Friday, January 6, 2012

Changing Geometrics of Asia-Pacific & Containment of China

Asia-Pacific, as the name suggests, refers to a large part of the earth, whereby countries and continents surround the vast Pacific Ocean. More than being merely a geographical entity, this region has many strategic, economic & political connotations to it. Groupings like ASEAN, ASEAN+3, EAS, APEC etc. provide the various contexts in which the politics, economics and security of the region is defined.

Importance of this region can be gauged from the fact that the countries in Asia-Pacific account for over 40% of the world’s population, 55% of the world’s GDP and about 45% of global trade. And these numbers are rapidly growing.

Owing to its extreme geopolitical, economic and security significance, Asia-Pacific remained at the centre stage of power struggle between major powers during much of 20th Century. China, Japan and USA have emerged as the major stakeholders in the region. This power struggle underpins the creation of major regional groupings. For instance, formation of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) had the tacit motive of resisting the increasing Chinese domination, apart from its stated objective of promoting economic cooperation. Out of the Chinese fear, the smaller South-East Asian states combined their strengths to form ASEAN. It is no surprise that the US was and still remains the chief mentor for the grouping.

Thanks to their bitter bilateral history, China and Japan have rarely come to terms with each other ever since the Second World War. Their ties have even nosedived since 2010 when the Japanese Coast Guard arrested the captain of a Chinese vessel for allegedly fishing in Japanese waters and it provoked a diplomatic crisis in the Sino-Japanese relations. The Japan-South Korea combine has been another bulwark against the rising Chinese dragon. China sees them as fostering the interests of Washington in the region which already has considerable military presence in both Japan and South Korea; not to mention the nuclear umbrella which the US provides to both these non-nuclear weapon states.

With the turn of the 21st Century, the global balance of power seems to be shifting from Europe and North America towards Asia, esp. China. In recent years, China has increased it cooperation with ASEAN. Its burgeoning energy demand and dependence on sea lanes for trade has compelled Beijing to treat its ASEAN neighbours more gently. Yet, conscious of its newly-achieved economic and military might, Beijing tends to bully its weak neighbours time and again; be it Vietnam, Taiwan or Myanmar. This ‘Big Brother’ tactics deployed by China has made its neighbours leery and they seem keen to ally with the US and India so as to neutralize, what they perceive, the ‘excessive Chinese interference’ in the region.

On the other hand, worried by its fading influence and simultaneous rise of China in the region, the US has once again shifted its focus towards Asia-Pacific. In its effort to rein in the Chinese ‘threat’ and ‘restore’ the balance of power, Washington has proposed to finalise the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, which excludes China, by the end of 2012. No formal invitation has been made to China, the second biggest economy in the region and the world, to join this strategic economic alliance. Instead, in his speech in Australia last month, the US President Barack Obama cautioned China by saying: “the United States welcomes China’s rise so long as it plays by the global rules.” Added to this, the new security arrangements made with Australia including stationing of 2500 additional US Marines in Northern Territory is proof enough that all this exercise is a part of the ‘Containment’ strategy of Washington, aimed at Beijing.

India is yet another indispensable player in the region. Trade and investment aside, Indian businesses are actively pursuing mineral, esp. oil, exploration in the region. China perceives Indian companies’ presence in the disputed South China Sea as a part of the same US-led “containment strategy” aimed at it. If Obama’s call to India to “Engage East” instead of “Look East” is anything to go by, it is clear that Washington sees New Delhi as a major ally in its effort to circumscribe the Chinese juggernaut. Corroborating this, the US deputy national security advisor for Strategic Communication Ben Rhodes said recently: “The President very much welcomes India’s Look East approach. We believe that just as the United States, as a Pacific Ocean power, is going to be deeply engaged in the future of East Asia, so should India as an Indian Ocean power and as an Asian nation.” Moreover, China’s unease with India-Japan ties and emerging India-Japan-US triumvirate was well apparent when, on Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s maiden visit to New Delhi in December, the State-run China Daily reported: “Boosting ties with India is part of Japan’s strategy of strengthening alliances with Asia-Pacific nations with an eye on China.” It quoted Lu Yaodong, director of the department of Japanese diplomacy at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, as saying, “Japan’s cooperation has been moving from bilateral to multilateral, trying to include the United States, Australia and India in its Arc of Freedom and Prosperity.”

