Round-up of regional news

The Pakistan connection

It has long been understood that Pakistan forms a crucial corridor between South, West and Central Asia. More connecting links are now proposed, including plans for a railroad from Kashgar in China to Havelian in Pakistan, through the tricky terrain of the Karakoram Range. The Trans-Karakoram Railroad, which would be the very first rail line across the Himalaya, can be expected to boost trade ties between China and Pakistan.

This proposal has the establishment in New Delhi paying attention, as the railroad is to go through Gilgit-Baltistan, bordering Jammu & Kashmir in the south. South Block is concerned that the ever-closer partnership between China and Pakistan will have strategic and military implications for India. Beijing, however, says the link is necessary, particularly after landslides this year disrupted the Karakoram Highway.

The China-Pakistan railroad project will be facilitated by the declaration of Kashgar as a special economic zone, a policy approach that has injected new life into five other Chinese towns in the past. With the Trans-Karakoram Railroad in order, this could provide abundant market for Pakistani exports, while the bigger picture is the potential extension of this railway to Central Asia and even Europe.

Also on the anvil are the Torkham-Jalalabad and Chaman-Spinboldak-Kandahar rail lines, with Kabul and Islamabad having already agreed to carry out a feasibility study. With the first significant railroad connecting Afghanistan to Uzbekistan's extensive rail network already under construction (Briefs, July 2010), these new initiatives could give momentum to the prospective development of Afghanistan as another pivotal transit station for pan-Asian economic activities.

Strategic hindsight

All Illustrations Sworup Nhasiju

A new alarming (some would say alarmist) report by the Strategic Foresight Group – a Southasian think tank based in Mumbai – gives dire water warnings to all sub-Himalayan regions of Southasia. The major rivers in this region irrigate crops that feed 1.3 billion people, or roughly 50 percent of the population. And according to the report, by as early as 2050, between 50 and 70 million citizens from Bangladesh, China, Nepal and India will be forced to migrate due to water – and, as a result, food – insecurity.

The projected water insecurity has critical implications in terms of power. All four countries with a stake in the sub-Himalayan region already face crippling power shortages now. And while resource-rich Nepal is said to have massive hydro-electric potential (and thus large revenue streams from export), that will drop significantly due to the irreversible damage to water flows from climate change. Electricity shortages, the report claims, will also generate geopolitical trauma.

The authoritativeness of the report has been questioned, however. When delivering the report at the Singapore International Water Week on 28 June, Sundeep Waslekar, the president of Strategic Foresight Group, said, 'What we are looking at here is a major catastrophe … in 20, 25 years. We are looking towards a disaster of more than 100 million migrants.' However, after the report had time to filter through government agencies and media outlets, Waslekar took a step back, telling journalists on 1 July, 'This paper is prepared from a geopolitical and security point of view, and not from the point of view of sectoral expertise in water.'

Inside job

Officials at the National Museum of Bangladesh seem to be under the impression that their stock of over 87,000 artefacts will never run out, and so have blissfully ignored intermittent thefts that have taken place at the museum since a big heist in 1982. The recent consequence: yet another burglary, in early July, this time of at least nine gold medals and 17 silver coins, all of which had been replaced with bronze and steel imitations by the looters.

Over 155 rare artefacts are estimated to have been stolen from the museum since the big theft of the early 1980s, when the museum lost about 144 pieces. Officials are unable to provide an exact number, however, since they have not carried out a proper inventory since that time. Several incidents of theft were never even made public, while no cases were filed in others. The most publicised of the heists took place in 2007, when two Paris-bound Gupta-era statues were stolen from Dhaka airport. Not one of the stolen artefacts has been retrieved.

When the museum was set up in 1913, its 17 possessions were documented manually. Almost a century later, the same method of documentation is used. Since no actual burglary had been reported since 1991, authorities are now convinced that the recent items were stolen by 'insiders'. The deputy keeper, assistant keeper and three security guards are the main suspects. More disturbing is that no one knows what is actually being lost, as some 80 percent of the museum's treasures have never been displayed. Instead, they are piled up in the storage rooms, accessible only to the suspe-
cted 'insiders'.

Stretching out

Woes of a landlocked country aside, the lands that surround Afghanistan contribute to around 50 percent of its trade. Pakistan-Afghanistan trade alone yields around USD 1 billion a year, a lion's share of the latter's close to USD 6 billion annual trade (excluding opium). This crossborder trade figure is set to grow dramatically now that the Afghanistan Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement (APTTA) has been signed, albeit belatedly, by the neighbours. After the two countries signed a memorandum of understanding on the transit trade agreement last year in Washington, the US had given them a deadline of November 2009 to finalise the deal. But the date passed with no agreement, both refusing to budge from their opening positions regarding access to the India-Pakistan Wagah-Attari borderpoint for Indian exports to Afghanistan.

