Round-up of regional news

Thai excess

All illustrations by BILASH RAI

Yet another tragic story of migration has recently begun to unfold in Southasia. Over 300 Burmese Rohingya 'boat people', making their way to Thailand in search of work, are now thought to be dead. The group, originally consisting of over 400 people, reportedly started out from Cox's Bazar, in southeastern Bangladesh, during late November in six motorised boats. They had each paid smugglers hefty sums between BDT 20,000 and 25,000 (around USD 350).

What exactly went wrong remains unclear. It was initially reported that the boats had lost power and proceeded to drift in the Bay of Bengal for several weeks. Around the end of December, upon spotting a lighthouse off the coast of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, many of the migrants jumped into the water and attempted to swim to shore. While 99 were ultimately rescued, both from the water and nearby islands, and brought to Port Blair, more than three-quarters of the group are now believed to have died.

The idea that all six engines could have stalled simultaneously had seemed far-fetched, and some survivors have related a far more disturbing story. About three weeks after they set out, they say, Thai authorities caught the boats near their shores and abandoned the migrants on a single boat without oars, with only a plastic sheet to function as a sail. Still other reports, including by some of the victims' families, suggest that the 300 missing have instead been sent back to Rangoon, where they have been detained. Thai military units responsible for dealing with the would-be immigrants have strongly denied taking such actions. As international coverage of the allegations increased, Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva ordered all relevant government agencies to keep him updated on the matter, but said that there was no cause for concern.

Although this group of 400 was particularly large, reports have recently surfaced of several other smaller groups of Bangladeshi and Rohingya migrants attempting to navigate the seas en route to Malaysia and Thailand. Many of these, too, have reportedly had run-ins with Thai authorities, giving weight to the allegations. There are reports that over 1000 Rohingya were abandoned at sea by Thai authorities during December 2008 alone. Indeed, by mid-January the situation had even led one international organisation, Refugees International, to call on the Bangkok government to "instruct its Army to desist from its new and troubling policy of pushing refugees and migrants intercepted on boats back out to sea, which endangers their lives and exposes them to the risk of capsizing or sinking." The statement accused the Thai government of detaining the boat people on a remote island before forcing them back out to sea.

Linking up

In yet another example of rapidly growing ties between Beijing and Kathmandu, it has been confirmed that China has agreed to build a dry port at the Nepali town of Larcha, just kilometres south of the border with Tibet. Nepal has already set aside some 27 million square feet of land for the project, where a Chinese team is currently conducting a feasibility study. At the moment Nepal has only one other dry port, built with India's help in Birgunj.

The proposed dry port is expected to cost over USD 12 million to construct, though whether the full amount will be borne by China is yet unclear. With parking spaces being projected for around 200 trucks, in addition to a large silo and customs services, the hope behind the undertaking is clearly that crossborder trade across the Himalaya would increase dramatically. At this early stage, however, there is still no information as to when exactly that could be.


That the Bhutanese economy is deeply reliant on the Indian one is nothing new. But the extent of that linkage does sometimes come as a surprise. For instance, the three-day nationwide strike, held by government employees within India's oil sector from 7-9 January, was on the verge of causing a crisis in Bhutan.

On the last day of the strike (called by the employees of 14 state-run companies to demand salary raises), officials in both Phuentsholing and Damchen confirmed that they would run out of both liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) and petrol if they did not receive fresh supplies by the following day. In Thimphu, it was the kerosene supply that took a major hit because of the strike, with distribution even being temporarily suspended due to a lack of reserves.

Thimphu did have an emergency backup, with reserve tanks in Dechenchholing storing some 225 kiloliters of petrol and 642 kiloliters of diesel. Fortunately for the Druk commoners, New Delhi cracked the whip, threatening strikers with jail time if they did not get supply rolling by the next day. While Bhutan's dependence on India is undoubtedly significant, other Southasian neighbours, including Bangladesh and particularly Nepal, would likewise soon have been hurting had the strike continued.

