Round-up of regional news
All drawings by Bilash Rai
If any other indication is needed regarding China’s continued no-tolerance policy towards pro-Tibet activity, a recent official document has outlined Beijing’s detailed stance on the various punishments to be meted out to monks considered to have “attitude problems”. According to the document, monks committing “minor” infractions will be sent for “re-education”; those committing more serious “crimes” will be thrown in jail until they renounce their stance. Those considered to have “serious crime and attitude problems” will be banned from monasteries, while alleged “masterminds” of “splittist” actions have been warned that they will be prosecuted with “the full force of thelaw.”Monasteries from which at least 10 to 30 percent of the resident monks took part in the March protests appear to be the main targets of the new policy. All members of these monasteries have now been ordered to “re-register” with local party offices, and those who fail loyalty tests will not be allowed to remain. Interestingly, the new instructions did not actually originate in Beijing (though they now bear its stamp of approval), but rather in the local Communist Party Central Executive Committee in Kandze prefecture, in southwestern Sichuan province. The area is home to a significant Tibetan population, and saw some of the largest protests earlier this year. That may be a notable example of decentralised decision-making, though not of a type that everyone would back.
Aid down, rent up
Over three months after Cyclone Nargis hit the Irrawaddy Delta, aid has yet to reach millions who were displaced by the storm. Now, to make matters worse – if that is even possible – prices in the devastated delta have risen manifold. The arrival of foreign aid workers has resulted in a dramatic rise in living costs, and the already-struggling locals find much difficulty in affording many essentials. In the delta town of Laputta, for instance, a simple house now rents at about USD 80 per month, a nearly 250 percent increase over prices pre-cyclone. At least six international organisations, including the World Food Programme, are currently based in Laputta.
The high prices are also making aid work itself more difficult. The cost of small boats has shot up to about USD 40 per day, while large trucks are going for around USD 1500 per month. As these vehicles are the only means of reaching victims stranded in remote areas, their demand continues to be very high. If aid organisations, relatively flush with money, are disturbed about the soaring prices, the situation must indeed be dire for the locals in these areas, many of whom lost everything in the cyclone.
In what has become a regular cringe-inducing exercise, the provocatively named fourth Failed States Index was recently released. The annual list, put together by two centrist US-based organisations, the Fund for Peace and Foreign Policy magazine, explores the progress and deterioration of 177 states around the world, and analyses their ability to cope with a spectrum of challenges. Rankings are based on 12 signs of state vulnerability, and take into account six political, two economic and four social indicators.
Once again, except for India and the Maldives, all countries in Southasia made appearances among the list’s top 60 ‘failed states’. Afghanistan ranked highest at number seven, followed by Pakistan at nine. Interestingly, Burma and Bangladesh were rated equally failed at number 12, while Sri Lanka was listed at 20 and Nepal at 23. According to the Index, this makes these states particularly vulnerable to “violent internal conflict and societal deterioration”, and makes Southasia one of the most vulnerable areas in the world. Indeed, among the region’s countries, Bhutan, at 51, was considered the most successful.
According to the Index, little changed in Southasia between last year and this year. In fact, with the exceptions of Nepal and Bhutan, the countries in the region are to be considered in a bit more trouble.
Two years after Bhutan’s former king Jigme Sigme Wangchuck abdicated the throne, ostensibly to facilitate democratic reforms, a date has been set for the coronation ceremony of his son, King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, who has been ruling the country since 2006. The exact coronation day, in November during the Bhutanese month of the ‘earth male rat’, was arrived at by a triad of state astrologers.
The monarchical pomp will be happening eight months after Bhutan’s first national election and the Parliament’s endorsement of the country’s first constitution – formally turning the country into a constitutional monarchy. Of course, for the moment monarchy and democracy appear to be coexisting alongside one another much better than they have elsewhere in the neighbourhood – ie, Nepal. But then, that appears to be due to the strengthening of one at the expense of the other. The winning party in the March elections, the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa, is steadfastly pro-monarchy, as is the opposition People’s Democratic Party. Furthermore, the central platform of both parties’ election campaigns was a promise to continue the policies endorsed by the previous monarch – and, now, of his son.
Amidst all this, over in Nepal, former king Gyanendra, in the forest retreat loaned to him by the Nepali government, must be ruing the day he thought of converting Nepal from a constitutional to an autocratic monarchy.
