Splainer
Monday, March 1 2021

The culture here is one of success based upon academic excellence, studying, learning, practising and having a good job and a great life. For upper India, not the lower. I see two Indias. That’s a lot like Singapore study, study, work hard and you get an MBA, you will have a Mercedes but where is the creativity? The creativity gets left out when your behaviour is too predictable and structured, everyone is similar. Look at a small country like New Zealand, the writers, singers, athletes, it’s a whole different world.

That’s former Apple founder and Silicon Valley legend Steve Wozniak’s answer as to why India is unlikely to ever produce a global tech company. It is part of a must-read long-ranging interview with Economic Times where he speaks about his early days with Steve Jobs, coding for kids and Elon Musk.

Big Story

A great tragedy in Tigray

The TLDR: Multiple reports reveal evidence of possible genocide in the Tigray region of Ethiopia. It also offers another ironic instance of a Nobel peace prize winner—in this case, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed—turning to ruthless violence to achieve their ends.

 

I don’t know anything about Ethiopia…

Let’s first give you a map to give you a better sense of what’s happening and where:

 

Ok, so here’s a timeline of events leading up to the present horror:

 

  • Ethiopia was ruled by a military junta for many decades. Through the 70s and 80s, the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) fought a war to overthrow the military.
  • And it succeeded in 1991, becoming the leading member of a coalition government. 
  • Within years, the TPLF also set up a federal system under which different ethnic groups control 10 separate regions. 
  • But over the years, resentment against the TPLF’s authoritarian policies began to grow—and lead to widespread anti-government protests in 2018.
  • The result: A government reshuffle which resulted in the appointment of Abiy as PM.
  • Abiy is a member of the Oromo, Ethiopia's largest ethnic group, while TPLF represents, well, the Tigray. 
  • Abiy set up a new Prosperity Party—which TPLF refused to join—and removed key Tigrayan leaders accused of corruption and brutality.
  • He also moved to centralise power—which further escalated tensions since TPLF saw it as an attempt to destroy the federal system. 
  • And he signed a peace agreement with neighbouring Eritrea—ending a decades long bloody territorial dispute. This is what earned Abiy the Nobel peace prize in 2019.
  • The conflict came to a head when Abiy’s government postponed the national election citing the pandemic. This is notable since Abiy hasn’t actually faced an election since he took power in 2018.
  • Naturally, the move enraged the TPLF which decided to hold a regional election in defiance. 
  • On November 4, Abiy ordered a military attack on TPLF and Tigray. 

 

Ok, so the government is killing Tigrayans?

Not quite. Over a three week period, the government forces were able to take control of Tigray and oust the TPLF. But they had considerable help from soldiers from neighbouring Eritrea and fighters from an Ethiopian region called Amhara—which has long had an ethnic rivalry with Tigray. And they have been held responsible for the worst of the abuses—including rape, plunder and massacres that many say constitute war crimes.

 

The Amnesty report:  On February 26, Amnesty International released a report based on interviews with 41 survivors and witnesses to mass killings. They claim that Eritrean soldiers systematically killed hundreds of unarmed civilians in the northern city of Axum.

 

After gaining control of the town on November 19, the soldiers began to methodically kill its residents on November 28 and 29:

 

“The soldiers also continued to carry out house-to-house raids, hunting down and killing adult men, as well as some teenage boys and a smaller number of women. One man said he watched through his window and saw six men killed in the street outside his house... He said the soldiers lined them up and shot from behind, using a light-machine gun to kill several at a time with a single bullet.”

 

Amnesty has collected names of at least 240 of the dead, but estimates that the actual death toll is far higher.

 

An internal US report: accessed by the New York Times confirms the massacre, but points its finger at the Amhara militia—who are now running Tigray:

 

“The report, written earlier this month, documents in stark terms a land of looted houses and deserted villages where tens of thousands of people are unaccounted for. [Fighters from Amhara] are ‘deliberately and efficiently rendering Western Tigray ethnically homogeneous through the organized use of force and intimidation, the report says. ‘Whole villages were severely damaged or completely erased,’ the report said.”

 

Also a worry: The looming spectre of famine. A local NGO estimates that more than 4.5 million people in the region are in immediate need of emergency food assistance. And the situation has become even more dire due to widespread looting and destruction of hospitals, water sources and other essential services.

 

A CNN investigation: has since confirmed another “mountain massacre” on November 30 at Maryam Dengelat, a historic monastery complex. People had gathered to mark the Orthodox festival of Tsion Maryam—when Eritrean soldiers entered and opened fire. When pilgrims tried to flee, they followed and sprayed them with bullets. Then this happened:

 

“The soldiers went door to door, dragging people from their homes. Mothers were forced to tie up their sons. A pregnant woman was shot, her husband killed. Some of the survivors hid under the bodies of the dead.

 

The mayhem continued for three days, with soldiers slaughtering local residents, displaced people and pilgrims. Finally, on December 2, the soldiers allowed informal burials to take place, but threatened to kill anyone they saw mourning.”

 

Point to note: On November 30, PM Abiy told the Parliament that "not a single civilian was killed" during the military operation. 

