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SOUTH ASIA WEEKLY REPORT
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Vol. V Issue. 46
Bhutan: Where from here, 'all the king's men' ?
16 November 2012

Analysis

'Election fever' has descended on the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan, but it is not inspired by the political class and the masses but by the State. The notification of the Election Commission on limiting the role of religion and religious bodies in influencing the electoral outcome has set the ball rolling.

However, the election that is due in June would not necessarily be an opening for the people to express their aspirations in the choice of leadership that is to govern the nation through the ballot box. When compared to events that are unfolding across the world, Bhutan's election would not only be brushed under the carpet but also lacks the excitement of change. This state of affairs can be largely attributed to three factors.

The first and foremost reason is that the current form of administration has been at the behest of the existing system, the reigning monarchy. It was the vision of the Palace that has introduced democracy. It has been not through the demand of the people to assert their right to determine their future for themselves, but on the realisation of the royal household about the benefits of democracy.

The second reason would be the fact that most, if not all, the political parties and their leaders are products of the Kingdom. These institutions are nascent and the individuals that have created them are what can be dubbed as the 'king's men'.These leaders (if they can be called so) are largely former bureaucrats or entrepreneurs who have taken to public life. Under the circumstance, the political climate has been predetermined by an unquestioned loyalty to the King, prima facie.

The third factor that would make this election uneventful is the role and the nature of the political class as a whole. Bhutan does not have a history of political activism or mobilisation of the masses. This has contributed to conflict-free politics. As democratic politics elsewhere has shown, this at best may be a temporary phenomenon that may change and evolve with time. At the same time, this situation has also been supplemented by the long arm of the State.

The little-known explosion in the number of people of Nepali descent and the marginalisation of the community in political terms has created an environment that lacks either diverse political ideology or vote-bank politics. The absence of ideology in the post-Cold War world has little surprise. The absence of vote-bank politics is reflective of the nascent nature of politics in Bhutan. This innocence, with the due onslaught of time, could and would undergo significant changes.

However, the last aspect that has stolen the thunder has been the absence of a theological footprint in public life. This has also been an attributing and contributing factor in a nation that is mostly Buddhist. And the Election Commission has sought to ensure that the system and the nation remain 'secular' even before the irrational arm of religion could infect the polity.

The final aspect in this context relates to the overwhelming majority and the popular support that the current Government enjoyed in the maiden polls five years ago. The other political parties that can be called the Opposition are fragmented, disorganised and are still a work in progress.

This having been said, the outcome of the election would not be an exercise in number- crunching but only a right to passage. Elections-2013 may not mean much to the future prospects of Bhutan but will yet set events in motion. Institutionalising the practice of regular elections every five years by itself would mean a lot in this context.

In due course of time, Bhutan, like all democratic States around the world, would feel the adrenal rush that the ballot-box generates but till then the sunny leeward side of the Himalayas would have to make do with the run of the melting ice of the South Asian summer.

(The writer is an Associate Fellow at Observer Research Foundation)

India: Challenges and opportunities in Parliament

Dr Satish Misra

The upcoming month-long winter session of Parliament, scheduled to start on November 22, is crucial for both the ruling combine as well as the political Opposition in India. It is likely to end on December 20. It is expected to be one of the most crucial sessions of the 15thLokSabha that is going to determine the dynamics of the next General Elections and thus the course of country's politics for the next few years.

The Congress-led ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) would strive for a smooth-sailing. But the combined Opposition, including the BJP and the Left, would try to create as many hurdles as possible to prevent the Government from getting its legislative agenda through, to prepare the ground for the next electoral battle, due in 2014.

It seems highly unlikely that the Opposition could precipitate any political crisis during the winter session as the results of the two State Assembly elections in Himachal and Gujarat are going to be announced on the last day of the session. These results would impact national politics in a major way. Without knowing the mood of the people, no political party would like to precipitate a crisis, which may result in early elections to the LokSabha, when they don't want it.

Borrowing from V S Naipaul, the country is at present confronted with "a million mutinies now" which are being provoked by boundless egos of individual political leaders. Many of them are nursing ambitions of occupying the country's top executive post of Prime Minister, whether they have the competence or the skills to navigate the nation away from the present phase of economic and social turmoil.

