Round-up of regional news

Nepal / Bhutan   Washington, Thimphu, Kathmandu     Nepal in recent weeks has seen a series of high-level visits by US senators and Congressmen. Interestingly, each of these delegations spent a substantial portion of their time in the country dealing with issues surrounding the Bhutani refugee population. The US policymakers also all flew directly from Kathmandu to Thimphu, where some doled out unusually harsh words to the royal government.   Almost no progress has been made on the Lhotshampa issue in 16 years, since the Nepali-speaking Bhutani population was unceremoniously kicked out of Bhutan. The past two months, however, have seen a flurry of action. In late July the Kathmandu government for the first time agreed to allow UNHCR to resettle 16 "vulnerable" individuals to the US and Canada, and to allow UNHCR to conduct an official census of the camps – something that has never been completed.   But the refugee leaders are not at all pleased, by the looks of it. The visits have rattled some of them, who have long argued against resettlement options in favour of repatriation. Resettlement, however, has increasingly been the recommended option by UNHCR and some donor governments in the face of Bhutani intransigence. The visit to the camps by one of the US delegations was forced to be cut short due to refugee protests. Nonetheless, upon returning to Washington, Congressman Jim Kolbe said that the US had agreed to take in up to 70,000 of the estimated 105,000 refugees. Australia and Canada have also agreed to take in lesser amounts.   The question is whether the word of visiting delegations can be trusted, when there has been no formal announcement by any government. On second thought, Thimphu's government would not be unhappy with a verbal lashing, if that came with a US promise to take in a substantial number of refugees. That is a small price to pay for being rid of a thorn in the side.     Pakistan / India   A tentative ferry   The long-awaited ferry service linking Bombay and Karachi appears to finally be in the offing. Anwar Shah, the Pakistan director-general of Ports and Shipping, said in late August that Islamabad has already given its go-ahead, and is now awaiting approval from New Delhi.   Although the resumption of a sea-based connection between the two financial capitals would be an important development in the thawing of neighbourly relations, the announcement is for the moment being couched in terms of the ferry service's linkage to Dubai. The service is being described as 'Mumbai to Dubai, via Karachi'. While commencement of the luxury line between Karachi and Dubai is already slated for the beginning of November, the USD 550 price-tag for the two-day cruise will relegate it to high-end tourists only.   Nonetheless, a maritime passage between Karachi and Bombay, twin cities of Southasia when it comes to commercial activity, would be a shot in the arm for India-Pakistan connectivity.     India / Nepal   Cataracts and accountability   When the winners of the annual Ramon Magsaysay awards were announced on the last day of August, the list included the names of two Southasians. Named after the former Philippines president, the Ramon Magsaysay awards are commonly referred to as the Asian Nobel Prize.   This year's Award for Peace and International Understanding went to Nepali physician Sanduk Ruit, who introduced new techniques for cataract surgery into Nepal, including mobile eye camps that can perform operations throughout the country's rural areas. The Award for Emergent Leadership went to Arvind Kejriwal, an Indian tax officer who founded the NGO Parivartan, which has succeeded in forcing pro-people, anti-corruption reforms within the Indian Revenue Service.   Dr Ruit comes from an ethnic group of Nepal's far-eastern hills, and has achieved fame for his cataract camps in different parts of the developing world, most importantly in Tibet. Kejriwal had previously been known for his work in spearheading, along with activist Aruna Roy, India's Right to Information Act, which was passed in 2005. Although there are rumours of attempts to hobble the Act, Parivartan's achievement has been seen as one of the Right to Information movement's more notable successes.     Afghanistan   Opiate state economics   The UN has predicted that 6100 tonnes of opium will be harvested in Afghanistan this year – a bumper crop almost 60 percent larger than previous years. Afghanistan supplies more than 90 percent of the world's opium.   Much of the increased harvest is being grown in Taliban-strong areas in the south of the country, where pro-Taliban militant forces have been gaining – and defending – footholds. In the insurgency-hit Helmand province, for instance, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime report says that poppy production has increased by more than 160 percent this year alone. Increases were also recorded in the northeast of the country, where warlords have reasserted their power.   Despite a stringent two-year-old anti-opium campaign, largely led by the US, the estimated USD 2.7 billion drug trade in Afghanistan still accounts for nearly a third of the country's total economic output. While upsetting the trade could have drastic implications for the poppy farmers, Afghanistan seems on the road to becoming a 'narco-state' – not something to be wished on any country, for the continuous instability this would ensure.     India   SEZs and the Ministry   The Indian Finance Ministry in late August tabled a report suggesting that, once the Special Economic Zones (SEZs) are activated, the country's national revenue will dip by almost INR 1.8 trillion within four years. To put that in perspective, total revenue estimates for 2006 are only a little over twice that amount – around INR 4 trillion.   