Thursday, November 15, 2012

What the (Western) Press Isn't Telling You...

...Aung San Suu Kyi.

Burman nationalist.

The (forever) darling of Western media, Nobel-peace prize laureate has been rather quiet about the violence in Burma's Rakhine state (though she did call it... wait for it... an "international tragedy").

No ASSK - its not an international tragedy.  Its a Burmese tragedy.

Why?  Because the Rohingya are Burmese (we're talking about citizenship, not nationality).

It seems that Aung San Suu Kyi, is pro-democracy. Is pro-free Burma.  But for the Burmans.

Perhaps I'm being a little harsh - I wonder what her position on other ethnic minorities is? Or is it because the Rohingya are predominantly Muslim? Maybe she's a Buddhist revivalist (perhaps she could borrow some pages from some of the Sinhala ultras?)?

More questions than answers at this point.

But, we can safely state that Western press wouldn't dare sully the good name of ASSK.  Especially when the people in question, who are being ethnically cleansed, are Muslim (because that would go against the whole Muslim-terrorist-thing).

Not Bangladeshis. Certainly not Bengalis. But Burmese Rohingya Muslims.

Asia has always been a fascinatingly communalist place. Perhaps we should bring back Arakan?  That won't make the Bangladeshis very happy though.  And it would seem that a federal-style democracy in Burma is a pipe-dream. Unless you're Burman.


Not just a rant (Times of India).

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Geopolitical Importance of Bangladesh (Economics)

Like all things, the perceived importance of an object is dependent upon which chair one occupies. In other words, a glass of water is pretty important if you're thirsty, but not so when there's a knife to your throat.

Obviously, I'm a bit biased on the issue of how important Bangladesh is to any international actor (whether state, non-state, or supra-state organization).  For now (i.e. this post) I will limit my discussion to the importance of the Bangladesh to the relative position of the United States.

In some ways, this discussion should have occurred (i.e. I should have written it up) ages ago.  But I assumed that if you're reading this blog then you're already aware of the geopolitical importance of the region. But I shall be clearer now: this region is important to the U.S.

Let's begin with the (perhaps unexpected) topic of trade. In 2011, over 4.8 billion U.S. dollars worth of imports arrived from Bangladeshi producers much of it probably finished textiles (check the collar of your shirt, go ahead, I'll wait).  In terms of U.S. exports to Bangladesh this trade equaled over 1.1 billion U.S. dollars. Now before my American readers enter a protectionist fury over these numbers, let me urge you to reread some principles of macroeconomics textbooks.  To sum, international trade has the net effect of lower prices in the destination market (i.e. the U.S.) on those goods, say ready-made garments.  Now, this would be bad for RMG industrialists located in the U.S. but most are already located overseas and exporting the same (if not higher) quality goods for consumption back home at cheaper prices.  It would be worth pointing out that current political campaigns don't even bother explaining this, because no one cares.  And why not, clearly at some point Americans made their own clothes, but that was decades ago.  This change has been absorbed.

This near 6 billion U.S. dollar trade ballooned upwards in 2011 from about 300 million in the 1980s to just about 1 billion in the 1990s. A big reason for this was the increasing liberalization of the Bangladeshi economy (particularly after Zia's coup in the 1980s).  Comparatively, this trade volume is about medium its certainly smaller than China, India, or the United Kingdom (not to mention Canada and Mexico) but it is larger than say, Portugal (about 4 billion), Qatar (about 4 billion), the Czech Republic (about 5 billion), and is somewhat smaller than New Zealand (about 6 billion).

The strength of the trade relationship between the U.S. and Bangladesh should translate into sensitivity of the U.S. market to developments in the exporting sectors in Bangladesh (e.g. the RMG industry).  The Bangladeshi press recognizes the importance of the ready-made garment industry to the country's economy (if not the export relationship outright) and can be counted on to run stories of RMG workers striking, protesting, and rioting over better working conditions, increased wages, and other benefits (of which there are few, hence why the country is attractive to textile firms in the first place).

So far, Bangla Nation has not covered any of the unrest in Bangladesh's RMG sector.  But, to summarize this post, without the Bangladeshi government compromising with RMG workers to increase benefits, and perhaps bearing some of their cost while passing others to the corporations, the most important sector in the economy is at-risk.  While the U.S. cannot intervene directly in this internal discussion, it can provide developmental aid to assist the Bangladeshi economy in diversifying to not only promote other sectors for export but to also incrementally raise living standards in the country opening additional markets for high quality U.S. goods (as an alternative to cheap Chinese goods).

