Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Monsoon black clouds cause panic among Hill people

SALEEM SAMAD

With fresh landslides in Chittagong Hill Tracts, Chittagong and Moulvibazar, fear runs through residents of fresh landslides as monsoon rain lashes the hills.

Heavy monsoon rain may cause flooding across northeastern India and Bangladesh, triggering mudslides early this week, international weathermen predicts.

"An additional 75-150 mm rainfall with locally higher amounts threatens to further inundate parts of eastern Bangladesh and northeastern India," AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Kristina Pydynowski said. The additional downpours will continue the high threat for mudslides and flash flooding across the region. 

Fresh landslides cause rise of death tolls and destruction of road infrastructure, power lines and human settlements. The death toll in the hills has risen to 161.Most of the victims are from poor and indigenous communities living close to the hills. They were buried under tons of earth and mud while they were asleep at night. The landslides devoured and blocked all roads to picturesque tourist town Rangamati. 

The disaster occurred just weeks after Cyclone Mora lashed Bangladesh's southeastern coast, killing at least seven and wrecking tens of thousands of homes.Following the deadly mudslides from earlier this week, more lives and property will be at risk as heavy monsoon rain threatens to further inundate Bangladesh through this week, predict weathermen.

The hills in Chittagong region consist of sandy soil which is mixture of sand and soil, and is weak in nature, not of stone.

Roots of trees and grass growing on these hills hold the surface apparently tight but due to continuous hill cutting, felling of trees and building houses, the hills have turned naked, rifts are being created on top and their slopes.

As a result heavy rain makes the surface loose, soil melts, sand gets removed, and rifts widen which cause inevitable landslide claiming loss of lives of human beings and animals, destruction of wealth, disruption of communication, power failure and so on.

Government is the owner of hills, canals, rivers, and forest, etc. There are seven hills in Chittagong under the ownership of six government departments.

But occupying these hills illegally some vicious circles are earning huge amount of money from there. Owners of these hills are sometimes helpless to the illegal occupiers.

In 2007, after deaths of 127 persons, a committee formed under the Chairmanship of Divisional Commissioner of Chittagong submitted a report, identifying 28 reasons for landslide in hills and suggested 66 recommendations but all those are in cold storage for the last 10 years.

First published in The Asian Age, July 20, 2017

Saleem Samad, an Ashoka Fellow (USA), is an award winning investigating journalist and is Special Correspondent, The Asian Age, Dhaka, Bangladesh

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Repair of roads to Rangamati would take weeks


SALEEM SAMAD

Rangamati is cut off from rest of the Bangladesh. The unprecedented landslides in Rangamati which damaged the vital road infrastructures to and from the picturesque hill town.

Two roads which connect Rangamati have been devoured in the landslides during torrential rains in advent of monsoon.

Already, Barrister Anisul Islam Mahmud, Minister, Ministry of Water Resources, Ministry of Chittagong Hill Tracts Affairs (MoCHTA) Bir Bahadhur, State Minister, Secretary of MoCHTA, Bikram Kishore Tripura, Additional Secretary Kamal Talukder, Joint Secretary, MoCHTA, Sudatta Chakma, are in Rangamati to assess the situation.

The Ministers and senior officials in Rangamati held coordination meetings with officials of the district administration officials and Bangladesh Army and that the crucial road communication “will take a long time to repair”, wrote Bikram Kishore Tripura in Facebook on Saturday.

A crucial meeting of Relief and Rehabilitation Coordination was held on Friday at Deputy Commissioner, Rangamati's Conference Room. The meeting was attended by Tarun Ghosh, Vice Chairman, Chittagong Hill Tracts Development Board (CHTDB), Brig Gen Faruk, Region Commander, Rangamati, Ushaton Talukdar MP, Chakma Circle Chief Barrister Debashish Roy, Riaz Ahmad, Director General, Disaster Management, Rangamati Police Chief Syed Tariqul.

The Secretary also wrote that at “the moment Rangamati is [only] accessible through waterways from Kaptai.”

The death tolls of the massive landslides have killed more than 100 people and nearly 40 are still missing. Rescue operation is going round the clock to find any survivors.

Meanwhile, Rangamati District Administration has banned procession and rallies in the Hill district for a month.

Some has also posted in Bikram Kishore Tripura’s Facebook that the nature has taken its revenge for man-made deforestation, hill-cutting to build houses and agriculture farms.

Former Conservator of Forest, Mihir Kiran, writes: “Very sad and heart breaking. Demographic balance is must for the soil condition of the region. Otherwise we have to face the same unbearable fate every year.”

Tripura in a response said: Ideal but difficult to implement. You (Mihir Kiran) were one of the longest serving CCF of FD. You had the experience of failure in plantation in CHT, of course it was our collective failure, not at all personal. Nature has given us a grim signal. We must act without further delay. Time is running out fast.