Dark times

Already having lived with daily 12-hour blackouts for some months, by early January Nepalis were forced to begin making do with just eight hours of electricity per day. 'Load shedding' was being replaced by the more appropriate term 'load supply'. Despite an annual energy demand of 700 megawatts, the country is currently able to generate only a meagre 240 MW. And that in a country said to be second only to Brazil in hydropower potential, estimated to top 85,000 MW. In addition to the power cuts, unmet demand has translated, among other things, into billboard lights being switched off, television broadcasts being shortened, and banks remaining closed on Sundays.

It is also projected that the private sector, already beleaguered by years of war and a dismal law-and-order situation, is now set to lose some NPR 75 billion (USD 965 million) this year if the power situation does not improve. This is a sum that equals approximately half of the government's annual budget. Hospitals, meanwhile, unable to afford generators for such long stretches without electricity, are being forced to close even their emergency wards.

Nepal relies largely on hydroelectricity to meet its energy needs. Yet currently its people are barely able even to taste the 85,000 MW of hydroelectricity potential often ascribed to the country as a whole – a sum that not only could keep Nepali lights burning around the clock, but could largely float the Nepali economy. Rampant mismanagement of the hydro plants; a breakdown of power planning due to the decade-long civil war, thus stalling new projects; all buttressed by rising demand – each of these factors has contributed to making chronic power shortages a part of life in the country. According to the state-run Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA), there has been a ten percent rise in overall demand during the past year alone.

On the other hand, the supply situation this year has been particularly bad. In addition to low water reserves in existing hydropower installations, there has been a drier-than-usual monsoon combined with late-melting snow-fed rivers and the destruction of transmission lines from India due to the break of the Kosi embankment in August.

In the face of widespread public discontent, the Maoist-led government has said that it is exploring a number of options by which to shore up the country's power supply. Recently, Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal inaugurated the Mid-Marsyandi Hydroelectricity Project, though this plant's eventual output is only expected to be some 35 MW, down from the initially projected 70 MW. Other projects in the pipeline include the Chameliya Hydroelectric project (30 MW), the Kulekhani-III hydroelectric project (14 MW) and other smaller, more localised initiatives.

The newest plan, meanwhile, is to develop a diesel-run 'thermal' plant, which could generate around 200 MW by 2009 – an environmentally nightmarish solution, in addition to being a notably short-term one given the recent fluctuations in global oil prices. Nonetheless, the NEA continues to promise an energy surplus by 2013, though how exactly is anyone's guess. With the Nepali economy tanking and businesses fleeing the country, dark times appear ahead, in every sense.

One small step 

The annual SAARC Summits garner much attention, both in the ears that the meeting takes place and when they are cancelled. For the rest of the year, however, very little is heard of or from the body. But 2009 has begun with some good news on the SAARC front.

Bhutan's lower house, the National Assembly, recently sanctioned the SAARC Development Fund, which will set up house in Thimphu once the remaining seven member-states ratify the Fund's charter. A decision to establish the Fund in Bhutan was taken during last year's Summit in Colombo. With an initial budget of USD 300 million – raised from the members, paying in five percent of the amount in five annual instalments – the body is tasked with funding social, economic and infrastructure projects across the region. The Fund is envisioned as a financial entity that will coordinate SAARC-related programmes and increase collaboration in development projects between member states.

While this first step is certainly welcome, there is still a long way to go before the Fund becomes operational. Ratifying SAARC agreements has not been a priority for any Southasian capital; and with no time limit on the process in the first place, it could take years to complete and for the Fund to become operational. Once the charter is adopted by all the eight states, however, the Fund is required to be established within 12 months. In the best-case scenario, it could be up and running by 2010.

