Round-up of regional news

Mr Sustainability, Mr Friendship
Honouring his efforts to promote sustainable development practices and climate-change awareness, President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom was recently awarded the Sustainable Development Leadership Award for 2008 by The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) of India. The prestigious award was presented to the four-decade president by Manmohan Singh at the Delhi Sustainable Development Summit 2008, on 7 February.

Expressing his deep appreciation for the recognition, President Gayoom told those gathered at the Summit – which included a host of Scandinavian prime ministers, including from Finland, Denmark, Norway and Iceland – that he was dedicating his award to the people of the Maldives, which he reiterated was among the world's countries most in danger from climate change. (Though, it should be said, observers have recently noted a small change in this rhetoric, after the Maldives proved not to include the world's first inhabited islands to be flooded due to rising sea levels, as that dubious distinction is now reserved for an island in the Bangladeshi Sundarban.)

President Gayoom subsequent travelled to Sri Lanka, where he was awarded that country's highest national honour, the Mithra Vibushana, thereby becoming the first foreign head of state to receive the award. At the ceremony, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse said that the president was receiving the award for having fostered "exceptional friendship and solidarity" between the peoples of the Maldives and Sri Lanka.

The following day, the two presidents agreed on a host of new bilateral initiatives, including in tourism, the environment and fighting 'terrorism'. The last, observers noted, could particularly gladden President Gayoom's heart, as key figures within the Maldivian political opposition have long been based in Sri Lanka.

Free to leave
In early February, the Kathmandu government finally agreed to issue exit permits for Bhutani refugees living in the country. The decision removes one of the last legal obstacles to a process that will ultimately allow for the resettlement of Bhutani refugees, who so desire, to other countries. The UN's refugee agency, UNHCR, which has overseen the camps in southeastern Nepal that have been home to roughly 107,000 refugees for the past decade and a half, welcomed the decision.

Over the past year, UNHCR has submitted details for nearly 10,000 interested refugees. With the new developments, the first batch of refugees is now expected to leave Nepal in early March. Several countries have offered to take in the refugees – the United States in bulk, but also Canada, Australia, Denmark, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Norway. The biggest challenge to the resettlement (with 'right to repatriation' intact, assures UNHCR) is now said to be 'Maoist' hoodlums, who are intimidating refugees from coming forward to be registered for relocation.

Porbandar or bust
Purportedly hoping to express his "faith in humanity", on 30 January former UK businessman Mark Boyle started a trek from Bristol, in England. He said he was not going to stop until he reached his final destination, the Gujarati town of Porbandar, the birthplace of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Of course, others have set out in the hopes of completing long walks, but Boyle, who plans to hike between 15 and 45 miles a day, is carrying no money, credit cards or travellers cheques with him.

Rather, he is hoping to make the 9000-mile overland journey – which will include the badlands of Afghanistan – carrying only a change of clothes (and sandals), sunscreen, a knife and spoon, and a bandage. Along the journey, which Boyle projects will take about two and a half years, he plans on bartering his various 'skills' for food, not to mention relying on the 'goodwill' of the people he meets.

The former organic-grocery executive says that he was "Inspired by Bapu … For 28 years I've been part of a world where money means security. That's 28 years of knowing where my next meal is going to come from … but it's also been 28 years of insecurity, fear, complacency and non-momentary living."

In fact, there is a whole group behind Boyle that not only supports his venture, but hopes to undertake similar moneyless journeys. The Britisher is part of the so-called 'Freeconomy' movement, which seeks to move "from a money-based communityless society to more of a community-based moneyless society". The movement claims to have nearly 3000 members in 54 countries – and a huge basket of hard-bartering experience between them. During his first week, Boyle says he received several free meals and the "world's biggest blister".

Embracing Arunachal
Late January and early February proved to be a heady, if somewhat confusing time for Sino-Indian relations. Not only did Manmohan Singh make his first state visit to China (reportedly a cordial success), but upon his return almost immediately headed out to Arunachal Pradesh, a disputed border area over which rhetoric has been heating up in both Beijing and New Delhi during the past year. Although Chinese officials voiced their 'unease' with Prime Minister Singh's trip to the disputed territory, they said that the visit would not impact ongoing border-related talks.

Despite the interesting timing, the trip to the far Northeast certainly did not seem to have come any too soon, marking as it did the first time a sitting prime minister has gone to Arunachal in more than a decade. But while there, Prime Minister Singh seemed intent on making it worth his – and Arunachal's – while. He announced development projects worth more than INR 40 billion, including a two-lane trans-Arunachal highway connecting Tawang in the west with Mahadevpur in the east, India's largest hydroelectricity project, railroad links, water-supply projects and a new airport in the capital, Itanagar.

