Friday, 26 January 2007

Evolving South Asian Fraternity

Imtiaz Alam

Profound are the changes that are taking place in Asia to take the centre-stage for the first time in modern history. In the next 25 years, Asia will have the two largest economies of the world -- with China becoming the No.1 and India becoming the No.3 economic power. Seen inthe South Asian context, the region as a whole could become the hub of the second largest economy, leaving United States behind. And with China bordering four states of the subcontinent, China and South Asia together can become the largest economic regional grouping with no comparable rival. The centre of economic gravity will for the first time tilt in favour of South Asia, if China also joined the grouping at some stage. Consequently, the dynamic of current globalisation that favors more developed countries of the West will turn in the service of Asia.

In this 21st century, which belongs to Asia, and in the next two decades, South Asia and China can together reshape history with half the world population residing here. But are we preparing for the role the 21st century is going to assign us? The skeptics, who live in the past, may drag their feet, but the historic opportunity is there to be grasped by those who see history moving to their side. The time has, for once, come to support formerly colonised people. Given our common history of national resistance to colonialism that most of us lost in 1857, the history will, however, not repeat itself in colonialism-by-reverse. With the most contiguous region of the world, a common history to share and similarities of cultures, South Asia has fewer baggage(s) to shed than Europe or the Far East.

South Asia is now booming with the ideas of regional cooperation, as reflected by this conference of South Asian Journal and South Asian Policy Analysis (SAPANA) Network which we are going to create. Significant sections of intelligentsia, economists, experts, journalists and peace activists have begun to take a wholist approach towards the collective good of the region as they increasingly find state-centric and security-centered approaches inconsistent with the interest of our 1.4 billion people. This conference on Envisioning South Asia reflects the urge of our intelligentsia and the people to outgrow the past and take a leap into a future which is ours. Certain stages of history can be skipped, so can various evolutionary stages through which, for example, the European Union had to pass in the 20th Century.

The road to evolving South Asian Fraternity is quite easy, if viewed purely from our people's viewpoint and ecological harmony; it is far more complicated, if taken from the perspective of bureaucratic establishments or merchants of hate. Indeed there are disputes, and there have been wars, that hinder progress towards our real goals of freeing our people from the yoke of poverty and backwardness. But there could be no cause greater than the emancipation and progress of our people. The conflict over disputes, such as on Kashmir, must give way to reconciliation and resolution that must at the same time allow, rather than hinder, regional cooperation to address the demands of our common destiny. The lines of conflicts must change into the bridges of friendship and the ironed-barred borders must melt before the urge of South Asians to become a fraternal and indivisible community of people with nation states joining hands in submitting before the will of their real sovereigns -- the People.

Steps can be simultaneously taken towards South Asian Free Trade Area, South Asian Union (Water/ Energy/ Communication/ Information/ Tourism/ Economic), South Asian Currency, South Asian Parliament and South Asian Collective Security. However, to take a leap forward, there will have to be no hegemon, nor a ganging up by the small against the big-one. A new paradigm of equitable partnership must evolve to reshape our relations.

The landmark agreements reached at the 12th Summit of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), at Islamabad, have spurred efforts at collectively tackling the real issues faced by the people while meeting the demands of globalisation and the WTO regime at the regional level. The agreement on South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) requires effective implementation, expanding the space for trade and, more importantly, economic collaboration and development. If South Asia's economies are to be integrated, it presupposes development of transnational infrastructure and monetary cooperation involving greater coordination among the governments and the central banks. Despite limited complementarities in trade-able items, due to similar comparative advantages, expansion of trade warrants vertical and horizontal integration of industries and investment in joint ventures by public and private sectors.

However, trade and investment will not move ahead unless tariffs are lowered, the negative-list kept to most minimum, para and non-tariff barriers removed and standards harmonised. This will, subsequently, translate into a South Asian Customs Union which may lead to a common exchange rate policy that will, eventually, result in adopting a South Asian Currency underwritten by macro-economic management at the regional level. No less important is the cooperation in the transport and communication sectors envisaging an integrated transport infrastructure that allows uninterrupted travel across and beyond our region and communication highways facilitating free flow of information.

