The Growing Political Divide

Written by Dr. Moonis Ahmar •  Region  •  June 2013   

Although Nepal has become a democratic country, its internal political crisis and indecision to hold elections places it in jeopardy in terms of political stability.

Nepal is standing at a political crossroad, following years of political crisis, instability and popular discontent. Elections for the constituent assembly, which were scheduled several times, had to be postponed because of a lack of consensus among Nepal’s major political parties. As a result, Nepal, in the post-monarchical period, has democratized its institutions to provide good governance to its people and is currently facing serious political upheaval in view of deep rooted political and ethnic divide in the country.

Sandwiched between the two giants, China and India, and with a population of 26 million, Nepal has nearly 100 ethnic groups and castes. The violent civil war that lasted from 1996-2006 between the Maoists and the security forces loyal to the monarchy killed more than 13,000 people. In November 2006, the Nepalese government and the Maoists signed a comprehensive peace accord to deal with issues emanating after the demise of monarchy.

The abolishment of monarchy by the Nepalese Constituent Assembly in May 2008 and the assumption of power by the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoists) in April 2008 transformed the political landscape of Nepal. For nearly a year, CPN-M remained in power under the premiership of Puspa Kamal Dahal also known as ‘Prachanda.’ On May 4, 2009, Prachanda resigned from his post after developing differences with the President over the sacking of the Army chief. The split in CPN-M and the subsequent political crisis over holding elections for the constituent assembly further galvanized political schism in the country with no political party in a position to provide a viable road map for a smooth democratic process. The first democratic elections in Nepal for a constituent assembly were held on April 10, 2008 in which the CPN-M emerged as the single largest party followed by the Nepali Congress Party and Communist Party of Nepal (Marxist-Leninist) respectively. Unfortunately, the assembly failed to formulate a constitution and elections to elect a new constituent assembly were postponed twice.

Four major factors are widening the political divide in Nepal.  First is the growing identity crisis in Nepal along ethnic lines as there are around 100 ethnic groups and sub-groups in Nepal. A major ethnic flash point in Nepal is the country’s southern region bordering India, called Terai, where the Madeshi people resent the domination of Brahmins and those representing ‘hill’ districts. Second, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoists), a breakaway faction of United Communist Party of Nepal (Maoists), has refused to register as a party with the Nepali Election Commission arguing that it cannot contest in the elections under prevailing conditions. CPN-M has a sizeable following and its boycott from the elections may further deepen Nepal’s political predicament. Third, the growing Hindu extremism in Nepal, influenced by Shiv Sena and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has resulted in attacks on the Muslim community, which comprises 4% of the total population. Despite being a predominantly Hindu state, Nepal for centuries followed moderate and tolerant values. Fourth, the division of Nepal along caste lines with the upper caste (Brahims) still holding the reins of power contributes to the deepening social divide within the country.

Following the fall of the monarchy, the non-Brahman people, who constitute the majority in Nepal, demanded an end to centuries of caste-based exploitation. Interestingly, the Maoists, who are waging the struggle for a classless society in Nepal, are in a paradoxical situation; they are struggling for a caste free Nepal but their leadership is primarily from the Braham caste. It is this type of a dichotomy which has put a question mark as far as the Maoists struggle for a people’s rule is concerned.

According to sources, Nepal’s Election Commission has registered 135 political parties for the election of a new Constituent Assembly which is overdue and is expected to take place in the near future. Out of these 135 political parties, 76 are new and had not participated in the 2008 constituent assembly elections. In the 2008 elections of constituent assembly, however, 84 parties had applied for registration but only 74 parties were registered, 54 parties took part in the 2008 elections and 25 were elected into the constituent assembly. As per the election laws, parties gaining 1% of the total cast votes would get a seat in the constituent assembly under the proportional representation system. The reason for continued delays in holding elections for the constituent assembly is twofold. First, Nepal is passing through a critical and transitory phase because of centuries of monarchical rule and the absence of a viable democratic process. Basic issues that have surfaced include the question of who should be allowed to contest elections; whether there should be a caretaker government to supervise elections and the process of electing a new prime minister.

Second is the external factor hindering Nepal’s political process. The Maoists have accused New Delhi of pursuing an anti-Maoist approach because of its fear that Chinese influence in Nepal may surge in case the Maoists assume power. Since long, Nepal faces the problem of Sino-Indian ambitions to bring the landlocked Himalayan country under New Delhi’s influence. India’s tilt in favor of Nepali Congress Party is considered a clear evidence of India’s age-old political ambitions in Nepal. Furthermore, many Nepali circles lament that their country has enormous water resources but is facing serious energy shortfalls because of New Delhi’s lack of support to generate electricity from hydel power plants. Nepal has the potential to generate around 50,000 megawatts of electricity from its water resources but is unable to achieve its targets because of lack of funds and non-cooperation from its powerful southern neighbor.

Since 1996, Nepal’s political elite has failed to forge a consensus on holding general elections, formulating a constitution, maintaining the rule of law, and running the affairs of the government in a productive fashion. Four major political parties of Nepal, the Nepali Congress Party, Communist Party of Nepal (Marxist-Leninist), Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoists), and Madhesi Jana Adhikar Forum Democratic, are unable to hold mutual consultation to break the political impasse as far as holding elections for constituent assembly are concerned. Since Nepal lacks the experience of a functional democracy, its civil society is not that assertive. Furthermore, the lack of ownership for the country and its major unresolved issues is evident among the major stakeholders, both political and non-political.

In order to pull Nepal out of its political quandary, there is an urgent need to pursue a ‘multi-stakeholder’ approach in which political parties, the Election Commission, the President, civil society groups and the military need to sit together and reach a consensus to bring Nepal out of its years of political impasse. 


Forging Bilateral Relations

Written by Asma Siddiqui •  Region  •  June 2013   

Sri Lanka and India, two strong South Asian neighbors with a mutual history, are adamant to strengthen bilateral ties for more than one reason.

