Hi Kikobor followers,

Why not check out the wonderful new blog, Subcontinental, at

It is an exciting journey through Asia’s borderlands and ethnic conflicts. Kikobor will be quiet to give the new blog a chance to breathe.

Thanks x

A Muslim intelligence chief says little about prejudice in India

Syed Asif Ibrahim

The appointment of a Muslim to the head of India’s internal spook agency, the Intelligence Bureau, has caused a bit of a stir. Syed Asif Ibrahim is the first Muslim to head the Bureau, and given that a lot of its work is directed against Islamists of one stripe or another, there is something symbolic in that. Some have seen this as a shrewd political move by the Congress government, since its main opposition is the Hindu nationalist BJP, which (unsurprisingly) doesn’t get on quite so well with India’s 177 million Muslims (it’s good to have a loyal intelligence man on your side ahead of a general election). But others have seen the appointment as a breakthrough for the Muslim community, which remains under-represented in official positions and fares poorly on almost every development indicator.

I disagree that this marks any kind of significant breaking down of traditional social boundaries. India’s elite no longer faces anything like the prejudice experienced by the country’s poor majority. The equality of castes, religions and genders that was enshrined in India’s constitution has come true for those with enough money to transcend their traditional identities. This has been the case for a long time — look at this example from the 1971 war with Pakistan (from Kapil Komireddi’s excellent article on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons):

None of the men who were leading India’s forces at the time were Hindu. India’s air marshal was a Muslim (Idris Latif); the commander of its ground forces in Bangladesh was a Sikh (JS Aurora); the chief of the armed forces was a Parsi (Sam Manekshaw); and the strategist who planned the capture of Dhaka was Jewish (JFR Jacob).

A similar point can be made about women. India ranked 129th out of 146 countries on the Gender Inequality Index last year. And yet, women are extremely well represented in top positions. The (arguably) most powerful person in the whole country is a woman: Sonia Gandhi, head of the Congress party. The head of the opposition in parliament is female, and women lead some of the most important states: West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and, until recently, Uttar Pradesh.

It is further down the social ladder that discrimination remains a problem. In an almost zero sum world in which hundreds of millions of desperately poor people are competing for minimal resources and scant opportunities, many jealously guard the small social benefits conferred by caste or religion or gender as a way of staying at least marginally ahead of those on the rungs below. These distinctions are often exacerbated by politicians — either intentionally to build a block of guaranteed voters from a certain group, or unintentionally through welfare schemes that are designed to improve the lot of backward groups but which end up hardening those boundaries in the process.

The poor face huge obstacles to advancement primarily as a result of their poor nutrition and education at young ages. Impoverished Muslim communities face even tougher conditions in attempting to break out of their traditionally low status. I haven’t found an extensive bio of the new Intelligence Bureau chief yet — perhaps he worked his way up from the worst of ghettos. I doubt it. In any case, by the time he had made it into the more senior ranks of officialdom, he was already in the rarefied air of the elite – a place where the giddy dreams of India’s founders can actually come true.

Kasab’s death is a chance for India to give up its Mumbai investigation

The hanging of Ajmal Kasab, the sole surviving gunman from the 2008 Mumbai attacks, is a good PR result for the Indian justice system, but does nothing to improve India’s security and makes it even less likely that the masterminds of the attack will be brought to justice. That may work in the government’s favour.

India’s judicial system is a lumbering beast – trials can take years to reach their conclusion amid a backlog estimated at around 30 million cases. India retains the death penalty, but mostly because no one wants to appear weak by calling for its abolition. Only one execution has been carried out in the past 15 years (a former security guard hanged in 2004 for the rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl).

So with a trial that clocked in at just over three years, and a sentence that was carried out just six months later, the case certainly stands out. The president rejected his mercy plea on 5 November and he was secretly hanged in Pune jail on Wednesday. A token offer was made for Pakistan to reclaim the body, which will no doubt be ignored.

