|ALL ILLUSTRATIONS BY BILASH RAI|
Known for his often controversial statements, Sri Lankan army chief Lieutenant-General Sarath Fonseka has again created a storm. Speaking about the recent protests in Tamil Nadu over Colombo’s aggressive military campaign against the Tamil Tigers, the general called the politicians in the Indian state “jokers”. Further stoking the fire, he accused Tamil Nadu politicians of being sympathetic to the Tigers because they were being funded by the guerrilla group.
All of this inevitably caused a great furore in Madras and beyond. Ruling and opposition parties alike condemned the statement in no uncertain terms, demanding an apology. New Delhi also jumped into the fray, with a spokesperson for the Ministry of External Affairs confirming that the Indian High Commission in Colombo had expressed the country’s great displeasure to the powers-that-be. The Defence Ministry in Colombo has reportedly promised to look into the matter, while expressing “regret” over the allusions.
The Rajapakse administration and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M Karunanidhi stand at diametrically opposite ends of the issue of the ethnic estrangement in the island, with New Delhi often forced to waffle between the two. While the former is embroiled in a strong military effort to defeat the LTTE, the latter is calling for a ceasefire to be followed by peace talks. Indeed, Chief Minister Karunanidhi, after a recent meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, told the press that External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee would soon travel to Colombo to push for a ceasefire. Colombo responded that it had no official news of the supposedly imminent visit, nor has there been any subsequent confirmation from New Delhi.
Even as the dynamics amongst this triangle of power centres is unlikely to change anytime soon, the humanitarian situation in the northern part of Sri Lanka is dire and worsening rapidly. Approximately 230,000 people are displaced in the rebel-held areas alone, lacking proper access to housing, food and water.
White sands notwithstanding
With its high-end tourism and regularly vaunted flexible business laws, the Maldives is often painted as a Southasian success story. But the country is currently in the throes of a massive financial crisis, and one that does not look to be getting better. In fact, a full picture of the situation is only now emerging, as the newly elected government in Male sinks its teeth into governing and uncovers what has been going on in the past.
Preceding his electoral ouster in November, former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom had dismissed as alarmist an official report predicting a large deficit in the coming year. Now, the new finance minister, Ali Hashim, has acknowledged exactly this. With the country’s USD 609 million national debt already accounting for almost 60 percent of gross domestic product, the Maldives cannot afford to borrow any more. And, with foreign reserves expected to stand at around USD 116 million by the end of the year, the country only has enough cash on hand for two more months of imports. For a country made up of around 1200 islands and producing little more than fish, the inability to continue importing would be catastrophic.
Meanwhile, with a global recession now in full swing, a downturn in tourism is also expected. With tourism making up by far the main source of revenue in the country, such a decline would have a drastic impact. In anticipation of such a situation, the many luxury resorts scattered throughout the islands are planning to slash prices. In seeming desperation, the new government is also considering implementing a corporate tax, as well as extending the leases of the resorts as a means of meeting the deficit.
In such a tight spot, foreign aid is certainly being counted upon to help see the Maldives through the hard times ahead. Recently, India alone pledged some USD 100 million, the exact size of the projected deficit. Maldivian Foreign Minister Ahmed Shaheed is planning to visit major capitals in the near future, including London, Tokyo and Riyadh, in a bid to raise more funds. It is not clear, however, exactly how far photos of white sands will go in the current economic gloom.
A quest for the ‘king’
As Pakistan and India tussle over the blame for the 26 November Bombay attacks, another story involving the bustling metropolis and the two national governments has just come to a happy conclusion. In August, a 15-year-old boy from the town of Dir, in the NWFP, skipped school, took a bus to Lahore, a rickshaw to the border at Hussainiwala, and stealthily arrived in Punjab, India, by crawling through the barbed wire separating the two countries.
The boy, Nasir Sultan, was evidently motivated by a desire to meet his favourite Bollywood star, Shahrukh Khan, with visions of making a name for himself in the film industry. Within minutes of landing on Indian soil, however, Nasir was arrested by Border Security Force patrols who were highly sceptical of his version of how he crossed over – until he showed them his fresh footprints in the mud.
Though Nasir was kept in prison, he returned to Dir four months after his arrest, just a month after his identity was confirmed by authorities in Islamabad. This is actually a remarkably short timeframe, considering how long similar cases regularly take on both sides of the barbed wire. Nasir’s greatest regret over his escapade? That King Khan did not come to his rescue, which he certainly would have done in reel life.
