Officials in Burma and Thailand are planning to develop a new deepwater port near Dawei, a port city in the Taninthanyi division, south of Rangoon. In November, an initial agreement was signed between the Burmese authorities and a joint Italian-Thai company. As things stand, this and related projects are to be completed in three phases over the course of a decade, at a cost of USD 13 billion.
The project is part of a larger plan to set up a full-fledged industrial zone around Dawei, the first such in Burma. This would include establishing new road and rail links, to connect the Dawei seaport to the mainland and onward, all the way to the Burma-Thailand border. In addition, the industrial zone is envisioned to house an oil refinery and petrochemical industries, and the hub of a new oil-pipeline network. Plans for a second seaport are also in the works; this would be located near Kyaukphyu, on the northern tip of Ramree Island (also known as Yangbye), off of Rakhine state in the Bay of Bengal. This would serve as a transit base for goods headed for Chittagong, Rangoon and Kolkata.
Once Dawei becomes functional, cargo ships from the Gulf, Africa and Europe can offload their goods there, which can be transported to Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and even China, if the road network which is part of the Dawei project extends all the way there. The Strait of Malacca, notorious for its massive shipping traffic, may see a gradual decline as Dawei gears up for business. In 2004, India helped the Burmese authorities to conduct a study to assess whether the project was feasible. The results were positive, and now the sub-regional economic grouping BIMSTEC (Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) has put the Dawei seaport on its list of ‘high-priority’ projects.
Not everyone is enthusiastic about the news, however. Media reports state that villagers near Dawei were asked by the junta to leave their lands and relocate, without any talk of compensation. In addition, Burma’s lax anti-pollution laws would seem to ensure that foreign companies will have a free hand within the new 250-sq-km industrial zone. Indeed, many oil factories in Thailand are already making plans to make the move.
India’s Minister of Petroleum and Natural Gas, Murli Deora, flew to Turkmenistan in early December to sign two agreements related to the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline project. He took the place of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who was attending the India-EU summit in Belgium at the time. However, both President Hamid Karzai and President Asif Ali Zardari were present. The TAPI project proposes to build a 1608-km gas pipeline through the four countries, which would eventually transport 30 billion cubic metres of gas annually.
Discussion about the project has been taking place since at least the mid-1990s. At that time, it was known as the Trans-Afghan Pipeline, being put forward by the governments of Afghanistan and Turkmenistan. In July 2010, the Kabul Conference revived the TAPI project, though technical aspects – transit charges, security, gas prices and functioning of pipelines – remain to be finalised. Nonetheless, according to the current agreement, Turkmenistan will supply gas, while Afghanistan and Pakistan – 1500 km of the pipeline falls in these two countries – will guarantee transit and security. India, meanwhile, has committed to receive the gas from a designated arrival point.
The TAPI project thus looks set to take off. Of course, this is a far different fate from the Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) pipeline project, which has remained stuck for multiple reasons. The much-ballyhooed TAPI has received support from the US and Russian governments, the former going so far as to help secure a substantial loan from the Asian Development Bank for the project. Afghanistan’s volatile situation and pervasive troubles in India-Pakistan relations could yet prove to be an obstacle. But Kabul hopes to engage in ‘peaceful businesses’ – including raking in some significant transit profits.
Beijing recently announced that it had finally started construction on a dam on the Brahmaputra River, which is known in Tibet as the Yarlung Tsangpo. This follows on years of suggestions from China, and fear and opposition among downstream communities in the Indian Northeast and Bangladesh.
China claims that the dam will only be used to generate electricity, not to store or divert the flow of water. Nonetheless, the 540-megawatt project is the first major dam on the Brahmaputra. Beijing has invested some USD 1.2 billion in the project, the first phase of which is expected to be complete in 2014.
Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao, who was in Beijing at the time, said she had been ‘assured’ by the Chinese side that the dam would not be used to divert water. She also reported that Beijing was willing to share data on the project. After India’s aggressive campaigning against the dam in past years – which Beijing had long denied planning – all of this seemed a significant climb-down on the part of New Delhi.
As recently as August, the state governments of Arunachal Pradesh and Assam were openly expressing their opposition to the project. At that time, Arunachal Power Minister Jabron Gamlin called the dam a ‘concern’. Previously, Tarun Gogoi, Assam’s chief minister, had warned that the dam would cause ‘environmental problems’ and ‘affect the water table in the Northeast’. A Gogoi spokesperson even suggested that such a project would lead to ‘natural calamity’.
