South Asia’s Year of Despair - 2007
The Year 2007 is virtually coming to an end, with Christmas and New Year week end before us, it is time to review the days gone by. To security analysts in South Asia, sadly 2007 did not bring much cheer. The only silver lining to dark clouds of conflict and bloodshed ranging across the Sub Continent which is home to One Fifth of the human population is progress made at the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation Summit in April 2007. For a change all leaders for the first time spoke in one voice for South Asian unity in the face of multiple challenges of development, militancy and social conflict. The trajectory of SAARC may still provide hope for South Asia, yet the trends through the year did not bring optimism.
Take Afghanistan, where the Taliban has consolidated hold over many areas in the South and is still a force to reckon with in the East. There are more number of suicide attacks in and around the capital, Kabul, some times every second day leading to death of many innocents. While the valiant Afghan soldiers and police bear the brunt, soldiers from the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) are seriously hampered by lack of numbers. Continuous carping at home has led to many nations as Canada and the Netherlands, extending tenure of troops on a yearly basis. There is no doubt that the road ahead is strewn with many thorns, which will severely test the resolve of the Alliance even as the hardy Afghan people faced the many mutinies with equanimity.
Neighboring Pakistan does not bring much joy either as the daily mayhem of suicide attacks is a cause of concern even as the Taliban has formed a united front to combat Pakistan Army in the tribal areas of the Frontier and the North East. The Army itself went through a crisis of sorts with large scale desertions and many questioning the loyalty to the rank and file, but seems to have overcome the hump under a new Chief of the Army Staff,. Kiyani. After much international and domestic pressure, Pervez Musharraf finally left the, second skin, the uniform and was sworn in as a civilian President, not before a mini constitutional coup in the form of a Provisional Constitutional Order which suspended the Supreme Court seen as a hindrance in his reelection. The return of Benazir and Nawaz Sharif has put some life into Pakistani polity as the country goes to elections on 8 January, next year.
Nepal saw crushing of many hopes as elections were postponed twice and will now hopefully be held in April 2008. While an interim government was sworn in with the participation of the CPN M, their ministers soon resigned over declaration of Republic and issue of proportional representation. A compromise seems to be in the making, but with political parties constantly shifting goal posts we can breathe easy only once the last vote in the Constitutional Assembly elections is counted. Of equal concern is the mass rebellion of many violent groups in the Terai, where over 15 small and large sized organizations are holding the government as well as the people to ransom. Bandhs, strikes and road blocks at the collective level are supplemented by assassinations, murders, targeted killings and vendettas leading to much blood shed.
The mountain kingdom of Bhutan has been the only peaceful corner in South Asia. The hardy Bhutanese were getting used to democratic processes of elections overcoming archaic feudal rule. Surprisingly it is the King who has initiated the process of change, as a young monarch King Jigme Khesar leads the nation into the 21st Century. The long standing issue of refugees in Nepal is also concluding amicably with the process of third party repatriation in progress.
In Bangladesh, the beginning of the year saw proclamation of Emergency after it was evident that the political process of elections was turning into acrimonious turf battles between the two main parties, the Awami League and the Bangladesh National Party (BNP). A Caretaker Administration with an advisory council is now governing the country where political activities were initially suspended and are now being revived with hopes of elections in 2008. Meanwhile the principal protagonists, Chair persons of the two parties, Begum Khaleda of the BNP and Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League are in jail facing multiple charges of corruption. This after the government failed to exile them in what came to be famously known as, “Minus Two” politics. A series of disasters, first the floods, then Cyclone Sidr has caused extensive loss to the economy which has also been affected by lack of business confidence due to spate of corruption related arrests. Food security may thus be a cause of concern in the year ahead.
Myanmar saw the military junta under considerable international pressure after a campaign of suppression launched against protestors complaining of massive rise in oil prices. The hike which doubled oil prices over night is surprising given that the country has one of the richest resources of oil and natural gas and underlines massive mismanagement of the economy. If only militaries all over understood their own limitations and let competent civil governments undertake governance. There was some softening of relationship between the military junta and the principal dissident, Aung Suu Kyi as talks have been held thrice with her by representative of the government. The United Nations is also actively engaging Myanmar with two visits so far by Special Envoy Mr Gambari and formation of a consultative group of international stake holders in Myanmar.
In the South in Sri Lanka, the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government have been locked in a fratricidal conflict which has seen many killed and thousands displaced in the North and the East of the country with no hopes of succor. There was no talk of a Cease Fire which is technically in place, on the other hand the military campaign has intensified with the Government troops having, “liberated” the Eastern area from the LTTE’s hold only to have the Tigers launch a guerrilla campaign of suicide attacks and Claymore bombs across the East and the South. Raids on airfields as Anuradhapura and the three air strikes by slow moving trainers by the LTTE has also raised the ante. Sri Lankan air attacks on the other hand claimed many prominent deaths, including that of LTTE political head Tamilselvan and injuries to the supreme, Prabhakaran. So until there is a stop to fighting a political solution to the multi layered ethnic conflict appears to be quite remote.
Even tiny Maldives saw a terrorist attack in September suspected to be by extremist elements on the atoll nation. While the damage was restricted to injuries, the confidence of tourists has been affected as the government has now launched a campaign to control the vestiges of fundamentalism.
South Asia’s largest nation, India too has undergone much disquiet during the period, the panorama of which being vast will be covered in a follow up next week.
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Col. Rahul K. Bhonsle
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