However, Kirti Nishan Chakma writes in Facebook that “We can and must dissect the causes that has led to this tragedy. But this can wait a little later.”

“Urgent help is needed at the moment. There is a real risk of crisis of the essentials (rice, dal, salt, medicines, etc.) as that the two roads that connects Rangamati to the rest of the country are now completely cut off and repairing them is likely to take a long time given the hilly terrain,” opines writes Kirti Nishan Chakma, General Secretary at Moanoghar a home for distressed children in the Hills.

“A real scarcity of the essentials, maybe it is panic buying or hoarding by the people that is exhausting the available stocks, maybe it the typical dishonest traders who are trying to make quick bucks on the back of this catastrophe. Whatever are reasons, immediate interventions by the government is needed,” writes General Secretary at Moanoghar.

Already the price of the essentials is rising. It is not only Rangamati town, the entire or most of the Rangamati district could be affected.

However, the MoCHTA Secretary affirms that the government will do the needful for the relief, rehabilitation of the distressed people and repairs and reconstruction of the infrastructures. We have to have some patience.


Saleem Samad, an Ashoka Fellow (USA), is an award winning investigating journalist and is Special Correspondent, The Asian Age, Dhaka, Bangladesh

Friday, April 28, 2017

India may slow, Bangladesh is hopeful BBIN-MVA

SALEEM SAMAD

After the recent official visit of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to Bhutan, Bangladesh is hopeful of pursuing the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal Motor Vehicles Agreement (BBIN-MVA) inked at SAARC Summit in Kathmandu in June 2015.

India is likely to go slow on the implementation of the BBIN-MVA, keeping in mind the sentiments of close partner Bhutan where a section of the political establishment is opposing the initiative allegedly at the behest of the local transport lobby.

Bhutan Prime Minister Lyonpo Damcho Dorji at a press conference on the official visit of Sheikh Hasina told journalists that the two governments held a bilateral meeting on issues of trade, culture, agriculture and BBIN-MVA.

The Bhutanese prime minister said, "The BBIN-MVA is very important for connectivity in the region, which is one of the non-tariff barriers for trade. 

"For Bhutan, a landlocked country, we know the value of connectivity. Therefore, we have been supportive of the BBIN agreement."

However, Lyonpo candidly said, the public and the parliamentarians had some serious concerns because the implementation of the BBIN motor-vehicle agreement could result in seeing a huge influx of vehicles including passenger cars.

But quickly, Lyonpo said, there are certain provisions in the agreement and protocols, which will protect the interests of the respective countries. The Bhutanese government is clearly not in favor of 

trucking companies from India and Bangladesh enter Bhutan, an official of Bangladesh foreign office and privy to the BIBN-MVA issue said. The Bhutanese government has informed Bangladesh that it would need more time to convince local transporters about the benefits of BBIN-MVA.

It was advised by the Bhutanese parliamentarians, that the vehicles should be parked at the Indo-Bhutan border, in the Indian territory and unload the exportable goods.

What is feared by Indian and Bangladesh companies that the trucks would return empty, which would double the cost of trucking of goods, that will directly have impact on exports to Bhutan, said the official who preferred anonymity.

Meanwhile, Delhi has continued to negotiate with Thimphu for full implementation of the project and urged it for an additional protocol to it to suit Bhutan's requirements, are also not ruled out. In early May, Bhutan's Parliament would commence and is likely to withdraw a Bill on May 8 it had introduced in the country's Parliament last year to ratify the BBIN-MVA for Regulation of Passenger and Cargo Vehicular Traffic. 

Under pressure from truckers, the Upper House of Bhutan's Parliament had refused to ratify the pact, even though the lower house approved it and tried to convince seniors of the significance of this sub-regional connectivity initiative.

Several members of the Upper House, National Council, argued that the project would hurt the unique culture, tradition, environment, religion and economy of Bhutan. The National Council finally rejected the Bill in November, raising as many as 15 objections.

Neither Dhaka nor Delhi wish to expedite Thimphu to ratify the regional pact, keeping in mind that the Himalayan state will go for election in 2018.

Bangladesh, Nepal and India have already ratified BBIN-MVA and New Delhi and Dhaka have even went ahead to conduct a dry run of cargo transportation under it.

First published in The Asian Age, April 28, 2017

Saleem Samad, an Ashoka Fellow (USA), is an award winning investigating journalist and is Special Correspondent, The Asian Age, Dhaka, Bangladesh

Indian Supreme Court asks BSF to stop cattle smuggling

SALEEM SAMAD

Finally, the Indian Supreme Court did not trash the committee's report, responsible for submitting recommendations to check cattle-smuggling to Bangladesh, instead it advised stringent measures by the Indian paramilitary Indian Border Security Force (BSF) to prevent cross-border trade.

