Crisis... what crisis?
Bhutan’s king turns a blind eye on the human disaster of his making
I can’t just sit in a camp doing nothing,’ says 25-year-old Chet Nath Timsina, one of 88,000 Bhutanese refugees living in exile in Nepal. ‘I think I shall have to participate in the next march.’
He is referring to the latest strategy by refugees to draw attention to their plight by walking from exile in Nepal, through India, and back to their homeland – the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. Their ultimate goal is a face-to-face meeting with the country’s despot and absolute monarch, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck.
What the Bhutanese want is simple: to be allowed to return home and to be assured that they will have full human rights once there. Since 1988 a sixth of the population has been expelled from their country under the 1985 Bhutan Citizenship Act which revoked the citizenship of tens of thousands of Bhutanese. Most come from the fertile south and are Hindus of Nepali ethnic origin. The king is a Buddhist and of Tibetan ethnic origin. Over 50 per cent of Bhutanese are of Nepali ethnic origin and so if the expulsion continues – and there is no sign of it abating – that will mean an awful lot more refugees pouring over the borders.
Timsina’s story is fairly typical. His family – farmers in the South – were expelled in 1992 after his father was forced to sign a ‘migration’ document. Human-rights abuses were rife in the region when they left. ‘People in our village were very much afraid. Girls and women were being raped by Government soldiers who had occupied schools and other buildings. Homes were destroyed.’
Timsina’s family had been in trouble with the authorities since his parents took part in an anti-Government protest a few years earlier. As a result his brother, though a trained agronomist, was blocked in his attempts to get a job. Timsina himself was denied further education. He has remedied that now and is training teachers in the refugee camp.
Back in Bhutan the persecution continues, with torture being used routinely on dissidents. Meanwhile the King of Bhutan flatly denies that there is a Bhutanese refugee crisis. He claims that the refugee camps in Nepal are filled with Indians and Nepalis, not Bhutanese. This is dismissed as nonsense by humanitarian-aid workers – as well as the document-holding Bhutanese inmates who actually make up 97 per cent of the camps’ population.
Marching from Nepal to Bhutan will be no easy matter for Timsina and his fellow protesters. They will have to go through India – a country unsympathetic to their plight. Many protesters on previous marches have been turned back or arrested and incarcerated – India has an important deal with Bhutan involving the supply of hydroelectric power from the kingdom. The Nepali authorities are more sympathetic. Apart from providing a refuge they are also appealing to their powerful neighbour, India, to mediate a solution. But India is reluctant to do so.
The UN High Commission for Refugees, for its part, provides humanitarian assistance in the camps but does not consider trying to broker a political solution as part of its mandate.
One of the few bodies to have spoken out for the refugees is the European Parliament, which has called for their urgent repatriation and full restoration of human rights. ‘This has been a great encouragement to us,’ says Timsina.
For more information contact:
The Bhutanese Refugee Support Group:
Rachael Reilly, 69 Grafton Way, London, WIP 5LN, UK.
Tel: 0171 637 3592/01227 471 760.
5 Little Twye, Buckland Common, Tring, Herts, HP23 6PB, UK.
Tel: 0194 758106.
Fax: 01494 758938.
JEREMY HARTLEY / PANOS
Efforts to vaccinate children in Eastern Africa against polio have been so successful that the region should be polio-free by the year 2000. The incidence of polio in East Africa dropped by 91 per cent between 1988 and 1995, from 1,813 to 160 cases. Mass vaccination campaigns, in which polio vaccines have been given to under-fives across entire East African nations in the space of days or weeks, have been particularly successful.
WHO Press Release.
Poisonous waste from a zinc mine owned by the President of Bolivia, the World Bank, and Rio Tinto Zinc (RTZ), a British based multinational company, is causing one of the worst environmental disasters ever to strike Latin America, according to European scientists. The scientists say that the collapse of a dam at a mine high in the Andes released up to 400,000 tonnes of sludge loaded with heavy metals, which has polluted 300 kilometres of river. The sludge has killed aquatic life and is threatening the livelihood of 50,000 of the region’s subsistence farmers. Rivers swell from a trickle to flood the farmers’ smallholdings each time the rains come.