Increasingly, the governments and concerned institutions are realising the necessity to address acute shortage of energy and water, incidence of drought and floods that often bring miseries to the people and states into conflict. The distribution and management of water resources, though quite a divisive issue among the upper and lower riparian regions, needs to be undertaken amicably in the spirit of riparian rights without depriving the lower riparian regions of their due. In this regard, energy cooperation should evolve into a South Asian Energy Grid with integrated electricity and gas systems. As India and Pakistan now agree, and they must, the gas and oil pipelines can run from Central Asia and Iran, through Pakistan and Afghanistan, to whole of South Asia and beyond.

Given a lowest rate of investment to GDP ratio, South Asia must create attractive environment for investment in high value-added manufacturing lines and trans-regional projects. Enhanced investment flows, both from within and outside the region, would culminate in production facilities located across the region through integrated production systems. Shares of both national and regional companies would be quoted on our stock exchanges as capital moves without hindrance across national boundaries to underwrite investment in any part of our region through a South Asian Development Bank. However, economic cooperation, investment, development of transnational physical infrastructure, transportation, communication, energy grid, equitable sharing of water and efforts at poverty alleviation would not produce tangible results unless the concerns of least developed countries (LDCs) are genuinely addressed, the negative-list is minimised, tariffs are substantially brought down and non-tariff and para-tariff barriers lifted, the economies are gradually opened up with a recourse to investment-trade linkage that takes care of trade deficits between partners through investment flows and capital account, vertical and horizontal integration of industries that benefits from relative advantages and economies of scale.

To realise this immense economic transformation, interstate and intrastate conflicts and attendant security threats and perceptions of political hostility will have to be addressed. The main obstacle to regional cooperation and economic integration remains political and strategic. The prevailing barriers to cross-border movements make neither commercial nor logistical sense and originate in the pathologies of interstate, as well as domestic, politics. Therefore, the political leadership in the countries of South Asia, whether in government or opposition, must show courage, flexibility and statesmanship to resolve interstate and intrastate conflicts and dismantle political barriers to regional economic takeoff and elimination of the scourge of poverty. They should get out of the straitjacket of enmity and look beyond the traditional notions of security and focus on an integrated South Asian Cooperative Security that recognises interdependence that binds South Asia. The states ought to act in their enlightened self-interest to resolve their conflicts and differences through peaceful means and to the mutual benefit of our people. The choice is often, erroneously, posed between regional cooperation and conflict resolution. We urge all states to simultaneously move forward to address long-standing political disputes and intensify economic cooperation and people-to-people contact.

Beyond cooperative security, South Asian nations must ultimately move towards South Asian Human Security by placing people -- their well being and rights to peaceful life and development -- at the centre of security concerns, rather than continuing with the arms race. To include the excluded, governments of South Asia take concrete steps to implement the SAARC Social Charter and give priority to poverty eradication. It is imperative for the South Asian countries to agree to a South Asian Human Rights Code and set up institutions under the Paris Principles and purposefully set about creating the required mechanisms. There is an urgent need to allow greater interaction among the policy-makers, parliamentarians, businessmen, media practitioners, professionals and the leaders of civil society. To enable this to happen, it is necessary that India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, who have the most restrictive visa regimes, drastically revise their visa policy and remove impediments to free movement of people. To overcome information deficit about the countries of the region, it is essential that all restrictions on access to and free flow of information are removed forthwith and media persons and products are allowed free movement across frontiers. In this regard we refer to SAFMA's Protocols on 'Free Movement of Media Persons and Media Products' and 'Freedom of Information' which must be adopted by the national legislatures/governments and at the next SAARC Summit. The media, on their part, should give special attention to coverage of the countries of South Asia that remain under-reported. Similarly, all scholars, academicians and researchers be freed from all visa restrictions and allowed joint researches in every conceivable field.

The scope of collaboration in the sphere of culture, sports, tourism, education, research, human resource development, poverty alleviation and environment is infinite. Let a South Asian fraternity defy all restrictions imposed by the past and usher in a new era in which our people could become the master of their destiny while contributing tremendously to the progress of whole humanity regardless of geography, ethnicity, nationhood, gender, creed and color. Let us put together our collective wisdom to evolve a South Asian Vision and join hands to evolve a South Asian Fraternity.
(Source: South Asian Policy Analysis Network [SAPANA])

Thursday, 11 January 2007

Weapons of the Weak

Rahman Nasir Uddin

The world is watching a very unusual and attractive game being orchestrated in Bangladesh, with the national parliamentary election at the centre. The Awami League-led grand alliance (GA) has boycotted the 9th parliamentary election scheduled to be held on January 22. The BNP-led four-party alliance (FPA), on the contrary, is going to participate in this one-sided election. GA has not only boycotted this election, but has also vowed to resist this electoral game because of the president-cum-caretaker chief. I'm disturbed, thinking about the role, and the plight, of the people in this arranged game.