The Indian apex court besides the border force, advised the local administrations in the districts bordering Bangladesh to be involved in preventing cattle-smuggling. The Sup-reme Court on Tuesday, directed the Indian central government to finalize the rules to ensure the authorities adopt adequate means to stop cattle-smuggling.

Earlier, a bench of Indian Chief Justice J S Khehar and Justice D Y Chand-rachud said the Center (New Delhi) has already prepared draft rules to prevent cattle from being smuggled to Nepal and same rules, when finalized, should be applicable to Bangladesh as well.

The cattle-smuggling issue was brought to the notice of the Indian Supreme Court by Akhil Bharat Krishi Gosewa Sangh, a fundamentalist Hindu group. A similar plea was filed by animal rights activist Gauri Maulekhi, seeking directions to the Center and states like Bihar, West Bengal, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh, which share the border with Nepal.

The Center on Monday, placed before the apex court recommendation of a committee headed by a senior official of the Home Ministry constituted for chalking out a mechanism to stop cattle smuggling across the India-Bangladesh border.

Emphasizing on the prohibition of smuggling of animals, the Centre said that active support and cooperation should be sought from the public.

The Center on Monday told the apex court that a unique identification number (UID) for animals has been suggested by an expert panel to evolve a mechanism to stop trafficking of cattle across the  Indo-Bangla border.

"We have already done for Nepal. The same rules will apply for Bangladesh also. Para-armed forces (BSF) along with district  administration will be involved to ensure that there are no smuggling of cattle to Bangladesh," the bench said.

The apex court decided to deliberate on the crucial issue of cattle-smuggling into Bangladesh after the summer vacation in July.

Until then, the counsel for the central government to specify the status of rules which were to be formulated in pursuance of its direction to protect cattle-smuggling to Nepal and posted the matter for further hearing after summer vacation.

The panel, had said, "The committee recommends that Chief Secretaries (in New Delhi) of respective states to regularly monitor the performance of various departments of the state governments, including RTO, state police and animal husbandry department and ensure prevention of cattle smuggling/illegal/transportation of cattle by way of periodic reports.

The Supreme Court on Wednesday, posted the case concerning smuggling of cattle across the India-Bangladesh border for further hearing after summer vacation.

First published in The Asian Age, April 27, 2017

Saleem Samad, an Ashoka Fellow (USA), is an award winning investigating journalist and is Special Correspondent, The Asian Age, Dhaka, Bangladesh

Monday, April 24, 2017

Myanmar bid to shut-down camps worsens fate of Rohingyas

SALEEM SAMAD

After Thaung Tun, Myanmar's National Security Adviser, recently announced that the Myan-mar government would shut down three camps has raised eye brows of international community, including United Nations.

In fact, one camp shelters ethnic Rakhine community and another accommodate Rohingya Muslims. The fate of thousands of internally displaced people (IDP) in Myanmar's Rakhine state remains uncertain. Thaung Tun unveiled no exit plan, except shutting down of three camps. He said nothing about measures to relocate the refugees or about aid or facilities to be provided. 

Despite international forum's concern, the Myanmar authorities are determined to shut down the IDP camps. Nothing has been spelled about what happens to them next. With immediate outrage over the issue of pushing the Rakhine IDP into uncertainty, it said the Myanmar will once again invite another crisis.

The IDP sought shelter five years ago amid violent conflict between Budd-hists and Muslims. Many fled the country, retreating to the Bangladeshi frontier and slipped through porous borders by human trafficking agents. Myanmar's defacto administrative head Aung Suu Kyi had last year chosen Kofi Annan, a fellow Nobel laureate and former chief of United Nations, to head a Rakhine Commission seeking solutions to the crisis in Rakhine state.

The commission was mandated to examine ways to develop the state, strengthen civic institutions, provide humanitarian assistance, seek reconciliation and prevent further conflict. But the mission was flawed from the start, restrained by a law that doesn't recognize the Muslim Rohingya as citizens.

Myanmar is a predominantly Buddhist society and nationalist intolerance of other religions is rife. Annan's commission recommended that the government formulate a comprehensive plan to close the displacement camps as part of any attempt to curb festering communal tensions.

Annan agreed, while Thaung Tun insisted the authorities were doing their best to push forward a process of citizenship verification.

It was agreed to relocate more than 120,000 IDP in the present camps had "shown little progress" in Rakhine state since 2012. The commission identified 335 households within the IDP camps, a mix of Rakhine and Muslim people who it said ought to be allowed to return to their homes or be relocated elsewhere as an initial expression of 'goodwill'.

