Round-up of regional news

Round-up of regional news

Shipping restarted (India/Pakistan)

In mid-December, India and Pakistan signed a revised protocol that restored an important cargo-shipping option between the two countries. Now, for the first time in 30 years, vessels from the either country will be allowed to lift the cargoes of a third country from each other's ports, and vessels from third countries will be allowed to ply between Pakistani and Indian ports. The new agreement is a revision of the 1975 Shipping Protocol, and is expected to help increase bilateral trade. All it needs now is publicity.

Free media for all (Region)
The South Asia Free Media Association (SAFMA) on 11 January helped establish six new regional press commissions, five of which are country-specific, and one a region-wide organisation that will work to protect journalists' rights throughout Southasia. SAFMA president K K Katyal explained that the decision to set up the individual commissions was made during the period of autocratic rule by King Gyanendra in Nepal, at which time the freedom of the Nepali press was severely curbed and SAFMA seems to have felt the need for protection everywhere.

The new 'South Asia Press Commission' will be holding a convention in New Delhi at the beginning of March. Separately, a report released by SAFMA in early January named Pakistan as the country most dangerous in the region for working journalists. Well, what about some Southasian countries – and we know a couple of tiny ones at the least – who do not have journalism of which to speak? Do they count?

More Bollywood in Pakistan (Pakistan/India)
Despite a government ban on screening Indian movies in place in Pakistan since 1965, two popular Bollywood films, Woh Lamhe and Omkara, were screened in December at the Karafilm Festival in Karachi. The festival, which has become Pakistan's leading film event, is garnering fame internationally as a proving ground for makers of groundbreaking cinema in South and Central Asia.

Indian filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt, a regular at the festival since its inception, finds that it has also served as a place for Pakistani and Indian filmmakers to meet and exchange ideas. According to Kara's director Hasan Zaidi, "The festival started off as an experiment six years ago, and was basically meant to highlight alternate cinema and documentaries; but it has now evolved into something bigger." Around 170 films from 37 countries were screened at the festival. Any festival that can break taboos, including bringing Indian films to Pakistan, has to be welcomed.

Pilgrims and gelex (India/Sri Lanka)
The southern Tamil Nadu island town and pilgrim centre of Rameshwaram is reportedly emerging as a vital channel for the trafficking of explosives to Sri Lanka. The recent seizures of explosives called 'gelex boosters' and other consignments meant to be routed through Rameshwaram have given rise to suspicions that India could be a major source of such munitions for the LTTE. And now comes news that this route is being used by the Colombo government.

In Madurai on 7 December, police stopped a truck for inspection and found that it was carrying 40 cartons of explosives meant for the Sri Lanka Navy, on their way from Nagpur to Sri Lanka. When questioned, the truck's driver showed transport papers for the materials, as well as an official request for the explosives from the government of Sri Lanka.

Such findings have raised new concerns for the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party in Tamil Nadu, where pro-LTTE sentiments are currently at a peak. Citing potential attacks on civilian Tamils as a consequence, pro-LTTE leaders in Tamil Nadu have raised strident protests against any assistance by India to Colombo.

India halts exit permits (India/Tibet)
On 31 December, the Indian government stopped issuing exit permits to Tibetan refugees, effectively halting the movement of the large number of Tibetans who use India as a stepping-stone before moving on to Western countries. 

Tibetans going to India in exile via Nepal are issued Special Entry Permits (SEPs) at the Indian embassy in Kathmandu. The SEPs are issued to those travelling to India in pilgrimage (one month), for education (one year) as well as in other categories. Many Tibetans take the longer SEP, and then apply for a registration certificate once they reach Dharamsala or another Tibetan settlement in India. This certificate later entitles them to apply for an identity certificate, which is similar to a passport, whereupon they are able to seek an exit permit to go to other countries.

Image: Kim Naylor

After New Delhi informed the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamsala of its decision, the Kashag (the cabinet), always aware of host government sensitivities, went as far as to say that the Indian government must have "felt uncomfortable" with the rapidly increasing number of Tibetan immigrants seeking exit permits. According to Dharamsala sources, many Tibetans have migrated to Western countries in recent years, often using the Tibet-Nepal-India route to escape. Currently, there are over 100,000 Tibetans living in India and around 30,000 more living in other countries outside China. Whatever the reason for New Delhi's decision, this is a major event in Tibetan diaspora politics, and its long-term impact may be in the reduction of Tibetans leaving for India via Nepal. Perhaps that was the idea among Indian policy makers looking to keep Beijing happy.