In May 2013, Indian High Commissioner, Ashok K. Kantha and Sri Lankan Economic Development Minister, Basil Rajapaksa launched an Indian-funded housing project in Sri Lanka’s predominantly Tamil Eastern Province. The initiative calls for the construction of 4,000 housing units.

Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh first announced the housing project during Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s state visit to India in June 2010. The announcement of this project is part of India’s overall commitment to build 50,000 houses in Sri Lanka at a cost of approximately US$270 million; the largest investment by the Government of India abroad. 12,000 homes have already been built, with an additional 10,000 to be completed by the end of the year.

In earlier times when communication between countries was minimal, the only significant foreign impact in Sri Lanka was that of India. Of course the greatest gift to Sri Lanka from India was Buddhism, which consequently became the fountainhead of Sinhalese literature.

The profound cultural influence of India on Sri Lanka has been underpinned by political and economic links. The Sri Lankan Independence movement drew inspiration to a certain extent from the Indian Independence movement. It was mainly as a consequence of India’s freedom struggle that the less militant Sri Lanka won its independence. In the sphere of economics, India is currently Sri Lanka’s biggest trading partner and major investor. In addition to normal trade, a Free Trade Agreement exists between the two countries. The interaction between India and Sri Lanka in every sphere – cultural, economic and political – is now more intense than ever before, while at the same time both countries are more open to influences from other countries as well.

But these commonalities have not managed to evaporate the differences. From 1983 to 2009, Sri Lanka was torn apart by a bloody civil war, which saw the government fight the Tamil Tigers rebel group. The conflict broke out after Tamil nationalists decided to create an independent state in the northeast of the island, eventually turning into an ethnic clash that left tens of thousands of people dead and more than 200,000 internally displaced. Since the civil war ended in 2009, there is severe loathing for India. The Sinhalese are angry with India for funding and training the Tamil Tigers in their infancy while the Tamils are angry that India did not intervene to stop the massacre.

India’s offering of expertise on constitutional, legal and federal institutional governance to Sri Lanka is not viewed with much importance. The Tamil Nadu factor in the Government of India’s decision-making process has already served to constrain Sri Lanka’s movement. It is only in the areas of security and cultural exchanges as well as in the economic domain involving the enhancement of entrepreneurial and manufacturing skills, where the merging of Indian and Sri Lankan interests can be possible and bilateral relations be made strong.

India must strive to bring about a sustainable trade balance that is not adverse to Sri Lanka. According to the Ministry of Finance and Planning’s External Resources Department’s 2012 ‘Global Partnership Towards Development’ report, India was the second largest development aid giver to Sri Lanka, providing over $700 million to the island nation. Even as the anti-Sri Lanka mood in Tamil Nadu intensifies, the Center has increased its annual grant to the Sri Lankan government in the Union Budget. The allocation has gone up to Rs 500 crore for 2013-2014 from Rs 290 crore last year.

The Indian Budget has allocated Rs 5,550 crore as aid for foreign governments and organizations. The grants for Sri Lanka are meant to assist Tamils but parties in Tamil Nadu have accused the government there of diverting the Indian aid for other purposes. In May 2013, in a bid to enhance access to the former war-torn north, the Sri Lankan government opened the first phase of a $650 million northern railway project after 30 years of suspension. While inaugurating the service, Minister for Economic Development, Basil Rajapaksa, was of the opinion that India had supported Sri Lanka at every stage of rehabilitation and reconstruction of north Sri Lanka.

Railway services to the north were suspended in 1983 after the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam (LTTE) blew up key railway bridges connecting the northern peninsula to the mainland. This created civil unrest in the country. Since the war ended in 2009, the Sri Lankan government has set in motion plans to reconnect the north via rail and invited assistance from foreign countries. In 2010, the Indian government agreed to fund the project. The project is being executed by the Indian Railway Ministry’s IRCON International Limited to restore the 252 km-railway line that would connect different parts of the country.

With these ongoing projects aided by India there is an increased chance of restoring the common bond that the two countries shared with each other. India needs to invest further while Sri Lanka should genuinely cooperate. Only with close coordination can the two countries solve their mutual problems and create a better future and good relations in times to come. 


Tag Trail

Written by Daniah Ishtiaq •  Region  •  June 2013   

The recent factory fire in Bangladesh has once again raised concerns of workers’ safety and has sparked the attention of international labor groups to demand accountability from major brands and countries that provide cheap labor.

On April 24, 2013, family members waited with baited breath outside a pile of rubble, crushed machinery and trapped bodies, some standing for up to seven days to hear news of their loved ones. The rubble is what remained of an eight-story building known as the Rana Plaza in Bangladesh. As emergency services struggled to rescue trapped survivors and pull out the dead, stories emerged regarding the working conditions that were rampant inside the building, comprising five garment factories. Sources stated that large cracks had appeared on the walls the day before and employees had been warned not to work. However,managers forced the workers to continue. This is not the first incident in Bangladesh as factory fires and structural failures have occurred a number of times before. This is, however, considered to be the deadliest building collapse in recent history. The incident has raised international concerns over Bangladesh’s ability to ensure worker’s safety. Some 1,127 individuals perished that day and nearly 2,500 were injured.

The Bangladesh government’s enforcement of both labor and safety laws is weak, bordering on non-existent. Ali Ahmed Khan, the head of the Bangladesh Fire Service & Civil Defense, has stated that the upper four floors of the Rana Plaza had been built without a permit, while Masood Reza, the architect stated that the structure was not meant to house factories. Two of the five Bangladeshi factories that were in the building had cleared an audit by the Business Social Compliance Initiative, set up a decade ago by the Brussels-based Foreign Trade Association, an entity comprising well-known retailers such as Hugo Boss and Adidas. The BSCI stated that its auditors are not building engineers and did not take the state of the edifice into account when they conducted the checks. While they agreed that they can contribute to safety, they were of the opinion that it is up to local authorities to ensure that construction and infrastructure are safe.