Tenders of all kind

Since becoming president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed has certainly not shied away from making unexpected, sometimes controversial, statements and moves. The president's recent trip to Sri Lanka, an important trade partner for Male, was another such example. Of course he did all of the usual rounds, meeting with a spectrum of political leaders, including his counterpart President Mahinda Rajapakse. But his target audience for the two-day jamboree was entrepreneurs with deep pockets.

Unlike his aid-soliciting trip to India, undertaken immediately after the November elections, his goal this time was less to hobnob with politicians and more to kindle the interest of Sri Lankan businessmen in the Maldives. Having launched much of the anti-drug and anti-corruption campaign platform of his Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) while in exile in Colombo, President Nasheed was back to reinforce his promise of clean and transparent administration as a lollypop to  Sri Lankan investors.

Following up on his recent decision to divest state enterprises to the private sector to reduce corruption and improve efficiency, President Nasheed even went so far as to ask the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund not to grant credit to his government. Rather, the international lenders have been asked to fund the private sector, which would subsequently bolster dwindling government coffers through tax revenue.

In Colombo, President Nasheed suggested that the Sri Lankan financiers move away from investing in the usual high-end hotels and resorts, and rather towards infrastructure such as roads, ports and airports. The president gave an example of one resort that is expanding its scope by building an airport on its island. With previously state-owned sectors soon to be privatised – including electricity companies, waste-management infrastructure and ports – the doors are indeed wide open for Sri Lankan and other foreign investors. If the new and energetic government in Male is able to ensure the proper regulation of these private companies, such a programme could well be exactly what the Maldives needs.

Words can never help


Just weeks after its landslide electoral victory, the Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League government in Dhaka is certainly making all the right noises about tackling longstanding issues with Bangladesh's neighbours. But it seems to be offering little else in terms of concrete solutions, at least as yet. Foreign Affairs Minister Hasan Mahmud has said that Dhaka might offer port services to India's Northeast, though only after (again) considering the impact of such a move on Bangladesh. New Delhi has been asking successive governments in Dhaka for just this for years.

That was not all. Mahmud has also stated that his government deems the resolution of the dispute between India, Burma and Bangladesh over maritime boundaries in the Bay of Bengal to be an "emergency". Again, though, he offered no specifics on how the longstanding disagreement could be resolved amicably. The new minister also clarified that Dhaka would rely on bilateral discussions to engineer an exchange of United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) rebels, some of whom New Delhi claims are hiding in Bangladesh, and the Bangladeshi militants currently in Indian custody.

Another crucial outstanding issue is the sharing of river waters, with 54 rivers flowing through the territory of both countries. The flow of the Ganga, which India controls through the Farakka Barrage in West Bengal, is especially important to Bangladeshi farmers during the dry months. Dhaka is suggesting that New Delhi up the flow by building a reservoir in Nepal, a proposal it intends to put forward at the upcoming meeting of the Indo-Bangladesh Joint River Commission. Bangladesh has suggested reservoirs before, but Nepal and Bhutan, where the reservoirs would be placed, as well as India, have not been open to the idea.

What all this boils down to is that, despite making it sound as though action on long-festering problems was imminent, chances are that these issues will get bogged down yet again, as they have in the past. Then again, it is certainly positive that the new government is playing nice and keeping all the doors open.

Doing fine

Flying directly in the face of economic sanctions imposed by the US and EU, Burma saw record foreign investments in 2008. That is what the country's Ministry of National Planning and Development is claiming, and the figures appear to check out. Between January and September 2008, the official record notes foreign investment of more than USD 974 million, mainly in the mining sector. This is compared to USD 502 million received during the same period last year.

Unsurprisingly, major shareholders in these ventures include China, Russia and Vietnam. (Though, interestingly, the UK and Singapore were the largest investors last year.) Beijing poured some USD 855 million into mining projects for gems, gold and nickel, while Russia and Vietnam together invested USD 114 million in oil and gas.

