Searching for solutions

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It was 1985, when Jun Jun and I came over for our first trip to Nepal. I had nearly died of hypothermia in our trip to the Everest Base Camp, and Jun and a Japanese explorer had saved my life. My subsequent trips to Nepal have been marked by other drama. As I left for the airport yesterday, Navaraj, the tutor at Pathshala from Kathmandu reminded me that I was going to a new Nepal, one no longer under the rule of the king. Sapna, the human rights lawyer we interviewed in Kathmandu today, remarked wryly, that it was a Nepal ruled by many kings. With the Moaists now in government, one hopes that at the least the violence will go down. Too many lives have been lost.
The killings and disappearances in Nandigram in the largest democracy in the world, and the recent killing of the Adivashi Garo activist Choles Ritchil in the most brutal manner imaginable – ?Choles?s two eyes plucked, testicles removed, anus mutilated, two hand palms smashed , nails of 3 fingers of the right hand removed, left hand thump finger nail removed, two palms had holes, upper right hand had severe wound, several blood stains on the back part of the body, in both thighs middle part there had been two holes, back part of the body had several black marks, several deep marks of wounds on both lower legs, there had been black marks on feet, no nail on thump of right foot, all fingers of two hands were broken.? – by the much lauded new regime in Bangladesh are worrying signs. With conventional media under threat, bloggers become the lonely and marked whistle blowers.
Majority world photographer and All Roads winner from Guatemala Sandra Sebastian is one of many activists in search for solutions.
Sandra Sebastian
I couldn?t believe that passers-by weren?t killed when a shooting occurred between drug traffickers on a busy day in one of the principal avenues in Guatemala City. Two presumed drug traffickers were murdered in their car, which had lots of AK-47 bullet-holes. There were hundreds of bullet-holes all around the avenue. The walls of a school and a bus stop where many people usually sat, were also riddled. Unfortunately two men died, but it could have been a massacre. How many people have to be killed before something is done?
I wasn?t the only astonished person. I took the picture because I want to document and leave a testimony of the time I live in and show the danger that ordinary people face. In the last year alone (2005) more than 5,000 people were killed in street violence in a country of 13 million people. The reasons? Delinquency, organized crime, drug trafficking, poverty, broken homes. I want to talk of the inefficient justice system and the impunity with which some operate. I want to point to the consequences, and hope people can understand and search for solutions.

Sandra Sebastian, Guatemala

The Campaign Begins

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“We travel to Dhaka, in Bangladesh for a celebration of South East Asian photography thanks to a festival called Chobi Mela, on its fourth edition so far. Their theme this year is ‘boundaries’: ideas, aspects, images that divide peoples and cultures. Perfect backdrop for the violence in the country ahead of forthcoming elections…” http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/programmes/the_ticket.shtml. They did a hatchet job on Anita’s interviews, but at least the BEEB did give coverage to Chobi Mela IV.
Besides Cristobal (asleep on the rickshaw) and Norman, all the others have gone back.
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Richard, Wubin and Cristobal, testing out environmentally friendly modes of transport.
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Rupert claims his neighbours need sunglasses to cope with his glistening green punjabi from Dhanmondi Aarong.
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The Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) motorbike cruised slowly past Drik in the morning. Earlier I’d seen them cruise in Gulshan and Baridhara. It was like a scene from Easy Rider, though the ‘crossfire’ victims might not think so. I’ve never seen them in the troubled areas of Paltan, or Muktangon, or anywhere there are clashes between the public and the police. The RAB seem to have different priorities. For the moment at least, the elite force seems only concerned with protecting the elite.
Meanwhile, a Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) takes a strange and undefined ‘leave’, with veiled threats of “I shall return”, and the fighting gives way to election frenzy.
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The Police in a different role
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The campaigner, a new kid on the block
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Hired supporters, a new form of employment
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Employment for all
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And the inevitable traffic jams
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For those trying to avoid the winter chill, the priorities are somewhat different. A girl cooks dinner at Russel Square. Earlier the burning cars provided the flames.

Taking care of the caretaker

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It was a dramatic ending to Robert Pledge?s presentation. Via Topu and Omi, I?d received the news that the military had been called out. Robert wanted to finish the presentation, but once I?d announced the government?s decision, the auditorium of the Goethe Institut quickly emptied out. This particular Chobi Mela IV presentation had come to an abrupt end. It was 1987 revisited.