Rohingya move finally underway (Bangladesh/Burma)
In late December, the first group of Muslim Rohingya refugees from Burma was finally resettled, when an initial batch of 13 individuals were sent from Bangladesh to Canada. Currently, over 26,000 ethnic Rohingyas are living in two camps near Cox's Bazaar, where most have been for the past decade and a half. Their stateless status is due to the contention by the Burmese military – and some other Burmese communities – that the Rohingya are not Burmese but migrants from West Bengal.

Image: Greg Constantine

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees started operating in Bangladesh in 1992, and a memorandum of understanding was signed with the Dhaka government the following year. Since then, UNHCR has been providing the refugees with protection, and has assisted Dhaka in the voluntary repatriation of more than 236,000 back to their homes in Burma. The original number of refugees was 250,000, most of whom were from Burma's northern Rakhine state.

According to a UNHCR official, the International Organisation for Migration will be providing an orientation programme for the refugees being relocated to Canada and will also be bearing the costs of medical tests and transportation. Canada will be accepting another nine Rohingya refugees in late January. No other country has yet stepped up to offer asylum to the group. All in all, the number being resettled is awfully small, and in great contrast to the 60,000 Lhotsampa refugees from Bhutan that the US has agreed to take in.

Metal containers and food grains (Nepal/India)
New Delhi's nervousness regarding a peaceful diffusion of Nepal's Maoists has had it actively involved in facilitating talks between the political parties and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) when Gyanendra was ruling the roost. Since then, India has kept minute-by-minute watch over the negotiations that brought the erstwhile rebels into a peace agreement and into the Interim Parliament in Kathmandu.

Image: OPRSG, UN

Thereafter, New Delhi started providing hardware for the peace process. To begin with, responding to an SOS from the United Nations monitors, it reached into its shipping yards and brought out containers to be used to place the Maoist weapons. These shipping containers have been painted white and gentrified, and are now in the process of being filled with arms in seven rebel cantonments.

And now, in a further show of support for Nepal's peace process, New Delhi has offered to supply food grains to feed Nepali Maoist fighters confined to the same cantonments under United Nations supervision. Indian officials have also offered vehicles and equipment to energise the dispirited Nepali police force. The offers to supply food grains for nearly 30,000 Maoists and to provide 200 vehicles and communications equipment to the police have been made repeatedly. "India always remains committed to supporting all efforts that are aimed at achieving peace, democracy and development in Nepal," External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee said during a December visit to Kathmandu.

Blue reds (Nepal/India)
While the rest of the world applauds the renunciation of violence by Nepal's Maoists, their comrades in India have yet to come around on the evolution of events. In recent issues of Jung and Kranti, two Communist Party of India (Maoist) publications, Nepal's Maoists have been vehemently criticised for abandoning their campaign so completely and so quickly.

While the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist)'s signing of the interim constitution and subsequent entrance into multi-party politics have been labelled "opportunistic and anti-revolutionary", particular scorn has been set aside for rebel leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal ('Prachanda'). Indeed, brooding poet P Varavara Rao labelled Dahal's decade-long guerrilla career as short and having had little impact on the international Maoist movement.

Similar dissatisfaction was expressed by CPI (Maoist) central committee member Azad in Jung: "Prachanda has sought to ridicule three decades of Maoist movement to share political power in the Himalayan kingdom." Others have expressed the view that Dahal single-handedly decided the future of the party without gauging the (assumably more-fervent) desires of its members.

The Indian Maoists appear particularly upset about the rejection of the prospects of the much-ballyhooed 'red corridor' stretching from Andhra Pradesh to Nepal, which had led to much consternation in 'North Block', where the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs resides. In November, Prachanda had dismissed the idea as "an impossibility". Azad, in apparent retaliation, noted that the Nepali rebel "appears [to be] heavily under the influence of the Chinese government."

Promises, promises (Bhutan)
The newly crowned King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck of Bhutan recently pledged to renounce the absolute power wielded by his father, Jigme Singye Wangchuck. The 26-year-old also promised to play only a constitutional role in Bhutan's future.

In a speech made before roughly 40,000 Druk citizens, the former prince expressed commitment towards carrying on his father's legacy of transforming the secluded Himalayan kingdom into a parliamentary democracy. "My father has handed over his responsibilities to the people. And now it is our turn to take the country forward by following his legacy," he declared in his first public address since taking power, referring to the draft constitution that would end almost a century of monarchical rule in Bhutan after national elections in 2008.