 

No one’s trying to stop it?

The US: has finally condemned the atrocities, with Secretary of State Anthony Blinken saying

 

“We strongly condemn the killings, forced removals and displacements, sexual assaults, and other extremely serious human rights violations and abuses by several parties that multiple organizations have reported in Tigray.”

 

And he called for the "immediate withdrawal" of Eritrean forces and Amhara militia fighters. But the US has been reluctant to openly criticise Abiy. And it’s calling on the African Union to intervene.

 

The EU: has already blocked € 487 million in pandemic aid to Ethiopia due to “the absence of full humanitarian access to all areas of the conflict.” The EU statement also noted that “the situation on the ground goes well beyond a purely internal ‘law and order’ operation. We receive consistent reports of ethnic-targeted violence, killings, massive looting, rapes, forceful returns of refugees and possible war crimes.”

 

Point to note: Back in December, the African Union said Ethiopia took “legitimate” military action in Tigray to preserve the country's unity and stability.

 

Meanwhile in Ethiopia: After the release of the Amnesty report, the Abiy government now says it will cooperate with an international investigation into the killings. But it continues to block all humanitarian aid to most of Tigray. But Eritrea continues to refute all reports of its involvement—or even its presence within Tigray—calling them "preposterous" and "fabricated.” 


The bottomline: Genocides continue unimpeded throughout the world because all the so-called ‘good’ nations don’t want to get involved.

Reading list

CNN, New York Times and the Amnesty report offer the most comprehensive reports on the conflict. Associated Press looks at the looming threat of starvation. BBC News has a good backgrounder on the conflict, and a very good assessment of Abiy.

Sanity Break #1

A new and free AI-powered tool called ‘Deep Nostalgia’ animates still photos—that can then blink, smile or nod at you. Here’s an extraordinary thread of famous people from Indian history shared on Twitter over the weekend, starting with Bhagat Singh.

Headlines that matter

Myanmar military opens fire

As predicted, military leaders—who were relatively restrained in their response to the pro-democracy protesters—took the gloves off over the weekend. At least 18 people have been killed as soldiers opened fire on the streets of several cities. See the situation in Yangon below:

 

This marked the single largest number of casualties since the coup. One of those killed: a prominent activist Nyi Nyi Aung Htet Naing. A video taken from the building above captured images of his body: 

 

The New York Times notes: 

 

“The sheer ferocity of Sunday’s crackdown—soldiers appeared to shoot at unarmed people at random and rounded up groups of demonstrators before marches could begin—drew sharp rebukes internationally.”

 

One reporter says the police had told people: “We shoot because we want to”—not because they’ve been ordered to do so. Also read: our explainer on the Myanmar protests.

 

A twist in Ambani bomb threat case

First, a little known terrorist outfit called Jaish-ul-Hind claimed responsibility on Telegram for the explosives found parked next to Antilla—the Mukesh Ambani residence. The message said: "The brother who placed the SUV near the Ambani house has reached the safe house. This was just a trailer and big picture is yet to come (sic).” And the group declared it had “a problem with corporate prostitutes like you who have sold their souls to the BJP and RSS.”

 

Now, the ‘real’ Jaish-ul-Hind (we think) has spoken up to claim innocence:

 

“We condemn Indian Intelligence agencies for morphing and making fake poster on behest of Jaish ul Hind… Jaish ul Hind will never [takes] ransom from kuffars [infidels] and has no fight with Indian business tycoons, We have fight against the fascism of BJP & RSS, We are fighting against the misdeeds of narinder modi against innocent muslims of hind. We are fighting for shariyah not for money, We are fighting against secular democracy not ambani.”

 

A big rocket launch for India

The 53rd flight of PSLV-C51 rocket marked the first dedicated mission for New Space India Ltd, the commercial arm of ISRO. On board: Brazil’s optical earth observation satellite, Amazonia-1, five Indian and thirteen US satellites. The Indian satellites were built by students, and included this one:

 

“The SDSAT developed by SpaceKids India has an engraving of Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the top panel of the satellite to show solidarity and gratitude for the atmanirbhar initiative and space privatisation, SpaceKidz said. The Bhagavad Gita was also sent on-board an SD card to give the scripture, which teaches oneness as the highest form of humanity, the highest honour, it said.” 

 

To date, ISRO has launched 342 foreign satellites from 34 countries. The Hindu has the most details. Mint Lounge explains why private space startups are still struggling to gain traction.