And that doesn't even include what took place at the end of the year. Just before the New Year, a group of four companies signed a deal to supply China's National United Oil Corporation with natural gas from the northwestern coast of Burma. South Korea's Daewoo, which owns 51 percent of the pipeline project, collaborated with three Asian state-owned companies – South Korea's Korea Gas Corporation, as well as two India-owned companies, the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Videsh (ONGC) and the Gas Authority of India (GAIL) – to see the deal through.

Burma liberalised its investment code in 1988 in an attempt to draw in investment to the hydroelectric and oil-and-gas sectors, but it seems to have taken two decades before the junta began to see the plan working. And despite vociferous opposition from human-rights groups on the negative humanitarian and environmental impact of specific projects, as well as the filling-up of the junta's pockets, the generals would today be smiling.

Better times ahead?

The winds may have finally changed a bit in the long-touchy Afghanistan-Pakistan relationship – that is, if public exchanges of diplomacy are any indicator of what is to come. After an initial trip in December was cancelled due to bad weather, when President Asif Ali Zardari finally reached Kabul on an official visit early the following month he was received with extravagant gun salutes and appellations of 'brother'.

Naturally, discussions on how to tackle the militancy waging along the border regions was first on the list of issues, with President Zardari and his counterpart, Hamid Karzai, agreeing to collaborate on developing a joint comprehensive strategy for defeating extremism. Cooperation in other areas, including trade, was also discussed. With the bonhomie ensuing, many have subsequently had their fingers crossed that the days are over when Afghan officials accuse the neighbour of providing safe haven to Taliban and al-Qaeda militants. This could also mean Pakistani political leaders becoming increasingly receptive to Kabul's needs, signalling a shift towards a camaraderie not seen since the Soviet era.

With little good news coming out of either Islamabad or Kabul in recent months, however, such optimism could well prove unrealistic. The bilateral relationship is still extremely fragile, with a host of crossborder problems remaining unresolved. Just a week after President Zardari returned home from Kabul, for instance, over 600 Taliban rebels from Afghanistan clashed with Pakistani troops in Mohmand Agency, in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). One hopes Kabul and Islamabad can keep the acrimony to a minimum, even in the face of the grave challenges that will continue to crop up.

Garbage city

Thilafushi may just be a word that rhymes with 'sushi' for some, but it brings to mind the smell of raw fish for others. This is certainly true in the Maldives, where Thilafushi is the designated island for dumping waste, with 330 tonnes of waste deposited there every day. The artificially constructed island adds 50 hectares of land to the Maldives, growing at one square metre a day due to the accumulating waste. But besides mounds of refuse, the island also hosts more than three dozen factories, a mosque and 150 Bangladeshi workers.

With a comparatively high gross domestic product per person of approximately USD 4500, the Maldives has become an important destination for Bangladeshi labourers. Currently, there are reported to be some 35,000 Bangladeshis performing jobs that Maldivians avoid. This includes sifting through the garbage on Thilafushi, some of which is exported to India.

Bangladeshis began trickling into the atolls 17 years ago, during a spurt in construction. As the tourist economy flourished, more Bangladeshis arrived. Yet, the conditions under which they work are often dismal. Labouring for up to 18 hours daily, these migrants return to cramped quarters, with almost 20 people sharing one room.

Officials in both Dhaka and Male have recognised the need to improve the quality of life of these migrants, by reducing their working hours and bettering their living conditions. But little has gotten better in almost two decades, and now there are fears of significant layoffs. Most particularly, the current economic meltdown has hit the European economy, affecting tourism; and anxieties have now been raised about the extent to which this will impact the Bangladeshis in the Maldives – eventually impacting even on those that are merely working on Thilafushi.

Reaffirming alliances

While New Delhi and Islamabad continue to take jabs at each other, the latter will not like the fact that Kabul has now also gotten into the act. In the aftermath of the Bombay attacks, President Hamid Karzai travelled to New Delhi in a symbolic show of solidarity. The two countries subsequently released a joint statement, rather directly addressing Pakistan. The communiqué called on Islamabad to release suspected 'terrorists' responsible for the attacks, while also taking a tough stance on the Lashkar-e-Toiba.