Unlike the Indus Water Treaty, which provides for mechanisms for India and Pakistan to resolve contentious issues on water-sharing, China and India have no such agreements on the use of rivers and other water bodies. Given the number of major Southasian rivers that originate on the Tibetan plateau, and hence the level of dependence on this water line, this lack is undoubtedly what has led to the jitters in the past – worries that are sure to continue in the future, as China’s economic plans on the Tibetan plateau makes it seek exploitation of the Tsangpo waters.
The Tsangpo controversy must bring a new experience to the Indian planners, that of being a lower riparian state. Bangladesh has long felt stifled in that position, and Dhaka officials hope that this matter will now make Delhi think their way henceforth regarding the flows of the Ganga (Padma), Brahmaputra (Jamuna) and the Teesta.
In December, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan signed an agreement in Moscow, pledging to step up efforts to counter drug trafficking in the region. The three, along with Russia, will now share information on drug trafficking, and launch operations to stamp out illegal crops and processing laboratories. The four countries have named themselves the Central Asia Anti-Drug Quartet. Their agreement comes in the wake of NATO’s post-war efforts to curb Afghanistan’s opium problem. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon, President Hamid Karzai and President Asif Ali Zardari have agreed to meet annually starting in 2011, to assess the implementation of the agreement.
Afghanistan produces about 90 percent of the world’s heroin, which is typically smuggled through Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan and on to Russia. On Afghanistan’s eastern border, the drugs are smuggled from Pakistan to India and then, most often, onwards to China. Russia proposed the new agreement to the US in June, but the response of the latter, as well as that of NATO, was far from enthusiastic.
While both are leading anti-drug cultivation efforts, they also have to be mindful of the fact that nearly 250,000 households in Afghanistan are involved in poppy cultivation, according to UN estimates. In fact, this number has come down quickly, having stood at 500,000 households in 2007, a success put down to US poppy-eradication programmes. But the fact remains that getting rid of poppy fields in Afghanistan is a dangerous venture, with many, including the US, worrying that doing so might push farmers into the hands of the Taliban.
Russia, on the other hand, is pushing for stronger measures, such as increasing the number of anti-drug agencies and personnel in Afghanistan. President Karzai has expressed support for Russia’s efforts, and in August sought President Medvedev’s assistance on the issue.
As the drama involving WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange, unfolds, the argument about right to information versus right to privacy (and state security) rages on. The latest cache of releases – mostly culled from the US State Department – constitutes the third major set of cables released by WikiLeaks this year. The first included 77,000 classified US documents on the war in Afghanistan; the second, some 400,000 US documents on Iraq. Even as the releases continue to offer up new information, here is a compilation of some of the new Southasia-specific revelations, from the 250,000 documents set for release:
Afghanistan: Afghan politicians and the US are critical of UK operations in the country, specifically in Helmand province. Dan McNeill, a US general, was quoted as saying that the British ‘made a mess’ of counter-narcotics operations in the province. A 2009 cable quotes the Helmand governor, Gulab Mangal, as saying, ‘Stop calling it the Sangin district [in Helmand] and start calling it the Sangin base – all you have done here is build a military camp.’ President Hamid Karzai, in a series of conversations, likewise expresses his concern over Helmand, saying people were not safe there due to the British presence. President Karzai, along with his attorney-general, permitted the release of individuals awaiting trial; in April 2009, they also pardoned policemen who were caught with heroin, because they were related to prominent figures who took part in the 1990 Afghan civil war. Neither President Karzai nor his spokesperson, Waheed Omar, has publicly responded to the leaked cables.
Burma: In September 2008, a Burmese civilian attempted to sell 2000 kg of uranium to the US embassy in Rangoon, saying that he had procured it in Kayah state, in eastern Burma. Allegedly, it had been discovered there in 1992. He stated that if the US did not want to purchase it, he would try and sell it to Thai or Chinese officials. Far more worrisome are allegations, from multiple sources, that suggest the junta is attempting to build a nuclear weapon, purportedly with North Korean assistance, including some 300 North Korean workers. The site is said to be in Magwe division, 315 miles northwest
Nepal: Former Indian army chief Deepak Kapoor informed US national security advisor James Jones in 2009 that 16 terrorists crossed over to India from Nepal that year and then travelled to Kashmir. The discussion took place during a meeting where Defence Minister A K Anthony was also present, following which Jones communicated the information to Washington. As an attempt perhaps at pre-damage control, Scott H DeLisi, US ambassador to Nepal, blogged, ‘diplomat’s internal reports do not represent a government’s official foreign policy’, this being written prior to the release of 2278 cables related to Nepal, most of which contained unclassified information.