Undoubtedly, the present political catastrophe, which is turning into a constitutional crisis, will impact negatively on the constantly declining political culture of Bangladesh. It is very easy to postulate that the two alliances are doing all these things to get back to power. Rather, we need to look critically at the matter around the event. It is more sensible to look at the issue from the people's perspective. I intend to locate this event on an "integrated-premise" of dynamics of parliamentary politics, politics of vote-bank, and strategies of holding power in Bangladesh politics.

Dynamics of parliamentary politics is a process where three inter-related components -- the interim government, the regular administration including the EC, and the political parties -- function together towards establishing a legitimate body of the elite, now mostly businessmen, to run the state for the next five years. One always ignored section is the people, though the political parties always talk of them, reciting the popular myth: "The people are the source of all power." In practice, the people are always used in the process of establishing this legitimate body of the elite.

In the dynamics of parliamentary politics, two sections -- the interim government and the regular administration including the EC -- have already lost public confidence and acceptance of majority political parties, except for the four-party alliance, for their non-sensible deeds and apparent partisan affiliation. The third section -- the political parties -- are the key players in the dynamics of parliamentary politics. This section always thinks of, and acts for, regulating the dynamics of parliamentary politics, and components of this dynamism, to create favourable space for being included in the legitimate body at any cost. In this context, the FPA is much more advanced than the GA in many respects. The FPA, the immediate erstwhile ruling alliance, left a set of submissive personnel in every department of the state, including the caretaker government and EC. The FPA is, very likely, eager to have the election held as soon as possible as it is sure of coming back to power. The GA, from the very beginning, pressed a charter of demands before the interim government, regulated by FPA, with the intention of creating minimum space for themselves. The GA believe that they deserve the full space in the other two components of the "integrated premise" of parliamentary politics. Apparently, GA failed in creating adequate space in the dynamics of parliamentary politics, but because of strong belief of holding the other two components favourably -- politics of vote-bank and power of election -- they, at a certain moment in their movement, decided to take part in the parliamentary election.
Politics of vote-bank is another regulatory component for better understanding the recurrent political events of Bangladesh. The GA ensured the majority vote-bank by welcoming Ershad into the coalition, signing a pledge with Islamist parties, and adopting the LDP, the Adivasi Forum, and other smaller political groups. Besides, there is an established perception that all minority and all secular votes will be reserved for AL and its alliance. It is to be mentioned here that, after the signing of the pledge with the little-known Islamists, the intellectuals, civil society, entire media world, and secular sections of society started raising their voices proclaiming that the AL had damaged the image of its more than 50-year political history, glory, and heritage.

It is being frequently said by those sections that the AL has violated the foundation of secularism in the political and state history of Bangladesh. I don't find any sensible reason to blame the AL because such desire is not necessarily linked with the AL action only. However, signing the pledge was nothing but simply the politics of vote-bank. Whether AL will be benefited or not is a different question, but the AL wanted to ensure an Islamic vote-bank. It is often said that Bangladesh has a big Islamic vote-bank in rural and semi-urban areas. Nevertheless, the GA tried to ensure the whole space for themselves in the politics of vote-bank. On the contrary, FPA has minimum space in the politics of vote-bank. The only way for them to foil this calculation is to use the caretaker chief, EC, and administrative set up that is still allegedly devoted to four-party. That's why the BNP is so enthusiastic in "upholding the constitution."

The power in Bangladesh politics, especially in the politics of parliamentary election, is absolutely the people whom I'm thinking about. In fact, every five years, the people have the only chance to utilize their power to participate in state-management, engaging in the process towards establishing a legitimate body through parliamentary election. This power is an integral part of dynamism in the politics of parliamentary election. Truly speaking, this power is key to reshuffling the entire political arrangement for the country. However, it is always used, largely misused, by political parties. Despite this, the people play a vital role in changing the regime of political parties, though there has been no remarkable change in their lives. In contemporary Bangladesh, the people, the powerhouse, are totally fed-up and disappointed by the rule of FPA government for three notable reasons -- complete failure in power sector, uncontrolled price-hike, and rampant corruption and nepotism in every department of the state. This disappointment, GA actually think, will turn into the rejection of BNP and its alliance in the forthcoming election. The people, therefore, GA thinks, will support them in the 9th parliamentary election. Nevertheless, GA is out of this election. Now, what should the people do?
The demands of GA -- removal of caretaker chief, preparing updated voter list, neutralization of EC, de-politicization of administration, etc -- are no longer their political demand. It has turned into a public demand. However, BNP is impatiently moving towards being back in power, without considering any demand of the people.