The international criticism of Myanmar over its official mistreatment of Rakhine's million-plus  Rohingya, despite their families having lived in Myanmar for generations, are denied citizenship and face severe restrictions in movement and access to education and healthcare.

The persecution in Rakhine state, ever since the military--reacting to militant Rohingya attacks on police border posts last October - launched a bloody crackdown in north Rakhine that reportedly claimed hundreds of lives.

UN investigators concluded that security forces might have carried out "crimes against humanity" as well as ethnic cleansing. Nobel laureate Suu Kyi rejected the accusations, calling "ethnic cleansing" "too strong an expression".

First appeared in The Asian Age, April 24, 2017

Saleem Samad, an Ashoka Fellow (USA), is an award winning investigating journalist and is Special Correspondent, The Asian Age, Dhaka, Bangladesh

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

India and Bangladesh Revitalize their Relationship, Yet Problems Remain

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina share a laughter at a joint press conference in New Delhi on April 8, 2017. (Prakash Singh/AFP/Getty Images)
ARAFAT KABIR
At a time when China has made a considerable headway in South Asia, the bilateral relationship between Bangladesh and India gets a timely boost during the Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s four-day state visit to India last week. In the presence of the prime ministers, the two countries signed as many as 22 deals that included a separate agreement on civil nuclear and defense cooperation, both a first between the two South Asian neighbors. India also agreed to offer Bangladesh a $4.5 billion line of credit on top of another $3 billion that was previously sanctioned by New Delhi.

But despite that progress, Bangladesh and India had yet to finalize the long-awaited water share treaty over a common river, Teesta, further deepening Dhaka’s frustration.

Initially scheduled in December last year, but canceled twice, Hasina’s visit created a buzz in both Bangladeshi and Indian media. Bangladeshi newspapers speculated on a possible timeframe on the Teesta water sharing treaty, while Indian media focused their attention on the soon-to-be-signed defense pact. Days before Hasina’s trip to Delhi, however, it became clear that the Teesta deal was unlikely. This, in turn, stoked hype for the Indo-Bangla defense pact.

Under the defense agreement, India will offer $500 million to help Bangladesh acquire military hardware from India. However, it is not clear what types of arms India will provide. Apart from this, two other agreements were signed aiming to boost cooperation between the two nation’s defense colleges.

Significance of a Bangladesh-India defense treaty
India wanted to sign a long-term, comprehensive defense pact with Bangladesh. Delhi was already worried about the growing multidimensional cooperation between Bangladesh and China.

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Bangladesh in last October took the bilateral relationship to a new height. The next month Bangladesh’s navy received the delivery of two China-made diesel-electric submarines. Around the same time, Delhi scaled up its effort to seal a defense deal with Bangladesh. The underlying principle is not hard to guess: to counter the growing Chinese influence in Bangladesh.

A series of high-profile visits by Indian officials during the past few months in the run-up to Hasina's visit demonstrated India’s eagerness for a military pact. But Dhaka was hesitant to sign one in the fear that such a move might alienate China, the largest provider of Bangladesh’s military equipment.

A comprehensive military pact is, therefore, more important to India than it is to Bangladesh. For India, it serves two purposes. One, India wants to give the signal to Beijing that it regards South Asia as its zone of influence. Two, a defense deal would give a boost to Narendra Modi’s “Make in India” campaign that aims to transform India into a leading arms exporter. After all, India needs buyers of its indigenously-produced arms.

It turned out Bangladesh played out the scene quite tactfully. Since Bangladesh stopped short of signing a defense pact, it won’t alarm the Chinese. But for India, it is still an important beginning that has the potential to end in a formal treaty, given the bittersweet history between the two countries.

Hasina: a trusted friend to Delhi
The appropriate metaphor for India-Bangladesh relations could be a married couple that became estranged but started patching things up again. The mending of relations began when Sheikh Hasina’s government came to power in 2008. Her administration took a zero-tolerance policy against domestic extremism and those sympathetic to anti-Indian activities. Long considered a political pawn, Dhaka handed over separatist leader Anup Chetia to Delhi without much fuss. Dhaka also provided India with land and water transit facility, an outstanding request from India, to transport Indian goods over the Bangladeshi territory to India’s restive northeast region. In short, Sheikh Hasina appeared a trusted friend to Delhi.

The friendship was tested in 2014 when no major country except India backed up Hasina’s clinging to power through a highly-controversial election boycotted by the major opposition parties. The political violence before and after the election was one of the worst in Bangladesh’s history and Hasina’s government came under international criticism. But the then-Manmohan Singh’s government in Delhi stood firmly by Hasina’s claim that the election under the oversight of a political party instead of a non-partisan interim administration was crucial for Bangladesh’s democratic transition.