Within hours of the collapse, the United Nations offered its assistance to send expert rescue teams with dogs, micro-cameras and other equipment to the site but Dhaka authorities promptly refused the offer. It later also came to light that the government had rejected offers of international search and rescue assistance, including a formal offer of sending a team of specialists from Britain. International authorities maintain that the Bangladeshi government was slow to respond to their repeated offers before putting them down.

In a country like Bangladesh, the substandard working environment that garment factory workers are confronted with is the dark side of the globalization success story. Bangladesh has become one of the world’s leading exporters of clothing and has thereby generated millions of jobs. These have, in turn provided nutrition, housing and education for some of the poorest people on earth. The industry has been refashioned and engineered in a way that suits the sourcing model of international business which labor advocates call profoundly exploitative, as it courts foreign investors with some of the world’s cheapest  skilled workers.

What Bangladesh needs to realize is that soon the tag of ‘Made in Bangladesh’ may signify labor exploitation to the outside world and for a country heavily dependent on such exports, this needs to be taken with a sense of foreboding.  This is not to say that businesses will divert their resources to countries with labor safety laws but they may be inclined to shift to countries with cheap production models similar to Bangladesh so that their brand names are not dragged into dirt due to  industrial problems.

Regardless of the lack of action on the government’s part, the National Garment Workers Federation (NGWF) in Bangladesh recently held a press conference in Dhaka to mark the one month anniversary of the collapse of the building which killed mostly female garment workers as well as the fire that struck the Tazreen factory killing 123 workers. The president of the trade union, Amirul Haque Amin laid out the trade unions’ demands in the aftermath of the disaster and called on international brands to share the responsibility for building safer workplaces. The Union’s opinion is that the onus of such tragedies does not only lie on the government and the factory owners but international stakeholders as well. Demands have been made to the international brands and retailers that source from the factories involved in the disasters. It was stated that every company that bought from the Tazreen factory and the other factories in the Rana Plaza must provide full compensation for lost earnings to the injured and the families of those who died. Wal-Mart and Gap were singled out during the conference for their failure to sign the Bangladesh Safety Accord to ensure safety for workers across Bangladesh.

Amidst the reverberations of the Rana Plaza disaster, international labels are scrambling to protect their reputations, devoting substantial energy and time to the cause. Certain major European brands pledged to abide by a legally binding package of factory standards aimed at improving workplace safety in Bangladesh. This is the effort that Walmart has declined to participate in while announcing its own program to boost worker safety.

If Bangladesh continues to be lax about its safety measures, the number of unsafe workers will only grow rendering a lot of families desolate. As oppressive as the conditions may seem, for many laborers the garment business is their only source of income and survival and they would rather see the industry stay and raise its standards than be shut down altogether. 


On the Wrong Track

Written by Sijal Fawad •  Region  •  June 2013   

India is at the verge of becoming a global economic power. Though already an influential South Asian country, its railway sector remains in dire straits.

Independent research studies show that the Indian Railways provide employment to 1.54 million people and carry 30 million passengers a day. It is also true that the railway system is one of the most dangerous in the world – a significant number of rail accidents occur every year and there are close to 15,000 deaths on railway tracks alone because of the lack of pedestrian crossings.

Loss of human lives is just one aspect of the dire straits that India’s railway system is in; there’s also the loss of millions of rupees that the state-run enterprise incurs in compensations, repair work and hefty maintenance charges due to inefficiency. For a transport system serving the second most populous country in the world, mismanagement and operational inefficiencies are not just a menace but a reality that the citizens of the country have to bear the brunt of.

The system desperately needs some modernization. Locomotives running on out-dated components are fuel-inefficient, leading to significant losses. About 15 percent of the railway system’s annual working expenditures are spent on diesel, which is getting pricier by the day. Paying so much on fuel expenses alone, the Indian railways could benefit from even a 10 percent reduction in diesel consumption which could save about Rs10 billion (Rs1000 crores) every year.

But it is the system’s overall safety that leaves a lot to be desired. From unmanned railway crossings to unanticipated fire accidents, there’s something or the other leading to countless deaths that can be avoided by having a workable safety mechanism. Influential politicians further deteriorate the flailing sector. Railways ministers have been accused of corrupt practices and misusing the allocated funds for the sector. Only last month, Indian Railways Minister, Pawan Kumar Bansal resigned from his position for allegedly accepting Rs90 lakhs in bribery from a senior railway officer.

Public-Private-Partnerships (PPP) had become the mainstay of the Indian government for rescuing one of the world’s largest railway systems. However the responses from private players have been rather lukewarm. The R3i (Railway In­frastructure Investment Initiative) policy had been initiated a few years back, but bureaucratic bottlenecks and complex legal procedures acted as deterrents for many private participants. The Dedicated Freight Corridor (DFC) project was also initiated to enable better management of higher freight volumes, as well as to improve energy efficiency as far as transport of goods and trade goes. However, the progress on this front has been tardy at best. This year’s budget also announced the introduction of the Train Protection Warning System (TPWS), which is more of a warning system rather than a protection system. The TPWS is based on the European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS), but that the TPWS has malfunctioned in the past says a lot about its efficacy in India. It’s also a rather expensive option at a cost of about Rs70 lakhs per km.

Last year in September, a High Level Safety Review Committee was set up to help reduce the occurrence of train accidents. A report by this committee called for setting up pedestrian bridges across railway lines to avoid deaths of people crossing railway lines. “No civilized society can accept such a massacre on their railway system,” quoted the Huffington Post, regarding the crossings deaths.

In the wake of grave concerns arising about the dire straits that its railway system is in, India turned to China, seeking some knowledge exchange vis-à-vis the country’s recently modernized and expanded railway system. The selection of China as a learning partner becomes even more interesting considering that the country recently dissolved the Ministry of Railways (MOR). The MOR’s administrative functions have been transferred to the Ministry of Transport, and the newly formed China Railway Corporation (CRC) will be handling the commercial aspects of running the system.