Hoping to renew her soon-to-expire visa and collect some personal things from Calcutta, exiled Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen returned to India on 8 August. Security hurried her away immediately after she landed at the Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi, and her whereabouts have since not been made public. What is known is that she will certainly not be allowed to return to Calcutta, even for a brief visit. The West Bengal government has made it clear that Nasreen is unwelcome, purportedly because her presence may again spark violence in the city.
Back in the region since fleeing to Sweden in November 2007, Nasreen is expected, once again, to ask New Delhi to grant her Indian citizenship – which it has consistently refused in the past. Undoubtedly, her vocal and often divisive stance on religion has been problematic for the Indian government. But it is a pity that a Southasian in trouble cannot find refuge in her own neighbourhood.
THE MALDIVES/ BANGLADESH
As often seems to be the case, while the talk shop dominated the headlines, the real deals took place on the sidelines of the recent SAARC Summit in Colombo. One discussion that looks set to have an impact on the ground happened between the Maldivian foreign minister, Abdullah Shahid, and the Bangladeshi foreign adviser, Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury, on the possibility of increasing the flow of skilled Bangladeshi workers into the atolls.
According to the Maldives Acting Minister for Employment Abdul Rasheed Hussein, the country’s rapidly expanding economy needs more foreign labourers than ever before. Sixty-five more resorts are currently under construction, up from the current number of about 90. Government regulators require that half of the staff at such places be Maldivian, and many are already finding it difficult to fill this local quota.
Figures from the Ministry of Employment in Male show that nearly 26,000 Bangladeshis, most of them unskilled, are currently employed in the Maldives. Construction (employing nearly 11,700) and tourism (employing more than 3700) are the top two sectors where Bangladeshis tend to work. However, the validity of this data was called into question in May, after the Maldivian police found that the ministry’s database of foreign workers had been hacked and records falsified. So the number of foreign workers, Bangladeshis included, could in fact be higher.
Despite the high-levels talks at the Summit, Hussein said that no deal was specifically in the cards to recruit more Bangladeshis. The private sector does not seem to believe such backpedalling, however, with the Bangladeshi airline Best Air recently starting up direct flights between Dhaka and Male.
Taking a cue from the world renown achieved by the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamsala, Burmese activists have recently been discussing the possibility of likewise setting up shop in India. Actually, despite receiving close to no publicity in the mainstream media, such a government does already exist. Officially known as the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, the group was elected by the Rangoon People’s Assembly of 1990 (results that were subsequently ignored by the junta), and has functioned as a government-in-exile ever since. Its prime minister, Sein Win, is first cousin to the imprisoned pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and the government boasts a full cabinet.
The Burmese government-in-exile has always been headquartered in Rockville, Maryland, in the US. But now, Sein Win has expressed a desire to move the government’s operations to India. He has also announced that he will soon be making an official trip to India and China, in order to ask for help in resolving the current political deadlock in Burma. While considering the close ties that New Delhi and Beijing continue to enjoy with the junta, Sein Win’s wish is unlikely to come true anytime soon. Proximity to the issue at hand, however, could only be a boon. Meanwhile, likewise taking a cue from the Dalai Lama, would Suu Kyi be able, or interested, to leave her homeland and form the spiritual and political centre of a rejuvenated Burmese government-in-exile? One can hope.
An 18th round
Bilateral talks between Thimphu and Kathmandu over the status of the roughly 107,000 Bhutanese refugees living in makeshift camps in eastern Nepal are expected to resume soon. These Lhotshampa (Bhutanese of ethnic Nepali origin) have been living in the camps since the early 1990s, when they were forced to flee Bhutan in state-sanctioned ethnic cleansing. After 17 rounds of talks between the governments, negotiations were put on hold in November 2006. The decision to restart talks was taken by the prime ministers of the two countries when they met at the sidelines of the SAARC Summit in Colombo, though no specific dates have been set.
Meanwhile, starting early this year, over 1400 Bhutanese refugees from Nepal have been resettled in six Western countries. About 40,000 more Lhotshampa have registered for third-country resettlement, under a programme that is expected to continue for several years. The remaining refugees are said to be undecided. Many have thus far chosen to remain in Nepal in the hope that they may, someday, be allowed to return home to Bhutan. But while the fact that Thimphu and Kathmandu are going to be talking again is good news, it may still be a long while before the Lhotshampa refugees in Nepal have anything to truly celebrate.