Shortly after the prime minister returned to New Delhi, the news just kept rolling. It was finally made official that the Indian Army is now preparing to establish two new mountain divisions, comprised of approximately 15,000 soldiers each, to be tailored for 'swift operations' in the mountains of North and Northeast India. The new divisions are slated to cost up to INR 7 billion each.

Although the plans come at a time when China is rapidly upgrading its own military infrastructure along the so-called Line of Actual Control, which runs along part of Arunachal, the new forces look set to be a more long-term strategy – projected to be fully operational only by the middle of the next decade.

The Burma gaze
With the hubbub surrounding UN Special Envoy to Burma Ibrahim Gambari's February trip to New Delhi, the Indian government's actions towards the Rangoon junta have come even more under the scanner. Shortly after Gambari's visit, Indian Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon was in Burma for what were termed as crucial talks with the ruling junta.]

Despite speculations to the contrary, Menon is now thought to have been likely to press the junta to fast-track political reforms and national reconciliation with ethnic groups and the political opposition. Menon's message seems to have reached the right ears, as the junta subsequently announced a referendum on the constitution, to be followed by elections in 2010.

Despite longstanding intransigence on New Delhi's part towards joining with international efforts to crack down on the junta – including during the September 2007 uprising – Indian policymakers recently gained plaudits for temporarily calling a halt to arms deals with Rangoon. However, that has not signalled the end of Indian hardware support for Burma. The same week as Menon's visit east, 20 Indian diesel locomotives were sent on their way to Burma. The Benaras-made engines were put on the ship to Rangoon by Minister of State for Railways R Velu. The occasion was said to be something of a landmark because it was the first time the Benaras manufacturer – DLW – had exported its locomotives.

Facebook gladiators
For months leading up to the first of February, the so-called Tibetan Freedom Movement (TFM), an umbrella organisation, was in the midst of a fierce competition of a new kind: to become the most popular cause on the social networking website Facebook. The Movement had been competing in an online fundraising competition, jointly sponsored by Facebook and the Case Foundation, called The Giving Challenge. The eventual winner was to be entitled to a grand prize of USD 50,000.

Set up by the Students for a Free Tibet, TFM eventually boasted more than 8600 members. Together, these young activists raised more than USD 95,000, which the organisers hope to use for an ongoing campaign to raise awareness regarding China's human-rights record in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

By the time the contest ended TFM had done very well; indeed, it had raised the most amount of money. Unfortunately, given the number of donors it had gathered, it only achieved a second-place ranking. In first was a group called the Love without Boundaries Foundation, which provides assistance to Chinese orphans.

The irony behind this slight did not go unnoticed. In the week before the competition ended, Tenzin Choeying, an India-based activist, tried to encourage his group, saying: "This should be a rallying cry for us Tibetans. Do we really want to be defeated by the Chinese? We were first place a couple days ago, we can do it again!" Not this time, but maybe the next.

Rights abuses way up
The Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy's recently released report for 2007 reveals that cases of arbitrary arrests and detentions in Tibet increased almost threefold over the previous year. Out of 119 known Tibetan political prisoners, the report states that 65 were arrested in 2007 alone. Not that the 'opposition' has become any more worrisome: 70 percent of Tibet's known political prisoners are currently said to be monks and nuns.

Indeed, little seems to be improving on the rights front in Tibet. In spite of six rounds of talks between envoys of the Dalai Lama and Beijing, Chinese authorities continue to restrict fundamental freedoms. In 2007 alone, for instance, two new religious regulations were introduced, the "Tibet Autonomous Region Implementing Measures for the Regulation of Religious Affairs" and "Measures on the Reincarnation of Living Buddhas in Tibetan Buddhism". Both of these have met with widespread criticism outside of Tibet for the clear aim of intensifying state control over Tibetan Buddhism. (The accompanying photo shows a former political prisoner's tattooed knuckles.)

Meanwhile, for all the attention that the world has recently showered on the monks in Burma, there has been little thought for the monks and nuns in jails in Tibet.

Lines of confused control
In late January, Manmohan Singh held a high-level meeting to try to establish a strategy with which to ensure the easier movement of people and goods across the Line of Control in Kashmir. He subsequently directed the gathered officials to clear passengers travelling across the LOC as quickly as possible. In addition, issues regarding the improvement of conditions for people affected by militancy, rehabilitation of orphans and widows, and the return of Kashmiri pundits were also discussed.