The sanctioning of the SEZs is considered one of the most controversial government policies in the post-liberalisation era, and the Reserve Bank of India and the International Monetary Fund have joined in expressing their concern. New Delhi only opened up the country to the tax- and customs-exempt manufacturing areas last year, and capped the number at 150. Gigantic SEZs are now being constructed across the country, from Kanpur to Kakinada.   New Delhi's Finance Ministry opposes a proposal to develop more SEZs, worrying that they could be a drain on the exchequer. Proponents have hit back, countering that SEZs are a crucial way of luring international investment cash into the country. They argue that, instead of an INR 1.8 trillion deficit over four years, revenue would increase by INR 450 billion.     India   The last frontiers   It may have more to do with New Delhi's national security concerns than with anything else, but India's borderland populations are bound to receive an economic boost with a projected spurt in road-building. The government announced in early September that it had finalised plans to build 862 km of new roads – comprising 27 projects – in the India-China borderlands. INR 9 billion has been set aside for the new phase of the Border Area Development Programme (BADP), which will be finished within four years. In addition, the Centre is also studying proposals for more borderland roads, on the Indo-Nepali and Indo-Bhutani frontiers.   The BADP currently receives an annual allotment of INR 3.3 billion, but this is being upped to INR 5.2 billion for 2006-07. The Home Ministry has also announced that if the projects are carried out "properly", that amount could be almost doubled to INR 10 billion for 2007-08. The ministry has subsequently asked the governments of all states with international borders to prepare action plans for potential borderland infrastructure development.     Pakistan / Sri Lanka   With trade, arms   Islamabad seems keen on deepening its embrace with Colombo. With clashes on the island continuing at a fever pitch and more than half of the International Monitoring Mission led by Norway heading back home, Pakistan's Interior Ministry Secretary, Kamal Shah, announced that Islamabad was looking at "actively" increasing its military ties with Colombo.
Shah told a group of specially invited Sri Lankan journalists in Islamabad that his government wanted to update and step up a 2003 memorandum of understanding between the two countries that dealt with security issues, including counter-terrorism. He said Islamabad would favourably view any request by Colombo to increase the number – currently set at around 200 per year – of Sri Lankan military personnel training at elite Pakistani military institutions.   While the secretary noted that a negotiated settlement would be the best way to end Sri Lanka's ethnic conflict, he added that military intervention was sometimes unavoidable. The August assassination attempt on Pakistan's head diplomat to Sri Lanka, Bashir Wali Mohammad, would not affect relations between the two countries, Shah concluded.     Sri Lanka / India   Trade across the strait   Bilateral trade between India and Sri Lanka currently stands at around USD 2 billion per year, according to Rohitha Bogollagama, Sri Lanka's Enterprise Development and Investment Promotion Minister. This dramatic 80 percent increase over less than a decade has come about since the 1998 signing of the Indo-Sri Lankan Free Trade Agreement, and has made India the island's third-largest export market.   Colombo now hopes to repeat the performance with Islamabad. A free trade agreement between Sri Lanka and Pakistan came into effect on 12 June.   Sri Lanka's burgeoning trade connections do not seem to be the norm, however. A report by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry in India (ASSOCHAM), released the same week as Bogollagama's announcement, found that trade between India and regional blocs such as SAARC and ASEAN has dropped between 2003 and 2006. Beyond the neighbourhood, during that same period India's trade increased with former Soviet states and with the oil-producing OPEC countries.   While trade with SAARC countries had stood at 3.4 percent of India's total foreign trade in 2003, that paltry figure further declined by 2006 to just 2.8 percent. Even Indo-ASEAN trade declined from 9.3 percent to 8.9 percent. India's top trading partners in recent years were listed as the US, UAE, China, Singapore and the UK. ASSOCHAM attributed the decline in inter-SAARC trading to political tensions and mistrust.     Pakistan   A fragile peace   A critical peace deal was finally signed in early September between Islamabad and pro-Taliban militants in the border regions of North Waziristan, where tens of thousands of Pakistani military men have for years clashed with rebels of various hues. Hundreds of people have been killed this year alone in violence in the region, and the situation has heightened tensions between Kabul and Islamabad, with the former accusing the latter of allowing Taliban fighters to regroup on Pakistani soil.   The new deal, brokered by a jirga of tribal elders, urges local tribes to refuse harbour to foreign militants, and to halt crossborder attacks. In return, the military will reduce its presence in the area – withdrawing to barracks and only manning checkpoints. After the signing, militants and military officials reportedly hugged one another in a show