The recent signing of the agreement was likely facilitated by the presence of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Islamabad. The US is hopeful that burgeoning ties between the two countries will pave the way to clamping down on militant groups active along the long, porous border. The deal is also expected to boost Afghan exports and bolster its economy, subsequently helping Kabul to counter the Taliban uprising – which in turn is expected to facilitate President Barack Obama's plan to begin withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan by June 2011. Under the renewed deal, Afghanistan will now have access to Pakistan's ports, while Islamabad will be able to make inroads into the lucrative markets of Central Asia.

The APTTA had to go through without Islamabad giving in fully to Kabul's demands regarding Wagah-Attari. Though open to goods flowing from Afghanistan to India, Islamabad has refused to allow goods to flow in the opposite direction. Evidently, Pakistan is willing to open Wagah for Indian exports to Afghanistan only if India allows it transit access to Nepal and Bhutan.

Nothing to celebrate

The Burmese press has long been familiar with write-ups placed by junta officials – dubbed 'policy articles' – in its broadsheets and glossies. Typically, these are little more than virulent attacks against anyone getting on the wrong side of the generals, an easy enough thing to do. But the regime, in the run-up to the much-awaited elections later this year, has recently issued a surprising directive: telling its Press Scrutiny and Registration Division to halt these party-line inserts.

The junta quickly qualified its stance, however. Media outlets will be required to print all junta-originated articles – invariably written under pseudonymous bylines – when 'occasional instructions' are given, a reprieve that many consider a mere smokescreen. In September 2007, following the junta's crackdown on protesting monks, the information minister, Brigadier-General Kyaw Hsan, said he would combat the negatively inclined international and exile press with the 'help' of the national media. The regime appears to once again be following the same strategy in the run-up to the elections this year. In addition, the state censorship board recently replaced former director Major Tint Swe with Colonel Myo Myint Maung, a junta lackey already gaining a reputation for ruthless censorship.

Meanwhile, Aung San Suu Kyi was rendered voiceless once again in late June when a directive from the regime, delivered through Suu Kyi's attorney, forbade her from airing her criticisms in the press before the scheduled elections.

The Islamic 8

Pakistan and Bangladesh, along with other countries deemed 'Islamic' – Egypt, Iran, Indonesia, Malaysia, Nigeria and Turkey – are set to sign a preferential trade agreement next year. The accord aims to reduce trade barriers, including reduction of taxes on imports. The decision was taken at a meeting held in Nigeria's capital Abuja in July.

The new grouping could have an interesting impact on Pakistan and Bangladesh, where trade has generally lagged. Just 3.23 percent of Pakistan's total imports come from Bangladesh, while 2.2 percent of Pakistan's exports go to Bangladesh. Rather, the US is the largest trade partner of both countries. The new agreement would thus not only provide an opportunity to gain new trading partners but would increase trade flows across the eastern and western wings of Southasia.

There are significant economic disparities within this new potential bloc. For instance, while Bangladesh has a gross domestic product of USD 89.38 billion, Turkey's GDP is USD 617.10 billion, according to 2009 World Bank figures. This means that even in this coalition, there might be a trend of economically stronger countries bullying the weaker ones into signing trade agreements beneficial only to the former.

Interestingly, the constitutions of Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey do not declare Islam as the state religion. What are the implications of these countries joining the coalition? Will Nigeria, for instance, where Muslims and Christians have longstanding tensions, be influenced by majoritarian politics in the other 'Islamic' countries? Likewise, how does Turkey, which is staunchly secular, suddenly become 'Islamic'?

Feline barometer

It could happen in our lifetime: all sub-species of tiger could disappear unless the 13 countries in which tigers live today implement a pledge to double the big cat's population by 2022. Those 13 did exactly that during a recent meet in Bali. In such an audacious plan, Southasia would have to play a major role. Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burma and India are collectively home to around 2580 tigers, making it the region with the largest tiger population.

There is no precise estimate of the number of tigers remaining in the world. While the Global Tiger Initiative puts the population at between 3420 and 5030, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) maintains that less than 3200 are left. In 1900, the global tiger population stood at 100,000. No one denies that the tiger, which represents a 'climax species' and barometer for the health of the natural world, is in crisis across sub-species and across the sub-regions of Asia.

In Bali, representatives of the 13 tiger countries drafted a global recovery plan, which will be used as a starting point for discussion at the St Petersburg Tiger Summit, to be held in September. Prior to this, Nepal is hosting another meeting in the third week of August for SAARC countries . SAARC countries also established a South Asia Wildlife Enforcement Network in May, to increase cross-border cooperation and strengthen national law-enforcement agencies' response.