Unrestricted visas make good neighbours (India/Pakistan)
A significantly updated and liberalised visa regime is set to be put in place between India and Pakistan, according to a foreign-minister-level agreement signed in mid-January. Designed to allow unrestricted travel anywhere, the policy allows for freer visas for businesspersons and tourists. New options will also be extended to divided families living across the Indo-Pakistani border.

The updates will amend the strict 1974 visa agreement between Islamabad and New Delhi, which had allowed for the provision of visas for specific cities for those applicants who showed a verifiable address of relatives or friends. Multiple-entry visas will soon be available for periods of two years.

According to a senior Pakistani Interior Ministry official, both sides have agreed to increase the number of consular offices, and plan to issue over 1000 visas daily to businessmen and tourists. India will open a new visa office in Lahore, while Pakistan will open one in Hyderabad (Deccan). Presently, visas are only issued from Bombay, New Delhi, Karachi and Islamabad.

Image: Mirjam Letsch

Pakistanis have their chai (India/Pakistan)
Along with the many crucial issues on Pranab Mukherjee's list ahead of his 12 January visit to Islamabad, the External Affairs Minister seemed determined to make every Pakistani a lover of Indian tea. One of Mukherjee's priorities on the diplomatic visit was to convince Pakistan to let Indian tea enter its market through Wagah, rather than through the current circuitous route by way of Dubai.

India's tea talks with Pakistan were supposed to start coming to a boil as early as last July, when a delegation of tea marketers was scheduled to visit Pakistan. The subsequent Bombay blasts, however, put those plans on the backburner.

The new westward push comes as part of a more general emphasis on rebuilding the country's flagging tea industry. In early January, Minister of State for Commerce Jairam Ramesh announced the formation of a new USD 1.1 billion fund, which he predicted would allow the sector to grow by up to 50 percent in the next half-decade. India will also host its first International Tea Festival in Guwahati this November.

Though India is the world's largest tea producer, it consumes 80 percent of its tea domestically. Traditionally, 90 percent of Indian tea exports have gone to Russia, Iraq, the UK and the United Arab Emirates. Three new focus markets have now been identified – Iran, Egypt and Pakistan. Pakistan is the world's second largest importer of tea, with annual imports of 140 million kilograms. While India's share of this was as low as eight million kg till last year, exports are expected to double in 2006-07 – and to increase many times more, if Indian tea can enter at Wagah.

Last-ditch reconstruction (Afghanistan)
In an effort to quell rising levels of chaos in the country, the Kabul government is considering a new initiative that has the potential to bring a modicum of stability to lawless areas. USD 76 million culled from the government's budget and from international donors will be used to fund reconstruction projects in 88 districts near the border with Pakistan. These will focus on rebuilding infrastructure facilities for local communities. Some observers note that the project could be one of the most crucial chances the government has to win over those communities that may harbour sympathy for the Taliban, and who live on both sides of the Durand Line.

Zalmay Hewadmal, cultural advisor to President Hamid Karzai, has said that much of the programme's focus will be placed on the most volatile areas of 12 provinces in the country's south, southeast, east and southwest. In these areas, and particularly in the border districts of the south and east, most Afghans go to Pakistan for medical or other needs. "The move was aimed to assure Afghans in the farthest parts of the country that they are citizens of Afghanistan, and that the government was committed to provide living facilities for them," Hewadmal noted. What we have to say is: Better that these are development projects than barbed-wire fences.

Kabul Express halted (Afghanistan)
After scenes from a Bombay movie about journalists in war-torn Afghanistan were deemed offensive to an Afghan ethnic minority group, Kabul banned the movie from entering the country. In addition, the independent station Afghan TV also imposed a ban on all Indian movies and songs, as retaliation against the discriminatory sentiments expressed in the film.

Kabul Express "has some sentences which were very offensive toward one of Afghanistan's ethnicities, namely the Hazara," said Minister of Culture adviser Najib Manalai. Hazaras, who make up one-tenth of the Afghan population, were implied to be the "most dangerous tribe of Afghanistan," for whom "looting is their business." "They would have looted and [stripped] you," one of the film's characters notes. "Then they would have hit you in the head with a nail. Then they would have sold your car in Pakistan."

All Afghans involved in the making of the film, including the actors who articulated the statements that cause offence, are to be investigated by a prosecutor who will ultimately decide whether any action needs to be taken against them.

Kabul Express chronicles a two-day journey into post-Taliban Afghanistan by two Indian journalists. The film follows them as they attempt to get an interview with an evasive member of the Taliban, and enlist the help of an Afghan jeep-driver in the process. The movie was filmed on location in 45 days under heavy security provided by the Afghan government. For those who saw it, it seemed to have been filmed in one location, given the way the same destroyed armoured personnel carrier from the Soviet era showed up again and again, even as the film supposedly progressed from Kabul towards the Pakistan border.