Source Note:  U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Foreign Trade Division

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Assam, Sun Tzu, SMS, and the geography of conflict

The economic violence occurring in Assam (due to land disputes), though labelled ethnic (between Bodos and Bengalis, the latter who are also noted as Muslim), and the violence now gripping other urban areas in India where, according to reports, Muslim groups are targeting those who look "Northeastern."  Retaliatory strikes on a group for violence done elsewhere in the country is nothing new, but the geography of conflict is represented in the way these attacks were organized using SMS and MMS messaging services.  Mass text messaging had (has) such an important role in the organizing of riots targeting "northeasterners" in the cities that Delhi announced a 15-day ban on 18 August.

But that's not the end of the story, in addition to this revelation of almost instantaneous transmission of photo- and video-graphic evidence from conflict zones hundreds if not thousands of miles away (a concept which most governmental and military types have trouble grasping), some percentage of the photographs and videos distributed by text were fabricated.  And it seems that some of these "altered"/"morphed" photos and videos were uploaded in Pakistan.

Taken together this is a very dangerous development for internal social stability, particularly in free media societies. Perhaps Indian Muslims are more inclined to read and get news from Pakistani websites, but where does one draw the line between honest mistakes (uploading the wrong photo or typographical errors) and disinformation/propaganda, where does these altered photos and videos fall? It seems that Government of India considers them to be the latter.

I don't know the whole story (obviously) but one question is - are these websites run by or associated with the Government of Pakistan? If so, then the implications are even more significant - it would amount to officially sanctioned information warfare. Even if these websites are run and maintained by concerned citizens with no ties to the government the overall affect of the disinformation is the same in India - riots, killings, and an environment of instability.

Consider: if you enemy is too busy fighting himself, then you probably won't ever have to. And that, dear readers, is Sun Tzu at his finest.

So what does this mean for the geography of conflict? The ongoing Assam 2012 conflict case is instructive.  How do we bound the conflict? Where is it taking place? Certainly not only in Assam, it has now spread to urban areas throughout India. In addition, the number of actors has expanded and the nature of the conflict is even more complex. An economic conflict over land rights continues and now runs alongside urban riots targeting a racial community, basing its information (and its subsequent actions) on disinformation partially coming from an inimical neighbor. The Army is involved in the former, while the police (presumably) are involved in the latter. Then there is the media and political groups confounding the voting public with their own narratives for the conflict, calling it ethnic, religious, or because of immigration.

Thinking more deeply about this case, the basis for conflict seems fundamentally unchanged - there is still the Clausewitizian trinity of goverment, people, military. However, as I just demonstrated we sometimes forget the importance of the interlocking relationship between these three actors during conflicts. Americans forgot the lesson in Vietnam, when an astute enemy remembered and won. Democracies are probably most sensitive to the People portion of the trinity, take the public will in a democracy out of conflict and you win. The U.S. typically separates the military and civil side of conflict (much to its detriment) but as the Assam case clearly shows, you cannot.  The Assam conflict is much more than its roots, which is (again) LAND DISPUTES.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Assam: India's very own basket case

...and this has absolutely nothing to do with illegal immigrants.  Really.

Some political parties (I'm looking at you BJP) are riding the long-dead horse of illegal immigration into the next election coming up in a few years (ask the Republicans in the U.S. how that works out).  For all the vitriol coming from some certain political parties you would think that India has a major illegal immigration problem.  In terms of comparison, the United States (population about 300 million) has approximately 11 million (not even 10% of the population) illegal immigrants from Mexico. India (population  over 1,000 million) recorded less than 100,000 persons (not even 1%) who could be considered illegal Bangladeshis over a three year period from 2009 to 2011 (says the Times of India).

So why blame illegal immigrants? The same reason Americans do, its politically expedient. Even some Congress politicians think they can garner favor with their constituents by blaming illegal immigrants.  I'm no expert on corruption, but I'm willing to be that if these politicians spent more time fixing broken economies with what money they do receive (rather than doling out favors to businesses and buying votes) the economic situation would actually improve.  Though I believe border management is largely a farce (seal the border! is a laughably stupid idea from, you guessed it, the BJP) meant to gather additional funds from Delhi, supporting local economies and cross-border trade would go a long way in righting the imbalance.