Looking forward, the future of the region remains unclear. Much will depend on how early and in what way the tension on the Korean Peninsula is defused in the aftermath of change of guard in North Korea. With ‘pro-China’ Putin’s return to the Kremlin almost imminent in March, Beijing can count on its northern neighbour Russia to some degree. Here too, the resolution of Japan’s dispute with Russia over Kuril Islands will hold the key to ascertain which way Moscow’s unpredictable diplomacy leans. For now, the game is on!

BY :  Sameer Jafri, India. 

Felani Was Denied Her Right To Live

We must not remain silent on January 07, the day Felani died for no fault of her own.

When you read or hear a story or view a scene or a picture, a movie should take place in your mind. You reflexively make a mental picture in your brain of what you view and hear. These are your own sensory images.None of us has ever seen the paradise or the hell we are told we will face in our afterlife; still we form a mental picture of what the netherworld would be like. Your images for a particular view or a story are subtly different from anyone else’s images. Your images blended with your unique feelings and emotions come flooding back when you come across the same view or the same story once again. Today, I am having a similar experience.

Last year in January on a chilly Sunday night at my College Park residence in Maryland, I was reading the heartbreaking story of the violent and ruthless killing of Felani, a 15-year old Bangladeshi girl, by the Indian Border Security Force (BSF) and was transfixed as I was viewing the eerie scene of her motionless body distressingly dangling on a barbed fence along the Bangladesh-Indian border at Anantapur which was possibly not far away from her village. After I had read the story I fixed my sight at the gruesome picture of Felani’s tangled dead body, still wearing a red frock and a pair of blue pajamas---perhaps her choicest dresses.

Felani’s father Nurul Islam had left his village at Naggeshwari Upazilla under the district of Kurigram in Bangladesh for Assam in India with his mother, after the death of his father and due to extreme poverty. Such migration, legal or illegal, is quite normal in this part of the world. There are also many Indians who, legally or illegally, are working in Bangladesh, especially in textiles and garments industries.

Nurul Islam was bringing her daughter Felani to their home in Bangladesh to get her married with a boy as arranged earlier by the guardians. On 7th January 2011, early in the morning, Nurul Islam and her daughter Felani were crossing into Bangladesh, by climbing over a barbed-wire fence using a bamboo ladder, through the Kitaber Kuthi Anantapur border. While they were crossing the fence, Felani’s clothes got tangled in the barbed-wire, which frightened her and caused her to scream in panic. Hearing her scream, the BSF on patrol opened fire at her. Felani was shot and killed, but her father had managed to escape. Felani was asking for water till her death, about 30 minutes after the shooting, but nobody was there to fetch her a glass of water. It was a clear act of felony on innocent Felani.

The dead body of Felani was hung on the fence for 5 hours before the body was handed to Bangladesh authority. On 9th January, at night, Felani’s body was buried in the back yard of her home. Felani's father Nurul Islam complained that he had received her daughter’s dead body but did not get back the gold ornaments she was wearing when she was killed.

Pall of gloom cast by the news of Felani’s death did not quite capture the sense of disbelief and sorrow that engulfed first the village where Felani was buried and then the whole country after the news along with the wretched picture of her dead body hanging on the barbed-wire fence was published in most of the newspapers in Bangladesh.

A movie, my sensory images on Felani, was taking place in my mind as I was trying to empathize with the bereaved family members. I attempted to visualize about Felani’s life---her childhood, her expectations, her fears and her last moment when all her dreams were shattered. In my mental picture Felani had appeared as a Durga, the girl I found in my childhood in “Pather Panchali”, the epochal 1955 Bengali drama film written and directed by Satyajit Ray. Felani in her childhood, like Durga in Pather Pachali, perhaps shared with her friends simple joys of life. Like Durga, Felani maybe spent a lot of time sitting quietly under a tree, running after the candy man who passed by, viewing pictures in a bioscope shown by a traveling vendor, watching a ‘jatra’ by a troupe of actors, running away from home to catch a glimpse of the train after hearing the whistle of a speeding train.