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Noor Hossain had painted on his back ?Let Democracy be Freed? and the police had gunned him down on the 10th November 1987. But the people had taken to the streets and while we were scared the military would come out, there was no stopping us. It had taken three more years of street protests, before the general was forced to step down. The people had won. But then it had been a military general who was ruling the country. This was a civilian caretaker government. The general mistrust of a party in power, had resulted in this unique process in Bangladesh where an interim neutral caretaker government headed by a Chief Adviser (generally the most recently retired Chief Justice) and consisting of other neutral but respected members of the public were entrusted with conducting the elections. Why then the military? Yes, the president was a Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP, the largest party in the outgoing coalition government) appointee, there are ten advisors who are meant to be neutral.

A free and fair election hasn?t yielded the electoral democracy we had hoped for. After each term, the people have voted out the party in power, only to be rebuffed by a political system that has never had the interest of the people on their agenda. Still, the elections were held, and despite the fact that there had been one rigged election in 1996 (rejected and held again under a neutral caretaker government), an electoral process of democratisation, was slowly developing.

This time however, the total disregard for the electoral process has created a sham, and the three key people in this electoral process, the president, the chief adviser, and the chief election commissioner (CEC), are colluding against the people. The first two, being represented by the same person, was a BNP appointee. He also happens to be the head of the military. The CEC, now a cartoon character, had also been appointed by the BNP while it was in power. Coupled with a clearly flawed voters list, this has removed any hope of a free and fair election. Can the caretaker government genuinely conduct a fair election? I believe it still can, if given the chance, despite the president?s lack of credibility. But for that to happen, the military, the bureaucracy and the police need to remember that it is with the people that their allegiance lies.

However, it does depend upon the removal of the other obstacles. The election commissioner cannot constitutionally be removed, and his removal is central to the opposition demands. What then can we do? There is only one body higher than the constitution, the people themselves. The advisors need to be empowered if they are to pull off this election. Sandwiched between a partisan executive head and another partisan CEC, the advisers risk becoming irrelevant. The only way this can be checked is if people come out in droves. Not ?hired for the day? supporters but ordinary people committed to civilian rule, and a multi-party system.

It is we the people who need to take to the streets. And it is time we sent out the message to all political parties, that an entire nation cannot be appropriated. They need to be told that we did not liberate our country in vain, and despite the poverty and the hardship that we go through, we will not be cowed down, and will not blindly tow a party line, when the party itself has disengaged from the people. If tomorrow, every woman man and child takes to the street of Bangladesh, there is no power, not the military, not the president, not the advisers, not the CEC, not the BNP and not AL that can stop us.

There is hope yet. The advisers have had the good sense to reverse the home ministry?s unilateral decision to call out the army and the president and chief adviser has been challenged for taking such a step. Whether the advisers can continue to take such bold steps depends on our ability to bolster their nebulous position.

Blockades and hartals do hurt the economy, and ironically, it is the person in the street who is the most vulnerable. But faced with an attempt to take away the only chance she has to exercise her right to elect the government of her choice, she has little option left but to take to the streets. As the world is finding out, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and wherever else there is conflict, a military victory is never a victory. If the anger of the people is to be quelled, then the underlying causes of discontent need to be solved. Flexing the muscles of the military, will only put a lid on the boiling pot, and the longer the lid is pressed down, the bigger will be the eventual explosion. More have died today, and with every death, the flashpoint looms closer.

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Chobi Mela IV has continued despite it all. The dancing in the all night boat party,

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the heated arguments at every meeting point, the mobile exhibitions, all went on despite the turmoil. The presentations on the night of the 11th, with Yumi Goto, showing work by the children from Bandar Aceh, Neo Ntsoma showing her work on youth culture in South Africa, Chris Rainier showing his long term projects on ?Ancient Marks?, and the deeply personal, but very different accounts of Trent Parke

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and Pablo Bartholomew, made one of the most intriguing evenings I can remember. The packed audience that had braved the blockade had perhaps an inkling of what was to come. Morten had a full house for his ?gallery walk? at the Alliance Francaise and Trent?s workshops were packed out. The grand opening was at the National Museum, where we had one fifth of the cabinet opening the show. Kollol gave a passionate rendering of his song ?Boundaries? written especially for the festival. The rickshaw vans designed to take the festival to the public, plied the streets of Old Dhaka, Mirpur and other areas not used to gallery crowds.