It is clear that whatever the caretaker chief and EC are doing is just to bring FPA back to power. The power-seeking political culture of Bangladesh always ignores public-interest. If the election is held, it will, unfortunately, unveil the ugly face of political manipulation of the caretaker chief, EC, and the entire election mechanism of Bangladesh.

Finally, I would like to conclude by saying that either boycotting or participating in election is simply an elite-game. If the people are really the power in politics and election, why should they participate in this game? Rather, I propose, the people should resist the entire manipulation of electoral-dynamism by boycotting this election. Not necessarily to support GA, but to keep the spirit of upholding public interest.

Anthropologist James C Scott terms such action "weapons of the weak." The people have the weapon, and now it is high time to use it. Just don't vote. Now, this is a real weapon.

(Rahman Nasir Uddin is a PhD candidate, Kyoto University and Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Chittagong)
[The article first appeared titled "Don't Vote" in the Daily Star, January 11, 2007]

Monday, 8 January 2007

Sri Lanka crisis and India's options

Subramanian Swamy

“This is the time for India to contribute effectively to the war against terrorism and to the promotion of democracy by targeting the LTTE sincerely and effectively." There is an urgent need for India to define its Sri Lanka policy and delineate its options, because of India's unique relationship with Sri Lanka. The Sinhala Buddhist community acknowledges umbilical links with the people of Bihar, Orissa, and West Bengal. It constitutes 75 per cent of Sri Lanka's population. The people of Tamil Nadu just across the Palk Strait have longstanding and continuing links with Sri Lankan Tamils who form a significant minority. India can play an effective role in stemming the crisis in the island since the two nations are bound by history, geography, culture, fraternal links, and national security concerns. However, for India to play a role, the genesis of the Sri Lanka crisis must be clearly understood. At present, international facilitators such as the Norwegians have not much of a clue about the cause of the crisis. Hence they flounder. Is the crisis rooted in religion, ethnicity, language, or terrorism? The answer is `no.' The problem in Sri Lanka, and the basic reason for the island being in crisis for five decades, is not ethnic since there is no ethno-heterogeneity among the people. Nor is the problem religious because Hinduism and Buddhism, the two main belief systems in the island nation, are, at the very least, not mutually antagonistic. Buddhism is a reform of Hinduism and respected as such. The Sri Lanka problem is a hangover of British colonial mischief in the sense the Sinhala community appears to bear a grudge against the Tamils for having got ahead by collaborating with the British rulers. It is completely unreasonable to bear this resentment after 60 years of Sinhala-dominated rule. Nevertheless, this is a mindset that needs to be addressed by India — if and when India intervenes for a solution. There are as many solutions as there are parties to the strife. A feasible solution can only emerge by first agreeing on who should be considered the legitimate parties in the current crisis. Obviously, the democratic, elected government of Sri Lanka is one of the parties. The difficult question is who should represent the Tamils: Should it be the LTTE, which seeks to be the sole representative of the Tamils, a claim surprisingly accepted by the fumbling and clueless interlocutors from Norway? Should there be a composite negotiating partner of all Tamil parties as the present Government of India appears to favour? Or should it be a rainbow Tamil coalition minus the LTTE, as this writer suggests? It is my considered view that any alternative solution that includes the LTTE is doomed to failure. More importantly, even if such a solution is found, it will be against India's long-term national security interests. For India, I contend that a solution is feasible and viable only if the LTTE is excluded. The LTTE needs to be dealt with as part of the problem — not part of the solution. Given this pre-condition of excluding the LTTE from any solution, there are only two options before India (I don't discuss more extreme options here). The first is to persuade Sri Lanka to adopt an Indian-type quasi-federal Constitution for a united, sovereign Sri Lanka. This is the minimum demand of the Sri Lankan Tamil people. India clearly cannot go below this demand. The second option is the partition of the island to create an independent sovereign state of Eelam. This would mean India making a long-term commitment to sustain the survival of Eelam — and risk Eelam becoming a future base for India's enemies (we did that with Bangladesh and paid a heavy price for taking that risk). On the face of it, this option is unacceptable to India. The first option is the least painful for Sri Lanka and feasible today, but time is running out for its acceptance by