There are contradictions galore in the political system, particularly in the political parties -- and that is why it is not easy to guess the course of events in Parliament which would decide the fate of the ruling dispensation. Every political party outside the government has a strong desire to improve its electoral performance in the 16thLokSabha which would ultimately determine the nature and complexion of the next government in New Delhi.

The Government is working on a strategy which derives its strength from the fact that no MP, barring a few leaders of the Opposition, particularly the BJP is ready to go for elections. Despite loud words from different party leaders, the chances of the survival of the Government are bright. The Government appears to be ready to work in the spirit of give-and-take and is reportedly working on conceding some ground to the Opposition on the Lokpal and Land Acquisition Bills.

There may be further negotiations between the Government and the Opposition on other important legislations like the Banking Laws Amendment Bill, Insurance and Pension Bill but this is going to be a very tough exercise as raising the limit of the cap on foreign direct investment (FDI) from the present 26 per cent to 49 per cent is a politically sensitive issue for most of the parties.

The Government would ideally like to get some of the crucial Bills passed and then go in for a popular budget in the next session of Parliament in February-March. This would depend on its ability to play the numbers game in the coming session. If the Government is able to carry the Opposition and its allies along in conducting pending legislative business, then the Congress-led UPA would not only succeed in sending a message of a performing Government but would also shed its negative image.

First and foremost, the Government needs enough numbers on its side to be able to avert the threat of a no-confidence motion that is being proposed by the Trianamool Congress. It is understood that the Government would like to deal with the proposed no-confidence motion first and then go for getting its legislative agenda like the Lokpal Bill, the Food Security Bill, the Judicial Accountability Bill, the Land Acquisition Bill and many others.

The Government, it seems, has started working to get its act together.Working under a plan prepared by newly-appointed Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal Nath, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has begun a series of lunch and dinner meetings with important allies and leaders of the parties which are supporting the Government from outside.

On Friday, November 9, the Prime Minister hosted a dinner for the supreme leader of Samajwadi Party Mulayam Singh Yadav, and his son and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister AkhileshYadav. They reportedly discussed his strategy to push the agenda of the Government in Parliament. Similarly, the Prime Minister met the BSP chief Mayawati over lunch on Sunday, November 11 and reportedly discussed ways to insulate his Government from the threats of the Opposition.

While Mayawati has declined to give details of the talks that she had with the Prime Minister calling it a routine meeting, it is believed that she did raise the demand for an early passage of the Bill for promotions for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in Government jobs, which is scheduled to be taken up in Parliament this session. The Bill was introduced in the Rajya Sabha in the last session.

The Prime Minister is also meeting leaders of the allies and it is expected that a joint meeting of the allies would be held before the commencement of the winter session but the main Opposition parties are leaving no stone unturned to puncture the Government's moves.The BJP sounded its battle bugle by declaring that it was opposed to FDI and it would seek to unite the entire Opposition under this battle cry. Left to it, the BJP would not mind aligning its strategy with the Left parties on this particular issue but whether the latter would like to be seen working with so-called communal forces is yet another political dilemma which the Left Front would have to resolve.

The Opposition's success in cornering the Government would depend upon whether it succeeds in forcing the BSP and SP to vote against the Government either on the proposed no-confidence motion which may be moved either by the Trinamool Congress or the Left Front. In either of the case, both the Trinamool Congress and the Left Front, despite being rivals of the Congress in West Bengal, are not comfortable in each other's company. This fact, while offering some comfort to the UPA government, is not enough for making it complacent and over-confident.

Both the ruling UPA as well as the heterogeneous Opposition would have to work hard to succeed in their respective objectives but nothing can be ruled out at present.

(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation)

Country Reports

Bhutan
Separation of State and religion, official now

The Bhutan Election Commission has sent a notification not to carry out religious public event from January 2013 until the elections are over.

According to the ECB's officials, the dates for any religious ceremonies should either be moved ahead of the elections or be postponed.

Source: bbs.bt, November 16, 2012.

India
Forex reserves down by $ 950.3 m

Foreign exchange (forex) reserves went down by $950.3 million to $294.34 billion for the week ended Nov 2, Reserve Bank of India (RBI) data showed on Saturday.The reserves rose by $55.6 million to $295.29 billion for the week ended Oct 26. Forex was up $359.4 million to $295.23 billion for the week ended Oct 19.