Renegotiating treaties (India/Bhutan)
As a new king brings promises of change and hope to Bhutan, the country's mighty southern neighbour also seems to be following suit, as it prepares to amend the 1949 India-Bhutan treaty – held out as the document that undermines Bhutani sovereignty by making its foreign policy subject to South Block directives.

To allow the Thimphu government freedom in the outlining of its foreign policy, India now proposes rewriting parts of the treaty that are widely believed to be unfair. Article 2, which demanded that Bhutan be "guided by the advice of the government of India in regard to its external relations", will, according to a Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson, be replaced by something in the "language of friendly cooperation". In other words, so long as Thimphu does not impinge on Indian interests, it need not consult New Delhi in its foreign-policy decisions.

Article 6, which said that Bhutan is allowed to import "arms, ammunition, machines, warlike materials or stores" only with India's "assistance and approval", will be loosened to permit Bhutan to purchase non-lethal military equipment without prior consent from India.

Image: Oriental Caravan

Bhutani oranges and Dhaka bandhs (Bangladesh/Bhutan)
While national strikes and political uncertainty wreak havoc in Bangladesh, the shockwaves are traveling far and wide – including to Bhutan, where the export of oranges has been drastically affected. The Bangladesh-India border has been sealed for months, and Bangladesh – the main market for Bhutani oranges – thus closed off. According to the Bhutan Agriculture and Food Regulatory Authority, the export figure had plummeted by almost 400 percent by the end of December.

An eye for an eye, a city for a city (Pakistan/India)
While there may be talk of relaxing the visa regime between India and Pakistan, the same goodwill does not seem to apply to the countries' diplomats. Foreign and home offices in both countries have continued to engage in petty one-upmanship this winter. Last autumn, India barred Pakistan High Commission diplomats in New Delhi from traveling to the satellite cities of Gurgaon and Noida. After India did not reconsider its decision for three months, Pakistan retaliated in early January by restricting Indian diplomats to Islamabad, and asking them henceforth to seek permission if they want to visit Islamabad's twin city Rawalpindi or the nearby hill-station of Murree.

The tit-for-tat intensified as India suggested that it might even restrict Pakistani diplomats to precincts of New Delhi. Not to be outdone, Pakistan countered that, since Islamabad also had two parts (rural and urban), Indian diplomats might be allowed movement in urban Islamabad only.

India claims that Gurgaon had never been on the approved list of places Pakistani diplomats could visit without prior notification, and so the matter was of enforcing an existing regulation. South Block also argued that by equating Delhi and Islamabad, Pakistan ignores the fact that Delhi is significantly larger than the Pakistani capital; this evidently implied that there is enough for Pakistani diplomats to do in New Delhi, while the Indian diplomats in Islamabad could be seriously culturally deprived if they were not able to visit Murree resorts or Rawalpindi dhabas.

Pakistani diplomats report that they and their families make use of many facilities available in the urban sprawl outside of New Delhi proper. The restrictions also made life difficult because New Delhi's airport is located in the city's suburbs. Islamabad insisted that its decisions were made solely on the haloed principles of reciprocation and retaliation.

This game of petty payback has been brought to a close for now, however, as an agreement has been made to extend diplomats access to two restricted towns in either country. While Pakistan's representatives in New Delhi will no longer be barred from Gurgaon and Noida, Indian diplomats in Islamabad are being granted unsupervised access to Taxila and to Hasanabdal, near Taxila, which houses an important Sikh shrine.

Economic outlook rosy (Sri Lanka)
Despite an extreme escalation in conflict in the island nation, the Sri Lankan government is expected to seal development and financial deals worth USD two billion in order to achieve its target growth rate of 7.5 percent for 2007. According to Treasury Secretary P B Jayasundera, 2007 will reap the benefits of the momentum created in 2006. "Overall, 2006 was a healthy year for the Sri Lankan economy," he noted recently. He also confirmed that exports had exceeded eight percent, remittances were over USD two billion, and tourism that continued through the military offensives had added USD 450 million to the economy.

"Except for inflation," he said, "last year was a good year. Government revenue increased and unemployment also declined to 6.3 percent. We are equally ambitious in 2007." For 2007, Jayasundera estimated that official remittances may exceed USD 2.7 billion, and revenue from tourism will increase to up to USD 500 million.

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