Saturday, May 23, 2009


By Anuj Chopra

NAYPYIDAW, BURMA -- When widespread protests erupted in 2007 on the streets of Rangoon, Burma's longtime capital, the ruling military generals hunkered down from the enraged crowds in their newest sanctuary, a remote administrative capital 400 kilometres to the north. Naypyidaw is an impregnable – or at least unreachable – command post, boasting Stalinist-style buildings, luxury homes, wide paved boulevards, and 24-hour-a-day electricity that is a world away from the blackouts and daily hardships faced by Burma's poor. The name translates into English as, Seat of Kings, and is teeming with an army of 80,000 bedraggled-looking construction workers, which human rights groups claim include forced labour programs. Hacked out of a malarial jungle starting in 2005, this 10-square-kilometre inland fortress – off limits to foreigners – is being built as the military's nerve centre, far from prying eyes ...

By Anuj chopra
When the deeply-rutted village tracks morphed into wide, paved, six-lane roads, I knew I was nearing Burma's new jungle capital. A long and bumpy overnight bus ride, traversing 250 miles from Rangoon, has brought me to Naypyidaw – the country's administrative capital since 2005, and a secluded, secretive sanctuary for Burma's military generals. In Rangoon, two private bus services refused to sell me a ticket, fearing retribution from the military junta for ferrying a foreigner to the generals' nerve center. One owner of a rickety bus agreed to take me after I offered to pay double – with the caveat that he'd offload me the minute he sensed trouble with military authorities. Fortunately, it was a smooth ride (but for the rutted roads) and I was dropped at the hotel zone. I asked for a room at the Myat Taw Win hotel, one of many plush hotels, nervous I might be turned away. The receptionist gave me a cold stare, noted down my passport details in a mammoth register, and for $60 a night, offered me the key to a luxurious, self-contained villa with foreign cable TV and air conditioning. After some arguing, the hotel agreed to rent me a $3-an-hour motorbike with a driver, for a quick tour of Naypyidaw. "No pictures," I was warned. Two men caught taking pictures a few months ago are now serving time in the notorious Insein prison in Rangoon, I was reminded. ...

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Where Jailbirds Run On Their Records -- And Win

By Anuj Chopra

GHAZIPUR, INDIA -- For the past three years, a federal prison in the badlands of northern India has been the next best thing to freedom for Mukhtar Ansari. A tall, mustached member of the Uttar Pradesh state legislature, he's awaiting trial for more than two dozen alleged crimes, including murder. But Ansari has remained steadily in touch with his loyal supporters—especially in recent weeks, while he ran for a seat in the nation's parliament from his cell. Dedicated campaign workers like Lakshmi Devi, an elderly local widow who thinks of the jailed candidate as a modern-day Robin Hood, have been routinely allowed to call on Ansari at any time of day. They need only to flash an entry permit—not a government-issued photo ID, but a note on Ansari's personal letterhead. "Gatekeeper Sahib," the old woman's tattered letter says, handwritten in Hindi. "Do not stop aunty from coming to see me."

The Talk of Nepal: The Future of Its Gurkhas

By Anuj Chopra

KATHMANDU, NEPAL --The kukri strapped to Mekhman Tamang's hip belt is more than an ordinary family heirloom. When his father bequeathed the traditional knife to him 10 years ago, Tamang, a third-generation Gurkha soldier, also inherited the stout-hearted reputation tethered to thousands of Nepalese men who fought for foreign countries before him. Recruited by the British army in 1999, the 30-year-old soldier has braved hails of Taliban bullets during two recent stints in Afghanistan. But he is uncertain whether he will be able to pass down his kukri — or the Gurkha legacy — to his son.

For nearly two centuries, hundreds of thousands of Gurkhas have been plucked from the foothills of the Himalayas to serve primarily in the British and Indian armies. They have often been given dangerous frontline duties in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Borneo, the Falklands, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. The British army has awarded more than a dozen Victoria Crosses to Nepalese soldiers over the years, but despite the job's prestige at home, Gurkhas have long complained of being treated differently from native soldiers. For decades, Gurkhas have struggled with the British government for parity of pay, pensions, and perks, and more recently, with British immigration officials over their right to settle in the U.K.,8599,1889035,00.html

A white layer of salt envelopes Mohammed Jehangir's farm in Khajura, Bangladesh. Photo by Anuj Chopra