New Scientist, no 2057.
When American and Russian officials negotiated a 20-year rental agreement for the US ambassador’s ornate Moscow residence in 1995, annual rent was set at 120,000 roubles, to be paid in dollars at the official exchange rate. That amount was worth about $170,000 then. Under the present exchange rate, it’s equivalent to $22.56. Understandably, Moscow wants to revise the agreement, but the US is ‘in no rush to do so’.
World Press Review, vol 43, no 11.
CHRIS STALERS / PANOS
A government decision to ease restrictions on gun ownership has sparked a new debate on gun control in Israel. Interior Minister Eli Suissa, the man behind the new regulations, believes that everyone’s personal security would be enhanced if more citizens bore arms. Labour member of parliament Chaim Ramon, a former interior minister, disagrees, arguing that a committee appointed by Parliament a year ago ‘found that when more people have guns, the number of disasters increases’. The relaxed regulations would allow anyone who has served in an army combat unit or as an officer in the armed forces to own a gun, and lowers the minimum age for a gun permit from 21 to 20.
World Press Review, vol 44, no 1.
Uzbekistan cigarette market opens for business
BEN ARIS / PANOS
The tobacco industry has claimed another victim. In a promotional supplement on Uzbekistan distributed by the London Times, British American Tobacco (BAT) gloats over a recently acquired 51-per-cent stake in the local tobacco monopoly. UZBAT, as the subsidiary is called, aims to invest $292 million in factories, fermentation plants and leaf research. Sales are set to reach 25 million cigarettes by the end of the century, and there are plans to make Uzbekistan the springboard for sales across Central Asia and into Russia.
UZBAT’s marketing has been predictably slick and efficient. Attractive stickers, given out free to shopkeepers, adorn every available kiosk window. Trolley buses resemble mobile cigarette packets.
Ironically, the flag-ship brand-name chosen to lead the fleet of home-grown cigarettes is Saraton – Arabic for the Cancer zodiac sign. Future addicts are, however, unlikely to get the pun: health warnings are thin on the ground. TV promotions are of the usual Incredible-Hulk-meets-Stunning-Woman-and-they-all-live-happily-ever-after-in-a-cloud-of-cigarette-smoke variety, without a warning in sight. Glossy international brands such as Lucky Strike, Kent and Hollywood – made by BAT’s American subsidiary – either carry no warnings at all or leave them in English.
UZBAT’s tactics have, however, incensed students. In a letter to BAT’s British headquarters last April they wrote: ‘Are you aware that you are poisoning our life and our generation with your tobacco business?… You are using the people’s naiveté for your own benefit. They have no power to protest against the power of a Western company.’
Although UZBAT has the largest stake in Uzbekistan, US rivals Philip Morris and RJ Reynolds/Nabisco are doing their best to capture the lungs of tomorrow’s smokers. Special ‘export only’ packets of Pall Mall and Camel testify to the commercial battle that’s raging.
A group of ten-year-olds asked me to settle a bet for them. They were arguing over the meaning of the word ‘Marlboro’. One was convinced it meant ‘cigarette’, the other that it meant ‘cowboy’. But over one thing there was no dispute. One day, as soon as they could get away with it, they would all be trying these ‘beautiful American cigarettes’.
The lives of Central Asia’s youth are up for sale to the highest and most attractive bidder.
Oil company fuels flames of conflict
The Canadian oil company Arakis International is pressing ahead with plans to build a $930 million oil pipeline from the Bentiu oil fields in southern Sudan to the Red Sea coast – protected by 10,000 Iranian revolutionary guards and Executive Outcomes, the South African private-security firm.
Sudan is embroiled in a bloody civil war in which the control of oil resources in the south is a major issue. Arakis has the backing of the National Islamic Front (NIF) regime in Khartoum in the north. Following agreements with two renegade Sudan People’s Army (SPLA) commanders in the south, the NIF regime has assured Arakis that its operations can proceed without any security threat.