The Maldives: The Male government negotiated with the US to resettle Guantanamo Bay detainees in return for US help in obtaining financial assistance from the International Monetary Fund. These detainees had been cleared for release, but Washington was having difficulty repatriating them. The Maldives subsequently resettled two detainees in December 2009, and received USD 85,000 per repatriation. The cables also reveal that the Maldivian government signed the Copenhagen Accord, on global climate change, in exchange for ‘tangible assistance’ from the US. To the charge related to the Copenhagen Accord, Maldivian officials have denied the US had a hand in gaining its support; the Presidential Secretariat released correspondence following the leaks, which indicate that the accord was signed two months before the ambassador met with
Pakistan: In September 2009, a senior UK Foreign Office official, Mariot Leslie, told US diplomats that the UK was concerned about the ‘security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons’. Earlier that year, the US ambassador to Pakistan, Anne Patterson, expressed fears that militants could gradually get materials from Pakistani government officials to make their own nuclear weapons, concerns echoed by a Russian Foreign Ministry official. Responding to the cables, Abdul Basit, the Pakistan Foreign Office spokesperson, said that these were misplaced fears as there had not been a single instance of theft of materials used to make nuclear weapons. ‘It is time they parted with historical biases against Pakistan,’ he said.
Sri Lanka: The US ambassador to Sri Lanka told Washington officials that she was not surprised by the ‘lack of attention to accountability’ by the government in relation to investigating war crimes. There was no precedent, she noted, wherein a regime had investigated its own ‘troops’. The punchline: In Sri Lanka this was even more complicated, because the ‘responsibility for many of the alleged crimes rest with the country’s senior civilian and military leadership including President Rajapakse and his brothers, and opposition candidate General Fonseka.’
Tibet: Following the 2008 release of sensitive photographs and footage of the Tibet uprising and the subsequent suppression by China, the cables reiterate that Chinese President Hu Jintao’s stance on Tibet is ‘inflexible’. President Hu is described as being resistant even to fellow members of the Communist Party challenging his Tibet policy. In addition, in meetings with US officials, the Dalai Lama is quoted as suggesting that the issue of Tibetan autonomy should be shelved temporarily, in order that the world can focus its energies on climate change.
Related issues: Former Foreign Secretary David Miliband’s opposition to Sri Lanka’s war against Tamils was part of an electoral strategy during the 2009 election, where the ‘vocal’ Tamil diaspora in the UK was living in ‘Labour constituencies’. Likewise, British Prime Minister David Cameron’s visit to India was described as being guided by electoral politics back home. A leaked cable dated December 2009, five months before the UK election, quoted Liam Fox, a senior Conservative Party member, who criticised the Labour Party for having a ‘skewed’ policy that favoured Pakistan because of its large voter base amongst the Pakistani diaspora. Conservatives, Fox said, were less dependent on votes from this community – and a month after Cameron became head of state, this translated into policy, with him leading a ‘high-powered delegation’ to India.
All in all, despite the ongoing and future embarrassments to US policymakers and the inadvertent victims of the cables, at least they provide a realistic look at the public and private facts of so many issues. This helps the public of Southasia know what is considered a real issue by many Western governments, and what is merely meant to create a fog.
Sand the deal
Rising sea levels are a threat to the Maldives, while rivers in Bangladesh are inundated with Himalayan sediment. So, the two countries are now considering a deal that will allow Bangladesh to export sand to the Maldives. According to Bangladesh’s Export Policy Order, there is no ban on exporting sand, thus potentially opening up a new, lucrative export market.
Starting last year, Bangladesh began a long-term river-dredging project, at an estimated cost of USD 1.7 billion. At the time, this was said to be aimed at conserving water and lessening the impact of global warming. With over 250 rivers depositing over a billion cubic metres of silt every year, Bangladesh’s boats find it increasingly difficult to navigate the country’s waters, especially during the monsoon. Of course, over the years Bangladesh has also gained a bit of land from these silt deposits – and it is this material that Maldivians are hoping will help them do the same, particularly in building structures to help them ward off rising sea levels.
In early December, the Land Ministry in Dhaka was given complete authority over sand quarrying. However, the Inland Water Transport Authority will now be marking off areas that cannot be quarried, due to reasons of population or environmental sensitivity. Nonetheless, some are still warning that such large-scale quarrying will inevitably pose serious environmental threat, including destruction of riverbeds and its ecology. The remaining question is how large will the barges have to be, to transport enough Bangladeshi sand to the Maldives atolls, to makea difference.