Bangladesh’s next election is slated for 2019. As of now, it is not certain whether 2014 will be repeated again or not. But it is certain that Hasina needs India’s political support. Therefore, she wants to maintain the rapport with Narendra Modi’s government. The good thing for Hasina is that she has been able to cut a strong image in Delhi across political parties. If it is any indication, Modi made an exception and went to the airport to receive Hasina.

An imbalanced quid pro quo?
Although the bilateral relationship between Bangladesh and India is much better than any other time, problems linger. The Teesta water share treaty is definitely a setback for future progress. Since 2008, Hasina has met with her Indian counterparts four times. Each time Teesta was postponed due to opposition from a provincial government in India. Therefore, the Hasina administration faces criticism at home that her government is giving India more than what it gets.

The growing trade deficit is also a great concern for Bangladesh. Despite Dhaka’s repeated requests, Delhi has been tardy in relaxing tariffs and non-tariff barriers and opening up the market of Indian provinces bordering Bangladesh. Another thorny issue is shooting at the border by Indian guards. The Bangladesh-India border is one of the world’s most hostile. Authorities say almost 600 people were killed by Indian border police in the past ten years. Unofficial estimates suggest it to be twice the official figure. India promised to take care of this issue, but a meaningful solution is still elusive.

As the larger neighbor, India may want to gain more from Bangladesh. Due to the same reason, Bangladesh may very well expect India to be more generous. How a balance can be achieved will give shape to the future course of the bilateral relationship. Therefore, the sooner India addresses the unresolved issues in a meaningful manner, the better for it. Perhaps, India can take a leaf from China’s playbook in this regard.

First published in Forbes magazine, April 18, 2017

Arafat Kabir, is a Forbes contributor, a Master’s candidate of political science at the Illinois State University. Email: arafat_kabir@ymail.com or Tweet @ArafatKabirUpol

Monday, April 17, 2017

Bangladesh to invest $1Mi for construction of hydro-power in Bhutan to import 1,000MW electricity

SALEEM SAMAD

Bangladesh will finalize the negotiation to import 1000 Megawatt (MW) hydro-power from Bhutan, during the official visit of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

Sheikh Hasina is scheduled to reach Thimphu this morning by Druk Air VVIP flight for a three-day state visit to Bhutan from April 18. Bhutanese Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay will receive her at the airport. Hasina will be presented a ceremonial Khadhar (scarf).

Later, Hasina will be given a guard of honor and she will also inspect the guard. From the airport, a ceremonial motorcade will take her to her place of residence, where she will be received by the chairman of Royal Privy Council of Bhutan.

While in Bhutan, the prime minister will sign six agreements and memorandums of understanding (MoUs), most importantly an investment and import of electricity from a planned hydro-electricity project in land-locked country. 

Both sides will sign deals on removal of double taxation, agriculture, cultural affairs, use of Bangladesh's inland water by Bhutan, standards of products and land given to Bangladesh for establishing a permanent embassy.

Diplomats said that Sheikh Hasina's visit would unveil a "regional power trade" a trilateral cooperation among Bhutan, Bangladesh and India.

She will also hold bilateral meetings with the country's top leaders on the sidelines. Hasina will hold meetings with Bhutan's King Jigme Wangchuck and Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay to discuss bilateral and regional issues. During her fourth visit to Bhutan, Sheikh Hasina will inaugurate the three-day International Conference on Autism and Neuro-Developmental Disorders on April 19.

Saima Wazed Hossain Putul, member of World Health Organization (WHO) expert advisory panel on mental health and chairperson of the National Advisory Committee on Autism, has taken initiatives to hold the conference in Thimphu.

The conference is being jointly hosted by Ministry of Health and Family Welfare of Bangladesh and Ministry of Health of Bhutan with the technical support of Shuchona Foundation, Ability Bhutan Society and WHO South-East Asia Regional Office.A draft memorandum of understanding on the trilateral collaboration is being circulated among the three friendly countries.

Bangladesh's foreign minister Abul Hassan Mahmood Ali told journalists said, Bangladesh will invest in the 1,125MW Dorjilung hydro-power project in Lhuentse.

The proposed hydro-electricity dam will be located about seven kilometers downstream of Autsho at a place called Rewan, said a top official with Ministry of Power, Energy and Mineral Resources (MPEMR).

He also said India has agreed to Bangladesh's proposal to invest in the project and provide transit for transmission of electricity from Bhutan. Government of Bangladesh recently approved USD 1Billion for the project.The International Finance Corporation (IFC), an enterprise of the World Bank Group, has already assured the government of financing regional power trade involving Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Bhutan.

A trilateral cooperation among Bhutan, Bangladesh and India that will enable Bangladesh to invest in the Bhutanese power sector to re-import the electricity could soon be a reality, said Mahmood Ali.