Even as much of the world, led by India, is looking increasingly askance at Pakistan following the Bombay attacks, China has taken the opportunity to reaffirm its support for its longtime ally. In mid-December, the two countries agreed on a free-trade agreement (FTA) for the services sector, with Beijing committing to invest heavily in skilled human services, an area in which Pakistan is greatly in need of improvement. The FTA will apply to areas including education, banking, medicine and communications. Each country has agreed to recognise education degrees awarded by the other, and to open banks. China will also assist Islamabad in setting up a research-and-development programme, as well as with technology transfer.
Of course, the implementation of the deal is contingent on both cabinets signing off on it. But as the two countries already share an FTA on goods, signed in 2006 under Pervez Musharraf’s regime, this one is expected to go through. The 2006 agreement has increased bilateral trade to USD 6 million, from about USD 4 billion before the deal was signed. Due to the new accord, trade volume between the two countries is expected to increase to about USD 15 billion by 2011.
Meanwhile, ties between Pakistan and China are being strengthened in other areas, as well. In December, senior military leaders from Islamabad and Beijing met for the Defence and Security Talks, which have been held regularly since 2002. Though no specifics emerged from the meeting, in what is being called a landmark agreement, both parties did agree to take the existing military cooperation to ‘new levels’.
Devolving the islands
After three long decades, change is certainly taking place quickly in the Maldives. After just a month as a fully functioning democracy, the individual atolls may soon have more powers than ever before. That is, if President Mohamed Nasheed gets his way. So keen is the new president on a devolution plan that he has already travelled around the country to speak about the possibilities for decentralisation.
In direct opposition to the iron-fisted approach of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, as currently envisioned the country would soon be split into seven regions. Thus far, two of the seven, the northern and the southern, have already been carved out. The idea is to give greater power to each area by establishing regional development councils vested with significant decision-making authority for their part of the country. Under Gayoom, of course, all authority was centred solely in Male – and that, too, solely in the Presidential Palace.
With its 1200 islands, about 250 of which are inhabited, spanning some 300 square kilometres, decentralisation could certainly be a positive move for the Maldives. As with everything else, however, the devil lies in the details. President Nasheed himself acknowledges that no detailed plan to implement these changes has been established, and he still requires parliamentary approval for the plan before moving ahead.
Already, there is some discontent among and within the potential northern and southern areas. For instance, will every regional committee have the same value, or will the larger regions, or the more populous islands, wield greater power? President Nasheed is sure to have his hands full, but at least someone is finally talking about vesting the people, and the islands, with some individual agency.
With the Burmese junta’s tight control over information flowing out of Burma, it is often difficult to know whether reports that make it out of the country are entirely accurate. The line is especially fine when speaking of highly sensitive, and potentially dangerous, matters such as the military rulers’ quest for nuclear weapons.
What is certain is that, last year, Russia agreed to build a nuclear-research centre in Burma, which would include a 10 megawatt light-water reactor and nuclear-waste processing facility. The reactor is projected to use fuel with only 20 percent uranium, making it a ‘civil’ reactor within the International Atomic Energy Agency’s guidelines. Both parties claim that the reactor will be used only to produce electricity and isotopes for medical use. For one reason or another, construction of the promised plant has yet to begin.
Meanwhile, the list of unknowns is significantly longer. The first question that arises is how Burma, which has a dismal basic health-care system, would use the very technologically advanced isotopes. There are also, of course, concerns that the ‘civil’ programme could be used as a cover to build nuclear weapons. Alarming reports have also been around for the past half-decade that North Korean strongman Kim Jong-Il is assisting the junta with its nuclear programme, bringing up uncomfortable memories of rogue Pakistani scientist A Q Khan’s assistance to Pyongyang’s own nuclear programme. Burma and North Korea had no relations for a quarter century, after ties were severed following Pyongyang’s botched attempt to assassinate South Korean President Chun Doo Hwan while he was in Rangoon in 1983. The two repaired ties in 2007, however.
Besides these few facts, the state of Burma’s nuclear programme, civil or otherwise, remains shrouded in mystery, as is true for much else about the country.
Though Nepal-China ties have never been overtly contentious, there have been dramatic improvements, at least in rhetoric, in recent months. Ex-king Gyanendra began to lay some groundwork during his royal takeover of 2005, when he appealed in some desperation for closer relations with China. The Kathmandu-Beijing relationship perked up even in August, however, when Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s first foreign visit after attaining his new post was directly to China. This broke from longstanding tradition of Nepali heads of government travelling first to India. Wary of irking the southern neighbour, Prime Minister Dahal was quick to christen the trip an ‘informal’ one, later making his first ‘formal’ trip to India.