of goodwill.   Although many observers were pessimistic about the long-term viability of the accord, the success of a ceasefire signed on 25 July between the government and North Waziristan rebels had already surprised many. The deal was reached just days before Pervez Musharraf traveled to Kabul to meet Hamid Karzai, signifying a further effort by Pakistan to keep the unstable frontier region from further debilitating bilateral relations.     Tibet / Nepal   Next stop   There seems no stopping the Chinese rail juggernaut. Just two months after the line opened, a high-level Chinese official has given assurances to Nepal that the new Golmud-Lhasa railway would be extended all the way to the Nepali frontier.   The chairman of the Tibet Autonomous Region, Qiangba Puncog, made this promise to Nepali Deputy Prime Minister K P Oli. Qiangba said that Beijing is excited at the prospect of connecting China to the Nepali frontier. And now there is also talk of further lengthening the line into India.   The most likely route for the extension into Nepali territory would be through Xigaze (Shigatse) prefecture, through which the only Tibet-Nepal highway runs. Construction on the additional 270 km of rail track into Xigaze is expected to take around three years. It seems only a matter of time before Beijing proposes yet another rail line into Southasia.     Burma   Making the agenda   For the first time ever, the United Nations Security Council voted in mid-September to put the issue of political repression and human rights violations in Burma on its formal agenda. The Security Council received briefings on Burma in June and December, but the country had not been included in the formal agenda due to opposition, most notably by permanent members China and Russia.   The recent inclusion comes following pressure from the United States. The decision has been met with enthusiasm on the part of Burma's struggling democratic forces, and is the start of a process by which the UN Secretariat would report regularly on developments within the country.     India / Burma   A revitalised Sittwe   Jairam Ramesh, India's Minister of State for Commerce, says that New Delhi will be investing USD 103 million to redevelop the Sittwe port on the northwestern coast of Burma and to improve navigability on the Kaladan River, which flows to Burma through Mizoram. This is one more attempt to reinvigorate bilateral trade between the countries through the Indian Northeast.   The minister announced the plans on a trip to Mizoram, the southern part of which would act as a new trading hub for a route that would run between mainland India, the Northeast and – by way of the Kaladan – Burma. The work on Sittwe will begin by 2009, and will be overseen by the state-run Rail India Technical and Economic Services. New Delhi has also earmarked more than INR 40 million to develop a customs point at Zokhawtar in Mizoram, as well as another INR 25 million for infrastructure development on the Indo-Bangladeshi border at Tlabung (Demagiri).     Bangladesh   A Phulbari victory   It is a difficult job planning a mine in a populated country, where the displaced are bound to be too many. The last week of August saw four days of increasingly violent protests against a proposed coalmine in Phulbari, in the northern Bangladeshi district of Dinajpur. Four protesters were killed in clashes with police, after the Awami League-led opposition alliance joined the demonstrations and forced a day-long strike.   The plan by the UK-based Asia Energy would have displaced an estimated 40,000 to 100,000 people from more than 100 villages, although the company had promised that all those affected would be compensated. Before the Dhaka government could authorise the deal, however, the protesters had already dug in their heels. The authorities were finally forced to scrap the deal, and Asia Energy subsequently pulled out of its operations in and around Phulbari. Meanwhile, the coal that is there will remain underground for now.     Sri Lanka   Military and monitors   Amidst an already deteriorating situation, heavy accusations began to fly between the international Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission and the Sri Lankan military. Ulf Henricsson, the mission's head, said that he had obtained confidential information implicating Sri Lankan military personnel in the killing of 17 local employees of the French NGO Action against Hunger in early August.   The aid workers, all but one of them Tamil and working on Tsunami-related programmes, were found having been shot at close range. Henricsson termed the incident an "act of assassination", and said that the episode was one of the most egregious to have taken place anywhere in the world in recent years.   Colombo rigorously rejected the accusations, saying that the SLMM monitors "are not professionals in autopsy or post-mortem."   The altercation between the SLMM and the government came at a time when the majority of the international monitors were pulling out of the country anyway. This was as directed by Tamil Tiger leaders after the EU listed the rebels on a terrorist watch list early in the summer. Of the original 57 monitors, only around 20 will remain, from Norway and Iceland.
None of this can be good for peace on the island, nor for its people. By the first week of September an estimated 60,000 refugees were living in 100 camps in Tamil Nadu, with more than 200,000 having fled their homes due to the increased fighting in recent weeks. The absence of monitors will hurt amidst the undeclared war in Sri Lanka.     Nepal   Citizenship reform   In early September Nepal's council of ministers passed a bill that will help solve long-standing problems with the country's citizenship laws. In order to be issued citizenship, the 1990 Constitution stipulates that any person who was not considered a citizen by the Nepal Citizenship Act of 1964 and whose father does not possess a certificate of citizenship must be a long-standing resident who works in Nepal, and must also be able to "speak and write the language of the nation of Nepal".   Most of the five million or so people currently denied citizenship are of the Madhesi community of Nepal's tarai plains. Under the new bill, any person who can provide written evidence of having lived within Nepal's borders before 13 April 1990 will be granted citizenship. For those born after that date, one Nepali parent – either father or mother – will suffice.