The foreign currency assets (FCA), the biggest component of the forex reserves, went up by $1 billion at $259.45 billion, according to the weekly statistical supplement released by the RBI. The FCA was up $86.9 million at $260.46 billion in the previous week. The FCA had increased $351.3 million at $260.37 billion in the previous week.

Source: www.nydailynews.com, November 10, 2012.

Trade deficit widens

India's trade deficit keeps getting worse, Government data showed Monday.The difference between exports and imports out of India widened to a record high of $21 billion, mostly due to India's weak exports and robust import demand, especially for commodities.

In recent months, there has been an indication that the trade deficit was starting to improve in India, but that trend looks to have been reversed in September and October.

Source: www.forbes.com, November 12, 2012.

Karzai for India in trade pact with Pak

Afghanistan would like India included its trade and transit agreement with Pakistan, in force since 2011, which would allow India to use Pakistan's territory to trade with Afghanistan, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said.

"We have been seeking it", he said in an interview to the Indian Express. "This was not possible because of the difficulties between India and Pakistan but now that there is an environment for overall improvement of relations between India and Pakistan, this is the best day for Afghanistan," he said.

Source: The Indian Express, November 12, 2012.

UK financial aid to end by 2015

The UK is to end financial aid to India by 2015, International Development Secretary Justine Greening has said. Support worth about 200m ($319m) will be phased out between now and 2015 and the UK's focus will then shift to offering technical assistance.

Ms Greening said the move, which will be popular with Tory MPs, reflected India's economic progress and status.

Source: www.bbc.co.uk, November 9, 2012.

Russian-built warship inducted

India Friday added more teeth to its Navy when it inducted a new Russian-built multi-role stealth frigate, carrying the BrahMos supersonic cruise missile, into its fleet, adding to its recently growing blue water capabilities.

The warship will join the Western Fleet of the Indian Navy by the end of December and its first commander is Captain Antony George, an anti-submarine warfare specialist.

Source: The Times of India, November 10, 2021.

PM cancels Japan visit

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has postponed a three-day visit to Japan that was supposed to begin Thursday.

An Indian official said the government decided not to send Mr. Singh amid political instability in Japan. On Wednesday, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said he was willing to dissolve parliament this week and hold elections in December.

The Indian official said this meant it was unlikely Mr. Singh's visit would be rescheduled before the end of the year.

Source: www.wsj.com, November 14, 2012.

Nitish for peace with Pakistan

Bihar Chief Minister, Nitish Kumar said on Saturday that history and culture of India and Pakistan were common and opined that effective results could be achieved if the two countries worked jointly for establishing peace and tranquility in the region.

Addressing a seminar on 'Sharing experiences of Sindh and Bihar' during his Pakistan visit, he recalled that the great civilizations existed along Indus and Ganga rivers thousands of years back and the people used to get education from the centers located here.

Source: www.dailytimes.com.pk, November11, 2012.

Rahul to lead 2014 campaign

Congress yuvraj Rahul Gandhi will lead the party's campaign in the next General Elections, now less than 18 months away in 2014. Or that was the import of an announcement made on Thursday by the Congress.

Gandhi will lead a high-power five-man Election Coordination Committee to "oversee all party activities related to the next elections," a senior functionary told The Hindu.

Source: The Hindu, November 16, 2012.

Anna threatens fast again

A day after he announced his new team, Anna Hazare today threatened to go on a fast again if the Jan Lokpal Bill is not passed before the 2014 parliamentary elections. After his lat fast in August, Hazare had said that he would not embark on another hunger strike again.

Inaugurating his new office in the capital today, Hazare said: "I am ready to break that pledge (Of not fasting again) in case the Jan Lokpal Bill is not passed by the government before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections? This time, I may fast at Ramlila Maidan."

Source: The Indian Express, November 12, 2012.

Maldives
Two MPs held for alcohol suspicions

Two Members of Parliament, some politicians and some members of the public were arrested last night in Hdh. Hondaidhoo, an island leased for resort development, under suspicion of alcohol consumption.

