Illustration by Gihan de Chickera.
Illustration by Gihan de Chickera.

Constitutional change in Sri Lanka, Afghan peace talks, Bhutan-Bangladesh trade agreements and more

Southasiasphere podcast episode 02: Updates and analysis from around the region.

Southasiasphere, our analysis of regional affairs will be a monthly podcast featuring Himal editors! If you're a member, you'll automatically receive links to the new episodes in your inbox. If you're not yet a member, you can still get it for free (for the time being..) by signing up here.

In this audio episode of the roundup, we talk about constitutional change in Sri Lanka, Afghan peace talks, Bhutan-Bangladesh trade agreements and more.


Raisa Wickrematunge: Hi everyone and welcome to Southasiasphere, a monthly roundup of news events in the region, now a podcast. I'm Raisa, and I'm joined by my colleagues Amita and Shubhanga.

Shubhanga Pandey: Hello.

Amita Arudpragasam: Hi Raisa

Illustration by Gihan de Chickera.
Illustration by Gihan de Chickera.

RW: So the big stories that we are going to be talking about this month are the 20th Amendment and the process of constitutional reform in Sri Lanka, the Bhutan-Bangladesh Free Trade Agreement and the status of peace talks in Afghanistan.

AA: So let's start with Sri Lanka and the 20th Amendment then!

On the 22nd of September 2020, Sri Lanka's Justice Minister tabled the 20th Amendment to the Constitution in parliament. The proposed bill, if passed in this form, will be detrimental to Sri Lanka's constitutional democracy. Perhaps the most significant change that will be introduced by the 20th Amendment is the change in the composition and importance of the Constitutional Council. Under the 19th Amendment, the Constitutional Council recommended individuals for appointment to independent commissions. These included the Election Commission, the Human Rights Commission and the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption. It also approved the names of individuals recommended to the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal, and for the posts of Attorney General, Auditor General and Inspector General of Police. The diverse members of the council helped ensure that there was some accountability for appointments made to these positions. But under the 20th Amendment, the Constitutional Council will be replaced by a Parliamentary Council that will be less diverse: So it's composed entirely of elected representatives as opposed to a mix of non-elected and elected representatives and it will also have less influence over the appointment process.

Under the proposed 20th Amendment, the executive is mandated only to seek the council's observations and the Parliamentary Council will not even have the power to approve recommended names. Apart from the changes it makes to the Constitutional Council, the 20th Amendment also proposes the repeal of the Audit Service Commission and the National Procurement Commission. It removes the ability for citizens to challenge the executive actions of the President through fundamental rights applications and the president now has the option to pass so called 'urgent' bills, except those that amend the Constitution.

RW: And for those who are interested in reading more about the topic and the history around this, we recently published an article by law academic, Dinesha Samararatne on this.

AA: That's right Raisa, and what I really like about Dinesha's piece is that it situates the proposed 20th Amendment in the context of other constitutional amendments in Sri Lanka like the 17th, 18th and 19th Amendments. She makes a pretty strong argument for why Sri Lankans must reclaim representative democracy from political parties to prevent what she calls 'constitutional ping-pong'. Now of course all these reforms to centralize power such as the 20th Amendment also occur during Covid 19 when the government has much more lee-way than usual among the public to increase militarization. And the government does continue to increase the presence of state intelligence to, to monitor civilians and businesses. We recently heard, for example, that university students will be subject to increased surveillance to curtail ragging and that intelligence assistance is also being sought to investigate tea-factory owners suspected of adulterating tea with ingredients like sugar and sodium bicarbonate.

Illustration by Gihan de Chickera.
Illustration by Gihan de Chickera.

SP: Right, so the other big story in Southasia last month was the beginning of intra-Afghan peace talks. So on September 12th, the representatives of the Taliban and the Afghan government finally met after months of delay in the planned talks in Doha. Now these are basically talks about future power sharing arrangements and to also look at possible ceasefires in the future. But these have just begun and at this stage the meetings are actually to set conditions and procedures for the future ones.

Now these talks should also be looked at in the context of an earlier deal between the US and the Taliban, from February 2020, which basically said that the US and NATO had to withdraw all their armed forces from the country by May 2021, while the Taliban had to prevent Al-Qaeda operations in territories they control but also start pursuing peace talks with the Afghan government. Now the big issue with that deal was that it completely left out the Afghan government, and also involved kind of prisoner swaps between the Taliban and the Afghan state. So it was actually seriously objected to by President Ghani.

In the months since then there have been intermittent periods of low violence and the patterns of violence has changed. But actually if you look at the numbers, the overall level of violence this year is pretty much the same as 2019. It's just that the US forces are out of combat. And so it's state forces and the Taliban. But with the peace talks there's great hopes for potential ceasefires, so that would significantly change the political landscape of the country.

AA: So Shubhanga what do you think are some likely stumbling blocks in these talks?