The tarai has long been marginalised by Nepal's state-sponsored nationalism. The country's new democratic transition, however, brings with it a government more aware of the importance of inclusion than any before it. Analysts point out the need to resolve outstanding problems of citizenship before the Constituent Assembly elections, tentatively slated to take place early next year. The government plans to distribute certificates of citizenship at the village level, so that all 'Nepalis' will soon be able to look forward to heading to the polls.     Nepal / India   Nepali thoroughfare   The Kathmandu government has for the first time officially proposed that Nepal be used as a trade corridor between its two massive neighbours, India and China. King Gyanendra had made frequent mention of the possibility during his 15 months
of autocratic rule, hoping that this would be his contribution to the Nepali economy.   The announcement came during a summit in mid-August in New Delhi between the Indian and Nepali trade secretaries, who agreed to commission a study immediately to look at potential routes for such a corridor. The two sides also agreed on a host of strategies to boost flagging Indo-Nepali trade, including the creation of broad-gauge railway links at the border points of Kakarbhitta, Biratnagar, Bhairahawa, Nepalgunj and Dhangadi. With roadwork on the existing Radhikapur
route hampering Nepal-Bangladesh trade, India also agreed to allow Nepali traders use of the Singhabandh-Rohanpur route.     Bangladesh / Pakistan   From Tata to Dawood   The Bangladesh Board of Investment (BoI) has turned its attention towards Pakistan's Dawood Group for an injection of foreign direct investment. Dawood is currently looking at investing around USD 300 million in fertiliser and energy projects
in Bangladesh.   This is a relatively paltry amount compared with the USD 3 billion investment that the India-based Tata Group had been negotiating with the BoI for the past year, however. That scheme had also been looking to invest in fertiliser and energy, as well as steel projects. Negotiations broke down in July when the Dhaka government was unable to come to a decision with an increasingly contentious election slated for January.   Coming straight out of the failure to push through the country's largest-ever foreign investment possibility (with Tata), BoI's executive chairman Mahmudur Rahman called the current investment environment in Bangladesh "excellent". Meanwhile, a free trade agreement between Pakistan and Bangladesh is expected to be signed in the very near future, the first meeting of the Bangladesh-Pakistan Joint Business Council having taken place in late August.     The Maldives   A doubtful referendum   A historic referendum to decide the future governmental structure of the Maldives was thrown into confusion recently, when the Special Majlis (Constitutional Assembly) voted not to back the creation of a number of special committees that would oversee the countrywide vote.   The surprise announcement of the referendum – which would be the Maldives' first in four decades – came in mid-June, when politicians could not agree on whether to go for a presidential or parliamentary system amidst constitutional reforms. The vote to allow the referendum had included a significant number of MPs from the ruling DRP party, and the approval was seen as a distinct loss for President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.   Although the referendum was at first set to take place on 16 September, the Majlis failed to ratify the creation of the new oversight committees, making it logistically impossible for it to take place. Opposition members reacted with fury, accusing unelected DRP MPs in the Majlis of sabotaging the vote. The reaction was so chaotic that the day's session was forced to end early.     Region   Disappeared in the 'war on terror'   The fallout of American excesses related to Iraq and Afghanistan seems to have touched Southasia in both direct and indirect ways. Just a week prior to George W Bush's reluctant confirmation that the US Central Intelligence Agency has maintained secret detention centres around the world, Amnesty International released a report that found that the US-led 'war on terror' has led to "new patterns of enforced disappearance" in Southasia.   In addition to longtime problems of disappearances in Nepal and Sri Lanka, Amnesty suggests that the context of the 'war on terror' has led to an upsurge of several hundred disappearances in Pakistan, many of which are believed to be in the US prison complex at Guantanamo Bay.   Even in places like Nepal and Sri Lanka, Amnesty reports that disappearances in recent years have increased. Despite the coming of peace to the former, Nepal's National Human Rights Commission reports at least 330 people still missing. In the latter, enforced disappearances have increased since the introduction of new statutes in August 2005, which gave stepped-up powers to the country's security forces. At least 62 cases of enforced disappearance have been registered by the national Human Rights Commission this year, and a further 183 cases are under investigation of persons missing under other circumstances.

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Himal Southasian