Arakis, however, is less confident. In addition to the promise of Iranian revolutionary guards and the NIF regime’s own Popular Defence Forces, the company has hired Executive Outcomes to recruit mercenaries – following the example of Sierra Leone, where South African mercenaries have been used to protect diamond-mining operations in the midst of another civil war. The idea is to make the area of the oil field itself almost impossible for the SPLA to infiltrate and sabotage.
BETTY PRESS / PANOS
Arakis shares jumped in value on the announcement of the security deal. The company cleared another key hurdle last August when the US Government ruled that Sudan was not subject to trade and investment sanctions under anti-terrorism laws, thereby opening the door to possible joint-venture deals with US oil companies.
According to the Sudan Democratic Gazette, a London-based magazine published by exiled Sudanese, one of the renegade SPLA commanders, Kerubino Kuanyin, has been ‘massacring the local populations in his own native area in a bid to quell any likelihood of opposition to the oil exploitation’.
Weakened by internal schisms, the Southern Sudanese appear powerless at present to prevent their oil reserves from being exploited by Arakis International and the NIF regime in Khartoum. But, says the Gazette, this could be the catalyst that unites Southerners. ‘Not even Arakis International,’ it warns, ‘will be able to say in the future that it did not know what it was getting into’. The outcome, in an area already saturated with arms and devastated by years of brutal conflict, could be explosive.
SEAN SPRAGUE / PANOS
The Mexican Government plans to phase out DDT in malaria control over the next ten years in favour of an integrated pest management (IPM) approach. It is prioritizing a reduction in organochlorine pesticides such as DDT because of the link between organochlorines and cancers. The Government also plans to enhance the enforcement of restrictions against DDT use in agriculture, which continues despite being made illegal in 1990. The Ministry of Health reported organochlorine residues in 146 out of 439 samples examined between 1993 and 1995. Food contamination could account for the occurrence of unexpectedly high levels of DDE, a breakdown product of DDT, in the breast milk of women in Mexico City. According to an Environmental Health Perspectives report, Mexico is the leading DDT user in Latin America, and breast cancer is the second leading cause of death among Mexican women.
Pesticide Monitor, vol 5, no 2.
To most Indians, turmeric is a part of growing up: a classic ‘grandmother’s remedy’, the yellow powder or paste has been applied to the scrapes and cuts of generations of children. But last year two American scientists were granted a patent to use this plant extract in its powder form for healing wounds. The scientists claimed they were the first to use turmeric for this purpose. The ensuing public outcry prompted the Government in Delhi to file a case against the American patent at the US Patent and Trademark office in Washington DC. The furore has ramifications way beyond the use of turmeric. Indians see the American patent as blatant ‘biopiracy’ – yet another attempt by the West to profit from their traditional knowledge.
New Scientist, no 2053.
TV food advertising aimed at children undermines the importance of healthy, balanced diets, according to a study of 11 European countries, Australia and the US. Food accounts for by far the largest proportion of all advertisements aimed at children in 11 of the 13 countries – in Australia over 230 during a 20-hour period – while confectionery, breakfast cereals (mainly sweetened) and fast-food restaurants account for over half all food advertisements. A nutritional analysis of the advertised foods in the UK found that 95 per cent were high in fat and/or sugar and/or salt.
A Spoonful of Sugar. Copies from Consumers International, 24 Highbury Crescent, London N5 1RX, England.
tel: +44 171 226 6663,
fax: +44 171 354 0607.
The red thing
Bulgaria’s second city, Plovdiv, is torn over what to do with a remnant of the country’s communist past: a larger-than-life concrete statue of a Soviet-era Red Army soldier. The city council wants the Kalashnikov-toting fighter torn down, but Plovdiv’s communist minority has filed suit to block the action. Meanwhile, a group of French architects has suggested constructing a glass pyramid – like that at the Louvre in Paris – around the monument, which stands on a picturesque hill above Plovdiv. Coca-Cola, ever-ready for a promotional opportunity, has offered to encase the statue in an enormous Coke bottle.
World Press Review, vol 43, no 11.
‘In the end, shooting first wins.’
Thomas Jones, Director of Special Studies,
Boeing Space and Defense Group.
Issue 288 Contents