Tamils. If the situation deteriorates, it could pave the way for the LTTE to return with the help of anti-Indian forces, to force the pace against Indian interests. India's preferred solution must be a federal or quasi-federal Constitution. What is clear is that a unitary state of Sri Lanka will be a dead letter. Buddhist monks wrote its epitaph when they recently acknowledged that they had wrongly opposed the Indian Peace-Keeping Force, which they want back in the island. My friend, Rajiv Gandhi, has been vindicated at last. But we need to move forward. It is India's national security imperative, and an unavoidable moral responsibility to the Tamils, to get involved now to free the island of Sri Lanka from the LTTE's terror — if for nothing else other than securing its own environment and punishing those who assassinated Rajiv Gandhi. This is our obligation to Sri Lanka and to the Indian people. But there is a pre-condition. Only if Sri Lanka adopts and implements the first solution of devolution, does the obligation fall on India to intervene on the side of the Sri Lanka government and destroy the LTTE. Either Sri Lanka adopts this solution on its own, or India prods it in ways known to all. There is not much time to lose because India needs to fix the LTTE for the following reasons: First, India trained the LTTE in the 1980s and created the Frankenstein monster. It must atone for this grievous mistake by actions to disband and wind up the LTTE. Secondly, despite enjoying India's hospitality for years, and after welcoming the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement in 1987, the LTTE teamed up with the Sinhala hard-liner, President R. Premadasa. It betrayed India by killing more than a thousand Indian army personnel of the IPKF sent to the island to enforce the Agreement. The betrayal and loss of lives of our valiant jawans must be avenged to keep up the morale of the Indian armed forces. Thirdly, as the Home Ministry 2005 Annual Report to Parliament states, the LTTE has been targeting pro-Indian Sri Lanka politicians and assassinating them. For the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, an Indian trial court has declared accused no.1, the LTTE chief V. Prabhakaran, as a proclaimed offender. Interpol has issued a red corner notice for apprehending him. India is thus obligated to search for Prabhakaran and immobilise the LTTE enough to deter it from engaging in any murderous, terrorist activities against India and Indian interests. Fourthly, the LTTE interferes in the internal affairs of India by financing some Indian political elements, in providing training to certain Indian extremist organisations, and by extending insurgency infrastructure to bandits such as Veerappan. It also launders the black money of some Indian politicians through its illegal Eelam Bank in the Jaffna area. India cannot allow such erosion of law and order within its own borders. Fifthly, the LTTE must be understood to be part of an international terror network. It is involved in smuggling narcotics into India, circulating fake currency notes to buy medicines and diesel, and engaging in passport fabrication and hawala operations. This is the time for India to contribute effectively to the war against terrorism and to the promotion of democracy by targeting the LTTE sincerely and effectively. This is also in the larger national interest of security and national integrity. The international consensus against the LTTE offers a window of constructive opportunity. We must seize it now, provided the Sinhala majority overcomes its obdurate resistance to devolution, and takes the Tamils as equal partners in building the future of Sri Lanka as a democratic and peaceful nation.

Subramanian Swamy, an economist educated at Harvard University and a former Union Cabinet Minister of India, is president of the Janata Party.
(Courtesy: The Hindu, Nov. 30, 2006)

Sunday, 7 January 2007

Fundamentalism in Bangladesh Must Be Prohibited, Secularism Must be Restored, and Neutrality of the Caretaker Government Must the Established.

Friday, January 05, 2007

The Human Right Congress for Bangladesh Minorities (HRCBM) is gravely concerned at recent development in Bangladesh politics, especially at the signing of “Memorandum of Understanding (MOU)” by the Awami League (AL) with the Bangladesh Khilafet-E-Maslish (BKM), an Islamic fundamentalist extremist party. The MOU, among other ideals, pledged proclamation of fatwa (Islamic edicts), introduction of Shaiah Laws, accreditation of Quami Madrasas, and in principle laid the foundation for establishing Bangladesh as a religious Islamic state in the future. We vehemently deplore and condemn this treacherous act and betrayal of values and ethics in politics. We are shocked to witness that thirty-five years after the liberation of Bangladesh from the occupation forces of the Pakistani army through a nine-month-long bloody war, the AL, which led the war of liberation, abandon the founding principles of the country that inspired the whole nation in 1971. We are shocked to see the demise of values and principles within AL leadership.

