Round-up of regional news

What copters?

Following increasingly strident attacks by human-rights activists over the past couple of months, the New Delhi government recently denied – as "completely baseless" – reports that India was planning on selling a number of helicopters to the Burmese junta. Such a deal would have contravened an arms embargo sponsored by the European Union that has been in place since 1988, and would have taken place in an environment of heightened international concern with the situation in Burma.

The rebuttal was prompted by a report published by the international watchdog Amnesty International, backed by several European rights groups, alleging that New Delhi was preparing to sell a number of its indigenously developed Advanced Light Helicopters to Rangoon. Although the helicopters were manufactured in India, the Amnesty report said that the machines would not function without crucial components built in the EU, and urged European officials to refuse sale of any related part to India should the deal go through. Rights groups have long warned that any sale of military hardware to Rangoon only helps the junta in its longstanding war against the country's minority communities.

Come to Shillong!

Despite New Delhi's current border-fencing programme along the Indo-Bangladeshi frontier – coupled with the on-again-off-again relationship between the Indian Northeast and the worries over 'Bangladeshi migrants' – an agreement was recently struck to work towards stepping up tourism between Bangladesh and three states in the Northeast. The deal, between the Tour Operators Association of Bangladesh and the state governments of Assam, Tripura and Meghalaya, will now push the four bodies to urge their respective central governments to do two things: to set up a consular service in Shillong, and to start the long-discussed bus service between that city and Dhaka. "We need to revive our shared traditions and culture," said Meghalaya Tourism Minister Charles Pyngrope at the signing, "which is one way to make our region more peaceful."

Taka from Dhaka

The Indian government recently indicated that it was considering changing its current policy in order to allow direct foreign investment by Bangladeshi investors – albeit on a selective basis and following 'security' checks. New Delhi currently prohibits any direct investment from both Pakistan and Bangladesh, but Minister of State for Commerce Jairam Ramesh has now made it clear that Indian policymakers were considering loosening the reigns on the latter.

"Hopefully Bangladeshi businessmen will receive some good news in this regard soon," Ramesh said, while attending the first meeting of the new India-Bangladesh Chamber of Commerce and Industry in late July. "Such a blanket ban makes no sense, especially since Indian companies themselves want to invest in Pakistan and Bangladesh," he continued. Despite the good feelings following the recent resumption of bilateral trade talks with Islamabad, Ramesh made no mention of whether New Delhi is rethinking its policy on Pakistani investment.

Best of luck

Hamid Karzai recently gave a public pardon to a 14-year-old boy from South Waziristan who had been caught attempting to assassinate a provincial governor. When originally detained in June, the boy, known only as Rafiqullah, was wearing a vest made of 30 kilograms of explosives, and admitted to crossing over the international border into the Afghan province of Khost in an attempt to kill Governor Arsala Jamal.

At an event called to mark the event, there were good feelings all around, as even Jamal himself said he felt bad for Rafiq. "I feel sorry for him," he said, while posing for photos with his intended killer-child. "In Khost, the Taliban don't have the support of the masses. They don't have the ability to fight with our security forces face-to-face. That's why they are going for these extreme tactics."

Rafiq's parents had sent him to study in a madrassa in Pakistan, where he reported being shown videos of suicide bombers and told to undertake the assassination mission. (Exact reasons for the assassination attempt remain unclear, although Jamal has now escaped three assassination attempts.) During the public pardon, President Karzai said that the boy had been "deceived by the enemy of Islam" while at the madrassa. He subsequently wished Rafiq the "best of luck", and sent him on his way.

Dawood, or wouldn't?

India's most wanted man, Dawood Ibrahim, was reportedly captured, along with several of his closest aides, by Pakistani security forces on 2 August. As befits a man with such a long history of acting secretively and with impunity – coupled with the extensive rumours of his alleged collaboration with Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence – the truth was a very long time in coming. This evidently led to a ripple of expectation among Indian and US intelligence services.

The detention of an injured Dawood, as well as that of his top lieutenants Chhota Shakeel, Tiger Memon and Javed Chikna, was said to have taken place following a shootout in either Karachi or Quetta (even verification of any such shootout could not be confirmed). By deadline, however, there was still no confirmation about what – or even whether anything – had actually happened.