The foreign minister told journalists that the money will be equity investment in the project, and Bangladesh will get a proportionate share of the production from the project.

In fact, power in both Bangladesh and India will keep increasing its demand, which will contribute a big economic opportunity for Bhutan.

Currently, Bangladesh imports around 500 MW of electricity from India. Import of another amount of 100MW electricity from India's Tripura state may start in March.

Early this month, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, announced that it would provide further electricity to Bangladesh during Sheikh Hasina's visit to New Delhi
.
Implementation of this project will not only uplift the relation between Bhutan and Bangladesh but also the trilateral relation. "We are poised to take a big leap in the trilateral cooperation," the foreign minister said.

In addition to Bangladesh's share of production from the project, the foreign minister said his country is keen on importing either from the same project or other projects. That will be subject to negotiation among the three countries.

In 2014, member states of SAARC signed a framework agreement for energy cooperation with the declared objective of creating a regional energy market and enhancement of cross-border electricity trade.Meanwhile, the Power Division under the MPEMR has examining the MoU with Bhutan.

Earlier, Bhutanese Economic Minister Lyonpo Norbu Wangchuk had visited high-voltage direct current (HVDC) back-to-back station of the state-owned Power Grid Company of Bangladesh Ltd (PGCB) at Bheramara in Kushtia last October to see the electricity-import infrastructure in Bangladesh.

First published in The Asian Age, April 18, 2017

Saleem Samad, an Ashoka Fellow (USA), is an award winning investigating journalist and is Special Correspondent, The Asian Age, Dhaka, Bangladesh

Sheikh Hasina fourth visit to Bhutan

SALEEM SAMAD

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina will be on a three-day state visit to Himalayan Kingdon Bhutan from April 18.

On the invitation of His Majesty The King, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wang-chuck, the Bangladesh prime minister will tour the country.

While in Bhutan, the prime minister will sign several Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs) and also attend the ground breaking ceremony of the Bangladesh embassy in Hejo, Thimphu. Bangla-desh gave land to build the Bhutanese embassy building in Baridhara diplomatic zone in 2014.

She will also hold bilateral meetings with the country's top leaders on the sidelines. Hasina will hold meetings with Bhutan's King, Jigme Wangchuck and Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay to discuss bilateral and regional issues. The prime minister's visit will have a focus on cooperation in transit, transshipment and hydro-power, official sources said.

Bhutan's Foreign Minister Damcho Dorji told local press that Bhutan and Bangladesh traditionally have enjoyed close and friendly relations that started since independence. Bangladesh prime minister's visit to Bhutan indicates the importance of the close relations between the countries, movers of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).

During her fourth visit to Bhutan, Sheikh Hasina will inaugurate the three-day International Conference on Autism and Neuro Developmental Disorders on April 19.

Saima Wazed Hossain Putul, member of WHO's expert advisory panel on mental health and chairperson of the National Advisory Committee on Autism, has taken initiatives to hold the conference in Thimphu.

The conference is being jointly hosted by Ministry of Health and Family Welfare of Bangladesh and Ministry of Health of Bhutan with the technical support of Shuchona Foundation, Ability Bhutan Society and World Health Organization South-East Asia Regional Office.

Government leaders, policymakers, experts and activists from around the globe will discuss strategic viewpoints to spread awareness about autism at the conference.

Bhutan was the first country to recognize Bangladesh's independence in 1971 followed by India in December. Bangladesh established diplomatic relations with Bhutan in 1973 and established its resident embassy in the country.

His Majesty The Fourth King in 1974 came to Bangladesh on his maiden visit, and since then the leaders from both the countries visited each other's capital several times.

Hasina visited Bhutan in 2009, 2010, and then in 2015 on a private visit. His Majesty The King and Her Majesty The Gyaltsuen visited Bangladesh in 2013, followed by Lyonchoen Tshering Tobgay's visit in 2014. The President of Bangladesh Abdul Hamid visited the country last year.

Bangladesh and Bhutan cooperate in areas of agriculture, human resource development, cultural exchanges, and also air services besides the annual consultation meetings at the foreign secretary level.Even at the regional level, the two countries held talks on water resources management and recently trilateral cooperation in hydropower, official source said.

At the multilateral forum, the two countries have been supporting each other at every international venue Bhutan has lend favorable support to Bangladesh at every election to many international organizations.

Hasina is scheduled to fly to Bhutan on a small Druk Air plane instead of flag carrier Biman Bangladesh Airlines as the latter does not have a certified pilot who can handle Bhutan's sole Paro International Airport, one of the most challenging airports in the world.

Situated at 7,920ft from the sea level on the bank of the Paro River is surrounded by steep peaks as high as 18,000ft, the airport is considered as one of the most challenging airports in the world for landing and takeoff.The prime minister will come back home on April 21.

