside entrance.
Upon visiting the Teknaf area camp, I was forced to ask myself if this utter wretchedness was even remotely acceptable under international legal and moral norms? The scene was more evocative of a Nicholas Kristof column on alleged genocide in sub-Saharan Africa than of 21st century South Asia. I thought to myself, somewhat cynically, that at least the Darfuris have George Clooney and Samantha Power. The Rohingya have no one, own nothing and have been stripped of everything, even their history. Naked children waddling around with distended bellies and emaciated elders stooping in their fetid huts without even the stamina to beg confound the odd visitor. This scene looked more out of a late night cable Christian infomercial than laying on the periphery of this century’s most highly touted, emerging global powers; China and India. It is therein I believe lay the issue of why there is a devastating dearth of political leverage on this urgent issue. While technocrats in “Incredible India” can attempt to dress up their strategy in Burma as constructive engagement, the Politburo in Beijing cannot be bothered to waste time on such euphemisms. In fact, it is precisely a reaction from within the Asian economic theater that India has abandoned its 60’s era ideologically driven foreign policy in favor of Kissengerian realpolitik to compete with the Chinese in the regional buffer states of Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and most disturbingly, Burma.
Last year, India’s activist Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee indicated that India would be willing to supply fresh arms and military-related spare parts to the Burmese regime in order to help its military flush out ethnic Naga and Assamese rebels from its territory back into India’s insurgency-wracked states of Nagaland and Assam along the Indo-Burmese frontier. India has a multitude of festering rebellions in its isolated Northeast that date back to the country’s painful birth in 1947. The calculatingly severe junta in Burma, forever playing the victim, says it is perfectly willing to coordinate on defense with the Indians so long as India agrees to assist them in updating their aging Cold War arsenal. The fact that China has been Burma’s principal military supplier over the years does not sit well with New Delhi as India looks to assert itself and increase cooperation in the region.
Part of India’s realpolitik outlook, known domestically as its “Look East” policy, is to have totally dropped the public support it once maintained for Aung San Suu Kyi, the junta’s Nobel Prize winning hostage. Sitting in the heat and pain of the makeshift camp, a Rohingya elder employed by a British NGO named Abdul Jabbar explained to me that his people had made an alliance with prime minister-elect Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy in the ill fated elections of 1990. Following the junta’s decision to nullify the democratic process in the country, the generals began to systematically crackdown on those who had supported the League. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party was meant to be a multi-religious and multi-ethnic umbrella organization (at least in theory) where the Rohingya would have been participants. For the cruel, late General Saw Maung and his successor Than Shwe, a massive, vengeful collective punishment was the order of the day for Burma’s Muslims. In the early 1990’s, hundreds of thousands of them fled to riverine environments in Bangladesh’s deep south.
The junta, in the then capital of Rangoon, insisted that the Rohingya minority were not historically Burmese nationals and had no right to dare assert their political or sub-national identity. Bangladesh, a perpetually poor and deeply corrupt state, claimed it had neither the means nor the goodwill to house and assist the Rohingya refugees seeking shelter. The generals in Burma insist that the Rohingya are in fact historically Bangladeshis who migrated to what is now Burma beginning in the early 1800’s at the onset of British colonial rule in Rangoon. The general’s solution to the Rohingya “problem” is blunt state repression interspersed with occasional ethnic cleansing. As for the refugees status in Bangladesh, authorities in Dhaka insists that the refugees are Burmese nationals who must eventually be repatriated to Burma lest their bothersome presence encourage further migration. The great irony of all this, as anyone familiar with the region might surmise, is that no one seems to be pushing out more migrants than Bangladesh itself. Bangladesh is the world’s most densely populous nation of any size and pushes untold numbers of genuine economic migrants north and west into neighboring India (as well as across the entire rest of the world). For the central government in Dhaka to label the Rohingya, who are legitimate refugees, as illegal economic migrants is the quintessence of hypocrisy in this age of hyper politicized globalization.
Trudging through the overwhelming stench of human waste and the eyes of hunger, I came upon a significant light of hope. While the camp is in the process of being taken over by a British NGO, a new, and in relative terms, state of the art refugee camp is being constructed up the road with humanitarian aid funding from the European Union. After a few days of wading through this squalor, it was incredibly heartening to see the new camp being constructed at breakneck pace with many of the laborers being refugees themselves. According to Engineer Bashar, who is in charge of the camp’s day-to-day construction operation for Islamic Relief UK, he is able to employ between 60-75% refugees of the approximately 1,000 workers under his charge. This not only brings in desperately needed income for refugee families, but also adds a sense of self worth for people who have lost everything to a regime that heeds not even the most fundamental cries of human dignity. It is not a circumstance devoid of hope, however much, much more progress is needed to shore up the Rohingya’s most basic human rights and long term food security.
Ultimately, we must ask ourselves the following: television host Charlie Rose has referred to this period in which we are now living as the dawn of an “Asian Century” while interviewing leading global economists and politicos from these aspiring superpowers. Here on the frontier of Bangladesh and Burma, two of Asia’s poorest nations, the Rohingya, an obscure and stateless people, suffer in silence at the hands of the military government in Burma’s Orwellian new capital of Naypyidaw, , while the leaders of Bangladesh’s feeble caretaker regime have themselves been less than sympathetic. As India and China are interested in resuscitating decrepit colonial era ports and WWII era transport routes in these weak states in the name of securing resources for their respective domestic economic progress, the Rohingya are literally being crushed to death. In the darkest shadows of dawn in this Asian century, there are children starving.