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The chief guest, adviser C.M. Shafi Sami, the special guests adviser Sultana Kamal and Robert Pledge, photographers Morten Krogvold and Trent Parke and the scholarship recepient Dolly Akhter all spoke eloquently. Little did the audience know about the drama that had taken place the night before. With the museum functionaries doing their best to keep us from putting up the Contact Press Images show (http://www.chobimela.org/contact_press_images.php), we were under pressure, but working all through the night and sleeping on the museum floor, we managed to put the show up on time.

Last night, the empty streets, looked ominous as I dropped off Chulie, Robert and Yang, and people have been dying in the streets.

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Since then we have had Morten Krogvold?s passionate presentation at the gallery walk at Alliance, Rupert Grey?s clinical dissection of the law and his dry British humour,

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both at the British Council and the Goethe Institut, Saiful Huq Omi?s disturbing but powerful images of political violence, Cristobal Trejo?s poetic rendering of an unseen world, Richard Atrero De Guzman?s honest response to difficult questions about representation and my own presentation on natural disasters and their social impact have all been well attended, despite the tension in the desolate Dhaka streets. The evening presentations close tonight with an insightful film by Indian film maker Joshy Joseph, presentations by Norman Leslie and a behind the scenes look by the photographers at the Drik Photo Department, Md. Main Uddin, Shehab Uddin and Amin, Chandan Robert Rebeiro, Imtiaz Mahabub Mumit and Shumon of Pathshala and Mexican exhibitor Cristobal Trejo. The shows go on as they always do at Drik.

In 1991, a woman with her vote had avenged Noor Hossain’s death.

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A fortnight ago, the city was in flames, and a stubborn chief election commissioner is stoking the flames again. It is a fire he and his allies will be powerless to stop.
Shahidul Alam
Dhaka
Chobi Mela site
Blog by Australian curator Bec Dean
Short video on Chobi Mela IV


Dhaka Burns

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Well I’m finally stumped for words. A party affiliated president, now
has the triple roles of president, head of the military and head of
the ‘neutral’ caretaker government. While rumours of a military
takeover abound, and the prime minister’s son threatens that they will
not go to the streets ’empty handed’, the news that the leader of the
opposition has not threatened immediate protests, but has rather opted
to see how the new head of the caretaker government conducts himself,
is a healthy sign. Too many lives have already been lost.
A lot of changes need to take place to erase the mistrust created. A
genuinely non partisan group of advisers need to be selected, the
election commission and the voters list, both clearly not neutral,
need to be changed, and he has to clearly demonstrate that he is no
longer a puppet. Unlikely based on his track record, but one can hope.
Given the current mood, another sham election will surely light the
fuse.
Shahidul Alam
29th October. Dhaka
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Clashes between opposition and Jamaat due to demand for neutral head of caretaker government. (upload incomplete)
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Above photographs taken on 28th October 2006 by Shahidul Alam.
And today 29th October 2006, a party affiliated president, makes himself president, head of military and head of ‘neutral’ caretaker government. Today’s photographs taken by Shehab Uddin. No unauthorised copying of any kind. To publish these or high res images, contact library@drik.net. More pictures and text to follow.
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Thailand coup d'?tat

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?There?s been a coup d’?tat,? said Cherrie breaking into our meeting at the Imperial Tara Hotel in Bangkok. Some of the participants have just returned from shopping and there were little signs of the unrest that it implied. My camera had been handed in for repairs, and my first instinct was to see who had one I could borrow. Suvendu kindly and only half reluctantly offered his. Zaheer and I decided to go out, but he returned soon afterwards, seeing the pouring rain.

 

Rainy Street
There was some housekeeping to be done. Several participants were due the next day and decisions needed to be made as to whether they should make the trip. Spending as little time as I could get away with, I clutched Suvendu?s camera and broached the rain. Some shops had closed, but there were people in the streets. The Japanese restaurant at the end of Sukhumvit Soi 26 wasn?t full, but did have customers.

 

 

Seven Eleven
Zaheer needed a SIM card, but the girl in the 7/11 simply said ?no card?. Military takeover, or political unrest didn?t seem to pervade the air.

 

 

 

Train station
The train station was closing, perhaps a bit earlier than usual as it wasn?t midnight yet, but the traffic in the streets seemed normal. People outside the 7/11 waited for the bus as they normally do.


Must try and sneak out of the meeting tomorrow to go downtown where the tanks are meant to be, but here the only sign a conspiracy theorist could use as ammunition was the Securicor car waiting outside the bank. Perhaps an ominous sign.

Shahidul Alam

Imperial Tara Hotel

Bangkok