Henveiru-dhekunu MP Hamid Abdul Gafoor, Kaashidhoo MP Abdullah Jabir and former Special Advisor to the President Ibrahim HussainZakiwere among those who were arrested. After Parliament Speaker Abdullah Shahid wrote to the police on the impropriety of arresting the MPs days before they were to vote on a no-confidence motion against President Waheed Hassan Manik, citing parliamentary rules, the police produced them before a magistrate, who let the two MPs off. Zaki was flown to a Male hospital while a son of his and two three foreigners ? two Sri Lankan and a Bangladeshi nationals ? were still in detention.

Hdh. Hondaidhoo was previously inhabited, but people were moved to Hdh. Hanimaadhoo in 1997 under the Government's population centralisation policy. The island was leased to Abdullah Jabir's Yacht Tours Company in 2003 for 21 years, for the development of a resort.

Source: SunOnline, November 16, 2012.

AP extends airport deadline

President of the Adhaalath Party, Sheikh Imran Abdullah, has said that the government has given the green signal to reclaim Ibrahim Nasir International Airport from GMR Infrastructure. The party has since extended the November 15 deadline for the Government to reclaim the airport by a fortnight.

Sheikh Imran said that the government has expressed support to the cause and the activities held under the slogan, "Maldivian Airport for Maldivians", although the government has not issued any official statement regarding the matter yet.

Noting some of the statements of the President in his speech at the function held to mark this year's Republic Day, Sheikh Imran said that the President gave the green signal that the Government will reclaim the airport back to Maldivians and urged the people to be patient. Sheikh Imran said that the activities will still continue until the matter is settled.

Sheikh Imran underscored the importance of patience and perseverance regarding the issue but noted that he believes that patience also has a limit.

In his speech at the function held to mark this year's Republic Day, the President noted that the Government had and would always strive to make decisions as beneficial to the people of the Maldives. He highlighted the need for taking the right actions as necessary or relevant to the given circumstances or context in a structured and timely manner.

Source: Miadhu, November 16, 2012.

Joint military exercises with India

In an endeavour to enhance the close military cooperation between the two countries, the fourth joint military training exercise between the Indian Army and the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) - EKUVERIN 2012 - is being held in Belgaum from November 12 to 25.

A total of 45 personnel from the MNDF are taking part in the exercises along with the personnel from the Indian Army. The bilateral annual exercises, which commenced in 2009 in Belgaum, are alternately held in India and Maldives. The aim of the exercises is to enhance the close military cooperation between the two countries.

Brigadier General Ahmed Nilam, Commandant - Marine Corps, MNDF would be arriving later to observe EKUVERIN 2012, along with senior officers from the Indian side. Defence ties between India and Maldives have continued to expand and strengthen over the years.

In April 2012, both countries, along with Sri Lanka, held joint Coast Guard/Naval exercises - DOSTI XI - off the coast of Male (Maldives) to strengthen the bonds of friendship and enhance mutual operational capability and cooperation in the region.

Defence Minister A.K. Antony visited Maldives in September this year.

Source: Asian Tribune, November 11, 2012.

Myanmar
Suu Kyi in India

Nobel laureate and NLD leader Aung San SuuKyi visited India for the first time in over four decades, and held discussions with the leadership in New Delhi. During her visit she had called on a number of officials, including Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, accepted the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding instituted by the Government of India in 1992 and delivered the Nehru Memorial Lecture on the occasion.

The two-day programme in the Indian capital included a visit to Suu Kyi's alma mater, Lady Shri Ram College, where she studied when her mother was the Ambassador in the 60's as well as interacting with the Myanmarese community in India.

Source: irrawaddy.org, November 14 and 15, 2012.

Govt misues 60-b kyat

Auditor-General Thein Htikehas reported to Parliament that 15 ministries have misused nearly 60 billion kyat ($70 million) has been misused. One-third of the funds have since been returned, with many of the involved staff members already punished for their role. Two of the worst performing and least funded ministries ? Health and Education?were among those accused, but the Ministry of Defense budget was deemed above-board.

Those involved were the ministries of Livestock and Fisheries, Agriculture and Irrigation, Electricity, Education, Health, Science and Technology, Information, Industry, Commerce, Forestry, Finance and Revenue, Hotels and Tourism, Communication, Information and Technology, Rail Transportation, and Cooperatives.

Corruption by staff in the ministries amounted to 140 million kyat ($160,000) in total?120 million kyat ($140,000) solely by the Information Ministry.

Source: irrawaddy.org, November 15, 2012.