While the prime ministerial directives give indication of the mood at the top, the realities in Kashmir tell a somewhat different story. Although India and Pakistan opened foot crossing points across the LOC in November 2005, in the hopes of facilitating relief work in the aftermath of the Kashmir Earthquake the previous month, New Delhi and Islamabad are now discussing the closure of several of these crossings.

Of the five points that opened in 2005, two are already no longer functional: one in Poonch District has remained closed for the past year, while another at Tattapani-Mendhar was closed in June 2006, when floods washed away a makeshift bridge. The bridge has since been rebuilt, but the locals have not been re-allowed to use it – though, according to Poonch officials, there are more than 500 pending applications to do so.

Islamabad and New Delhi are also likely to change policies in the near future regarding two crossborder bus services – Amritsar to Nankana and Amritsar to Lahore. The frequency of the services could be reduced, or the routes of the two bus services could be merged. The reasons for this decision have been put down to the difficulties being faced by passengers with regards to obtaining visas.

The question arises, does anyone tell Manmohan of these ground realities?

Down with NTB
Non-tariff barriers between India and the rest of the SAARC countries are still in the process of being phased out, at least insofar as the indications of a decision made in early February. New Delhi has long required that all Indian imports be tested at Indian laboratories, something that has severely frustrated traders throughout India's neighbours in the past. But according to the new agreement, this testing can soon be conducted at any facility in the region that has been accredited by the Bureau of Indian Standards.

Indian Minister of State for Commerce Jairam Ramesh stated that his office is also in the process of identifying other such barriers, and promised that, when found, he will do what he can to remove them when possible. New Delhi hopes to have this new mechanism in place by the next SAARC Summit, due to be held in Colombo.

More buses!
Even as Delhi and Islamabad contemplate cutting back on crossborder bus services between the two countries, connections look to be ramping up along Pakistan's western border. In late January, the Pakistan-Afghanistan Standing Committee on Transport held a two-day meeting in Kabul to discuss, among other things, a proposed Quetta-Kandahar bus service. Although buses along this route were supposed to begin plying two years ago, the service has been held up due to the worsening law-and-order situation in Afghanistan.

Little headway was made on the issue at hand, but several other transport topics have made more progress. Among other things, officials from Pakistan and Afghanistan look set to add five more buses to the Peshawar-Jalalabad route; currently just six Pakistani and eight Afghan buses run between the two cities. In addition, a long-discussed bus service between Quetta, in Balochistan, and Mashhad, in Iran, will now be officially launched in March.

With an investment of USD 50 million, the Pakistan Telecommunications Company Limited announced in mid-February that it would soon be joining nine other telecom investors – including two from India, Bharti and Tata – to put down a new high-capacity international optical cable line. The project will have the 14,000 kilometre cable stretch all of the way from India to Italy and France, via West Asia.

Named 'I-ME-WE', for India-Middle East-Western Europe, the fibre-optic cable will be the fifth in a series of similar systems. Interestingly, the motivations behind the new construction are being explained as less to connect Southasia to Europe, than to connect the West to South and West Asia.

While the new cable is expected to be operational by the end of 2009, many are now wondering whether that process can be sped up. The announcement of the new plans came just days after mysterious breakages were found in three submarine telecom cables running through West Asia, which have dramatically impacted Internet and other services in Southasia. Days later, a similar break was found in a fourth cable (though no one has fingered Bharti or PTCL).

The fine point here, of course, is the welcome news of collaboration between Pakistan's PTCL and India's Bharti and Tata. May this collaboration spawn many others.

Regional curriculum
Paving the way for the introduction of collaboration in the school curricula of Southasia, India's National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT) has announced that it will soon be assisting interested SAARC countries to upgrade their official school curricula. NCERT, in collaboration with interested agencies throughout India's neighbours, has offered to incorporate new subjects and teaching methods with any country that agrees to cooperate with the new initiative.

This is purportedly an attempt to bridge the vast differences in educational standards in Southasia, and the project's managers are quick to note that the project should not be seen as an Indian attempt to influence the region's schools in its own image. NCERT has now started calling in education experts from each of the SAARC countries (except for Afghanistan), with the stated goal of coming up with a curriculum that will offer students a common Southasian 'ethos'. "The whole idea is to inculcate a sense of cultural belonging among the children of neighbouring countries from the very beginning," explained one NCERT official, pointing to the shared sense of identity that Southasian educational institution can offer their students.