Afghanistan has long been worried about its eastern neighbour turning into a sanctuary for insurgents, though relations between Kabul and Islamabad have improved in recent months. At the moment, India's greatest concern is that Islamabad is turning a blind eye to the activities of organisations such as Lashkar-e-Toiba and its sister organisation, Jamaat-ud-Dawa. Not that Pakistan was the only topic of conversation between the two leaders when they met. India has invested heavily in infrastructure projects in Afghanistan, with the former's Central Public Works Department pledging to build the Parliament building in Kabul.

The 'special relationship' aside, security was the main topic of conversation during President Karzai's visit. And India was quick to follow up, with Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee travelling to Afghanistan in mid-January for a refresher meeting to reemphasise the India-Afghanistan bond. One goal of this visit was reportedly the drafting of a joint security strategy with regards to Pakistan.

While in Kabul, Mukherjee also took the opportunity to formally open the over 200-km India-built Zaranj-Delaram highway, spanning the southwestern part of Afghanistan to the Iranian border. Elsewhere on the agenda were two other projects undertaken by New Delhi: a transmission line to bring power from Uzbekistan to Kabul through the northern city of Pul-e-Khumri, and a power sub-station in Chimtala. Both are expected to be completed soon, and together the three projects constitute one of the most significant advances in Afghan infrastructure to take place in years – and a significant reaffirmation of New Delhi-Kabul relations.

Big ideas

Security concerns are high on the list for most Southasian leaders. And with the kind of violence that is reported everywhere daily, such concern is warranted. But worried though they may be, there is no sign that leaders in the region are doing much to work together. Now, Bangladesh's newly re-elected prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, is suggesting a Southasia task force to tackle 'terrorism'.

While campaigning in December, Prime Minister Hasina's Awami League had made promises to establish just such a coalition. No Southasian leader has yet responded to her proposal, though, and the project would of course be doomed to certain failure without the acquiescence of both New Delhi and Islamabad. It is for this reason that Dhaka will push the idea to Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee during his upcoming visit, scheduled for early February.

As yet, none of the details of how such a coalition would function has been established. And even if a consensus is reached on going forward with the idea (a tall order to say the least), agreeing on the mechanisms is likely to be near impossible. Considering that much of the extremism in Southasia has crossborder elements, more cooperation, and less finger-pointing, among the capitals would certainly be a welcome change.

As an existing regional body, SAARC would seem to be the best forum to propose and hammer out the particulars of such an undertaking. Interestingly, though, this has not been mentioned as a possibility, by Hasina or any other leader. Perhaps she has to be reminded that there is already something called a SAARC Regional Convention for the Suppression of Terrorism, agreed to way back in 1987.

Let it flow

With no reserves of petrol or gas, and being a landlocked state, Nepal has always turned to New Delhi to meet its energy needs. Now, with internal demand rising, Kathmandu has asked its southern neighbour to build a petrol pipeline from the Bihari town of Raxaul to Amlekhung, the primary petroleum depot for the state-owned Nepal Oil Corporation (NOC). Usually, petroleum bound for Nepal is transported in tankers, 80 percent of which enter the country through the Raxaul-Birgunj entry point.

Over the past few years, however, this area has experienced significant levels of ethnic unrest, thus disrupting the passage of the trucks. With the implementation of this new proposal, currently projected to be completed within two years, an adequate flow of petroleum would be ensured. Construction of the venture, expected to cost about NPR 80 million, is supposed to take place collaboratively between the Indian Oil Corporation and the constantly cash-strapped NOC, and is supposed to begin immediately after a project report is completed. That, at least, is the plan – one that Nepali citizens, often at the mercy of road blockages, are hoping will eventually come to fruition.

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