Published in The Asian Age, April 17, 2017

Saleem Samad, is an Asoka Fellow (USA), an award winning invetigative journalist and works as Special Correspondent with The Asian Age

Monday, April 03, 2017

Parliamentarians at IPU Assembly moot to unite against terrorism

SALEEM SAMAD

Parliamentarians at the 136th Inter-Parliamentarian Union (IPU) are poised to adopt a resolution to deal with terrorism and militancy. Terrorism is a global phenomenon and is a threat to all countries. The delegates of IPU are discussing to forge unity globally to combat terrorism, Secretary General Martin Chungong told the media on Monday.

He said the Dhaka Assembly is expected to adopt three resolutions. The first is the role of parliament in preventing outside interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states and the second, promoting cooperation on SDGs with focus on women, and third emergency item resolution.

Parliamentarians are debating on two pressing issues. The first is non-interference in the internal affairs of sovereign nation states. The second is inclusive financing of women in development. "Process is in progress in at the conference venue in Dhaka for global parliamentary community," said Chungong at the mega IPU conference in Dhaka.

The five-day IPU Assembly in progress from Saturday with the participation of over 1300  delegates from 131 member states of the century-old organization. The dignity of human rights, sovereignty and women's empowerment were agreed in the conference.

He said women in parliament are very less, IPU is advocating political empowerment of women. Regarding terrorism, Chungong said that terror networks active in various countries are not localized. There is need for global parliamentary community prevents to fight terrorism, he remarked.

Regarding the general debate on Redressing Inequality: Delivering on dignity and well-being for All, Chungong said IPU will highlight an action-oriented proposal that parliaments are making here when the 136th assembly concludes, it will have a number of things that parliamentarians can follow up theses concretely and device a program to gain measurable achievements over reducing inequality.

"What I'm proposing in the strategy is a series of actions that will help the global parliamentary community prevent those things that lead to terrorism and militancy," IPU Secretary said.

Chungong said, "Violent extremism was born out of frustration, out of inequality in society, out of injustice, violation of human rights and lack of opportunity - so, those are the things we're addressing in the strategy to combat terrorism and militancy."

He said he will brief the executive committee today (Tuesday) on the strategy that the IPU devised to enable the parliamentary community worldwide to combat terrorism. "We shouldn't allow terrorism to occur before you do something about it."

"How parliaments can take practical actions at national and international levels to alleviate inequality and restore the dignity of human being in all aspects of social, political and economic arena," Chungong said. The emergency item resolution will focus on famine affecting the population of Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and Northern Kenya. This proposal was jointly placed by Belgium, the United Kingdom and Kenya.

Besides, the documents of outcomes of the general debate on 'redressing inequalities, delivering on dignity and wellbeing of all' will be adopted at the IPU Assembly on Wednesday, the last day of 136th IPU assembly.

First published in The Asian Age, April 4, 2017

Saleem Samad, Ashoka Fellow (USA), an award winning investigative  journalist and Special Correspondent, The Asian Age

Why Pakistan skipped IPU Assembly


Saleem Samad


It was predicted that Pakistan would stay away from participating at the ongoing 136th Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) in capital Dhaka. Pakistan, on Friday last announced to boycott of the mega parliamentarian assembly, alleging a "malicious propaganda" by Bangladesh, and unfriendly attitude.

The last minute pull-out of 10-member delegation led by Pakistan national assembly speaker Ayaz Sadiq was due to participate in the IPU assembly in Dhaka. Further to slay the slain, Pakistan took the issue of Bangladesh observing "Genocide Day" on March 25 to memorialize genocide of three million people and sexual abuse of 400,000 women during the Liberation War in 1971.

Sadiq's statement was not a surprise Bangladesh government. He said the Pakistan national assembly members noted with disappointment the actions and "negative public statements" coming out of Bangladesh despite Pakistan's "restraint and overtures" to the country.

The bilateral relation between the two countries has been in roller-coaster since the independence of Bangladesh and surrender of Pakistan armed forces in eastern front in December 1971.

The boycott of the IPU conference is another sign of strain in Bangladesh-Pakistan ties. The relationship further plummeted when Pakistan has officially protested the sentencing and hanging of Jamaat-e-Islami leaders for war crimes committed during the bloody war in 1971.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's government strongly reacted to Pakistan's reactions in regard of the judicial verdicts, which her administration stated tantamount to meddling in internal affairs of Bangladesh and also asked Islamabad to apologize for atrocities committed by marauding Pakistan army during the Liberation War.

However, diplomatic relations between two countries enjoyed best of ties during the two military regimes of General Ziaur Rahman (1975-1981) and General HM Ershad (1982-1990). The bilateral relations between Bangladesh and Pakistan had risen and shined during the regimes of Begum Khaleda Zia (1991-1996 and 2001-2005), when dreaded Pakistan spy agency ISI was given legitimacy for covert operation against India.