SP: So, one of the things that is of concern is that there seems to be for example some tensions within the Afghan state's side of the negotiation party. For example, the chief negotiator from the Afghan government is Abdullah Abdullah, who actually lost the elections to the current president, but had a long extended period where he refused to accept the results. And there was actually another deal between the current president and him. So he leads the negotiations and there's already some power play within that. And they're also looking ahead to a future, kind of post-peace-talk government which would involve actors from Taliban as well as the current government forces. So you know they are already looking at that arrangement in the future so there's going to be some scramble for power in that way.

The other major issue could be the fact that the Taliban representatives have tried to frame this current talks as a result of the February US-Taliban talks. So they want that to be the main agreement and this to be the one that flowed out of that. Obviously, they are doing it seeing that it gives them greater credibility as a force, and the Afghan government side is not too keen on that. In addition to that there is also going to be I think serious disagreement on what the nature of the Afghan state and administrative apparatus will be like. So for example, the Taliban in particular are very keen on introducing religious elements in law, administration, public policy, so that could be another serious issue.

While all of this is happening a lot of commentators have also noted the international dimensions of this, also because the talks happened with the presence of representatives from the US government, Pakistan, Qatar, India and the United Nations. Not all of them were physically there, some of them joined virtually, but the fact that this involvement shows a greater geo-political workings has been talked about. But I feel that kind of conversation has also left out the other big international dimension of what's happened in Afghanistan in over the last several years which is the impact of foreign aid.

There's this report from May this year in the Afghan Analysts Network which looks at you know what the impact of foreign aid has been in Afghan economy and also in Afghanistan's democracy. So for example the country has seen greater inequality in last several years. The argument is that the flow of foreign aid is also converting Afghanistan into a rentier state, because a lot of, more than 40 percent of the state's GDP comes directly from aid. It increases the state patron-client relationship, there's a loss of democratic accountability. So it's an interesting argument on why and how foreign aid has actually been not so beneficial for Afghanistan and I think it's a conversation worth having I think.

Illustration by Gihan de Chickera.
Illustration by Gihan de Chickera.

RW: Thanks Shubhanga for that. And the other kind of big story that we want to talk about is actually about a Free Trade Agreement between Bangladesh and Bhutan. Now there's been a lot of clichés kind of bandied around saying that there's not a lot of intra regional trade in the Southasian region, but there are these kind of agreements that are still taking place. So more than a hundred Bangladeshi origin goods will come under the PTA which is going to be hopefully signed within the next month and Bangladesh is going to allow duty free import of around 34 Bhutanese goods. Now a lot of Bangladeshi media reported that this was the first Free Trade Agreement between the two countries but actually Bangladesh did concede obligation free access to around 18 items from Bhutan in 1980. Bangladesh is actually Bhutan's second largest trading partner – behind India, of course – and is a significant importer of mandarins, apples, boulders, pebbles and gravel. The two way trade between Bangladesh and Bhutan was 57.9 million dollars in the fiscal year between 2018 and 2019.

Over the years the two countries have spoken about, and in some instances made commitments to enhancing their strategic development partnership in several different areas. And these have included hydropower, transport and more recently free trade. There are also these more informal agreements between the two countries. So one is that Bangladesh is actually one of the preferred destinations for higher studies among Bhutanese students, especially those who are pursuing courses in health and medical science. Bangladesh also assists Bhutan in the field of medical education through the provision of annual scholarships. In fact the current Bhutanese Prime Minister is a medical professional trained in Bangladesh. Bhutan's tourism and hospitality sector has also benefited from the rise of tourists from Bangladesh. So according to Bhutan's tourism data, the number of Bangladeshi tourists was around 10,450 in 2018. Of course Bhutan's recent sustainable development fee, which is going to be imposed on tourists from Bangladesh, India and the Maldives could have an adverse impact on the number of travelers who are coming from Bangladesh into the country.

SP: Raisa, since you're also talking about trade, there was some news about Bhutan lifting the ban on cigarettes, I think, earlier last month. What was that news about?

RW: Yeah that's right, so actually in August, Bhutan made this decision to temporarily reverse a ban on the sale of tobacco due to COVID-19. So the country actually first banned the sale, manufacture and distribution of tobacco in 2010, but they did allow smokers to import controlled amounts of tobacco products after paying, you know, hefty duties and taxes, and of course what that resulted in was a thriving black market for cigarettes, which was often smuggled over the border from India. And when Bhutan closed its frontier with India earlier this year because of the pandemic, these under the counter tobacco prices soared as much as four-fold, because traffickers found it much harder to get into the country. So as a result, the Prime Minister actually made the unusual decision that the government would make alcohol and tobacco products available to those who need it. And he justified this as saying that [for] those who are used to drinking every day, nothing could substitute the craving for alcohol, he said, and so that's why he said they were planning to distribute and supply alcohol to those who needed it, as well as tobacco.