The continual harping on illegal Bangladeshi migrants (who just happen to also be Muslim) is also threatening to turn the ethnic violence narrative into a religious violence narrative as riots broke out in Mumbai (killing two and wounding scores more) following protests over the victimization of Muslims in Assam.  Copy cat attacks are now spreading to Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and elsewhere in Maharashtra, forcing the government to issue an advisory to various states asking these governments actually protect the citizens of India. What a novel idea!

Despite this very worrying development, I wouldn't call the Assam violence a pogrom, yet, since the Chief Minister of Assam (finally) revealed a few weeks ago that the conflict occurred over land rights and admitted that there are "no Bangladeshis in the clash."  But hats off to the BJP and the media for its sensationalism and abhorrent oversimplification. One hopes that the Indian media will wake up and stop painting the conflict as ethnic or religious in nature, not to mention the xenophobic Hindutva/Bharatiya Janata Party (HJP perhaps?).  Framing the conflict in this way obscures politically relevant solutions (like land reform and anti-corruption campaigns) for waste-of-money-and-time proposals like sealing off the border (seriously, if the U.S. can't do it in a desert, India certainly can't do it a geography dominated by hills, greenery, and waterways.

Update (literally minutes after I post):

STOP CALLING IT ETHNIC VIOLENCE TIMES OF INDIA. And yes, it is unfortunate because no one has really decided to investigate what the real problem is. Its much easier to just blame sectarian violence, because if you actually confronted the real problem - one would realize that it takes a bit more work (and money) than extra policing.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Cultural Sub-Regions

Currently reading: The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier (1204-1760) by Prof. Richard M. Eaton. Absolutely fabulous read from a cultural and historical geography perspective.

As the title implies, it tracks the development of Islam in Bengal from the early Turkish conquest (with the requisite discussion of Buddhist/Hindu religious underpinnings).

Chapter 1 includes a discussion of the ancient Bengal sub-regions without a decent map to show how these coincide with modern boundaries.

So I bring to you gentle readers, a map!

The shaded districts are noted in Eaton's text. I included circles to drive home the idea that the "unshaded" districts are likely part of the same cultural region. So why bother with this?

No less than two cultural sub-regions were split by British partition activities. Varendra (i.e. North Bengal) and Vanga (i.e. Central and southwest Bengal).  As Eaton points out in his text, historical development (meaning population, economic, political, cultural) flowed from west to east in Bengal. Thus, the Bhagirathi-Hooghly Basin which could arguably be conceived of the heartland of Bengal is situated wholly within India.  Meanwhile, the second heartland (Vanga) got split.

Samatata and Harikela, according to Eaton's text, were initially underdeveloped and hardly "Bengali." Samatata had more in common with the Arakan states and looked to oceanic trade as its actual lifeline.

That continued violence occurs in both Vanga (think Khulna) and Varendra (think Rajshahi) we may hypothesize that the continued split in the cultural region is partly to blame.  Though analyzing current events using data from the 13th century is tenuous in some ways, we should pause to reflect. Perhaps this isn't purely coincidental?

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Ethnic Violence in Assam?

Its typically very easy to fall into the narrative of the day, just a few short decades ago (I was even alive for this) the overarching narrative was West versus Soviet, democracy versus communism. It permeated everything, academia, politics, news, and the media. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the current conflict narrative has largely focused on ethnic violence. However, this narrative has a subplot since 2001 communal (that is, religious) differences has also taken a center stage in our (the public's) understanding of many conflicts.

This narrative is driven largely by our understanding of collective identities. What defines a person? Their place of birth? Their style of worship? Their sexual orientation? Their income? Truthfully, all and more of these questions play a role in the definition of "me." Depending on your geographic location, the acculturation and socialization process of "me" typically identifies which identities are most important for belonging. Of course, this also varies according to geographic scope. I may be a Tamil to Gujarati, but I'm a Christian Tamil who grew up in Pondicherry to a Hindu Tamil who grew up in Madurai, and I'm also a poor Christian Tamil from a bad neighborhood while my wealthy Christian Tamil went to private school on a yacht in the harbor. Conflicts, which involve groups of people, are often organized and presented as between static, monolithic communal identities.