Although the pledge to double the world's tiger population is a noble one, two challenges are crucial. First, efforts must be made to maintain a balance between the well-being of villagers living on the borders of national parks and the well-being of tigers. Second, rigorous research on tiger-recovery methods is crucial .

This is critical in light of what happened at the Sariska Tiger Reserve near Alwar in Rajasthan. There, tigers brought in from another reserve were found to have the same father as the Sariska tigers, which lead to inbreeding and a host of genetic problems. Poorly thought-out action is often as good as no action at all.

Transitory joy

That nothing succeeds like success is certainly true of China's trade ventures. At the start of the year, China and the ASEAN grouping launched a free-trade agreement expected to further ramp up their USD 200 billion annual trade. A proud new member of the world's third-largest trade zone, China is turning its sights on Nepal.   

China is revving up the construction of the Gyirong land port in the Xigaze prefecture on the Nepal-China border, to enable better accessibility to all of Southasia through Nepal. Construction having begun in 2009, the port is expected to commence operations in 2011, when it will be, as touted, the 'biggest land trade channel' between the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and Southasia. Beijing is shelling out just over USD 175 million for the project.

A rail link connecting Xigaze to the Nepal frontier – long held out as a carrot by Beijing to Kathmandu – is also being discussed. Kathmandu, meanwhile, hopes to import Chinese petroleum products if the plan ever comes to fruition. Presently, Nepal is entirely dependent on Indian goodwill, taking all petroleum deliveries through an arrangement with the refinery in Barauni in Bihar. With China's advances in trade bordering on unstoppable, Nepal looks pleased to be swept away by the tide.

No longer under wraps

As Himal goes to press, the debate on a political settlement in Sri Lanka has taken an interesting turn. On 20 July, two members of the All Party Representative Committee (APRC), R Yogarajan and Nizam Kariapper, released a report based on the three years of efforts to formulate proposals for constitutional reform. Though the APRC itself was initiated by President Mahinda Rajapakse in 2006, the process over the last three years was undermined by the president himself. The recommendations submitted to the president over a year ago by the chairman of APRC, Tissa Vitarana, were never made public. In this context, the report compiled and released by the two former representatives is an important contribution towards a national debate on a political settlement, as well as a historical record of the proceedings of the APRC.

The APRC was initiated at a time when the last cycle of the war with the LTTE was escalating, and gained some credibility from those who rightly saw that only a political, constitutional solution to the conflict could address the grievances and aspirations of the minorities. The 70-page report is a substantial contribution to the devolution debate, which has continued over the last two decades. While it ensures the unitary structure of the state, it nevertheless ensures provincial powers without interference from the Centre. There is to be clear demarcation of powers between the Centre, the provinces and local government; particularly important are the contentious land and police powers that are to be given to the provinces. Furthermore, it also emphasises the importance of independent national institutions for governance, and a senate with regional representation to ensure power-sharing at the Centre.

President Rajapakse and the Sinhalese nationalists who support him in government are unlikely to accept the report. Nevertheless, it exposes the president's continued undermining of the political process, and is yet another opening to continue the national debate crucial for democratising the Lankan polity.

Into the dustbin

Whether Sri Lanka would continue to receive tariff reductions in the form of the so-called Generalised System of Preferences, or GSP+, agreement from the European Union had remained a sensitive and highly political matter since the final days of Colombo's push against the LTTE. The EU has now formally decided to end the privileges to Sri Lanka starting 15 August, citing non-compliance with human-rights agreements.

The GSP+ is an incentive system that extends tariff reductions to 16 developing countries deemed 'vulnerable', and following the devastation of the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. However, the concessions were only to remain under the condition that the countries comply with 27 international conventions on human rights, labour standards, sustainable development and good governance. The dissatisfaction on the EU's part arose mostly due to Sri Lanka's alleged abuse of human rights during the final phase of the war against the Tamil Tigers in 2009.

EU officials had recently announced that they would extend the privilege for a limited additional period, provided Colombo presented a written commitment to implement the conventions in question within six months, beginning 1 July. Never one to back down, the Mahinda Rajapakse government responded by saying that request could go 'in the dustbin'. And that is exactly where the EU has now put the tariff privileges.

Even if Colombo's snubs make for heroic sound bites, the loss of the GSP+ status is likely to hurt Sri Lanka deeply. The EU is by far the largest destination for Sri Lankan goods, accounting for 39 percent of the country's exports in 2009. Now, the island's already stuttering economy will have to deal with higher export tariffs, to the tune of an estimated USD 100 million a year – the price of pride, if you will. The country's GSP+ benefits from the US – the second-largest importer, following the EU – are also under threat, with Washington likewise calling for a review regarding violations of worker rights.

Royal storm

The two houses of Parliament in Bhutan are at odds yet again over the country's Civil Service Bill. Around this time last year the bill was given an 'urgent' status, before being declared a 'dead bill' within a month, after the two failed to reach a consensus. The bill was recently endorsed by a joint session of Parliament, only to be followed again by another contentious face-off.