Bhutan actually also lifted a ban on the import of furniture and alcohol from India in 2014, so the drinking of alcohol is – there's not so much of a stigma around it – but given that this lifting happened during a pandemic, it made a lot of news.

AA: A smaller story that is worth mentioning is the rise of COVID cases in Myanmar. Strict stay-at-home orders were issued in the Yangon region as the number of cases continued to rise. As of the 28th of September, which is today as we're recording this podcast, there were 10,734 cases with 226 deaths. But despite the Yangon lockdown and the reporting of COVID-19 cases around the country, the Union Elections Commission says it's going to be sticking with November 8th for the General Election. There are growing public calls for a delay due to COVID-19 because many parties have argued that it's just not safe to campaign.

Also in the news in Myanmar, on the 16th of September the Tatmadaw promised to take action against three of its members who admitted to a gang rape in Ugar village, in the Rathedaung township. The servicemen had initially denied the allegations, leading the Tatmadaw to conclude that the victim's testimony was fabricated. But during a more recent investigation one of the soldiers actually confessed and the Tatmadaw's Public Relations Unit has now announced that the military has formed a court martial. The UN's fact-finding mission in Myanmar described sexual violence "a hallmark of the Tatmadaw's military operations", so this is not a rare incident.

RW: Yeah, and similar to what happened in Myanmar, there's also been one single case which has kind of brought renewed focus to the issue of sexual violence in Pakistan. On the 9th of September, a woman, who was raped by two men in their 30s when her car broke down on the motorway leading out of Lahore, faced judgment from a senior police official who questioned why she had not taken a busy road or checked her fuel before leaving. Now, this is not a new phenomenon. Victims of sexual violence in Pakistan and indeed the region often find their own virtue on trial, with very few cases being prosecuted successfully. This also wasn't the only case of violence against women that made the news in Pakistan. There was a journalist who was shot dead in Balochistan recently in an apparent honour killing and there was a minor who was raped and murdered in Karachi. But the police official's comments received angry pushback online and protest demanding for institutional reform, which pressured him to apologise. So the motorway incident did lead to renewed focus on the topic of violence against women in Pakistan, with women continuing to be vocal especially on social media and challenging the social norms that keep women's freedom severely restricted there.

The case actually led Prime Minister Imran Khan to say that he advocated public hanging for rapists, expressing regret that it would not be internationally accepted as the GSP plus concessions Pakistan received would be affected. He also advocated for chemical castration as a solution, but critics have pointed out that this discourse not only distracts from the wider issue of sexual violence in Pakistan, it also notes that even though there are these laws which prohibit sexual violence there has been weak implementation and flawed accountability.

And those of you who are interested in this topic, we are actually sending out a newsletter for a product that we're working on right now, a book list which looks at the topic of sexual violence in Southasia, so a few of you may be receiving that.

SP: Now onto India. One of the major stories in India in the last few weeks has been the passage of what's been called Farm Bills. So a set of three legislations that basically, the government says, will liberalise the agricultural markets. And so these new laws have basically resulted in a lot of opposition and protest from the farmers, but also the opposition parties. In fact, one of the coalition partners of the BJP, Shiromani Akali Dal, which is also a political party in Punjab, has actually left the government.

So basically the topic has been controversial for you know two different reasons. One is that it was passed in the Parliament using voice votes, even though it was quite a controversial bill and usually voice votes are used when it's either very clear that the law will pass with overwhelming support, or if there's a consensus. But that was not the case. So that's one reason why it's getting a lot of criticism.

The other is actually in the details of these bills. So like i mentioned, the broad aim, the government says, is to liberalise the agricultural markets. And basically in India what you have is that the farmers generally don't sell it directly to the buyers. There's a state-regulated market where you know they take their produce, the state sets what's called a minimum support price (MSP) and that kind of informs the decisions that buyers and sellers make. So what the government has said is that farmers don't have to do that. So it basically creates a parallel market which is kind of unregulated, and critics have basically said that this is just one step further in ending the minimum support price (MSP) regime.

But there are also concerns about the fact that these new laws allow private hoarding of produce, for example. And based on experience in Bihar, where a system like this is already in place, and where government-run markets have been abolished for some time now, what you've seen is that farmers ended up receiving much lower prices. So the critics say that while these state-regulated markets are not perfect institutions that they do function as safety cushions.

RW: Speaking of safety, making the news in Southasia also has been heavy rain and floods. Some of the regions that have been affected include Karnataka, Kathmandu and Pakistan in several areas. Kathmandu actually was affected by landslides with 11 people killed and Pakistan actually saw over 2 million people affected in Sindh and the Northern province also badly affected with landslides and road blockages.

So that's it from us for our regional roundup. Thank you for listening and do check out our website as well. I just want to give a quick shoutout to Gihan de Chickera who's doing great cartoons illustrating some of these stories – so if you actually go to our website you'll be able to see those. And do watch this space for more updates on the Southasian region.

Thanks everyone!


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