All four of the figures comprise the leadership of Bombay's D-Company mafia, and are alleged to have been involved in the 1993 serial bomb blasts in that city. The US, meanwhile, wants to interrogate Dawood on alleged links with al-Qaeda. But even as the press-relations frenzy continued to bubble over, Pakistani officials kept saying that they simply had no idea where Dawood was; indeed, if he was in fact in Pakistan, they would like to be informed of his whereabouts, so that he could be arrested. Dawood's son, meanwhile, confidently stated that his father was not in Pakistan at all, and that he is "well wherever he is". It increasingly appears so.

Well, then again…

After years of denying the presence of Indian militant bases in Bangladeshi territory, in mid-August Dhaka finally conceded the possibility. During a two-day summit between the home secretaries of both countries, the interim government in Dhaka even agreed to set up a joint initiative to deal with information about militants operating in either country.

Under the current set-up, the only way that India and Bangladesh have been able to exchange information on militants or fugitives thought to be 'sheltering' across the border has been through meetings between intelligence officers with the Border Security Force (BSF) and the Bangladesh Rifles. This approach, however, has rarely led to detentions. For New Delhi, a particularly sore point has been Dhaka's insistence that top militant leaders, such as the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA)'s Paresh Baruah, have not been hiding out in Bangladesh. Baruah and others now must be fast counting
their options.

CBM's on the horizon

Two official commissions set up by Manmohan Singh earlier this year have now given their recommendations on how to expand relations across the Line of Control, and New Delhi looks set to propose a slate of new confidence-building measures for Kashmir. In mid-August, a meeting chaired by Home Secretary Madhukar Gupta discussed how to implement the new CBMs, which include several that could have taken place years ago.

For instance, one of the decisions taken was to set up direct electronic communication between offices in Srinagar and Muzaffarabad, with an eye towards speeding up the processing of travel documentation. (Currently, officials meet just once a month to exchange documents by hand.) It was also decided that people under 10 or over 60 years of age would not need any verification to travel across the Line of Control. All of these plans will now need to be discussed in Islamabad before there is an actual breakthrough.

Some topics under discussion have already been agreed upon between India and Pakistan, including the opening up of a cross-LOC truck service, and the widening of various roads across the frontier. Not discussed were committee recommendations dealing with setting up telephone services across the LOC, and the possibility of granting multiple-entry, one-year visas to merchants and traders. One official promised that all such recommendations would eventually be discussed "in order of priority". Meanwhile, a committee headed by Indian Defence Secretary Shekhar Dutt recommended that his government withdraw 20,000 troops from Jammu & Kashmir, particularly those that had been deployed in 2001 as part of Operation Parakram. While Dutt's panel agreed with the government's current stance of not withdrawing any soldier involved in counter-insurgency operations, those included are reportedly largely without work at the moment. Nonetheless, their continued use of public spaces, such as hospitals, orchards, schools and private buildings continues to rankle the local population.

Hungry for freedom

After 33 days, an 'indefinite' hunger strike by Tibetan refugees in New Delhi was called off in mid-August, seemingly amidst much confusion. Fourteen members of the Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC), which had organised the strike, were reportedly in critical condition at a hospital in the capital.

When the strike began on 8 July, the TYC was demanding a direct response from the Beijing government on human-rights violations in Tibet. (No such response has been given.) The strike was ultimately halted following urgent requests from Indian lawmakers, including the peripatetic George Fernandes, as well as the Dalai Lama himself. Regardless of these high-level interventions, however, things appeared to get a bit out of hand.

The strike had been part of a larger mass effort for Tibet, the TYC-led so-called People's Movement, which had been initiated as a one-year countdown to China's hosting of the 2008 Summer Olympics. A football match between Indian and Tibetan teams was also to be part of the movement, but similarly ran into problems when the New Delhi government refused to allow the Tibetan team access to three different venues, including the state-run Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium. (The game eventually happened at an alternative venue, and the Tibetans swept the Indians 6-0.)

Despite the fact that an estimated 10,000 Tibetans and supporters had converged on Delhi during the preceding weeks, however, the campaign as a whole was also called off with the end of the hunger strike, to the frustration of many. "When I first heard TYC leaders asking for public support in our settlement, I thought something is going to happen this time. They even told us of leading a possible march into Tibet, or storming into the Chinese Embassy here in Delhi," said Tsering Choeden, from the Bylakuppe Tibetan Settlement, far to the south in Karnataka. "But they don't seem to have any plan; it's been just a day, and they have already told us to go back. I am frustrated. When I decided to take part in this campaign, I gave up everything and made up my mind to do anything for Tibet."