In a poor family in Bangladesh, like that of Nurul Islam, an old equation rules: educating a boy will bring financial returns, but not so in case of a girl. Earning no income, a daughter is usually married off as soon as possible and removed from the family balance sheet. That is why Nurul Islam probably decided to arrange her daughter Felani’s marriage at her tender age of 15. Felani perhaps put on her choicest jewelries, dresses and facial make-ups, I was just imagining, as she was heading home---lest she was found unkempt, in case she had bumped on her way home into the prospective boy she was arranged to get married with.

Everybody knows that any law enforcement agency usually doesn’t fire shots at unarmed persons, no matter the person is in the international border area during a war or on a street during a curfew, unless a person attempts to do something which may endanger the life of law enforcers. Before direct shooting on Felani, Indian Border Security Force could easily give warning first by misfiring and if Felani was found carrying arms or smuggling goods they could use the last option of shooting.

After Felani’s tragic death, there were protests all over Bangladesh against the killing spree by Indian BSF. Human rights organization Odhikar in a fact-finding report it released in January, 2011 said that India's Border Security Force had breached the border agreement between Bangladesh and India by killing innocent girl Felani Khatun. The report, which interviewed the victim's family members, villagers, Border Guards, Bangladeshi soldiers, police personnel and physicians, recommended that the Bangladesh government should ask India to give compensation to the family. The Battalion commander of 27 Rifles, Lt Col. Abdur Razzak Tarafdar, according to the report, said: “Felani's killing by the BSF was not only a breach of international law but a gross violation of human rights and a display of barbaric inhumanity”. The report recommended that the government should take steps to end such violations.

Even Manabadhikar Suraksa Manch (MSM), a Human Rights organization in India also protested against the cruelty of BSF. MSM Chairman Kiriti Ray said: “There is no rule in India to kill people by shooting. But BSF soldiers are not obeying the rule. Almost every day BSF is killing Bangladeshi people. In every case BSF shows the same reason that they had to shoot at Bangladeshi smugglers and the smugglers attacked BSF first”. MSM Chairman questioned: "Was Felani a smuggler? She was unarmed, she was tangled! How could she attack BSF?"

Felani was not the only Bangladeshi victim at the hands of BSF. According to the international human rights group Human Rights Watch, in the year 2010 BSF killed 74 Bangladeshis, injured 72 and kidnapped 43 Bangladeshis.

Felani in Bangla means ‘a discard’, an unwanted person or a thing that is thrown away. It should be anybody’s wonder: “Why did her parents choose her name to be Felani? Was Felani an unwanted child?” No! The truth rather is quite the contrary. Given the high infant mortality rate in rural Bangladesh, due to diseases, malnutrition and complicacies during childbirth, parents get frustrated when they lose one infant after another in succession. Parents, who are mostly illiterate and totally ignorant of modern medical science, put the blame of their babies’ death on someone else’s casting evil eyes on their newborns. In order to avert the evil gaze from their children and to make their children less attractive to the neighbors, frustrated parents, after immature deaths of their earlier children, choose a weird name like “Felani” (a discard) or “Pocha” (rotten) for their newborn, hoping for his/her longer life.

So, Felani was a cherished baby to her parents. Her parents earnestly wished for her long life. But, BSF discarded Felani as an object to shoot at---perhaps as a part of their shooting practice. But, we cannot afford to discard Felani, her story, her images from the album of our memory.

Neither Nurul Islam nor his daughter Felani Khatun was aware of the rules and protocols of border security arrangements. Felani was merely climbing a ladder in the hope of translating a dream of her happy marriage into reality.

We must not remain silent on January 07, the day Felani died for no fault of her own. Can’t we declare January 07 as “Felani Day”? Shouldn’t Felani’s death fire zeal in us for strengthening our will to guard our dignity and sovereignty?

BY :  Maswood Alam Khan, USA.