 

Another mass kidnapping in Nigeria

More than 300 schoolgirls have been abducted from a boarding school by 100-plus gunmen—who stormed the campus and whisked the children away into the forest. Previous such kidnappings were the work of militant groups such as Boko Haram. But this is likely the work of criminal gangs—similar to those who abducted 300 schoolboys in December, and later returned them in exchange for government-paid ransom. (BBC News)

 

The great vaccination drive: A quick update

The second phase kicks off today, and Mint has everything you need to know about the drive. Indian Express explains how you can apply to get a jab. The push to expand the people eligible for vaccines is happening in the midst of a glut:

 

“With the government solely in charge of vaccine distribution as of now, till this month-end, the supply far outstripped actual vaccinations. A large proportion of those on the computerised list of prioritised beneficiaries did not show up to take the jabs. Should the vaccination drive continue at the present pace, some 25% of the original SII vaccine stock will expire by the end of April without being used”

 

The big surge: Vaccinations have acquired a new urgency as fears rise of a ‘second wave’—though experts say it is too early to use that scary phrase:

 

“Yes, the number of cases starting to recede around mid-January, but there has been a spike in new cases in the last one week. We need to wait and see if it is sustained over the next one week at least. If there is sustained increase in cases along with either a doubling in hospitalisation or test positivity rate in a week then we can call it a second wave, at least in Maharashtra.”

 

Speaking of vaccines:  Brazilian prosecutors want to suspend the purchases of India’s Covaxin, a day after its health ministry signed a contract to buy 20 million doses. The reason: There is no Phase 3 trial data on its efficacy. That’s hardly surprising since most Indians share that same reservations. But feeling upbeat about Covaxin, PM Modi who took his first jab today:

 

Bad job news for women

A new study found that Indian women were seven times more likely to lose their job during the lockdown—and 11 times more likely to not return to work. Researchers mapped the trajectory of employees between December 2019 to September 2020—and found that 88% of the men remained employed or returned to work compared to 53% of the women. One big reason:

 

“Among workers who did return to employment after the lockdown, the paper found a large share of men moved to self-employment or daily wage work, in agriculture, trade or construction. For women, there was limited movement into other employment arrangements or industries.

‘This suggests that typical ‘fallback’ options for employment do not exist for women. During such a shock, women are forced to exit the workforce whereas men negotiate across industries and employment arrangements,’ the authors concluded.”

 

Digital media pushes back

Digipub News India Foundation, an association of 11 digital media companies—has written a letter to the government challenging the newly formulated rules to govern all online content (we explained them here). It essentially makes two key points. One: “a current affairs portal is by and large, a written newspaper in the digital format”—and therefore enjoys the same protection of press freedoms as a newspaper or TV channel. Two: The rules have been introduced as part of the Information Technology Act—which was passed to oversee ‘third party intermediaries’—i.e platforms that host user content like Twitter etc.—not those who create and distribute original content, like news sites or streaming platforms. Read the letter over at The Wire. And yes, the memes have already been unleashed. 

 

Ram Mandir drowning in money

The temple’s trust ended its 44-day crowdfunding campaign with Rs 21 billion (2,100 crore) in its pocket—that’s almost double the Rs 11 billion (1100 crore) projected as its estimated cost. The treasurer said: “The fund-raising campaign has ended with generous contributions from crosssections of people, including residents of far-flung villages of India, blurring religious barriers.” Lord Ram, a uniter not a divider. (Times of India)

 

Salman Khan unveils artsy avatar

Bhaijaan’s paintings are being displayed alongside 34 works by great Indian artists such as Raja Ravi Varma, Jamini Roy, Abanindranath Tagore and VS Gaitonde. Salman says he is “awkward embarrassed n yet delighted, honoured, privileged n over the moon.” The exhibit—titled ‘The Masters & The Modern’—can be viewed offline at SGMF Bangalore or online at Google Arts. Below are two examples of his work—'Immortal - Selfless in a Selfish World’ and ‘Two Faces’:

 

Sanity Break #2

What’s not to like about a dude—in this case, Seth Phillips—who holds up very amusing and pointed signs, and now has 7.4 million followers on Insta thanks to it. Our fave is above (you know who you are), but you can check out a larger collection here.

Smart & Curious

A list of good reads

  • Ozy looks at ‘broken rice’—the hottest new foodie trend in Vietnamese food.
  • In the midst of all this hype over the red planet thanks to rah-rah tech titans, The Atlantic has a timely piece titled, ‘Mars is a hell hole’.
  • New York Times investigated whether the “five S’s” used to calm fussy babies—swaddle, side or stomach position, shush, swing and suck—also helps grown-ups snooze.
  • Mashable investigates an equally weighty question: Does anyone actually like Clubhouse?
  • Indian Express takes a closer look at the atmanirbhar equivalents to everything from Twitter to WhatsApp. 
  • Also in Indian Express’ Sunday edition: A collection of good reads on Korean drama.
  • Mint Lounge explains the new fad of Yoga HIIT—which combines the flow of yoga with intervals of high-intensity cardio.
  • The Cut revisits the Britney Spears—a teenage girl caught in the headlights of fame—that we loved/reviled but rarely cared to know.
  • New York magazine has an excellent interview with Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins on the legacy of ‘Silence of the Lambs’. 
  • Colin Daileda in LongReads has an excellent essay on being an ‘albatross’ couple—living apart from his wife stuck in Bangalore, still waiting on her green card.
Feel good place

One: The motorbike-whisperer. No knowledge of Bengali required. (h/t founding member Ameya Nagarajan)

 

Two: Try, try, try again...


Three: Still feelin’ it after all these years...


Four: Pandas + slide = ? (Some answers are self-evident.)

 

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