HIV spilling from India

Researchers recently estimated that almost 40 percent of Nepali women and girls rescued from brothels in India are HIV positive. The report, by the Harvard School of Public Health, also found that one in seven of the girls in the study had been trafficked to India before she was 15 years old (the youngest was seven); of those, HIV levels were a third higher, at 60 percent. The report's authors surmised that the higher prevalence of this latter group could be due to a belief, evidently still widespread, that having sex with a virgin can cure HIV/AIDS.

The study is part of a growing concern with how India's high HIV/AIDS levels are spilling across its borders into neighbouring populations. There are currently around 2.5 million people living with AIDS in India, the third-highest caseload in the world, after South Africa and Nigeria. While Nepal still has a relatively low incidence of HIV, that number is currently rising, which many attribute directly to sex trafficking.

Water, money, power

In late July, India and Bhutan signed an implementation agreement for another massive hydroelectric plant, the Punat Sangachu Wan project. The agreement took place during a three-day visit to Bhutan by Indian External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee. Punat Sangachu Wan will be the latest in a string of crossborder investments that New Delhi has made in Bhutan's hydroelectric sector. The first three were the Chukha, Huricha and Tala projects, which together have cost INR 50 billion and cumulatively produce 1400 megawatts of energy. Punat Sangachu is now slated to nearly double both of these figures: it is estimated to cost more than INR 35 billion, and produce 1095 MW all by itself.

As with the other projects, once the new installation is up and running, nearly all of the energy Panat Sangachu produces will be sold directly to India. There is no indication yet, however, as to whether this new surfeit of power will convince officials in New Delhi or Thimphu to pay any more heed to their counterparts in Dhaka. Energy-starved Bangladesh has for months been pleading with both capitals to let it in on a bit of the Druk hydro riches, but has yet to receive any response.

Bihar, August 2007 Damn embankments
In the face of some of the worst monsoon-fed waterlogging in years, members of Nepal's interim Parliament from the Tarai plains have been bringing up longstanding grievances of illegally constructed embankments directly across the border in India. The MPs complain that when these embankments burst, they inundate communities in Nepal. More than 300 Nepali villages have thus gone underwater during this monsoon season's extraordinary inundation, according to the parliamentarians.

The politicians point particularly at three constructions, at Mahali Sagar, Purna Giri and Laxmanpur, and are demanding that Kathmandu officials talk with their counterparts in New Delhi. A poll subsequently conducted by the media found that a majority of Nepalis in the affected areas advocated going across the border and tearing down the embankments if India does not listen to their complaints.

Meanwhile, the Bihar government has again raised time-honoured crossborder grievances of its own. With more than 6000 villages underwater in the state, officials in Patna have placed the blame on Nepal for having not built enough adequate dams and flood-control mechanisms upstream from Bihar. (Alternatively, they also blame Nepal for having opened the sluice gates of non-existent dams.) Flooding this year has affected millions in Bihar, and hundreds of thousands in Nepal. A bit of crossborder cooperation could undoubtedly have helped the situation this year, but everyone needs to keep in mind that the rains will be coming again next year, and the next, and the next…

Now to Mandalay!

Nearly a year after it was first officially announced, a new crossborder bus service is almost up and running between Moreh, in Manipur, and Mandalay, Burma's second-largest city. Manipur Transport Minister Langpoklakpam Jayantakumar says that the new buses are aimed at bolstering the recently flagging bilateral trade between the two countries, and have long been a key demand by the Indo-Myanmar Border Traders' Union.

Although the service was first announced back in September 2006, during a trip to Burma by Minister of State for Commerce Jairam Ramesh, the plan has since been caught up in the Burmese bureaucracy. During his late-July announcement, however, Jayantakumar said that all of the required authorities had all signed off on the project. On the new bus, it will take around 12 hours to travel from Moreh to Mandalay, which would also be a leg of the proposed Trans-Asia Highway and Trans-Asian Rail Link.

Baking the plateau

What else could go wrong in Tibet? While suffering under an outsider's regime for a half century, the people of Tibet have simultaneously been largely locked out of mainland China's much-heralded economic boom. And now this: Tibet has been dubbed the planet's fastest-warming area, due to global warming.

Chinese scientists recently announced that the average temperature in Tibet is rising around 0.3 degrees Celsius every decade, and even faster in the western part of the high plateau. Throughout mainland China, the average temperature is rising, but at roughly a tenth of the pace that Tibet is seeing, around 0.4 degrees Celsius every century. Around the globe, this rate was recently pegged at about 0.74 degrees Celsius over the last hundred years.