Even as territorial disputes continue to abound across the region, there is a parallel trend that lurches resolutely forward, towards increasing connectivity and strengthened bilateral ties. In late July, for instance, Pakistan and India signed a deal to minimise immigration formalities in order to facilitate travel between the two neighbours. Around the same time, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka re-opened air services that had been suspended since 2002, when Sri Lankan Airlines lost part of its fleet to a LTTE raid at the Bandaranaike International Airport. The direct flight from Dhaka to Colombo, then on to Male, is geared toward tourists, migrant workers and students, all of whom have continued to frequently travel between these countries – albeit by more circuitous routes.
In this spirit, India is also attempting to connect to Burma and the Northeast through Bangladesh. Speaking at a recent conference, External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee reiterated that New Delhi wished to restore an old road through Bangladesh, linking India to Burma. He also spoke of a river route down the Brahmaputra, again through Bangladesh, that would link Calcutta to Guwahati. Meanwhile, in the west, Kabul and Beijing are also thinking about building a road linking the Badakhshan area, in the Afghan northeast, to the Xingjian Uygur Autonomous Region in China.
Change of boss?
Recently a topic of significant international attention, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) has also been creating waves within the country. In late July, Islamabad unexpectedly announced that it was placing both the ISI and the Intelligence Bureau (IB) under the administrative, financial and operational control of the Interior Ministry, rather than operating directly under the prime minister. As could perhaps have been predicted, such a shake-up did not have much of a chance, and the decision ended up being reversed the very next day, with a press statement noting that the ISI would continue to function at the “prime minister’s discretion”.
Subsequent speculation has suggested that the transfer was discussed with neither the president nor the chief of army staff before the initial public statement was made by the Pakistan People’s Party-led government through a press release. Upon hearing the news, military commanders made haste to effect a reversal. Meanwhile, opposition MPs are claiming that the ISI is in fact going to remain under the Interior Ministry’s control, contrary to the government’s public retraction.
Disagreements over the issue highlight a larger split in Pakistan over the role of the ISI. One side argues that the agency’s placement under the Prime Minister’s Office is merely a nominal one; under this arrangement, the agency reported directly to the chief of army staff, who could conceal information from the civilian government. It is in this way that the agency interferes in politics and weakens democratic rule. Others argue that transferring the ISI to the Interior Ministry, where its actions would be expected to be monitored more closely, would hamper the spook agency’s ability to act in favour of Pakistan’s overall defence capabilities.
Considering the timing of the government’s decision, conspiracy theories are rife in the corridors of power in Islamabad about the PPP-led government colluding with the US, India, and/or Afghanistan to damage Pakistan’s security establishment. Whatever the immediate outcome, any opportunity for Pakistanis at all levels to think about and debate over the oversight of their long-overzealous intelligence agencies can only be considered positive.
The 7 July bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul, which killed about 60 people and injured 141, seriously strained ties between the capitals of western Southasia. Immediately after the incident, President Hamid Karzai accused Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of engineering the blast. New Delhi, which had initially merely hinted that Islamabad was behind the suicide attack, went on to make a direct accusation. Both National Security Adviser M K Narayanan and Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon suggested that the ISI had allied with Taliban militants to carry out the attack.
The issue threatened to damage any potential effectiveness of the fifth round of the Composite Dialogue, which took place in New Delhi less than two weeks later, on 21-22 July. Pakistani Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir reacted to the accusation saying it had caused “disquiet” in Pakistan. Though Bashir made an effort to appear upbeat about the talks, he told the press that Islamabad did not have to prove its anti-militancy “credentials” to anybody. In addition, the recent clashes across the Line of Control in Kashmir, which resulted in finger-pointing from both sides, further worsened matters.
Fortunately, the trend of recent years of cooler heads prevailing seems again to be asserting itself, with ties between the three countries appearing to take a turn for the better following the SAARC Summit in Colombo. Exchanges between prime ministers Manmohan Singh and Yousuf Raza Gillani at the sidelines of the Summit were considered positive, and both agreed that the recent events had negatively impacted the progress made in the past few years. Prime Minister Gillani and President Karzai also met, and agreed to work out joint strategies to tackle the militants operating along their countries’ border areas.
Now, the foreign ministers of the two countries, along with NATO and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) commanders, are soon to draw up a framework for common action for dealing with the threat of such events. In what has been viewed as a friendly gesture, Prime Minister Gillani also made steps to appease both New Delhi and Kabul, by vowing to investigate the allegations made against the ISI in relation to the Kabul bombings. Turning hot acrimony to cool cooperation: a crucial new Southasian alchemy.
