Round-up of regional news

Snakes and ladders

All Illustrations by Bilash Rai

For the first time since 1992, the yearly seasonal barter trade between Indian and Tibet, through the Lipulekh Pass in Uttarakhand, will not take place this year. Though trade at this point usually begins in June, Beijing initially postponed it this year due to the Olympics. Even after the Olympics, however, Chinese authorities have been turning back businessmen attempting to cross the border, allegedly for security reasons. This despite the fact that the Indian authorities had issued passes for 60 traders, as per past practice. The Indian traders, angry with their government for not ensuring access to Tibet, are now demanding that New Delhi revoke its ban on the import of goods such as raw silk and livestock from across the border, which are in great demand in thelocal market.

Tibet and India have a long history of trading, with numerous traditional routes connecting the neighbours. All of these routes were closed after the Sino-Indian war of 1962, devastating the livelihoods of many on both sides. After two years of negotiations on re-opening all traditional trade routes, in 1992 the green light was given only to open the route from Dharchula (in what was then Uttar Pradesh, now Uttarakhand), to Taklakot, in Purang county of Tibet, through the 5122-metre high Lipulekh Pass. The trek through the pass is an arduous ten-day journey, requiring mules and yaks to carry the loads.

In 2003, the route through the 4310-metre high Nathu La in Sikkim was also opened. Rather nonsensically, the route via the aptly named Jelep La (lonely pass), in the Kalimpong sub-division of Darjeeling District, remains closed, despite the fact that it was much easier, with a 575-km motorable road linking these hills to Lhasa. Although rumours have abounded that the authorities on both sides are planning to reopen Jelep La, the communities on the ground see no evidence of this yet.

As one trade route is blocked, however, another reopened on 21 October after 60 years. The opening of the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad route is part of a 2004 peace agreement between India and Pakistan, one of the bilateral confidence-building measures. Traders hope that the trade link, with buses operating twice a week from each side, will grow into something significant, as at the moment it is only open to human traffic. Many now say that the reopening of the route is highly significant, because the road is an all-weather one, unlike other roads linking the two parts of Kashmir that get cut off with snow.

Power shortages are a persistent and unfortunate reality across Southasia. Now, India and Bangladesh are in collaboration to address the issue. New Delhi has offered to sell Dhaka up to 1000 megawatts of power, by connecting Bangladesh to India's electricity grid. Jairam Ramesh, India's minister for power and commerce, has suggested that Bangladesh purchase electricity from plants in Tripura and other parts of the Northeast, where supply currently exceeds demand. Ramesh also suggests that Dhaka become a partner in the new power plant, by purchasing a roughly 15 percent share.

With Bangladesh having been recently approved for a USD 350 million loan from the World Bank to build more power plants, such an investment is likely to be viable. Currently, Bangladesh generates between 3500 and 3800 MW of power, while peak demand is greater than 5000 MW. A tie-up with India could certainly help Dhaka with this significant shortfall, though other high-level collaborations between the two countries have in the past been complicated significantly by domestic politics in Bangladesh. Busy as the interim government in Dhaka is with the upcoming national elections, slated for mid-December, it has indicated a strong interest in going ahead with the project.

In the pipeline

Three years after its last meeting in 2005, the India-Iran Joint Commission held its 15th meeting from 31 October to 2 November in Tehran. External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee led the Indian team. Though the meeting is supposed to be held every year, ties between the two countries soured after India voted against Iran's nuclear ambition at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 2006.

Fortunately, the latest meeting is said to have improved the relationship considerably, with a number of agreements struck on issues such as the extradition of criminals, bilateral investment promotion and agriculture. The greatest focus was, however, on the USD 7.4 billion Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline project, which has been under discussion for about as long as we can remember.

Despite on-again-off-again rumours to the contrary, India still has not fully committed itself to the 2300-km pipeline. Instead, New Delhi continues to waver over what it would have to pay Tehran for the gas and what it would have to pay Islamabad in transportation fees, as well as more ephemeral security concerns given that the line passes through Pakistani (including Baloch) territory. An expected 60 million cubic metres of gas would pour out of Iran per day if the project ever goes forward. Though no agreement on the gasline front was reached in Tehran, a trilateral ministerial-level system was put in place to discuss the issue further.