Since the China visit, delegations and dignitaries have been regularly shuttling between Beijing and Kathmandu. In December alone, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and his ten-member team came to Nepal, only to be followed by a high-level military delegation, the second in two months. In an odd development, the Nepali Defence Minister and former Maoist commander Ram Bahadur Thapa (aka ‘Badal’) and a group of senior colleagues left their official body guards behind and went across the Nepal-Tibet border, hosted by the Chinese Military for a couple nights. The reason for that visit has never been explained.
Meanwhile, the military assistance flowing from Beijing to Kathmandu is growing, now said to be replacing New Delhi as the primary source of equipment and training. China has also promised help in boosting the Nepali economy and building infrastructure, especially in building good roads connecting Nepal to Tibet.
For all that Beijing has committed to give Nepal, the former seems to be asking little in return, at least in the current context. Nepal’s acceptance of the ‘One China’ policy is currently the only prominent demand on the table, a point which the CPN (Maoist)-led government has, naturally, repeatedly and explicitly conceded. Kathmandu has also, as in the past, given commitment not to allow ‘Free Tibet’ activists any slack in Nepal.
These ties are likely to only strengthen when Prime Minister Dahal takes up Foreign Minister Yang’s invitation to visit China in early 2009, his second such trip in six months. To the south, meanwhile, New Delhi has thus far remained silent, at least publicly, on these events. One can assume, however, that South Block is not thrilled with the growing intimacy across the rampart of the Himalaya.
Emigration from Southasia has been a long-established trend. Less understood is the movement of people taking place within the region itself. In fact, India, with a transient population said to number 5.7 million, is the main destination country for migrants in Southasia, though they account for only half a percent of the country’s total populace. The percentages are similar in Bangladesh and Bhutan. At the other end of the scale, migrants make up about three percent of Nepal’s total population, the highest proportion in the region, followed by Pakistan with just over two percent. This can likely be accounted for by the significant number of Bhutanese and Afghan refugees living in Nepal and Pakistan, respectively.
In terms of labour migration to non-Southasian states, India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka are the major sources. In 2004, the last year for which concrete figures are known, around 107,000 migrants left Nepal, 215,000 from Sri Lanka, 273,000 from Bangladesh and 475,000 from India. Add to this the unofficial statistics, including undocumented movements of people, and the total population actually residing in Southasia shrinks considerably. Though more than 465,000 Nepalis work in the Gulf states (42 percent of whom are in Saudi Arabia), Bangladesh, India and Pakistan are the main suppliers of workers to the area.
Considering the large number of workers outside the region, the inflow of money from remittances is rightly astounding. With a whopping USD 27 billion in 2007, India’s remittance inflows accounted for almost 11 percent of total remittances to developing countries around the world that year. Other top receivers of remittances were China (USD 25.7 billion), Bangladesh (USD 6.6 billion), Pakistan (USD 6 billion) and Sri Lanka (USD 2.7 billion). While it is good news that the rest of the world is interested in employing Southasians, the level of such figures means that a tremendous amount of productivity is going towards propping up the economies of other countries, most significantly in the Gulf. When Southasia is able to oversee a boost in its own job creation, the required labour will certainly be available.
News of the investigation into the 30 October serial blasts in Assam has been almost entirely overshadowed by the Bombay attacks less than a month later. Though the assaults were carried out in very different manners, the blame game raging in the aftermath has been noxiously similar.
During a discussion in the Lok Sabha on the impact of the blasts in the Northeast, newly appointed Home Minister P Chidambaram said that Bangladesh needs to be more vigilant in preventing insurgent groups from using its territory as a safe haven. Chidambaram named specific Bangladeshi-based groups, such as the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HuJI), which is said to have links with separatist groups in the Indian Northeast including the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and the National Democratic Front of Boroland (NDFB).
In contrast to the unchecked finger-pointing following the Bombay attacks, however, New Delhi has acknowledged that the ‘foreign hand’ cannot be blamed for all violence in the Northeast. After all, it is impossible to ignore that there are numerous homegrown insurgent groups in the area.