For once, the government looks decisive and got results. The anniversary of the Mumbai attacks is usually an occasion for the media to rake over the many embarrassing failures of the police and authorities at the time. As Sandipan Deb pointed out in Mint today, carrying out the execution just a few days before the fourth anniversary is a good way to deflect some of that criticism. We might even forget about the National Counter-Terrorism Centre and other much-needed security reforms that were repeatedly promised and never delivered.

The execution was primarily about revenge. Many were today disappointed that the hanging didn’t take place in a public square, perhaps hoping for some kind of communal hysteria – tearing his body to pieces, smearing his blood on their faces and urinating on the mutilated corpse. Certainly, it had nothing to do with the official justification behind executions that they act as a deterrent to future offenders. As many people have pointed out on social media today, Kasab went into this operation hoping to die, as will any future jihadists of his kind.

There is also the question of how this affects the broader investigation into the attacks. Kasab had probably provided as much information on their planning as he was ever likely to divulge. Nonetheless, his death closes off forever the one source of living knowledge in Indian custody.

In a way, this may prove useful to the Indian government. Its attempts to pressure the Pakistan government into co-operating with the investigation have made barely any progress, and this has hampered the broader peace negotiations that resumed in 2011. India is desperate to move beyond the endless bickering with its difficult neighbour. It wants normal trade relations, security in Kashmir, and the chance to engage with Afghanistan without fear of triggering a proxy war. It must be clear to the Indian government that they will never get a satisfactory response from Pakistan in bringing to justice the plotters of the Mumbai attacks. At some point, a line will have to be drawn in the sand, and that starts by burying the painful reminder that was sat in a Pune cell.

Obama’s Myanmar trip plays into the military’s hands

Khin Maung Win/Associated Press

Obama’s historic trip to Myanmar today – the first by a sitting US president – is the result of a widespread myth about the reform process in that country. Many campaigners have criticised him for rewarding President Thein Sein’s government too soon for its minor set of reforms over the past two years. But the US administration justifies the trip on the grounds of a story we are repeatedly told about what is happening in Myanmar at the moment – that a struggle is taking place with the government between reformists, represented by President Sein, and a shadowy group of conservative hardliners. The story goes that the reform process is on a knife edge and could be reversed at any time.

But what proof do we have of this division within the government? What if that is just a story designed to encourage Western governments to engage quickly, lest the evil conservatives overpower the trusty reformers and send the country back to the days of totalitarian dictatorship? The whole thing is cast in simplistic tones of good and evil, and offers Western governments a chance to play their favourite role – as the saviours of Democracy and Justice, riding in to provide crucial support to the good guys in their time of need. That this also opens the doors for Western businesses to feast on a virginal marketplace is a handy bonus.

Many observers are highly sceptical about this story of hardliners vs reformists. Jan Zalewski, a Burmese-speaking analyst for IHS Global Insight, argues that the entire reform process is a carefully stage-managed production that has been on the drawing board for the past 20 years.

“The reform process has been initiated by the military itself and is very controlled by them,” he told me in an interview for a piece I wrote for today’s The National. “There is a lot of cohesion within government about where it’s moving. There is only disagreement about more nuanced details – how far democratic reforms should go and how quickly. Thein Sein actually represents a kind of status quo. What’s coming out of the government would not be happening if [the military] didn’t want it.”

The military recognised years ago that the economy desperately needed foreign investment and that this required some level of international acceptance for the regime. Paranoid delusions that a Western country might invade at any moment also acted as push towards reconciliation with the world (it’s what led them to build their ridiculous new capital inland at Naypyidaw – see my article on the world’s emptiest capital here).

The military have done the bare minimum to gain that international acceptance. They released the most important figurehead of reform – Aung San Suu Kyi – along with some other political prisoners, while leaving many more behind bars. They relaxed censorship laws a little, legalised trade unions and allowed Ms Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) to stand for a few seats in parliament in April’s by-elections.