As India dithers, Iran and Pakistan have decided to undertake their section of the pipeline project regardless; in this, an offer has also been made to extend the pipeline northwards into China. Iran is sitting on the world's second-largest oil and natural-gas reserves, while India suffers from high gas demand and low supply. Seems like a no-brainer…

Not quite comprehensive

With the Sri Lankan government busy pursuing the Tamil Tigers in the northern part of the country, it is quite another matter that has the Parliament in Colombo all riled up. Members of parties such as the nationalist Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) and the leftist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) continue to strongly oppose the so-called Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) with India, particularly the 'partnership' part.

New Delhi and Colombo finished negotiations on the CEPA in July. Since that time, India has been waiting on President Mahinda Rajapakse's cabinet to approve the deal before it goes to its own. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was eager to sign the agreement at the sidelines of the SAARC Summit in August, but conceded to Colombo's request for more time. Now, it appears, the pact's signing has been indefinitely put off.

Opponents of the agreement, which include a number of businesses, say that it would benefit India far more than it would Sri Lanka, particularly in its impact on local industries. Lankan critics are also wary of opening up the service sector to their gargantuan neighbour. The Rajapakse government remains convinced that the CEPA will be positive for the country's economy, but it fervently wants to be able to count on a broad national consensus before it signs the agreement into being.

New Delhi remains keen on the deal, and is doing its bit to sway the naysayers. The Indian High Commission in Sri Lanka has been circulating a public factsheet highlighting the allowances made by New Delhi in favour of Colombo. But valiant as the effort might be, it is unlikely to help forge a greater consensus. Some are now arguing that the Rajapakse regime is itself refraining from embroiling itself in this sensitive issue, at least until it completes its military offensive against the LTTE.

A more nuclear region

With the controversial Indo-US nuclear deal now a (near) certainty, Islamabad, long unhappy with Washington's disregard of its demands for a similar deal, has turned to Beijing for assistance. Shah Mahmood Qureshi, Pakistan's foreign minister, has revealed that China has agreed to help Islamabad build two nuclear power stations to tackle its chronic energy shortage. China's pledge of assistance came about during President Asif Ali Zardari's visit to Beijing in mid-October.

China has already helped Pakistan build one nuclear power plant, Chashma, with a second currently under construction and projected to be completed by 2011. Islamabad has not provided any specific details about the newly announced plants – Chashma III and IV – though they are expected to provide some 680 megawatts of energy.

Beijing has likewise remained quiet on the specifics of the agreement, with the Chinese Foreign Ministry not even reacting to Qureshi's statement. Ministry officials have, however, confirmed that China would continue to support Pakistan's civilian nuclear programme, albeit under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Assurances from Beijing aside, the deal is sure to unnerve India, wary of what it sees as growing Chinese influence in its backyard. New Delhi is likely to be equally concerned about Islamabad's increased access to nuclear materials – as is the US itself, which remains strongly suspicious of Pakistan's capacity to maintain security secrets in its nuclear installations.

Coronation confrontation

Like all families, the Southasian one has its share of disagreement and intrigue. But, as is also true with most relatives, these differences are generally put aside on important occasions. Royal coronations, one would think, would certainly be one such instance. But this was not the case during the highly touted coronation in Thimphu recently, when one notable neighbour was made more notable by its absence.

At the extravagant ceremony to crown the young king of Bhutan, Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuk, leaders from Nepal were nowhere to be found. Neither President Ram Baran Yadav nor Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal was invited to the three-day gala in Thimphu. In fact, the only Nepali official invited to the event probably should not have been there at all – Durgesh Man Singh, Kathmandu's joint ambassador to India and Bhutan, a Nepali Congress nominee who had already been recalled by the Maoist-led Kathmandu government. In sharp contrast, India was well represented, with President Pratibha Patil, External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee and Congress party leader Sonia Gandhi – and her family – as prominent guests of the new Druk Gyalpo, the king.

Thimphu has remained silent on the reason behind the snub. But it is perhaps not so difficult to come up with some potential explanations. Nepal-Bhutan relations have long been tense over the unresolved situation of the more than 100,000 Lhotshampa refugees that have been housed in southeastern Nepal for much of the past two decades. The government in Bhutan also cannot be pleased that Maoist groups are active in the refugee camps in Nepal, allegedly threatening violence if international donors do not stop resettling refugees in foreign countries – not to mention warning that they will overthrow the Thimphu government itself.

It also cannot be forgotten that Nepal's new government recently put the kibosh to the country's two-and-a-half-century-old monarchy, and thus the Nepali dignitaries could have been awkward guests. Either way, the Nepali leaders also tweaked their noses at the new Bhutanese king – neither President Yadav nor Prime Minister Dahal sent him a congratulatory message.