Nationalism, democracy, secularism and socialism were the four pillars of Bangladesh Constitution of 1972. Formation religious political parties were banned in Bangladesh. The rehabilitation of Islamic fundamentalist who opposed the war of liberation and collaborated with Pakistani occupation army started with the savage assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founding father of the nation, on August 15, 1975, followed by a series of measures and killing of the four leaders of the war of liberation inside the Dhaka Central Jail. General Ziaur Rahman became the Chief of Army Staff on November 7, 1975 with Justice A.B.M. Sayem as the president. Starting with Ziaur Rahman the Governments of Bangladesh between August 1975 and 1990 were overtly or covertly military in nature, which consciously and step-by-stem amended the constitution, removed secularism from the constitution and established Islam as the state religion. The nation has experienced the perils of fundamentalism since 1975. Since 2001 General Election in Bangladesh, we warned Bangladesh government and the organizations and governments of the free world, from time to time, about the growth of fundamentalism and its impact on human rights in Bangladesh.

Since the transformation of Muslim Awami League to Awami League in the 1950’s it has been the fore-bearer of secularism. With the signing of MOU with Khilafet-E-Majlish and agreeing to concede rights of “fatwa” to these fundamental clerics, the AL not only marginalized the progressive elements within the party, it marginalized the whole progressive people of Bangladesh. It has destroyed all its achievements that it earned through struggles over fifty years of its history.

The AL leadership needs to realize that in a modern democracy there no place for fatwa and any kind of religious edits. It is vital that AL leadership strikes through this notorious MOU, come out clean, restore its damaged reputation and regain the confidence of the majority of the people who are still progressive and believe in the principles of the war of liberation.

The announcement of boycotting of the election by the grand alliance lead by the AL has worsened the political crisis in Bangladesh. We have observed that the caretaker government (CG) has failed to create the environment for holding a free and fair the election. The CG needs to listen to the voice of the people, create an atmosphere of fairness and trust, rise above partisan politics and bring all political parties to the level ground for holding a free and fair election.

Human Rights Congress for Bangladesh Minorities urges that:
· The Awami League must denounce the notorious MOU and practice secularism in their action and words.
· Any attempt by any political group to undermine laws of the land must be stopped.
· Fundamentalism must be prohibited.
· Secularism must be restored.
· Neutrality of the caretaker government must be established.
· Voter list must be corrected and published well ahead of the election.
· Minorities must be protected and participation in the election must be ensured.
· Atmosphere for free and fair election must be created so that people can exercise their constitutional franchise without any discrimination of caste, creed, faith and political affiliation.
· Basic human rights of all citizens enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are upheld.
· The civil society of Bangladesh must stand firm and united on the principles of the original constitution and resist all attempts by any forces to undermine the rights of the people.

Ajit K. Roy, Ph.D.
Human Rights Congress for Bangladesh Minorities

(Source:Human Rights Congress for Bangladesh Minorities (HRCBM)P.O. Box 5493, Santa Clara, CA 95056-5493Tel: (212) 592-3627, Fax: (212) 202-7683Email: info@hrcbm.orgWeb Page:

An eventful year for South Asia

Zaglul Ahmed Chowdhury

SOUTH Asia witnessed both turmoil and remarkable achievement during 2006, making the region more talked about in world affairs compared to many other preceding years. Most nations in the area saw political unrest during the period, while some landmark developments brought the region international laurels. If Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh were rocked by political mayhem and other forms of internal convulsions, the unique honour of the coveted Nobel Peace Prize coming to South Asia makes us believe that the poverty-ridden region too can perform extraordinary feats. Political instability stalks some of the smaller countries in the region in the new year as the hang-over of the last year, but these nations also made headlines across the globe like Nepal reaching a momentous government-Maoist accord for peace, and the Nobel Peace Prize for Bangladesh.

It appears that the political environment in the South Asian region is clearly improving, and this definitely bodes well for the next summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) to be held in the Indian capital in April this year.
The summits of Saarc leaders often suffer postponements, but this time the next summit is clearly on track, barring unforeseen developments. The 13th conference of the South Asian leaders in Dhaka undeniably infused some degree of new dynamism in the regional forum, eliminating much of the inertia and frustration that had characterised it before, and all are eagerly looking forward to the 14th summit. Certainly, this augurs well for the region, and the Saarc as a whole, even though the progress of the forum remains somewhat sluggish, falling short of expectations. On the western front, ties between the two traditionally rival neighbours -- India and Pakistan -- are in the process of normalization, and a recent meeting in New Delhi between the two countries on a variety of bilateral issues was seen as a further development in their often battered relationship. Needless to say, the Saarc -- particularly the summits -- had fallen victim to Indo-Pakistan hostilities many a time before. A scheduled conference of the heads of government had to be deferred indefinitely, and was made possible only when New Delhi-Islamabad ties improved.