But all this came after the military’s grip on political power had been firmly established in a new constitution (passed through an outrageously flawed referendum in 2008), followed by massively rigged elections in 2010 in which members of the military junta simply traded in their uniforms for suits in order to claim they were suddenly a civilian government. Only then did the supposedly reformist figure of Thein Sein arrive to tell the world that Myanmar had changed and everything was now lovely, and yes please, we will take that money now. The world happily glossed over the fact that he was a former lieutenant general, henchman to dictator Than Shwe and had cultivated dubious links to drug lords in Wa state during his time overseeing the brutal counter-insurgency in that region. He was considered a front-runner for this year’s Nobel peace prize.

The government’s much-lauded ceasefires with ethnic rebel groups have done nothing to resolve the fundamental tensions between the Burmese centre and the ethnic provinces, and the government actually restarted the war in the northern Kachin state AFTER the reform process began. The total failure of the authorities to address the brutal persecution of Rohingya Muslims in the western Rakhine state in recent months is further proof of how attitudes to minorities remain unchanged.

True, now that it’s begun, there is a chance that the reform process will build its own momentum and go beyond what the military rulers want.  What happens at the next general election in 2015 will be very interesting. With enough support, it is likely that the NLD will press for changes in the constitution to reduce the military’s power. That will be the real testing point.

But Ms Suu Kyi and the NLD are politicians – not revolutionaries. They also lack political experience. Already, serious divisions have appeared in the party over how it is run, and the compromises being made by its leaders in order to secure their place in the system. More than 130 members resigned last month in one Irrawaddy region over alleged ‘cronyism’ in the party’s decision-making process.

For now, the reform process has been extremely well managed by President Sein and the military regime that stands behind him. They may well be able to outmaneuver their more democratic opponents and retain the military’s powerful position for many years to come, while also benefiting from improved economic and diplomatic relations with the world. Mr Obama’s visit is a major step towards that goal.

Savile case points to the fallacy of ‘stranger danger’

The National, Nov 3, 2012

LONDON // After years of misplaced fears about “stranger danger”, experts hope that the torrent of child abuse allegations against children’s TV presenter, Jimmy Savile, will teach Britain that the real threat comes from people in positions of authority.

How Savile was able to avoid the allegations during his lifetime has fascinated and baffled the British public, with the story barely leaving the front pages of newspapers for the past month.

But experts such as Dennis Green, a child protection consultant with a firm called RWA, want the Savile case to “highlight the need to ensure there are proper protections for children in large organisations like the BBC”.

“I hope the Savile case will make people realise there is a much greater threat from people in positions of authority than from the weirdo in a scruffy mac stood outside the school gates,” he said.

Read the rest here…

UK ‘closing the door’ on foreign students

The National, 29 October 2012

LONDON // When He Ying Li arrived in the United Kingdom to study at one of the world’s most illustrious universities, she could barely contain her excitement.

But that enthusiasm dissipated as she waited in the pouring rain outside a south London police station. As a Chinese immigrant, she had been given a week to register with the authorities.

“I got up at 4am to try to beat the queue, but I still had to wait for seven hours, standing in the rain,” said the 23-year-old, who arrived in the UK last month to study media and communications at the London School of Economics (LSE).

Following chaotic scenes at police stations across the country, the government relaxed the registration rules earlier this month. In future, students will have until the end of December to register with police and can do it through their university.

But bigger challenges are in store for Ms Li and other talented young students who dreamed of finding work in the UK after their studies.

Read the rest here…

Spain’s number one ghost town

The National, Oct 22 2012

Drive an hour out of Spain’s historic capital, through ruggedly beautiful hills and valleys, past picturesque medieval towns and church spires, and you can visit a town almost totally devoid of community, culture and people.

Welcome to Valdeluz, Spain’s number-one ghost town. Its brand-new, tree-lined avenues look like an eerie, abandoned film set. One recent lunchtime, the number of residents visible could be counted on two hands.

A crane, idle for three years, juts out from the landscape alongside a half-finished block of flats. “For rent” is scrawled on tattered posters or on the side of almost every building. There is a hairdresser, a vet and a bank, but they have no customers. No one has bothered opening a grocery store.