Backpacks of greenbacks

With the dismal law-and-order situation in the frontier areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan, smuggling of illicit materials along the porous border is rampant. The latest item to move across the border appears to be the US dollar, evidently linked to the global economic downturn. Such was the warning in a recent official letter to Pakistan's Interior Advisor Rehman Malik from Shamshad Akhtar, the governor of Pakistan's central bank.

According to Akhtar, the amounts being transported are so large that they are causing a significant devaluation of the Pakistani rupee against the dollar. Some estimates suggest that anywhere from four to five million dollars are finding their way into Afghanistan through Pakistan – every day. After the money arrives in Afghanistan, where rising demand for the US dollar has increased its value relative to others, it is reportedly shipped on to Dubai. In other instances, the money is wired to China, to pay for trade deals.

Considering the extent of the damage suffered by Pakistan due to this currency contraband, it is no surprise that Islamabad has taken the matter very seriously. Of course, the Pakistani government can do nothing to fill the holes in the Afghan banking system, which allows for easy transfer of the smuggled money. Nor can it prosecute the offending Afghanistan-based exchange companies, a number of which have been identified. Pakistan's Federal Investigation Agency has, however, arrested the owners of a number of the country's exchange companies on charges of smuggling. Pakistan is also stepping up its surveillance of the most popular smuggling routes, both through land and air. With the international financial system not looking to re-right itself anytime soon, such surveillance will undoubtedly not be a temporary measure.

Can't stay or go

As the situation in Afghanistan continues to disintegrate, with further increase in violence and decrease in employment opportunities, more and more Afghans are leaving their homeland. Meanwhile, the approximately three million Afghan refugees, currently living in camps in Iran and Pakistan, have shown little inclination to return.

Speaking at a conference of donors in Kabul, Antonio Guterres, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, recently warned that the continuation of such a large number of refugees in exile could cause increased tensions in the region. Indeed, the meeting itself was organised with pressure from Iran and Pakistan, who have hosted up to eight million refugees since the Soviet invasion in the late 1970s. Such societal strains have already appeared in Pakistan, which has been anxious to close a number of the refugee camps and repatriate the Afghans.

Though the number of Afghans returning home has dropped dramatically in the last few years, repatriation to Afghanistan – the largest such operation in the world – has been considered a success. After the Taliban-led government was ousted in 2002, more than five of the eight million Afghans living outside the country returned. As anxious as Tehran and Islamabad are to repatriate the refugees, Guterres said that Afghanistan, in its present condition, simply would not be able to properly integrate a large influx. As the insurgency in Afghanistan gains strength, and as the Kabul government's hold over the country weakens, this much-discussed repatriation is unlikely in the near future.

Uncharming snakes
Lithe snakes dancing to the piquing tunes of their charmers are a stereotyped symbol of exotic Southasia. When not in baskets, however, the slithery creatures can cause a great deal of damage. Worldwide, snakes kill an estimated 90,000 and poison an estimated 400,000 people worldwide every year. All said, according to a recent study by researchers in Sri Lanka, somewhere between 1.2 million and an astounding 5.5 million bites take place around the world every year.

A large percentage of those bites are taking place right here in Southasia, which has the highest rate of snakebites. Venomous snakes such as cobras and vipers kill some 14,000 people every year in the region; India accounts for the highest number of snakebite poisonings – over 80,000 every year, with 11,000 people dying from 'envenoming'. What is surprising is that Sri Lanka on its own accounts for accounts for more than 30,000 snake bits every year.

In all likelihood, incidences of snakebite casualties are actually significantly higher everywhere. There is low reporting, with run-ins with snakes taking place mostly in rural areas, where access to emergency care is scant. Without more accurate figures, however, it is difficult either to come to grips with the extent of the problem or to propose preventive strategies and treatments. The researchers called the need for further study on the issue "urgent".

Demanding mandarins
China's critical role in keeping the Burmese economy afloat and its military armed is undisputed. But it does claim payment for its generosity. Beijing, which currently ships its crude-oil imports, originating in West Asia and Africa, through the Strait of Malacca, is looking to decrease its dependence on the route. Its alternate path is an oil-and-gas pipeline from the Burmese port of Kyaukpyu, in the southwestern part of the country, to Yunnan province in China.