ISI operatives in a bid to destabilize the north-eastern states, had provided weapons, training and helped money laundering of funds to run the separatist groups, who were engaged in violent actions against the Indian authority. The Pakistan spy agency was also active in raising militant groups from among the Rohingya Muslims to wage war against Myanmar for a separate state.

Since Sheikh Hasina came to power in 2009, her government was able to neutralize the ISI operations in Bangladesh and all the separatist leaders of Indian north-east were deported to India. Once the Pakistan's covert operations were blocked and regular seizure counterfeit Indian currency smuggled into India, Pakistan began tirade against Bangladesh.

Bangladesh also with other South Asian countries including India, Afghanistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Bhutan pulled out of the 19th SAARC Summit to be hosted by Pakistan in November 2016, citing incitement in terrorism in the region.

This episode further angered Islamabad and blamed Dhaka taking cue from New Delhi and adopts an anti-Pakistan posture, writes an editorial in a Pakistan newspaper published on April 1.

Speaker Ayaz Sadiq, quoted in an influential newspaper "Aaj News" expressed grief that "all such dedicated efforts, unfortunately, fell in vain and Pakistan was time and again targeted and maligned…. It was, therefore, decided, with a heavy heart, not to undertake a visit to Bangladesh at this time."

First published in The Asian Age, April 3, 2017

Saleem Samad, an Ashoka Fellow (USA), is an award winning journalist and Special Correspondent, The Asian Age

Monday, March 13, 2017

Bangladesh hide and seek on presence of Islamic State militants

SALEEM SAMAD

Bangladesh is embarrassed. So are the top officials of Interpol, security experts, academicians, police chiefs from the region attending the three-day long conference organized by Bangladesh Police and the Interpol in the capital.

Bangladesh Police top brass AKM Shahidul Hoque has denied the presence of Jihadist of Islamic State (IS or ISIS) in the country. "There is no presence of the Islamist terrorist outfit here," the inspector general of police maintained at impromptu press briefing on Monday morning.

"These are baseless propaganda. What we call militants are actually 'homegrown' who might have been embodied with IS philosophy and ideology. But they don't have any link with the IS," said Hoque. His reaction came in the wake of Prof Rohan Gunaratna, an international security expert, who affirmed on the presence of IS jihadist in Bangladesh and that the outfit carried out the Gulshan café attack on July 1.

What further embarrassed the government was the joint forces operation to disengage and neutralize the militants, release the hostages and regain control of the café, when his paper, "Deradicalization of Mili-tant: An Approach for Disengagement and Reintegration into Society," Gunaratna said police should have immediately responded to the café attack and should not have lingered on for the commandos to join the operation. The conference seeks to build regional cooperation in curbing violent extremism and transnational crime.

Government was enraged not only with his observation on presence of IS in Bangladesh, the military brass took the scholar's comments on delayed commando operation to regain the seized café, as an exception and interference into internal affairs.

In a typical IS  strategy, Gunaratna explained that the IS second phase was propaganda and the third phase was showdown. "The group that mounted the Holey Artisan attack is not the JMB. In fact, it is the IS," opined the expert.

But unfortunately, the Bangladeshi political leadership did not accept that the group that is operating is the IS, Gunaratna remarked.

Administration top officials, including Home Affairs Minister Asaduzzaman Khan and the inspector general of police have repeatedly said that there is no presence of ISIS in Bangladesh. Prime Minster Sheikh Hasina described any such claims as local and foreign conspiracies.

There could be various reasons why the government is determined to justify non-existence of jihadist or Islamic militants who are linked to Al Qaeda or Islamic State. Head of Singapore based International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research Rohan Gunaratna, has claimed that terrorist network Islamic State has physical presence in Bangladesh.

Police chief Shahidul Hoque described Gunaratna as an academician, a professor of a university. In a virulent attack, Hoque observed that "he does not deal with any security issue. He has done his academic research on his own. But he does not have experience of the real issue of Bangladesh."

"What Mr Rohan said is his own statement. We don't endorse his statement," the IGP concluded. Born in Sri Lanka, Gunaratna interviewed terrorists and insurgents in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Saudi Arabia and other conflict zones, according to his brief biography presented at the conference.

The United States 9/11 Commission formed after the attack of Twin-Tower in New York invited Gunaratna to testify on the structure of al-Qaeda.

Gunaratna, who teaches security studies at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, is also a trainer for national security agencies, law enforcement authorities and military counter-terrorism units, said his bio distributed at the conference.

This article is published in The Asian Age, March 14, 2017

Saleem Samad, is an Ashoka Fellow (USA), an award winning investigative journalist and writes on current affairs