Just as in the case of India, China’s railway system had also fallen prey to corrupt practices and indifference of those in power. The sheer size of the two railways meant that the organizations wielded a lot of power and clout in the government machinery, making them even more susceptible to the nonchalance and self-interest of policymakers. In fact, China’s railway system even had its own police force and its own courts. Needless to say, the powerful ministries found a way around any needed government reforms, with the common man suffering the most in the end.

When parallels are being drawn, it is inevitable that the fate of the Ministry of Railways in India will be questioned. For a country that had been enjoying stupendous economic growth recently, the railway system ought to facilitate further progress rather than hinder that growth. Analysts are pressing that it’s time for the Indian Railways (IR) to be freed from the government’s chains, as direct government control is affecting both financial and operational efficiency of the organization. Commercially, IR has found a non-conventional competitor in road transport, and to overcome this imbalance, high-speed trains and revival of ignored projects such as the DFC is urgently required. This can be facilitated only if some restructuring that passes on commercial activities to another company sees the light of the day.

The ministry could be split such that planning, policy-making and regulation stay under its control while the new company manages commercial operations such as freight tariffs and passenger fares. Private operators can bid for passenger and freight markets, helping bring competitive efficiency to the system. Similarly, private investment for projects such as high-speed trains should be encouraged to enable better operational efficiency without fiscal concerns for the government.

Overall, any proposed restructuring should follow some basic principles. Firstly, commercial and non-commercial operations should be separated; secondly, competitive bidding needs to be encouraged as far as passenger and freight operations are concerned; and finally, some involvement of the private sector for state-of-the-art projects should see the light of the day.

Even if the ministry follows these principles in some essence, an optimal balance of efficient commercial operations and strategic policymaking could be achieved. 


The Risky Business of Addiction

Written by Tahera Sajid •  Region  •  June 2013   

Afghanistan is infamous for its unending chaos and unchecked poppy production. As international forces gear up to leave, concerns are mounting about escalating ethnic tensions and an ever-expanding drug market in the aftermath.

The projection of the 2013 report of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) is that Afghanistan’s contribution to the world drug market will be about 92% of the total opium production by 2014. This report, Afghanistan Opium Risk Assessment 2013, rightly refers to the trend as a “worrying situation.”

Historically speaking, the earliest account of poppy cultivation in Afghanistan was seen around 300 years ago. Over the years, fluctuations of stability in Afghanistan have generally shown corresponding increase and decrease of poppy cultivation trends. After joining the UN in 1946, Afghan King Zahir Shah placed a ban on poppy production temporarily and Afghanistan moved steadily towards prosperity and modernization with extensive economic and technical support from the U.S. in the 1950s. This lasted till 1979 when the Soviet invasion halted the process. A decade of war claimed heavy loss to life and infrastructure – destroying roads, irrigation canals, food processing factories, cotton gins and fruit markets – and the ensuing chaos ruined major economic activity creating an environment of desperation and crime, ideal for growth and use of opium. As the Soviet forces withdrew in 1989, warring tribal factions fought for control and by 1994 the Taliban had emerged as the dominant force controlling almost 80% of the land. Not much economic or social progress happened during Taliban rule and by 2000, Afghanistan’s opium production reached 75% of the world’s total. Helmand province in the South took the lead with almost 52% and Nangarhar province with 24% of total opium production in the country.

In July 2000, Mullah Omar, Afghanistan’s de facto head of state, surprisingly placed a ban on opium production. Enforced with strict measures, even threats to life and property, this resulted in unprecedented reduction in poppy cultivation. The UNDCP Donor Mission recorded complete success of the ban and confirmed the result in the Annual Opium Poppy Survey. At the October 2001 session of the UN General Assembly, it was acknowledged that, “…This year’s production [2001] is around 185 tons. This is down from the 3300 tons last year [2000], a decrease of over 94 per cent. Compared to the record harvest of 4700 tons two years ago, the decrease is well over 97 per cent.”

Later, however, the agencies observed that the ban’s real objective was to create an artificial shortage to hike prices of heroin, not eradication. The UNDOC report cautioned, “If Taliban officials were sincere in stopping the production of opium and heroin, then one would expect them to order the destruction of all stocks existing in areas under their control.” Although, no hard evidence was found of stockpiling on a large scale, the fears expressed by UNODC were widely shared in the international community. After the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and the fall of the Taliban, the warlords and drug dealers once again exploited the chaos and soon enough the opium production rose up to 85%, and has only increased since.

Some reasons for this persistence include the farmers’ reliance on what they consider dependable income necessary for survival. The poppy crop pays for all the food their families need, the stalks serve as firewood, its ash is used to make soap and the seeds are utilized for cooking oil. The farmers also lack trust in their government’s credibility and ability to build roads, bridges, and canals, and alternate livelihoods. Officials are accused of letting foreign aid for agricultural projects disappear into corrupt government coffers, and letting the people starve while buying fancy property in Dubai and the U.S. for themselves.

This corruption allegedly reaches the top levels of government, including the President, Hamid Karzai himself. His late half-brother, Wali Ahmed Karzai, was ironically also on CIA payroll (New York Times, July 2009). The report also alleged that President Karzai is reluctant to check drug lords in his political power base in Southern Afghanistan where most of the opium production takes place and Wali Karzai, who was killed in 2011 by a trusted commander presumably over a drug related dispute, was openly accused of eagerly filling in the vacuum created by removal of other drug lords by the U.S. military and the Karzai government.