The bird-flu epidemic in West Bengal has been bad for, amongst others, Indian badminton players. West Bengal's shuttlecock industry, which produces almost the entire supply of low-quality shuttlecocks for the regional market, is facing closure. None of the 125 units, which used to receive about five million feathers each every day (with which they daily produced around 70,000 shuttlecocks) received a single feather over the course of three weeks in February. As a result, nearly all the smaller units were forced to close, with the larger ones operating only two or three days a week, using available stock.

Not only has the domestic supply of shuttlecocks dried up, imported shuttlecocks are also scarce due to a government ban on feathers from its bird-flu-affected neighbours. Top-quality, international-standard shuttlecocks are usually produced from goose feathers imported from China and Taiwan – both of which are included in the ban. Now, the Badminton Association of India has had to cancel training camps before two important qualifying events for the 2008 Summer Olympics, due to the shortage.

No strolling!
Technically in violation of international law, Indian Union Minister of State for Commerce Jairam Ramesh recently walked into Pakistan territory at the Wagah border. He was accompanied by neither an authorised official, nor any legal permit allowing him to do so. Instead, together with a handful of Indian officials, including Deputy Commissioner of Amritsar K S Pannu and some Border Security Force personnel, Ramesh strolled across the border and into the conference hall of the Pakistan Rangers, about 40 yards inside Pakistan.

Although Islamabad expressed some concerns over the incident, it has deigned not to take any formal action against the minister. However both the Interior Ministry and the Foreign Office have asked for a 'report' on the incident. How about this for a report: "Southasian goes for a walk, comments on the tranquillity of a late-winter day."

For his part, Ramesh has oddly tried to repaint the incident by denying it completely. "I went only two steps," the minister said after the fact, and did not go to Pakistan." Minister, stop being defensive! We need more people to do what you (allegedly) did!

'Reconstruction force' urged
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, while on a visit to India and China in late January, called for the establishment of an international reconstruction force to help reconstruction efforts after violent conflict. Prime Minister Brown warned that, in the aftermath of extended conflict, the possibilities increase dramatically for recovering countries to harbour "terrorists". An international reconstruction force, he argued, could constitute a particularly stabilising option over the current mishmash of responses, and could be made up of judges, teachers and police, and could fall under the direction of a single envoy.

Now let's see which area of former or ongoing conflict in Southasia would be ripe for such a reconstruction force – Kashmir, the NWFP, Sri Lanka, Nepal, the Indian Northeast, and many hotspots being born by the day!

For the common good
In the case of major disasters, Southasian countries will now have free access to remote-sensing data collected by various satellites launched by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). The decision was made public in late January at a regional workshop on the application of science and technology for disaster-risk reduction. Officials said that such an arrangement would not only help in assessing the actual damages caused by disasters, but would also facilitate transparency in relief and rehabilitation administration throughout Southasia. Exactly what the participating countries will be sharing by gaining access to the ISRO data is still being worked out, however, as the satellite imaging naturally involves security concerns for nearly every country involved.

Just 1411 tigers
Despite extensive efforts to increase the number of tigers remaining in the Indian wilds, it turns out that that number has massively decreased in recent years – by 2231 since just 2002. Over the course of the past five years, the population has fallen from 3644 to just 1411, with numbers dropping in every state except Tamil Nadu. Wildlife activists blame poaching and urbanisation for the decline, and have urged the authorities to do more.

Taking the cue (finally), the New Delhi government in mid-February announced the establishment of eight new reserves, to be completed within five years. The total area will cover nearly 12,000 square miles, while the majority of the USD 153 million price tag will be covered by taxpayers, with private groups also contributing undisclosed amounts. Retired soldiers will be employed to patrol the reserves in an attempt to curb poaching, an attempt that we hope will be joined in on by local communities, policymakers and all other interested Southasians.

Joint military research?
Marking a new confidence-building measure between India and Pakistan, the two countries recently signed an agreement to exchange military scholars, and to facilitate research on strategic issues. The directors-generals of India's Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis, N S Sisodia, and Pakistan's Institute of Strategic Studies, Shireen Mazari, met in early February and finalised the bilateral institutional cooperation agreement.

The first-of-its-kind accord will hopefully allow for regular military-to-military contacts, while also, we are told, opening a permanent channel for communicating on issues of security information at the highest of levels. According to the agreement, India and Pakistan will exchange experts to participate in workshops, as well as to engage in 'joint military research projects'. The pact was part of a proposal, originally promulgated three years ago, of 72 suggestions for improving links between the two neighbours. If military scholars begin to exchange notes, we are sure the possibility of advertent or inadvertent conflict would be diminished considerably.

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