Friday, October 5, 2007


By Anuj Chopra

I came to Burma in late August to investigate the growing protests sparked by government fuel price hikes -- just weeks before smaller protests swelled to massive demonstrations led by tens of thousands of monks. In a religiously devout country where nearly 80 percent of the population is Buddhist, the monks hold tremendous sway over the Burmese people.

A few days after I arrived, walking down Rangoon's busy Shwe Gon Daing street, I encountered a small but angry group of about 35 protesters chanting slogans against the government's decision to raise fuel prices. Security officials in plain clothes emerged on the scene quickly. Shops in the area rolled down their shutters. Journalists were ordered to stay on the other side of the road and refrain from taking pictures, and a waiting crowd watched in nervous anticipation. The protesters were roughed up -- some of them punched in the face -- and then tossed into a waiting police truck. The small demonstration was crushed in a matter of minutes. It's not the army in uniforms beating up people, I noticed, but thugs probably hired by the junta. I wondered if the military regime feels it has less direct culpability that way. I was watching from a distance like a curious bystander and didn't risk taking out my camera. But the junta's photographers were busy clicking pictures of the crowd. I was told they keep track of who is attending these protest rallies. If the same people are seen in more than two protest rallies, they fall under the government's radar of suspicion. In these early weeks of the protest public participation is still conspicuously low. For days the government paper, The New Light of Myanmar, has been carrying ominous articles warning protesters that if they didn't cease and desist, they could be in jail for up to 20 years. Even the air coughs fear...

Nearly 90% of Burmese live close to or at the poverty line; the per capita income is a meager $175, even below neighboring Bangladesh and Chad; Burma's military dictatorship spends 40% of the budget on the upkeep of its 450,000-strong army - the largest in South East Asia; only a sliver of the budget goes to health care and education.


By Anuj Chopra

We've been inundated with Myanmar for the last few days. As the people of this tiny nation turn out in force to protest their lack of democratic rights
, Myanmar’s Orwellian dictatorship, which has ruled the country for 45 years, has clamped down with an iron fist.

The world is outraged at the use of force on peaceful demonstrators. However, just next door, Indians watch with serene detachment. The MEA has its own prosaic reasons for its insipid response to the “internal matters” of a restive neighbour: India needs to “safeguard its strategic interests”, we’re told. India has a lot to lose if it supports a weak democratic movement that is bound to be crushed — Myanmar can, after all, slake India’s unquenchable thirst for gas. It can also help vanquish ULFA, India’s nemesis in the Northeast. And India needs to mollycoddle Myanmar to create a buffer for China, our rival Asian behemoth.

So India’s okay doing business with an odious regime that wages war on its own people, dragoons them into forced labour, pauperises a once-thriving nation and muzzles all dissent. There is no national outrage as India sells weapons to a brutal regime, rendering toothless a decade-old EU arms embargo meant to pressure the junta to restore democracy.

I found the indifference even more disconcerting after I travelled to Myanmar in August. The recent protests have been glossed over with a patina of democratic yearnings, but they, just like Myanmar’s 1988 uprising for democracy, were triggered by the worsening economic hardships of ordinary Myanmarese...

Saturday, September 15, 2007


Scenes of destruction in 2006 from Trincomalee district, Sri Lanka. Relentless fighting between the Tamil Tigers (L.T.T.E) and the Sri Lankan Army had forced residents of Thoppur village to flee their homes. After many agonizing weeks in relief camps, when fighting finally ceased, they returned to their village, only to find devastation where their houses once stood. (Photos by Anuj Chopra)

While passing through Thoppur village, I met S. Thangaratnam, a Tamil man, lugging a semi-exploded shell on his shoulder, and another one in his hand. Heavy shelling had destroyed most houses in Thoppur. These shells had fallen on Thangaratnam's house. An unemployed man, he planned to sell them for their iron value.

