Sunday, 7 January 2007

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]

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