In June this year the National Council, the upper house, sanctioned the bill. This version proclaimed that the judiciary and constitutional offices would be autonomous and not under the purview of Royal Civil Service Commission (RCSC). But the bill was bounced back to the National Assembly, the lower house, which had endorsed it in December 2009 by stating exactly the opposite. Its assertion was that all civil servants should be treated at par. Eventually, both houses were able find some middle ground this July, agreeing that all employees in the judiciary and constitutional offices would be recruited selectively by both the offices themselves and the RCSC, on the basis of the employees' positions.

Tension persisted, however, regarding National Council's removal of the word royal from the bill's preamble. The National Assembly had questioned this decision because it was, purportedly, disrespectful to the institution of monarchy. Emphasising that the monarch remains the head of state, the Assembly thus pushed for the word to be prefixed to the official name of the Bhutanese government. Fifteen days after the rebuff, the National Council pitched its case in a joint sitting of Parliament, declaring that royal was removed not due to lack of respect but rather for the sake of consistency – since neither the Dzongkha-language version of the bill nor the article in the Constitution relating to the Royal Civil Service Commission uses the word.

Nevertheless, royal was ultimately reintegrated into the preamble during the joint endorsement. Sonam Kinga, National Council deputy chairperson, explained that the body eventually supported the change simply to 'dispel any public misgiving'.

MRP mess

First Bangladesh (like Nepal) missed the 1 April deadline for introducing Machine Readable Passports (MRPs), set in 2005 by a UN body. But that was not the end of its woes, or at least of Bangladeshi travellers. Currently it is taking the Department of Immigration and Passports around a month and a half to issue an MRP, compared to less than half the time for a traditional passport. This is now forcing labourers to resort to emergency manual passports, which are only valid for only three years. Further, these are little use to those looking to work in the UAE, the most significant destination country for Bangladeshi migrant workers.

There are about 700,000 Bangladeshi workers residing in the UAE, and over 250,000 entered the country within the last year.  For a few weeks in July, Dubai was refusing visas to job-seekers without an MRP, while workers already residing in the UAE have also been denied renewals of residence permits for this reason. Inevitably, this had sent a wave of panic through  Bangladesh workers without MRPs. 

But even for those brandishing their new MRPs, the road to West Asia is not free of hurdles. Almost all Gulf countries require job-seekers to have their father's name on their passports, photocopies of which are to be submitted in advance. Bangladeshi MRPs contain the information encrypted in barcodes, meaning it can be retrieved only when the actual passports, and not the photocopies, are scanned by the MRP reading machines. Some visa applications have thus been rejected on
these grounds.

In late July, Dubai, at the request of Dhaka, agreed to once again accept both MRPs and traditional passports. The problem with the guardian information, however, continues to hamper migrant workers.
Meanwhile, Nepal continues to go through its own MRP woes. An earlier decision to award the contract to an Indian government security press was shot down amidst tongue-wagging that India was seeking access to Nepal's data. The weakling government of Madhav Kumar Nepal cancelled that award, and a new bidding was announced. A French company has bagged the award this time around, though amidst complaints by the competing aspirants that it had misrepresented its technology. Even more frustrating for travellers and migrants, new international standards will mean that the MRP passports issued today will only be good for a few years, before additional regulations come into force.

Archaic politics

Having allowed the Dalai Lama to live within its borders for about half a century, New Delhi has always played a tenuous balancing act to avoid alienating China further by being seen as too chummy with the exiled leader. This distancing has recently been evident once again in the process to revive the ancient Nalanda University, in Bihar: the Dalai Lama has been completely excluded from the university's planning, despite being a significant figure in ensuring the survival of Buddhist traditions emerging from the historic centre of learning. Evidently, this was done in view protecting 'China's sensibilities'.

The fifth-century Nalanda University was burned down in the 12th century by invaders. In 2007, a Nalanda Mentor Group was assembled to 'discuss international cooperation, governance structure and funding' for a potential resuscitation of the university. In early July, New Delhi gave the go-ahead in a formal bill, and a final report from the Mentor Group, led by Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, came out in late July. Post-restoration, Nalanda University is now set to have a thousand-acre campus, with classes in Buddhist studies, ecology and environmental studies, among others.

In an interview given just days before the bill was passed, the Dalai Lama expressed his approval of the Beijing government's intent to help with the revival of the university. Yet disciples of the spiritual leader have reportedly reacted to his exclusion with calm. The support extended by Buddhist countries to this cause, including China, are making voluntary contributions, which appears to have been deemed more important than the involvement of the Dalai Lama himself. It is a pity, though, that politics should get involved in such an undertaking in the first place.

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