Maoist rebels in Jhyaltung Danda, Nepal. Photo by Anuj Chopra

Nepal: Maoists Begin to Disarm


JHYALTUNG DANDA, Nepal -- We've spent five hours on the road from Kathmandu. The car is belching out thick smoke as it wobbles along the deeply rutted roads. The mercury has dropped dramatically and fog is adding to the precarious journey.

We're on our way to a remote hamlet in western Nepal, Jhyaltung Danda in the Nawalparasi district, to spend time at a Maoist camp run by the country's rebels, if they let us. Emerging from the shadow of a long clandestine existence, Nepal's Maoist rebels are now in the process of laying down arms under UN supervision, officially calling an end to their decade long revolution.

As our destination nears, the countryside is increasingly beautiful: old wooden houses rise above vast tracts of maize in mid bloom; little children waive at us as we pass by.

In the distance, I see a red flag flying from the top of a watchtower. As we pull up, a gun barrel darts out from a foxhole padded by sand bags.

We have arrived at the headquarters of the 4th division of the Peoples' Liberation Army (PLA), a rag-tag army of Nepal's Maoists. Yesterday, I tried to visit another camp in the district of Nawalparisi to meet with the rebels. The camp's lanky deputy commander politely broke the news that he couldn't get permission from his "higher ups." So my translator and I had to turn back.

Today, we are in luck...

PHOTO: Feeding his addiction: Khalil in his 'drug den' -- an old bullet-pocked, shrapnel-scarred, Soviet era building in Kabul -- a regular haunt for several drug addicts. (Photo by Anuj Chopra)

by Anuj Chopra

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Mohammad’s motivation to check into a drug rehab clinic was a very personal tragedy. Just last month, this 60-year-old saw one of his eight children, addicted for years to heroin, painfully wither away in front of his eyes. “He smoked nig ht and day,” he says, grimacing. “I want to live. I want my other children to live.”Along with Agha, 17, his eldest son, also an addict, Mohammad made a perilous four-day road trip to Kabul from his obscure village in Helmand province. They are both fortunate to be admitted in the Nejat clinic, the only drug rehab clinic in Kabul. It offers a residential treatment programme to addicts who spend weeks here going through the painful process of withdrawal. But despite being funded by international donors, the number of patients who seek admission here far outstrips the treatment facilities here. With only 10 beds and few in-house specialists, they routinely turn away patients. There are over a 1,000 addicts on the waiting list. Afghanistan produces 92 per cent of the world’s opium, making it the world’s largest poppy growing nation. The booming poppy cultivation is leaving the Afghan society ravaged by the malaise of drug addiction.
PHOTO: Tahira Begum, a 'half-widow' in Kashmir.
Photo by Anuj Chopra

Kashmir: The Disappeared
-- By Anuj Chopra

SRINAGAR, Indian Kashmir A wood-fired bukhari warms the tiny room, providing much needed respite from the biting cold. Donning the hijab, Tahira Begum, fair, frail, and 32, is sitting in a quiet corner, her knees drawn to her chest. Between sobs, she narrates how searching for her missing husband has been her life's obsession in the last six years.

"I've looked up every prison, every morgue in Kashmir ," she sighs, her voice weak and faltering.
"I've searched and searched and searched."

Tariq Ahmad, her childhood friend who she fell in love with and married when she was only 15, disappeared mysteriously six years ago. Unemployed at that time, he left to look for work one morning, never to return again.

Some eye witnesses said they had seen Indian army soldiers whisking him away, putting him in a van and driving away. Since then, there's been no information about his whereabouts. The army denies detaining him.

Tahira begum, amid uncertainty over whether her husband is still alive, is denounced a "half-widow" -- a woman who is neither a widow nor a wife. She cannot remarry under Islamic law until it's proved Tariq is dead.

The search for answers on her husband's whereabouts has taken over her nights, her days. She's been popping anti-depressants, she tells me, just so she can hold on to her sanity for the sake of her three children. Hope of Tariq's return has waned over the years. All that Tahira Begum asks for is a dignified closure.