The Chinese Academy of Sciences has also warned that melting glaciers in Tibet could seriously imperil the Ganga and Indus rivers, which flow down into Southasia. Researchers with the Academy recently found that some of the highest glaciers in Tibet have already shrunk by around 17 percent over the past four decades, and that the high-altitude Qingtu Lake, which used to be as deep as 40 metres, has recently disappeared altogether. In June, Chinese researchers had warned that the warming could wipe out Tibetan glaciers entirely by the end of the century.

China's longest rivers, the Yangtze and the Yellow, which originate in Tibet, are also imperilled. Recent aerial imagery has shown that wetlands at the head of the Yangtze have decreased by nearly 40 percent over the last 40 years. These two rivers alone are responsible for bringing fresh water to hundreds of millions, and together irrigate around half of China's farmland.

New Delhi v Kyoto

The New Delhi government has taken its first steps towards creating a national plan for dealing with the effects of global climate change in India. In late July, Manmohan Singh chaired a meeting of top officials and experts from across the country, dubbed the National Council for Climate Change. That group was subsequently vested with the responsibility of coming up with a preliminary national-policy plan by this coming October. Both India and China are currently under increasing pressure to make cuts in their greenhouse-gas emissions before an international meeting scheduled for December.

Recent reports have warned that India could be one of the worst-affected countries in the world from the impact of global climate change. Focus will now be placed on how to deal with melting Himalayan glaciers, as well as how to regenerate the country's degraded forests. As with the United States, India has long resisted international attempts to get it to cut its greenhouse-gas emissions, saying that doing so would be harmful to its economy. Under the Kyoto Protocol, the country is not required to do so. But that is expected to change following the December meeting, which is set to come up with an international framework to go beyond Kyoto's 2012 end date.

Too much fun

An Israeli insurance firm recently introduced a new policy for parents of backpackers who have psychotic incidents while traveling in Southasia. Rescuing stray Israelis has evidently been a booming business in recent times. Every year, more than 50,000 young Israelis go abroad after completing mandatory military service. Many of them head to either South America or Southasia, about two-thirds to the latter; around 90 percent take drugs at some point during their trip. According to an organisation called War on Drugs, around 2000 Israeli backpackers every year subsequently suffer mental illness due to either drugs or 'spiritual confusion'.

The new GBP 100 insurance policy will now cover the cost of 'rescue', a trip back to Israel and a three-month treatment course. The idea to offer 'psychotic' insurance was initiated by Hilik Magnum, who has been running a search-and-rescue company for such cases for more than a decade. His business, which now employs 22 people, began working solely in the Himalaya, and subsequently branched out into what he calls "an intelligence operation".

Sixfold dreams

Officials from India and Pakistan recently announced their intentions to increase bilateral trade to USD 10 billion by 2010. While clearly a worthwhile goal, it was impossible to ignore what seemed to be a dramatic overzealousness in the declaration. Not only would this require a sixfold increase over current trade levels within three years; but the two-day secretary-level summit where the agreement was announced was the first of its kind in more than a year and a half.

Nonetheless, the weight of the agreement appeared to have been felt by both of the top trade officials, Syed Asif Shah and G K Pillai, who acknowledged that they would need to work together strenuously to reduce current trade barriers. As such, they promised to allow banks to open crossborder branches, increase the number of legally tradable goods, reduce current tariffs and improve trade infrastructure.

Indeed, the sudden burst of crossborder synergy appeared to leave both secretaries glowing. "We agreed on almost all issues," Shah later exulted (though this did not extend to the current spat over who actually developed – and who will get to export – the so-called Super Basmati strain of rice, which will remain contentious). New Delhi also confirmed its willingness to move forward with granting Islamabad's 'wish list' of tradable goods, without maintaining its own previous demands of allowing trade access to Afghanistan, or Pakistan giving India Most Favoured Nation status.

In theory, attaining trade levels of USD 10 billion by 2010 is very doable. Much trade between the two countries goes by way of the Gulf, or through smuggling. Regularising this trade could take the two countries closer to the USD 10 billion mark than anyone might imagine. Cumulative direct bilateral trade currently stands at less than USD 300 million per year – a miniscule amount compared to the USD 200 billion combined trade of the two countries with the rest of the world. Islamabad and New Delhi are now set to undertake large-scale infrastructure-development at the Atari-Wagah customs post, at which point nothing should be impossible for the two neighbours.

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