The 15th SAARC Summit ended on 3 August with the adoption of a 41-point Colombo Declaration. The document touched on the usual range of issues, including liberalising trade regimes, sharing water resources, reducing poverty levels and combating militancy. Discussions on ‘terrorism’ and food security – both matters, particularly the latter, that significantly affected almost all SAARC member countries over this past year – likewise was central to the Summit agenda.
The heads of state and government signed agreements that will now pave the way for increased cooperation in arresting and extraditing criminals, and, more interestingly, to collaborate in sharing agricultural technology towards increasing food production across the region. A follow-up meeting of regional agriculture ministers is now scheduled to take place later this year in New Delhi, to look more closely at the latter issue. Discussions were also held on establishing the much-discussed SAARC Food Bank, which could fill the supply gap during emergencies, as well as on a regional development fund and a body that would work to standardise quality-control measures, which would help make crossborder trade easier.
While attempting to improve regional cooperation, SAARC also strengthened its ties to the international community. The Summit’s host, President Mahinda Rajapakse, emphasised that SAARC will be prioritising projects with observer countries and other inter-governmental organisations. During the proceedings, Australia and Burma were both added to the list of SAARC observers, which already includes China, Japan, the US, the EU, Iran, South Korea and Mauritius.
In the end, for an organisation that regularly sees animosity amongst its members, the 15th Summit went off relatively well, despite the tension over the 7 July bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul, in which New Delhi sees the hand of the Pakistani ISI. Despite the bonhomie, though, the event did little to shake off SAARC’s reputation has being a body that does little more than talk. Of course, the move toward establishing practical and much-needed institutions, such as a food bank, is certainly being seen as a step in the right direction. But real progress toward the creation of such a body before the next Summit, slated be held in the Maldives, would do much to bolster SAARC’s reputation. Concerns over food security will not be going anywhere, after all, but the region’s leaders certainly cannot pretend to be taken by surprise by food-related crises in the coming years.
What many do not know is that the SAARC Summit almost did not happen, due to the failure on the part of Nepal’s political parties to form a new government, four months after elections. With the CPN (Maoist) smarting under the perception of having been denied the right to lead the government, and the negotiations continuing, it seemed natural for Caretaker Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala to attend in Colombo. However, such was the Maoist allergy to the idea that they suggested that the newly elected constitutional president, Ram Baran Yadav, attend instead.
Alternatively, there was even the suggestion that the Summit be postponed, which sent shock waves all the way to Colombo, where the Rajapakse government’s reputation was seen to be at stake. In the end, furious lobbying by the Sri Lankan embassy in Kathmandu, and the undeniable logic of an executive (even if caretaker) prime minister attending the Summit, won the day. This subsequently allowed Koirala to speak extemporaneously in bidding farewell to what he said would be his “last Summit”.
Indian cash crunch
Given that over 80 percent of Bhutan’s trade is with India, it has always been important for the country to have sufficient stocks of the Indian rupee. Recent increases in imports from India have raised demand for the rupee even further, and over the past year Thimphu has been experiencing an INR shortage. As a result, Thimphu is unable to make payments to the Indian government to cover the numerous loans that have covered both investment projects and imports.
The Royal Monetary Authority, Bhutan’s central bank, has now been forced to begin taking loans from the State Bank of India in order to handle the shortage. The latter has been willing to help out, but at a steep cost – with interest rates of 10 percent. Now, following Prime Minister Jigme Y Thinley’s visit to India in late July, Thimphu is set to be able to handle such crunches more easily. New Delhi has agreed to give Bhutan standing credit amounting to around INR 40 million, for use whenever Bhutan faces a rupee deficit in the future.
Amidst all this, Indian hydro projects look set to do their bit to make Bhutan once more rupee-liquid. In the past, there has been a cyclical nature to rupee inflows into Bhutan, linked to Indian aid projects which bring an influx of INR. The Royal Monetary Authority concedes that while there is an abundance of rupees in the kingdom when Indian projects are operating in the country, the stocks inevitably decrease after their completion. The current shortage is thus said to be linked directly to the completion, in 2006, of the 1020-megawatt Tala hydropower project. With work on several large India-funded hydro projects due to begin this year, however, Thimphu believes that the current INR cash crunch should be disappearing again fairly soon.