Finding an effective solution to issues like opium production in Afghanistan is a complicated task. As a nation, Afghanistan constitutes a mix of several ethnic, linguistic, and regional groups fighting for control over territory and resources. The current Afghan government’s jurisdiction is largely ineffective outside Kabul. Deep ethnic divisions tear apart the societal fabric, millions are displaced, disabled and struggling to survive, lawlessness is a way of life, no worthwhile educational or healthcare system stands, and there is a huge dearth of professional, skilled personnel. Hence, there are no short cuts or quick-fix solutions possible in the current scenario. The opium problem cannot be seen as an isolated issue, but rather a part of the larger broken system.

For any program to be successful, it would have to be community based and not seen as being imposed from outside. The government needs to work sincerely and deliver on its promises to build its credibility and help the Afghan people move forward. The Afghan government will also need all the help it can get from the international community. The world community needs to acknowledge that besides the poverty and corruption factor, it is the demand in the First World that encourages the heroine business; a simple question of supply and demand. The opium benefits the international drug markets more than the producing countries, as acknowledged by U.S. State Department, and quoted by the Voice of America in a 27 February 2004 broadcast, “Afghan heroin sells on the international narcotics market for 100 times the price farmers get for their opium right out of the field.” Clearly, eradicating opium production is a collective responsibility. 


Fate in Balance

Written by Huzaima Bukhari & Dr. Ikramul Haq •  Region  •  June 2013   

The September 2013 elections in the Maldives will make or break the country which has already been struggling to embrace democracy for a long time.

“Fairness at a minimum requires a level playing field. Thus, the existing culture of misuse of public resources by the incumbency to their electoral advantage must stop”

-- Pre-election Report by Transparency Maldives

 “Our society is generally very moderate. That’s why they elected me. That’s why they want to elect me again. [The Islamists] contested us in a parliamentary election and did not get a single seat. They contested us in local council elections and did not get a single seat. But after the coup they have three cabinet ministers”

-- Maldivian ex-President Mohamed Nasheed

Despite uncertainty, a growing influence of radical elements and interference from foreign powers, the Maldivians are determined to choose a President in the forthcoming elections, to be held on 7 September 2013. These elections promise much hope. Yet the realization of this hope hinges on holding free and fair elections of which arise serious question marks.

A detailed pre-election report released by Transparency Maldives says, “assuring” freedom for the upcoming elections requires sustaining an electoral environment for voters to freely choose a president without fear, intimidation, and undue influence, but through the opportunities to fully exercise freedom of expression, association and assembly.”

Oscar Fernandez-Taranco, Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs of the United Nations, during his recent three day visit to the Maldives, encouraged all stakeholders to ensure conditions for free, fair, inclusive, credible and non-violent elections. Multi-party presidential elections were held in the Maldives for the first time in 2008, ending 30 years of one-party rule. Mohamed Nasheed, who was elected in those polls, resigned in February 2012 in contested circumstances and was succeeded by his former deputy, Waheed Hassan. The Government under Waheed set up a ‘National Commission of Inquiry’ to probe the events leading to the regime change. The report released last August contradicted Nasheed’s claim of a coup conducted against him. However the report, and later Nasheed’s arrest and trial cast a dark shadow on the impartiality of the judiciary and the holding of free and fair elections in the tiny island. The UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, Gabriela Knaul, found during her visit to the country in February this year that “judicial officials are not sufficiently independent from external pressures and interferences.”

In February 2013, in the wake of continued political turmoil, Nasheed took refuge in the Indian High Commission for about two weeks after a court ordered his arrest for failing to appear to face charges of abuse of power. As a result of a deal brokered by India, Nasheed left the Indian sanctuary on 23 February 2013 – was arrested and brought to court to face trial a fortnight later on 6 March 2013.  If convicted, Nasheed faces disqualification from the presidential polls, which will further give credibility to his allegation that the trial against him is “politically motivated.”

Apart from the myriad of internal political tussles and polarization plaguing the Maldives, foreign states are perpetually interfering in domestic politics. India and the United States share concern about the growing Chinese influence in the region. In 2011, China announced setting up its embassy in Male amid growing military and economic ties. Western democracies are also worried about the growing influence of Salafist parties such as the Adhaalath Party, coinciding with the rising radicalization of the island nation. This became evident when a bomb attack in Male wounded 12 Western tourists in September 2007 followed by a suicide attack in May 2009 on the headquarters of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in Lahore by Ali Jaleel, a Maldivian member of Al-Qaeda. Close on the heels of that attack, Pakistani troops arrested nine Al-Qaeda operatives at a training camp in South Waziristan in 2010, all of whom turned out to be Maldivian citizens. This explains why USA, EU, India, China and other South Asian nations are voicing loud support for elections in the Maldives.

The U.S., EU and India are pressurizing the Waheed government not to bar Nasheed from contesting the September elections as it would further polarise and radicalise the nation. India has already taken a strong stance towards the Maldivian government by cancelling a $500 million contract awarded to a consortium led by Indian firm GMR to modernize and operate Male’s international airport. The growing anti-Indian sentiments promoted by Islamist parties such as the Adhaalath Party, allied to Waheed’s Gaumee Ithihaad Party (GIP), is a real cause of concern for New Delhi. The U.S. has provided $2.5 million “for participation in democracy”, but analysts claim that the real aim is to promote moderate elements. Both the U.S. and EU consider Nasheed’s participation imperative to free and fair elections -- the former president predicts the country will be plunged into violence and political turmoil if he is prevented from standing in elections. Nasheed, a human rights campaigner, gained global attention for his activism on the issue of global warming during his tenure in office. He held a cabinet meeting underwater in diving gear to dramatise the threat posed to the low-lying Maldives by rising sea levels.

The uncertain scenario of elections in the Maldives is aptly explained by Transparency Maldives observing that “democracy consolidation is impossible under a context where legitimacy [of the government] is contested by a substantial segment of the population. Thus, key to successfully addressing the ongoing legitimating crisis is holding elections in which candidates of all major political parties are free to contest”. Time will only tell whether this materializes or the Maldives plunges into further political turmoil. 