“There is no sense of community here. People commute to the city. Nobody knows their neighbours,” said Marie Carmen, 65, the only customer at the bar on the edge of the conurbation. “You have to be a very calm person to like it here.”

When construction first started in 2006, at the height of Spain’s property boom, Valdeluz seemed like a great idea. The local landowner managed to convince the government that the high-speed train between Madrid and Barcelona should stop here, rather than at the busy industrial centre of Guadalajara about eight kilometres away across the arid plains.

Four large housing developments were planned that would be home to 30,000 residents, lured by the cheap and speedy commuter train into the city. Rumour has it that politicians and football players bought up dozens of properties in expectation of quick returns.

Read the rest here…

Pensions keep desperate Spanish families afloat

The National, 19 October 2012

In a community hall in one of Madrid’s most impoverished districts, a group of grandmothers share their stories of how Spain‘s economic crisis has turned their pensions into a lifeline for entire families.

The recession, which has ravaged much of Europe, has destroyed the fundamental hope of those who built neighbourhoods such as Orcasitas out of nothing – that they could give their children opportunities they never had.

“My son is a builder but he’s been unemployed since January,” said Concha Sanchez, a 67-year-old retired secretary. “He gets unemployment welfare, but he has a disabled son and between his mortgage payments and the cost of care, he cannot afford to live.

“The family survives off my pension. I buy the nappies and medicine for the baby.”

Another woman speaks up. Her 59-year-old brother – a lorry driver for a construction firm – has not been paid for over a year and is now owed €50,000 (Dh240,000) in back pay and expenses, most of it from local government jobs. “He has three sons and cannot afford to eat,” said Manoli Sanchez, 63. “He’s still working and lawyers are trying to get the money, but there are 50 other people in the same position.

“I keep the family going with my pension. It is the same for all of us – we are all giving money to the next generation.”

The women nod in agreement. Each has a similar story to tell – of entire generations of people out of work, of sons and daughters going unpaid for months at a time.

Read the rest here…

UK relations with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain worsening over human rights concerns

The National, 19 October

LONDON // Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have objected strongly to criticism from British Members of Parliament who accuse the David Cameron government of failing to promote human rights in key Gulf allies.

A report published on Wednesday by parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee criticised the British government for its reaction to unrest in Bahrain last year, and is the latest in a series of moves by back bench MPs seeking a review of relations with Gulf states.

“Given the Bahraini authorities’ brutal repression of demonstrators in February and March 2011, we believe that Bahrain should have been designated as a country of concern in the [Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s] 2011 report on human rights and democracy,” the report stated.

It went on to accuse the government of hypocrisy for failing to encourage a boycott of the Bahrain Grand Prix while enforcing a boycott of the group stages in this year’s football European Championship in Ukraine over human-rights issues.

Bahrain has rejected the report, saying the British government made the right choice in leaving the decision up to Formula One organisers.

Read the rest here…

Exploding Ammo Dumps

The Economist, Sep 29th 2012

[Video from Congo-Brazzaville where explosions at an ammo dump ultimately killed 250 people in March]

TAKING stock of an ammunition depot can be a deadly task. Earlier this month it led to an explosion at a weapons storeroom near the Turkish town of Afyonkarahisar, killing 25 soldiers. Such blasts are frequent—and deadly. They have killed 4,600 people since global record-keeping started in 1995. Last year was the worst yet, with 442 victims from 46 explosions. One of the biggest ever happened in March this year: an accident in Congo-Brazzaville that killed 250, showering munitions over a two-mile radius.

Thousands of ill-run weapons stores are in restless parts of Africa and the Middle East, often near towns or cities. The end of the cold war left unneeded weapons all over the Soviet empire. Moldova spends a quarter of its defence budget guarding obsolete munitions. Ukraine alone has half a million tonnes.

Read the rest here…

For more information on ammo dump explosions, visit the Small Arms Survey here. And check out the work of the Mines Advisory Group, one of several organisations trying to convince countries to sort out their ammo depots. They had warned Congo-Brazzaville about their depots prior to the explosions that killed 250 people earlier this year.