An agreement has already been finalised between the two, with construction on the USD 2.5 billion pipeline set to begin early next year. China's National Petroleum Corporation will own a majority stake of 50.9 percent in the project, while the rest will be held by the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise. Earlier this year, Beijing also won contracts to explore three Burmese offshore areas known to have some of the largest oil-and-gas reserves in the region. Just a single one of the areas already explored by China has resources said to be worth up to USD 52 billion.

While the project will certainly inject large amounts of cash into the Burmese government, very little is likely to filter down to the people. A large number of people are said to have been told to evacuate their homes in order to clear land for the pipeline. Not surprisingly, no public discussion on the evacuation order has been allowed, and local activists say that the displaced are also unlikely to receive any compensation. Such it is as the little guy staring down the wishes of both Rangoon and Beijing.

Finding home
All newly elected heads of government have a host of important decisions to make. But Mohamed Nasheed, overwhelmingly voted into power in the first multiparty elections to be held in the Maldives, has an especially crucial issue looming over him. With the UN estimating that ocean levels will rise some 59 cm by the year 2100, the Maldivian atolls, most of which are no more than a metre and a half above sea level, are certain to be submerged in the relatively near future.

President Nasheed, even before he was officially sworn into office, proposed purchasing land in another country to eventually resettle the more than 300,000 Maldivians who would become environmental refugees. Sri Lanka and India, because of their shared culture with the Maldives, are the first choices. But Australia is also high on the list, due to the large amounts of uninhabited space available there.

Some may have already had the idea. It is rumoured that the former president, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, purchased large amounts of land in Australia during his three decades in power. Reports have suggested that Gayoom even diverted significant funds to private land purchases from the aid that flowed into the country after the devastating tsunami in the Indian Ocean in 2004.

Without going into specifics, President Nasheed has stated that he had approached a few governments, all of whom were receptive to his idea. He intends to fund the potential land purchases by diverting the dollars brought in by the Maldives' booming tourism industry, to begin a sovereign-wealth fund. With multinational corporations and their global presence, the idea of investing in another country's soil is nothing new. But the medium is.

President Nasheed's remarks open up the possibility for Southasian countries to expand their geographical reach by simply buying up land, rather than fighting for it. At the same time, while the question of the rights of a people without a homeland remains unanswered, it would certainly make for an interesting postal address: "President Mohammad Nasheed, the Maldives c/o Australia"?

Guru and chela

Dharamsala, the seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile, was abuzz as Tibetan representatives from across the world gathered there for a special meeting to decide on political strategy. The Dalai Lama did not participate in the discussions, which occurred from 17-22 November, self-professedly so as to not prevent the free expression of ideas.

He did, however, play a role from the sidelines. A statement attributed to the Dalai Lama called Tibet the central obstacle in ties between India and China. As a consequence, he asked New Delhi to pay a role in resolving the Tibet issue. As is to be expected, this created some waves. The Dalai Lama also equated the India-Tibet relationship to one between a guru and a chela, and urged that it was the guru's duty to guide the chela when the latter was in trouble. New Delhi has repeatedly stated that the Tibet issue has no bearing of its border issues with China.

As the meeting concluded, the gathered representatives, while reiterating their loyalty to the Dalai Lama and his Middle Way philosophy, did not take pursuing independence as a policy in the future off the table. The ball is now in China's court.

Turbulent seas
November has been a tumultuous month in the Bay of Bengal, after the longstanding dispute between Burma and Bangladeshi over maritime boundaries heated up. This latest chapter of the saga allegedly began when the junta sent oil- and gas-exploration vessels, guided by navy ships, into a contested area. In response, Dhaka promptly sent its own naval crafts onto the seas. Suddenly, a real military confrontation was in the making.

Though the naval conflict cooled after Rangoon recalled its ships, both governments continue to keep military personnel along the land border. Bangladesh says that Burma should refrain – as Dhaka says that it has – from exploration expeditions until the conflict over maritime rights is resolved. Meanwhile, the Burmese junta claims that it has exclusive rights over the area being explored.

Following the impromptu talks in Burma to diffuse the tension, the two foreign ministers met in New Delhi on 13-14 November for talks on finally marking the boundaries. Unsurprisingly, no consensus was reached. The two were unable even to agree on a method by which to delineate the borders. Talks between the two over on the issue originally began in 1947, but were halted for 20 years. Finally, they resumed only earlier this year.

The impetus for the flurry of talks is an upcoming deadline to claim maritime territory under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea of 1982. Burma has until 21 May and Bangladesh 27 July, both of 2011. Another meeting is planned in Burma in January, though it remains unclear as to where exactly each side could give up ground – or sea.

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