Preserving the Dzong Architecture

Written by Fatima Siraj •  Region  •  May 2013   

Bhutan’s magnificent and historical dzongs are increasingly eroding and are prey to natural disasters or fires, prompting an urgent need for introduction of preservation measures.

Characterized by high, slanting walls, gorgeous flared roofs, imposing entry doors made of wood and iron and the use of red and golden hues, dzong architecture is a distinctive feature of Bhutanese culture. Located on picturesque mountain tops, dzongs can be seen in major districts all over the country, often resembling ancient fortresses. With massive walls that encircle a vast compound consisting of temples, courtyards, administrative offices and monks’ accommodation, they truly are a magnificent sight. Their significance, however, does not only lie in their architectural splendor.

Along with their religious significance, some dzongs have often been the sites for historical and cultural events and have served as safe houses for storing national treasures, books, weapons and written historical records. They are also historically significant for originally serving as protective fortresses used for defense purposes. Traditionally, dzongs housed the governors who ruled each region, hence becoming centers of ruling power and in times of famine, were used to distribute grains and food to people. Nowadays, they serve as the religious, military, administrative and social centers of each district and are often used as the site for annual religious festivals. The rooms inside them are equally divided between the religious and administrative wings.

The biggest and arguably the most magnificent dzong in Bhutan is the Trongsa Dzong, located high above the raging Mangde Chhu River. With the Black Mountains providing the perfect backdrop for its scenic setting, it has been described as “the most spectacularly sited dzong in Bhutan with a sheer drop to the south that often disappears into clouds and mist.” Strategically built in the Trongsa District, the central district of the country, this dzong is an important building in terms of serving as an administrative headquarters. It consists of as many as twenty-five temples and a state of the art museum located within its watchtower. Apart from serving as a major monastery, (it houses upto 200 monks) and an administrative centre, as is typical of most dzongs in the country. Trongsa Dzong also has a printing house where printing of religious texts is done by traditional woodblock printing.

Another noteworthy dzong in Bhutan is the Rinpung Dzong. Consisting of a total of fourteen shrines and temples, it holds great religious significance. A seven-story watchtower built on the hill right above the Rinpung Dzong is the home for the National Museum of Bhutan that was inaugurated in 1968. Today the National Museum has in its possession over 3000 works of Bhutanese art, reflecting more than 1500 years of Bhutan’s cultural heritage. The Rinpung Dzong is also significant in that it is the venue for a great annual festival held over a span of five days in the second month of the traditional Bhutanese Lunar Calendar (usually in March or April). Processions depicting holy images, traditional mask dances portraying religious stories and the breathtaking display of a great, sacred banner in the early morning hours, are all features that mark this glorious event.

Aside from the aforementioned dzongs, Bhutan is home to many similar architectural marvels. One such marvel is the Punakha Dzong built at the confluence of the Mo Chuu and Po Chuu rivers and is often considered one of the most beautiful dzongs in the country. Commonly known as “the palace of great happiness or bliss,” it is also the site of famous events such as the coronation of the first king of Bhutan in 1907 and the wedding ceremony of the King of Bhutan and his fiance in 2011.

While the rivers add a natural embellishment to the location of the dzong, they also bring with them the threat of glacial flooding. In the past, such flooding has caused extensive damage to the Punakha Dzong and fires and earthquakes have further intensified the problem. The government of Bhutan joined hands with the government of India in an attempt to restore the dzong to its past glory. They successfully managed to do so by employing a refurbishing technique called the ‘zorig chosum.’ This ancient tradition involved a combination of several skills including masonry, metalwork, woodcarving and painting. It now stands fully restored with notable paintings and statues adorning it. A memorial has also been erected outside the dzong, as a mark of respect for the twenty-five people who lost their lives inside its walls in the 1994 floods.

In 2012, a similar tragedy befell another one of Bhutan’s remarkable dzongs -- the Wangdue Dzong. However, the damage in this case was not caused by floods but by a fire that burned the entire structure down to ashes. Even though no lives were lost, it was a great loss to the nation in terms of cultural heritage. “It was one of the most magnificent sites of Bhutan - that dzong,” said Dasho Karma. “For me it was always an uplifting experience to come to view it. It was always a great esthetic experience to sit quietly at the point where you could see that dzong.”

With its backbone structure built into the ridge some 1500 meters above sea level, the Wangdue Dzong provided a great military advantage as it was inaccessible on three sides. The only way to access it was by a narrow front way path. The same inaccessibility that was intended to ward off enemy advances served as a hindrance for fire fighters. The destruction of the Wangdue Dzong alerted the Bhutanese government and brought to attention the ever present threat of losing centuries-old dzongs to calamities and natural disasters. The home minister announced that the fire would cause Bhutan to shift its policy to protect its dzongs. These policies were said to include alternative building materials to timber, ensuring safe and high quality electrification, installing adequate fire extinguishing equipment and multiple exits to ensure no lives were lost. 


The Face of Injustice

Written by Raza Khan •  Region  •  May 2013   

Tibetans and Tibetan refugees in Nepal suffer great injustices from China’s growing influence in the country.

As China gradually increases its influence in the neighboring Himalayan state of Nepal, Tibetans are finding it increasingly difficult to cross into the country. In addition to this, the Tibetan refugees already in Nepal are experiencing a moratorium on their political and religious activities giving rise to new humanitarian crises.

On its part, Chinese officials are trying to stop Tibetans fleeing into Nepal and are enlisting the help of the Nepalese authorities in cracking down on the political activities of the Tibetans already there. Tibetans are the largest immigrant community in Nepal though their numbers have decreased considerably over the past few years.

Tibet is a disputed region where its residents have waged a long but unsuccessful political struggle for separation from China. India has been helping Tibetans with their struggle to settle scores with its traditional rival China. One important reason behind the demand for separation has been the denial of religious freedom to the majority Buddhists residents of Tibet. The international community has expressed deep reservations over gross human rights violations in Tibet by Chinese authorities but these have failed to deter Beijing to stop. Delhi has especially advocated the Tibetans case in the international arena. However, India’s support to Tibetans has been largely politically motivated, as it has long-desired the inclusion of the strategically important region in the Indian Union.