How Global Warming Threatens Millions In Bangladesh

By Anuj Chopra

KHAJURA, BANGLADESH --In this obscure village perched on the rugged coastline along the Bay of Bengal, climate change exudes a taste. It is the flavor of salt. As recently as five years ago, water from the village well tasted sweet to Mohammed Jehangir. But now, a glassful, flecked with tiny white crystals, is briny. Like other paddy farmers in this southern village, Jehangir is baffled by the change. But international scientists aren't surprised to see such effects, as global warming causes sea levels to rise. It is a sign that the brackish water from the Bay of Bengal is encroaching, surging up Bangladesh's fresh-water rivers, percolating deep into the soil, fouling ponds and the underground water supply that millions depend on to drink and cultivate their farms. Salt is slowly, yet inexorably, making its way to the rice paddies of farmers like Jehangir, destroying their only source of income.

Khajura is on the front lines of climate change, and some of the poorest of the world's poor are feeling the consequences of the fossil fuel emissions by industrialized nations half a world away. There is little chance of, literally, turning back the tide. The implications are dire for many millions living here and for others in low-lying areas around the world. ...

Reeperbahn in Hamburg: One of the Europe's oldest and most famous red-light districts. Photo by Anuj Chopra

Red Lights Go Out In Reeperbahn

By Anuj Chopra

HAMBURG, GERMANY --At first, it feels like you are in a high-security enclave. High barricades bookend the infamous Herbertstrasse, sometimes called the "street of shame". Then, you notice women perched comfortably on swivel chairs, dressed in nothing but stockings and suspenders, looking out from narrow shop windows. Some stick their necks out, to lure passers-by to come in or to hurl invective at tourists trying to cheekily snap a picture. Known for its tacky sex shops, strip joints, bordellos and casinos, the Reeperbahn in Hamburg's St Pauli area is one of the oldest and most famous red-light districts of the world. Once a favorite hangout for fatigued sailors from ships that anchored at Hamburg's famous port, it slowly began drawing hordes of tourists from all over the world. But now prostitution is slowly dying in the Reeperbahn. The sex industry here is in terminal decline as prostitution flourishes through more modern ways, mainly through the internet, a medium that is considered both discreet and safe...

An illegal migrant wades through thorny bushes to reach his squalid hut in a jungle on the fringes of Calais, France. Photo by Anuj Chopra

Émigrés' Europe Dreams In Chains

By Anuj Chopra

CALAIS, FRANCE -- As darkness begins descending on the French port of Calais, Naseer Ahmad, 17, sidles out of his hovel hidden amid thorny bushes in a jungle and heads towards the mouth of Le tunnel sous la Manche, the rail tunnel beneath the English Channel that connects France and England. Ahmad makes his way along roads and across fields, crosses high fences and razor wire and sneaks past floodlights and police patrols. When he gets to the tracks, he tries to jump aboard freight or passenger trains headed down the tunnel. The lanky young Afghan has been trying to smuggle himself into England in this manner for over a year. “Life in England is a dream,” he says. “After coming so far, I won’t give up.” Ahmad arrived in Calais a year ago after a perilous 5,630-kilometre journey from southern Afghanistan’s war-torn Helmand province. He covered the distance partly on foot and partly hidden in cargo containers or in rickety boats. He was guided all along by fly-by-night agents who helped migrants such as himself to evade arrest and smuggled them to foreign shores in return for a hefty fee. ...

Mud houses cling to a hill overlooking Kabul. Photo by Anuj Chopra

Afghanistan Faced With Severe Housing Shortage

By Anuj Chopra

KABUL, Afghanistan -- It's a daily ritual for 8-year-old Bismillah. Every morning, five grimy plastic cans slung over his tiny shoulder, he descends a rugged hillside, negotiating the steep pitches of scree and gravel with goat-like agility. At the bottom of the hill, he waits under the broiling sun in a long queue leading up to a spigot. But wait he must or his family will be left without drinking water for the day. Bismillah lives with his handicapped father, mother and four sisters in a mud-and-wood house in a cramped settlement clinging to a shale-brown hill overlooking Kabul. With no direct water supply, dwellers of these rudimentary housing settlements -- all illegally built -- must lug their water from the bottom of the hill. "Life is hard," says, Suraiya begum, Bismillah's mother, her face hidden behind the lavender fabric of her burqa. "We wouldn't live here if we had a better choice." Six years after the invasion, ask ordinary Afghans the biggest challenge they face, and their answer isn't likely to be the Taliban. It is, in fact, to find a roof over their heads. ...