The current state of New Delhi-Islamabad relations provides encouragement to the overall South Asian political milieu. There is hardly any denying that their bilateral ties have a bearing on the regional scene, which is largely contingent upon Indo-Pakistan relationship. Their topsy-turvy ties were marked by ups and downs in 2006. However, the bottom line is that both nations have returned to dialogue, and this is having a positive impact not only on their bilateral relations, but also on the region as a whole. Individually, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh bore the brunt of political problems during 2006, causing a strain in their political and economic conditions. The island state of Sri Lanka once again suffered most because of the civil war, and there was no respite in the last year even though flickers of hope for a negotiated settlement of the conflict had arisen, but only to be extinguished. Talks between the government and the Tamil militants resumed in Geneva after a long gap, but with no progress in the complex exercise. Consequently, the war rages in the country with little sign of any cessation of hostilities. Indeed, it is a sad spectacle for a nation that has achieved commendable socio-economic progress in the region compared to others. Nepal had to experience one of the worst phases in its history when the long-drawn pro-democracy agitation against King Gyanendra paralyzed the land-locked nation for months. Happily, the people finally tasted a glorious victory when the king capitulated, and representative government was restored. But that was not the end of Nepal's woes as problems involving the radical leftist "Maoists" had caused fresh fears, but once again this seemingly intractable issue was resolved by the democratic government and the ultras by signing a peace accord that has raised new hopes of permanent peace in the Kingdom where the powers of the monarch have been considerably clipped, and the position of the "throne," even as a constitutional head, is now uncertain.

Seven political parties and the "Maoists" had jointly waged the anti-king movement, and now both shares the momentous decision of reaching a deal that has already pointed the violence-torn country towards a smoother path. Hopefully, the two sides will not disappoint their people, and will turn the lovely land once again into a paradise for tourists. The two main countries in South Asia, India and Pakistan, remained, by and large, peaceful during 2006, with the former remaining firm in the saddle with a multi-party government maintaining grip and the latter showing indications of political trouble centering national elections in 2007. The two main political leaders living in exile are seeking to throw bigger challenges to the government in Pakistan in the new year. The Indian government did not face any major challenge from the opposition. However, the minority government, depending on the outside support of the leftists, often suffers from uneasiness when ties with the leftists are afflicted on some issues.
Needless to say that survival of the UPA government is contingent upon the support of the communists who blow hot and cold in their ties with the government. Incidentally, Bangladesh had been very much in the news, centering on the upcoming national elections, during the later part of the preceding year. The problems persist as the country steps into the new year, with the polls drawing nearer. The diametrically opposite positions of the two main stakeholders in the political arena narrowed down, much to the relief of the people, but normal balloting hangs in the balance at the time of writing this column while the people's concern and anxiety heightened about the shape of things in the future.

It remains to be seen how the developments unfold, with many keeping their fingers crossed.
The king in the small Himalayan country of Bhutan is showing increasing signs of giving up his total grip on power by drawing up a long-term plan for some kind of democratization. This is being well received in the calm and peaceful kingdom. In the tiny Indian ocean nation of the Maldives, a long serving president is giving in to the demand for multiparty democracy replacing one party rule, and this too marks the strengthening of representative government in South Asia. The region -- the most densely populated in the world -- is fighting to improve the living standard of most of its 1.4 billion people who are mired in poverty. Political problems and huge expenditures in the defense sector by some of the countries make the challenge of poverty alleviation a difficult task. Nevertheless, this task is being followed at both government and non-government level. Bangladesh's micro-credit "guru" Dr Muhammad Yunus and his internationally famed Grameen Bank winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 has added a rare chapter of glory and pride for South Asia, instilling enormous self-confidence.
This is the single biggest attainment of the region in 2006, and, in the fitness of things, the essence and the spirit of this should guide us in the days ahead.

(Zaglul Ahmed Chowdhury is Chief Editor, BSS.)
[Courtesy: The Daily Star, Jan.5, 2007]