Archive for May, 2009
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 participated in a contentious debate on the BBC at the last minute today with Owen Bennett-Jones, author of Eye of the Storm, who was hosting a show from Islamabad. Initially, I didn’t realize I was on with a perennially controversial figure in Islamic politics in Pakistan Khalid Khawaja whom I met at his lawyer’s office in Rawalpindi last year. Pakistan is convulsing in the largest humanitarian crisis since the catastrophic Partition of British India in 1947.
The Pakistani army is waging a difficult battle against those it terms “Miscreants” which the Western media knows collectively as the Taleban. Meanwhile millions of civilians, much like those in Sri Lanka, are caught dangerously in the middle. If Islamabad treats its own citizens as badly as Colombo, there will be plenty of trouble ahead. The rifts within Pakistani society have become so deep that solutions, rather than traditional exchanges of blame and conspiracy theories, are desperately in order. The United States is attempting to partner with Asif Ali Zardari who many Pakistanis see as an integral part of the problem much the way Afghans now view Hamid Karzai. Siding with inept and inherently corrupt leadership further perpetuates insurgency in these two vital and very fragile state structures. Taleban ideologues proclaim foremost that theirs is a war against a fraudulent leadership and a vacant justice system marketed through a prism of rigid Islamic doctrine. The Taleban’s two-front war is not terribly differing from the massive Maoist insurrection being waged against the state in central India. Pakistan has yet to adopt a viable counterinsurgency strategy and huge parts of NWFP are being displaced as a result. Fighting a conventional war against furious Pashtun religious nationalists will fail unless Pashtunistan’s legitimate issues are addressed in the long term which, so far, Islamabad does not appear inclined to do.
Podcast link here…
I have a piece on the Huffington Post this weekend on the supposed final offensive in the twenty-six year long civil war in Serendip that you can read here. Have a good weekend, there are a few hundred thousand internally displaced people in northeast Sri Lanka that won’t.
I’ve just finished this spring’s reissue of Steve Coll’s On the Grand Trunk Road:A Journey Into South Asia. Written starting twenty years ago in the dying days of the Cold War and long before the “World was Flat,” Coll was the Delhi bureau chief for the Washington Post and traveled widely throughout the region during his tenure. While a lot of books on South Asia tend to focus solely on the Indo-Pak/Kashmir dimension, Coll thankfully includes the wayward states of Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal. He needed only to have included the Maldives and Bhutan to round it out. Many of the characters present in the book are either still the most prominent people in South Asia today in what I often term the area’s “Hereditary, feudal democracies” or have been assassinated. In South Asia where even the most perfidious, blatantly corrupt leaders become martyrs upon death, the Bhuttos and Gandhis of the world live on. It’s hard to say whether it is prophetic or pathetic, but twenty years after Coll’s journey along the Grand Trunk road began, a lot has changed very little. India has unchained itself from the Nehruvian ideal under the helms of PM’s Rao and Singh while the nations on it’s periphery seem to consistently slide into the abyss.
To me the two most noteworthy parts of the book were Coll’s bizarre page-turner as he looks into the death of Pakistani General Zia ul-Haq, who’s dual Cold Warrior and Islamization policies shaped Pakistan muc as we know it today, and his chapter on Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese Marxist People’s Liberation Front. Sri Lanka is normally looked at through the lens of the government’s war against the LTTE in the northern and eastern parts of the country. Coll highlights Sri Lanka’s and South Asia political and ethnic complexity with the story of the Janathā Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the government death squads that are out to eliminate their cadres. (Inexplicably Coll describes the JVP as Maoist on one page and Marxist on the next?) On the Grand Trunk Road is a must read for those waiting to jump into the “AfPak” fray in the Obama era. Neophyte journalists and junior diplomats will have to immerse themselves in an obscure past if they are to navigate a present facade of anarchy where blood is being spilled and children are being killed. Coll’s fifteen-year old book is a good primer and an unfortunately utterly relevant one at that. The Indian subcontinent and it’s Hindu core cannot be fully understood without a firm grasp of it’s burning Buddhist and Muslim periphery. There can be no comprehension of Bangalore without the context of Bangladesh. Get reading.
I have a piece this week on the Huffington Post on where Pakistan was and where it is or could be going. Read it here…