A solemn affair
At 2:46 pm on 19 December the Drukair flight from Kathmandu arrived in Thimpu to a solemn reception. The flight was carrying the bodies of 18 Bhutanese pilgrims who died when an aircraft of the Nepali airline Tara Air, a subsidiary of Yeti Airlines, crashed on 15 December, soon after taking off from Lamidanda airport in Khotang district, 162 km east of Kathmandu. Aside from the Bhutanese, three Nepali crew members and one Tibetan-American passenger were killed. The Bhutanese nationals were pilgrims travelling to Kathmandu from Daphu Martika in Khotang district. The ‘power place’ popularly known as Halesi Mahadev has long been a famous pilgrimage site for Bhutanese Buddhists.
Incidentally, when the news first came out, all those listed in the plane’s manifest had Nepali names, with Sherpa, Tamang and other ethnic surnames. It was later discovered that the victims were Bhutanese who had been travelling using Nepali names to get discounted airfares available only to Nepali citizens. The reason for the ethnic names was evidently because the Bhutanese could not have passed off as ‘caste’ Nepalis. If the names in Tara Air’s manifest had given a different impression initially, it soon became clear that a major tragedy had befallen Bhutan, on a remote mountainside far in Nepal’s west.
Show me the money
Starting with the Indo-Bhutan bilateral trade agreement of 1985, the Thimpu government has been allowed to sell its official lottery tickets in India. This practice was kept intact as the two countries renewed the trade agreement multiple times, most recently in 2006. It is now over two decades since Thimpu has sold Bhutan lottery tickets across India, using an Indian promoter as middleman. But the matter has become complicated due to an alleged scam reportedly amounting to an incredible INR 80,000 crore (USD 17 trillion), involving the state of Kerala.
The story starts in September, when Megha distributors, the Bhutan lottery promoters in the state, approached the High Court after the state government refused to accept tax (about INR 6 lakh) from them, accusing the company of running a fraudulent business. Failure to pay tax would have compelled the company to shut down. The High Court however, ruled in favour of Megha, stating that the tax authorities did not have the legal right to investigate as the company was operating under a bilateral agreement between India and Bhutan.
Megha distributors then moved the Kerala High Court again, this time challenging the Kerala Tax on Paper Lotteries (Amendment) Ordinance. But the central government, in response to a query by the Kerala High Court, clarified that the ordinance was valid. This document gives the state government the authority to verify a company’s application to operate lotteries before accepting taxes. New Delhi also agreed to hand over its diplomatic correspondence with Thimpu to the High Court. Things are moving rapidly with a case also registered against Santiago Martin, seller of Bhutan lotteries and his partner John Kennedy, owner of Megha Distributors.
While New Delhi has been compelled to weigh in, the Thimpu government has remained silent on the issue. But not so Bhutanese newspapers, who are covering the unfolding case. With the so-called lottery mafia in India reportedly powerful, the media is asking what links senior lottery officials in Bhutan have with the former, as media reports of major irregularities in the Bhutan lottery have been doing the rounds for quite some time.
Bombs – away!
The US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is being sued by a freelance journalist living in North Waziristan named Kareem Khan. In November, Khan sent compensation notices amounting to USD 500 million to US Defence Secretary Robert Gates and CIA Director Leon Panetta. Khan says that in December 2009 US drones killed Khan’s 18-year-old son, Zaenullah, and the plaintiff’s brother Asif Iqbal. He claims further that drones are killing innocent people because they are nowhere near as precise as they are claimed to be. With the help of his lawyer, Shahzad Akhbar, Khan now plans to approach a civil court in Pakistan and eventually wants to approach the judiciary in the US. He says that he hopes the US Supreme Court will declare drone attacks illegal, which will put increased moral and legal pressure on Washington to end the attacks.
According to media reports, the CIA is behind a ‘covert war’, including drone attacks as well as on-the-ground activities, in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region to break the Taliban’s influence and presence in this area. When drone attacks began in the Afghanistan-Pakistan sector, in 2004, the US government hailed their ‘accuracy and efficiency’. But the use of these weapons has since been criticised as illegal as well as short-sighted, given the civilian anger that has been aroused. According to data compiled by the New America Foundation, a Washington think-tank, there had been between 1320 and 2049 drone-related deaths in Pakistan from 2004 till 2010. T Philip Alston, the UN’s special rapporteur on extrajudicial execution, said in 2009 that drones ‘amount to summary executions’, and were in violation of international law.
Kareem Khan’s case is unlikely to succeed, especially without the help of the Pakistani government. Although Islamabad remains publicly critical of the drone attacks, officials continue to cooperate with the US, providing intelligence information to carry out the strikes. On such tricky ground, it seems unlikely that the ruling will be in Khan’s favour.