In the end, where exactly responsibility for the Assam attacks lies has become only murkier. While the HuJI was originally suspected, evidence pointing to the NDFB subsequently came to light. Eventually, a link was drawn between the Assam attacks and Tenzing G Zangpo, a senior leader of the Druk National Congress, a party formed by Bhutanese exiles in Nepal. Zangpo was arrested by Assam police in Guwahati along with senior leader of separatist Indian group, the National Democratic Front of Bodoland on 10 November along with a known member of the NDFB, which continues to insist that it was not responsible for the attacks.
With this alleged web potentially stretching from Bangladesh to the Indian Northeast, and Bhutan to Nepal, the insurgents clearly have ties across Southasia. It is a pity that the governments of these countries are unable to take a cue from this collaboration, and coordinate more effectively to nab the culprits.
Calling all outsiders
Having ostensibly opened up politically by holding its first elections earlier this year, the new government in Thimphu is now attempting to improve its economic prospects. The first step in this process is an impact study, currently underway, of the Foreign Direct Investment Policy that was first partially implemented in 2002. Until that time, there had been no set process for non-Bhutanese companies to invest in the country’s private sector. Thimphu had hoped to strengthen its private sector by allowing foreign companies to own up to 70 percent of a company, setting minimum project sizes (USD 1 million in manufacturing and USD 500,000 in services), and opening up 14 market sectors for foreign investment.
Now, three years after the Policy was fully implemented in 2005, its impact on the economy is said to have been negligible. While 13 FDI projects have been approved by Thimphu, only four are up and running. That said, though, it is impossible to gauge the actual impact of these schemes, due to a lack of proper tracking by Bhutanese authorities. For instance, there is no record of the jobs generated by the new projects, or of the money paid to the government for licenses. Experts are now warning that Bhutan will never be able to extract the maximum benefit from FDI unless it does a comprehensive review of the policy. Thus, the impact study.
On a related note, Thimphu is considering allowing Indian companies to engage in full direct investment in power projects, a significant increase over the already generous 70 percent allowed to those from other countries. Continuing with tradition, hydropower and tourism are the two sectors Thimphu is most keen to take further through FDI, whether through investment from India or anywhere else.
The four-person Afghan delegation’s performance at the recent Beijing Olympics in August was notable not only for initially including a woman, but also for having bagged its first Olympic medal, when Rohullah Nikpai won a bronze in taekwondo. Now the country has come out on top at another sporting event, as Afghan footballers beat Russia 5-4 to become the champions at this year’s Homeless World Cup, held in Melbourne during the first week of December.
The Homeless World Cup, which began in 2003, sees competition between teams made up entirely of players who have either been homeless during the previous year, or who are currently street vendors or asylum seekers. This year saw a new record in terms of the number of participants, with teams from 56 countries taking part in the games, including eight all-women teams in the first Homeless Women’s World Cup. Afghanistan’s win was also the first time that a developing country won. This year also witnessed the first time that Southasian countries cracked the top five, with both Afghanistan (first) and Bangladesh (fifth) placing.
Back in Afghanistan, however, news of the win does not appear to be widely known, although the Afghan team, which remained undefeated through the week-long competition, was a favourite with audiences. In fact, there are also reports that a number of the Afghan footballers applied for asylum in Australia. Soon, they might have a new home.
The annual Human Development Index put together by the UN has always had its share of critics. Now, the Colombo government has come up with a new system of ranking, which some consider to be more accurate. It is being called the Sustainable Human Development Index (SHDI). Presenting the proposal at the UN Climate Change Conference in Poland in December, Patali Champika Ranawaka, Sri Lanka’s environment minister, said that the SHDI would rank people on “the right track”.
Wanawaka said the criteria used to calculate the HDI were obsolete, especially as they ignored environmental issues. The SHDI yardsticks include a country’s per capita and total carbon emissions as well as an ecological index. The HDI, on the other hand, takes into account only life expectancy, adult literacy and per capita income of a country. Indeed, Wanawaka went so far as to say that the HDI served only to provide an inaccurate sense of well-being for a few countries.
In the first SHDI, launched this year, Brazil came out first, with Sweden and Bolivia taking second and third place, respectively. In Southasia, India is at the 59th slot, with Pakistan and Nepal right behind and Bangladesh at 79. Interestingly, Sri Lanka shot up several places, from being ranked 99th according to the HDI to 27th under the SHDI criteria.
Regardless of what value one puts on such indexes, taking environmental factors into account in ‘measuring’ development certainly sounds like a much-needed step. But for any definition of ‘development’, Sri Lanka’s high ranking seems suspect, considering the daily reports of military action displacing, maiming and killing thousands of innocent civilians in the northern part of the country.