Approximately 20,000 Tibetan migrants had been carrying out anti-China political activities in Nepal without major checks from local authorities. Such activities have attracted international attention and exposed Chinese atrocities. China is also trying to prevent a possible resurrection of an anti-China guerrilla struggle by the Tibetan pro-freedom groups and exploitation of the situation by India and the U.S. In the 1960s, Tibetan guerrillas carried out attacks against Chinese troops using the Mustang area of Nepal and were helped by the CIA. The guerrilla camps were wound up after President Nixon decided to establish diplomatic links with China. Therefore, Chinese authorities fear that if the migration of Tibetans continues into Nepal, the more extremist among the migrants may resort to guerrilla warfare.

In order to stop the flow of Tibetans into Nepal, Chinese authorities have resorted to an assortment of tactics including financial incentives to Nepali state functionaries, threats, and training Nepalese border security forces. These tactics have been quite ‘successful’ from the Chinese standpoint as the number of Tibetans refugees has significantly decreased over the years. Those who have already migrated to Nepal have also been under strict scrutiny and check by the Nepalese authorities. According to The New York Times in the first eight months of 2012, the number of Tibetan refugees crossing the Himalayas into Nepal was about 400, half as many as during the same period in 2011. Tibetans blame tighter Chinese security in Tibet as well as Chinese-trained Nepal border guards for the reduced migration. China’s influence on Nepalese authorities has been so compelling that Kathmandu disallowed exit to 5,000 Tibetan refugees who were granted asylum by the U.S. China believes that such pressure tactics will discourage Tibetan refugees from carrying out political or anti-China activities.

The earliest Tibetan refugees arrived in Nepal in 1959, when the Dalai Lama fled Tibet. The Tibetans settled in refugee camps, of which 13 still remain. With a Tibetan enclave set up around Boudhanath, some Tibetans became rich by making carpets and handicrafts, and prominent Tibetan monasteries amassed wealth and purchased prime real estate in the Kathmandu Valley.

The domineering influence of China on Nepal is also attributed to regional politics. India since long has dictated terms to the Himalayan state and at many instances this influence has become intrusive. In order to off-set the Indian influence, Nepal has bolstered relations with Beijing and as a quid-pro-quo it has secured significant chunks of financial aid.

In this situation the only hope for the residents of Tibet and Tibetans refugees is that the growing trade between China and India could defuse tension between the two countries and help alleviate the woes of Tibetans. China has recently completed a 22-kilometre road connecting central Nepal with the Kyirong district in Tibet. The purpose of the road is to export goods to India through Nepal. Beijing is also pondering linking Kathmandu to the railway network present in Tibet in order to tap the trade potential with India. Infrastructural links such as this would open up the remote Tibet region and facilitate its residents’ movement to India and Nepal.

Once Tibetans get some relative freedom this may curtail anti-Chinese sentiments but at the same time may spur Tibetan separatist sentiments. With Delhi eyeing economic interests through enhanced trade with China, the country is expected to gradually decrease its support to anti-China Tibetans. Thus the international community will have to play a meaningful role to help mitigate the miseries faced by Tibetans and pressurize Beijing to solve the issue according to the wishes of the dwellers of the region. 


Just a Dream?

Written by Ekram Kabir •  Region  •  May 2013   

As Bangladesh faces challenges to construct the Padma Bridge, will it agree to the World Bank’s conditions or will the bridge exist only as a blueprint?

The Bangladeshi authorities term the Padma bridge project, the ‘dream of the nation.’ The country’s longest bridge, expected to stretch 6.15km long, would connect the south-western parts of the country with Dhaka and save hundreds of thousands of working hours and transport costs. Apart from offering such facilities, the Padma Bridge is also expected to change Bangladesh’s south-western economic landscape  to boost the national economy.

At present, the entire region is heavily dependent on ferry services that connect it with the capital. According to the World Bank, the bridge would save travel time of up to two hours for buses and cars and more than 10 hours for goods trucks. Moreover, the inclusion of a railway track and provision for telecommunications, electricity and natural gas transmission would yield added advantages for the economy.

The Padma Bridge would also raise the economic and geographic prominence of the Mongla Port, which presently operates at a fraction of its real capacity.

The construction work of the bridge at Mawa-Jajira point was expected to begin by 2012 at a cost of nearly $3 billion. The project was funded largely by the Asian Development Bank (US$615mn), the World Bank ($1.5bn), Japan International Cooperation Agency ($415mn) and the Islamic Development Bank ($140mn). Of the total amount, Dhaka was to provide 50 million taka. However, when everything seemed to be going as planned, the corruption scandal jeopardized the funding and the project’s future.

The World Bank’s Integrity office provided the Bangladesh government with a report on 21 September 2011 alleging that SAHCO, a company named for and connected to the then communications minister, Syed Abul Hossain, sought to persuade companies to secure the main bridge contract. The report contains allegations by eleven confidential witnesses against his company. Hossain, however, denies any conflict of interest in the participation of SAHCO. In February last year, the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) completed its own investigation into the allegations and concluded that there had been no malpractices.

Meanwhile, the country’s anti corruption division raided Canada-based SNC-Lavalin’s offices in September 2011. In April 2012, authorities charged two SNC-Lavalin executives for attempting to bribe Bangladeshi officials in their bid to secure a consultancy contract for the Padma Bridge project.

Even though, the WB submitted a report on these allegations to the Bangladeshi government in April 2012, the ACC investigation into these allegations is still continuing.

However, the WB has temporarily halted the funding process. As investigations were underway, the Bank transformed the project into a conditional deal. It demands that all public officials suspected of corruption be put on leave immediately, a special investigations team within the ACC be appointed to investigate the allegations, a WB panel be allowed to have full access to the investigation and financiers be provided with greater oversight of the project procurement process.