While the human condition dictates that we simplify our world in order to better understand it, oversimplification causes us to miss the nuance of phenomena. In terms of violent conflicts, we forget that the actors involved maintain a variety of identities, some or all of which could motivate a conflict.

The Times of India and others have been reporting the ongoing violence in Assam over the last few days. Often the line taken is a combination of the ethnic and religious differences, in this case between the Bodo tribal community and Muslim Bengali immigrants (some of who may or may not be legal). According to the article the trouble started with the murder of a number of Bodos by unknown (at this point) miscreants. The Bodo community assumed it was Muslim Bengalis, a community which has been targeted for years. News outlets often attribute the violence to communal/ethnic tensions between the Bodos and Bengalis.

While difference in language and religious practice don't always foster good relations, the loss of employment and opportunities for the Bodos by immigrant Bengalis must surely rankle. However, perpetuating a pogrom is not a solution. The Times of India article alleges that the security forces in Assam, including the army, are content to sit back and not intervene in the targeting of Bengali or Bodo communities. This has created a situation in which almost 100,000 people are now internally displaced people. These people require government support and immediate assistance.

Both the government of Assam and of India need to continually acknowledge that this violence is beyond communal identities, it is rooted in the chronic underdevelopment of northeastern India. It is apparent that Bengalis will continue to immigrate (legally and otherwise) to Assam for work or simply to get into India and then to find work elsewhere. Border security will not help. The only solution is for the two national governments (India and Bangladesh) to agree to joint programs to address the economic and social underdevelopment of northern Bangladesh and Assam. Only then will immigration ease and "communal" tensions abate.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Mamata seeks to return West Bengal to feudal farming

The Times of India recently reported that Chief Minister (of the West Bengal government) Mamata Banerjee is seeking to limit the geographic areas where private businesses can purchase land for improvement. In other words, the government is seeking to limit industrialization to other areas that it designates. Her reasoning is that the areas to be excluded are "fertile" for, presumably, agricultural purposes and she is thus preventing a "food crisis." The areas designated for development include Purulia, Bankura, Birbhum, and West Midnapur.   Evidently, the government doesn't want these developments in North and South 24-Parganas, Howrah, Hooghly, and areas of Burdwan, Nadia, and Murshidabad.

Bangla Nation can agree to some of this but disagrees on the principle. The government should be allowed to  ameliorate the impact of private-funded industrialization, for instance, ensuring that tenants of the purchased land are properly compensated and placed in vocational programs (should they opt for it). The government should not wholesale prevent development for isolationist motives.

The Chief Minister incorrectly assumes that "fertile" agricultural land translates to preventing a food crisis. There may very well be a food crisis if the entire state of West Bengal was given to agriculture, some things are out of the government's control. In this case, the best defense against a food crisis is the enrichment and economic development of the population to ensure that they can purchase food that is available. The government's role, besides ensuring the population's enrichment and development, is to make sure food is available from any source whether it be from West Bengal, India, or abroad. And then there is the Maoist question.

I fully support the idea of driving development to "Maoist-infested" districts like Bankura, Purulia, and West Midnapur, however, development without security gains is utterly meaningless. Furthermore, what industrialist would want to invest in such a situation? Equitable economic and human development does need to come to these areas, but so does physical security. West Bengal's and the Centre's security forces should concentrate on carving out relative islands of prosperity that are attractive for development and industrialization programs from private firms. Once investment begins in a relative secure atmosphere, other human development projects can be introduced to ensure more healthcare and education for the residents. This approach not only deals effectively with the Maoist threat, but erodes that group's power base by showing the people who is really looking out for them.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Protecting the border with torture

Times of India is reporting (link) that the Supreme Court is seeking outside officers to investigate alleged human rights abuses among India's Border Security Force (BSF) on the West Bengal side of the Indo-Bangladesh border.

The alleged BSF actions include extra-judicial killings, torture, and rape.

Given the often tumultuous situation on the border between the two countries, we shouldn't be surprised if the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR, the Bangladesh border guards) engaged in their own acts of violence.

Bangla Nation has posted previously on questionable BSF (link) activities in Meghalaya state, India. Our opinion remains the same, the Indian state must act evenly and responsibly in all of its corners, whether its down the block from the Lok Sabha or in the ranges of Arunachal Pradesh.

Unfortunately these wanton acts of barbarity also reflect a growing undercurrent of Indian nationalism, which is typically on display on the Times of India comment boards. It is typically easy to dismiss such empty sentiments as "waste Bengal" but the BSF's activities should give the Centre pause.

