Neighbourhood Media Watch - May 2019
Mayuri Mukherjee, Consultant, VIF
Bangladesh: Desperate Migrants

On May 10, a boat carrying migrants from Libya to Italy capsized in the Mediterranean. Of the 51 Bangladeshis on board, 37 drowned; bringing back painful memories of a similar tragedy in February. Over the course of the month as survivors returned home to an uncertain future, there has been a nation-wide conversation on migration, an issue that resonates deeply in the country where remittances from Bangladeshis working abroad are the second-largest contributor to the country’s foreign exchange reserves.

So, why are so many so desperate to get out of Bangladesh? “The country is neither devastated by war, nor can be called extreme poor—rather is expected to attain middle-income status by 2021”, Syeda Rozana Rashid from the University of Dhaka noted in The Daily Star. His colleague from the same university, Prof CR Abrar, who studies labour migration tells the Dhaka Tribune that the problem is Bangladesh’s “jobless growth”. This, coupled with “social and economic insecurity and pessimistic views about Bangladesh’s future”, leave young Bangladeshis feeling like they have no alternative, according to a Prothom Alo editorial.

Pakistan: Human Trafficking or Hybrid Warfare?

In Pakistan, the authorities continued with their cross-country crackdown on criminal enterprises involved in the trafficking of young girls to China. The victims, mostly poor Christians, were being trafficked on the pretext of marriage to Chinese men, and then forced into sexual exploitation or the illegal organs trade. Several Pakistani and Chinese nationals have been arrested from Faisalabad, Islamalad, and Lahore. The Chinese authorities have also launched their own investigation.

Amina Mohsin lamented in the Express Tribune that the trafficking was an indicator of the “much-expected fusion consequential to CPEC (the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor)”. However, several others cautioned against linking the racket to the flagship Chinese investment project. The Dawn noted in its editorial that the trafficking ring exposed the “dark underbelly of society in both Pakistan and China”, but also advised Pakistani officials not to “succumb to a xenophobic temptation to target law-abiding foreigners and their legitimate business dealings in this country”. Ikram Sehgal, writing in the Express Tribune, took this argument to the next level. He said that the racket was an example of “embellished news” that had been blown out of proportion to defame Pakistan, and was in fact a tool of “hybrid warfare”. He suggested that “There is a dire need to curb the exuberance of some in our media to disseminate enemy propaganda under the camouflage of freedom of expression, and that given Pakistan’s new commitment to CPEC, we are together with the Chinese in the line of fire”.

Sri Lanka: Turbulent Times

Throughout May, Sri Lanka was focussed on putting its house in order after the devastating Islamist terror attack on Easter Sunday the month before. Amidst arrests, investigations, and crackdowns, the government also came in for scathing criticism for both its inability to prevent the attack as well as its perceived failure to manage the aftermath which included anti-Muslim riots.

The Island in its editorial labelled these attacks as “as dangerous as the National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ) terrorists (responsible for the Easter carnage) regardless of their ethnicity or religion”, and called upon the government to “act firmly”. President Maithripala Sirisena was specifically criticised for travelling to China while at such a sensitive time when citizens were still under curfew at home. Opposition leaders haven’t been spared either. The Daily News slammed their efforts to “exploit the tragedy for political gain” and noted that since many of them were about to come under the scanner for corruption, they see the Easter Sunday attacks as a “manna from heaven... to shift the public focus elsewhere”.

Modi’s Victory: Who said What

The recently concluded Lok Sabha elections in India expectedly received full attention from all of its neighbours. In Nepal’s Kathmandu Post, Anil Giri described Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s campaign as a “business-friendly, nationalist plank” and reported that his landslide win is “certain to have far-reaching consequences for Nepal”. More specifically, Shankar Man Singh writing in the same paper, flagged the possibility of a “surge in Indian investment in Nepal’s hydroelectric sector” and advised that Kathmandu keep its house in order.

In Sri Lanka, the Daily News editorial described Modi’s win as a “tantalizing victory” that comes at a decisive time for India which is “on the cusp of greater achievements and if it gets education, IT, manufacturing and export goals right, could one day surpass the economies of China and the United States”. The Sunday Times editorial also welcomed the election results, noting with satisfaction that with one party in power, New Delhi will not have to “dance to the tune of regional parties... which even dictated its foreign policy, especially towards Bangladesh and Sri Lanka”. The editorial also noted that Modi is “a friend of Sri Lanka irrespective of the party in office in Colombo, and the once acrimonious bilateral relations hopefully are a thing of the past”.

In Bangladesh, the Prothom Alo editorial noted that the major political parties have been unanimous in congratulating the BJP and expressed hope that the new government will take “pragmatic and friendly measures to address the various bilateral issues such as Teesta sharing, tariff and non-tariff barriers, border killings and the possible fallout of the Indian national listing”. However, Brig Gen Shahedul Anam Khan, writing in the Daily Star, expressed concerns about Bangladesh having to “contend with saffronised politics on both sides of its borders, in Myanmar and India” and also urged New Delhi to “take concrete steps… to assuage the misgivings and uncertainty in Bangladesh” about the National Register of Citizens and the Citizenship Amendment Bill.

In Pakistan, the media struggled to come to terms with the scope and scale of Modi’s victory. The Nation opined that “the next five years will be a difficult time for regional stability…” as Modi was not interested in pursuing “Vajpayee-like diplomacy”, as was evident from the Balakot operation and the surgical strikes he had authorised in his first term. Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi Jawed Naqvi wrote a curious piece that strings together Jawaharlal Nehru, Ayatollah Khomeini, Indira Gandhi, Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi, with a headline featuring Dilip Kumar. The Express Tribune had a more sober, even optimistic take, that Modi’s win brought “hope for the settlement of the longstanding Kashmir issue”. After Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan was not invited to the swearing-in ceremony in Delhi, the paper noted in another editorial that this could be because of “India’s internal politics” but eventually asked: “what should be a reasonable time for the Indian prime minister to find it safe – in view of internal politics – to reciprocate Pakistan peace overtures... More importantly: Can Modi be ever expected to hold peace talks with us in all its seriousness, given that he has got a good sense of our increasing troubles concerning the economy and internal security?”

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