Bangladesh agreed and the investigations began. However, it did not suspend the alleged officials nor provide the WB panel with access to the ACC investigation. After months of negotiations, the WB decided to cancel the loan for the Padma Bridge project. Following this, the Bangladesh government promptly defended the cancellation of the project by raising Bangladeshi nationalism. The government assured it could not let a foreign entity dictate its decision making. Some also suggested that the WB cancelled the loan because of the Grameen Bank’s involvement and to prevent the International War Crimes Tribunals from moving forward.

Following the cancellation of the project, in April, Bangladesh signed a MoU with Kuala Lumpur, according to which Malaysian banks and construction companies would finance and construct the bridge. According to the proposal, Bangladesh would repay the loan at an interest rate of 6.5 percent in 12 years, introducing stricter terms than those specified by the WB. Once the bridge became operational, the tolls would remain high as the Malaysian government would continue to share the toll revenues for another fifteen years.

Although Dhaka may have assumed a strong anti-World Bank position, it soon realized that it could not complete the project without the World Bank’s support. The government has sought to address the remaining WB concerns, hoping to move the project forward. Hossain resigned from the cabinet in July and the Secretary of the Padma Bridge, Mosharraf Hossain was sent on leave. The Prime Minister’s Economic Advisor Moshiur Rahman, who was the Integrity Advisor for the project, is also expected to leave office. Discussions and debates over the Padma Bridge don’t seem to end here. The WB has banned SNC-Lavalin from having any involvement in the project; while the Canadian court has accepted SNC-Lavalin’s case. The court may reveal the name of the people allegedly involved in the scandal once the trial begins.  However, it seems that Bangladesh’s ordeal to construct the bridge would be under the shadows of SNC-Lavalin’s corruption scandals.

All is not lost for Bangladesh yet. The Japan International Corporation Agency (JICA) is willing to initiate talks on financing the bridge if Bangladesh comes up with a fresh project framework. Furthermore, Dhaka would be floating an international tender for constructing the Padma Bridge at the end of June this year.

After discussions, debates as well as criticism, Bangladesh now seems to be on the right track towards constructing the Padma Bridge, with Dhaka mulling over ways to meet the World Bank’s terms and conditions. 


Socializing Politics

Written by Asma Siddiqui •  Region  •  May 2013   

With India preparing for the 2014 general elections, social media is expected to take political campaigning by storm.

Social media is a highly useful tool in instantly disseminating mass information. Apart from serving as a networking portal, social media has played an important role in mobilizing people as activists and generating citizen response to political activities.

It is no secret that Indians are proud of their politics. However, the slew of hash tags, signed petitions, cause driven campaigns and paid ads on Facebook, have enhanced citizen activism.

Where the electronic media relies on “news-worthy” reports and often resorts to sensationalism, social media portals provide a direct insight into citizen behavior and psyche, without any filter. Analysts expect Facebook to play a strong role in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections as well as affect the May 2014 general elections. By 2014, the country is expected to have nearly 80 million social media users.

A recent report indicates that the impact of social media on the next parliamentary election in India would be significant. Sponsored by the Internet and Mobile Association of India and conducted by IRIS Knowledge Foundation, the study contends that the outcome in 287 seats of India’s 543 parliamentary seats, is likely to be influenced by Facebook campaigns.

It is estimated that of the 543 parliamentary constituencies, 160 will be influenced in a tangible way by internet-based social media such as e-mail, SMS, Facebook and Twitter and another 67 will see a medium-level impact. The outrage and social mobilization in response to the gang rape of a girl in India and the arrest of two girls over their comment on Bal Thackeray’s death anniversary, is a true testament of how powerful a role social media can play. The internet used by 140 million people in India will also expand the reach of paid election campaigns and will open up more avenues for voters to critically analyze party manifestos before casting their votes.

When the question of how social media is impacting the youth of India was posed, young Indians opined, “There is a vital change. Currently, Generation X is engineered in the manner that it connects the most through social media. Information is delivered in minutes and the response is generated in seconds. It is mandatory to find support for any political activity on the web first and then on the streets. India is a country populated with bubbling ideologies, which focus on improvement in every sphere through active participation and innovation in ideas. These ideas are spearheaded by the youth. The youth is the one, which is more open and comfortable with change. They can take challenges and have the capacity to achieve the impossible.”

As to whether India is witnessing a revolution akin to the Arab Spring, the youth of India believes that no revolution can come unless there is an evolution of human spirit in India. Until there is unity and togetherness, many believe that a revolution is not possible. Indians need to become one force before they can face the challenges.

Subid, a young social activist and a designer in Kerala states, “Social media has played a good role in Indian politics. It has helped in mobilizing the youth for Anna Hazare’s movement against corruption and anti-rape in Delhi. It can play a good role here in the coming elections too. Political parties have developed social media wings for their campaigns. Obviously, it is the youth, which has a role to play in this sector. But I doubt if a revolution is possible through the web. Like any other country, anti-government movements have a good hand in the media and the Government as usual is keen on banning and watching the movements inside too.”

Many politicians have readily taken to social media in efforts to reach out to young voters. Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh is active on Facebook with approximately 62,900 fans. Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul Gandhi (77,000 fans approximately) are also on Facebook. Similarly, many national leaders have personal and fan accounts on different social media locations, such as twitter. This data depicts a good sign, indicating that the orthodox Indian political system is welcoming a new medium of engagement with the people.

Policymakers and politicians also need to realize the benefits of using social media in situations beyond elections and propaganda advertisements. During the Mumbai attacks the youth took the responsibility to highlight locations where blood was urgently needed. Tweets were sent from near the site of the tragedy and to the countries offering support.

In the 2014 general elections, India’s politics will see a new era of change, with social media activism. It will be imperative for politicians to accustom themselves with this new tide of change for the party who handles social media the best will certainly win the hearts of the people. 

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