A revealing study would entail releasing the information of those BSF soldiers who engages in these acts, where they were trained, and where they spent their formative years. Such a study might be illuminating.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Another journalist mucking up South Asia's geography

It seems that I always have the opportunity to write one post a year answering some journalist's analysis of South Asia.

This year's winner (maybe every year's winner...) is Robert Kaplan who's written an article on FP entitled "What's Wrong with Pakistan."

As usual, a journalist can appear to have done his or her research simply by providing a scant analysis of historical depth - in this case going back to the the days of Harappan. Yet for all the posturing they miss the big points. Kaplan completely neglects to mention that Bangladesh was once part of Pakistan. Perhaps he did forget since that would undermine his assumption that "Pakistan...does have geographical logic." I may have been asleep for my political geography class, but any child will tell you that attempting to govern land when another state lies in between for hundreds if not thousands of miles is ludicrous. That's not "geographically logical." In fact, there's no such thing as a geographically logical border.

At any rate, Kaplan betrays a well-known "western" bias in only examining the Ganges and Indus systems, why doesn't anyone talk about the Brahmaputra? Others have pointed out that the Bengal province of the Mughals and British Raj were the jewels in the crown, why else would the Mughals have expelled so much capital and manpower kicking out the Arakanese?

Second, Kaplan apparently wants to promote Islamophobia by insinuating the Muslims "conquered" and that Pakistan is the "very geographical and national embodiment of all the Muslim invasions." We should remember that Islam also spread peacefully throughout South Asia (and the world) through trade and contact with the Sufis. Considering that this phenomena typically predates military conquest (you can't conquer something if you a.) don't know about it or b.) don't know its value), Kaplan is presenting a VERY distorted view of history.

Third, Kaplan's whole Indian monsoon thesis/book is old hat. Enterprising readers are directed to "The Indian Ocean: Its Political, Economic, and Military Importance" (1972, Cottrell, Burrell, eds.)

To be continued...

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Rohingyas are not foreigners!

Over the past few weeks, news services have been abuzz with reports covering the violence in Rakhine state, Burma/Myanmar. The violence has gotten so bad that the United Nations is pulling personnel out of the area. According to the reports, the violence has an ethno-religious character with perpetrators being from the predominantly Buddhist Rakhine community and the predominantly Muslim Rohingya community.

But that’s not the beginning of the story. This latest violence is a product of centuries of cleansing by the government in Burma/Myanmar. It started in the late 18th century with the Empire of Burma annexed the Kingdom of Arakan as the British Empire consolidated power elsewhere in the Subcontinent. The Kingdom of Arakan was populated primarily by people claiming to be Muslims and speakers of a dialect similar to Bengali. Like the Bengalis, the first local Muslims were converted from Hinduism or Buddhism centuries earlier when Arab traders plied the Indian Ocean. Upon conquering Arakan, Burma took as plunder Buddhist relics held, presumably, by the Rakhine community in the Muslim state. Note, I’m going from memory here, it is entirely plausible, even likely, that the ruling elite of Arakan were Buddhist while the people were predominantly Muslim. The issue of removing religious relics following conflict is a popular motif in Southeast Asian history. One of the northern Thai kingdoms “stole” a Lan Xang (now part of the state of Laos) Buddhist relic and eventually moved it to Bangkok. With Burma now in control of Arakan, the British passed the area to Burma open departing India in 1947; this would ostensibly restore the area to its pre-colonization status. Except that Arakan was not a target for colonization.

According to scores of Rohingya refugees, the government of Burma/Myanmar has actively sought to change the demographics of former Arakan. Using such tactics as forced relocation, mass rapes, threats of violence, and other coercive measures, the government of Burma/Myanmar has sought over the last several decades to remove the Muslim population from Arakan province (now renamed Rakhine province) in favor of the Buddhist community. In addition, the government has also sought to disavow and remove Muslims and Rohingya from the historical mosaic of Burma. This is manifested in near constant assertions by the government that Rohingyas are foreigners from Bangladesh and thus, illegal in Burma.

Obviously, this is patently false but serves to further the government’s goal of fabricating a Buddhist state. The onus should be on Bangladesh to provide for refugees but the UN and international community should be pressuring the government in Burma/Myanmar to treat all citizens equally.