Nepal
Prachanda slapped in public

United CPN (Maoist) Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal alias Prachanda was slapped by a man at a tea reception organised by his party in Exhibition Road on November 16. The man slapped the chairman after shaking hands with him. According to news reports, Dahal sustained minor injuries.

The man was immediately arrested by police. He is being interrogated at Nepal Police Club, Bhrikuti Mandap. The attacker was also assaulted by youth cadres of the party following the attack. The irate party cadres even obstructed the road demanding stern action against the culprit.

Source: myrepublica.com, November 16, 2012.

Bid to end budget row

The United CPN (Maoist) party has intensified discussions on ending protracted political impasse including budget issues. Party Chairman Prachanda met Nepali Congress President Sushil Koirala and urged him to assist in unveiling full budget. The meeting came after former finance ministers suggested that the full-fledged budget should only be brought after consensus among the political parties.

Prachanda has said that the budget issues should not be used as political weapon and urged Koirala to assist in the process. Koirala, on his part, has said that a national consensus government was the only alternative to ending political deadlock, he claimed that it must be resolved prior to the budget.

Earlier, the ruling parties had decided to make a last ditch effort to forge consensus on the budget with opposition parties and introduce it unilaterally if consensus remains elusive.

Source: ekantipur.com, November 15-16, 2012.

Pakistan
SC drops contempt charge against PM

The Supreme Court of Pakistan has dropped the charge of contempt of court held against Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf. Finally bowing to the mounting pressure from the nation's highest court, the Prime Minister has asked Swiss authorities to re-open a graft case against President Asif Ali Zardari that had, among thousands of other cases, been subject to an amnesty under the military rule of Pervez Musharraf in 2007.

This latest development in an unprecedented stand-off between the judicial and executive branch that already led to the downfall of former PM Gilani now "puts the ball in the court of the Swiss'', according to a legal commentator.

Source: Express Tribune, November 15, 2012; The Dawn, November 14, 2012.

Balochistan constitutional crisis continues

The on-going Balochistan constitutional crisis that was sparked by the October 12 Supreme Court order to dissolve the current Government on grounds of the "deteriorating law and order situation" has apparently reached a climax.

Citing the interim court order and the resulting lack of legitimacy for the State Government to continue in office, Speaker Bhotani had repeatedly refused to chair Assembly sessions and this week, in his capacity as acting Governor, who is on medical leave, and cancelled a session that had been called for last week.

Mired in controversy and accusations of inefficiency and negligence, the Balochistan Chief Minister Raisani, however has been confirmed on Wednesday by a unanimous ad hoc assembly decision. In the meantime he has been temporarily suspended from his own party, the PPP, for "repeatedly violating party policy guidelines". The vote of confidence was possible through an alternative way of convening the Assembly through petition by a certain number of members, thus side-stepping Bhotani's earlier cancellation.

In response to the constitutional crisis, Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf has ordered Chief MinisterRaisani along with other PPP leaders to Islamabad in order to defuse and discuss the escalating situation. Since then, Quality Education Minister Jan Ali Changezi has been relieved of his post after criticizing CM Raisani for not adequately dealing with the alarming rate of Hazara killings in Balochistan.

Source: Express Tribune, November 14/16, 2012; The Dawn, November 14, 2012; The Nation, November 13, 2012.

Talks with Afghanistan revived

A delegation composed of members of the Afghani High Peace Council met with both civilian and military officials in Pakistan this week. Led by Salahuddin Rabbani, who met with Pakistani leaders for the first time, they resumed talks that had been put on hold after Rabbani's father, former president and then head of the high peace council BurhanuddinRabbani had been killed by a Taliban suicide attack in 2011.

Expectations for substantive outcomes were low on both sides, considering no Taliban representatives took part in the negotiations - a condition pointed out by experts as crucial prerequisite for the talks to provide real and lasting results.

However, in a move widely regarded as a major achievement, the Pakistani Government agreed to immediately release "seven to eight" Taliban prisoners, albeit without disclosing their names or identities. This gesture of good will seems to indicate that Pakistan, whose clandestine ties to several Taliban groups are widely suspected if not confirmed, wants to support the reconciliation efforts between the Kabul government and the Taliban.

Source: Reuters, November 14, 2012; BBC International, November 14, 2012; The Dawn, November 14, 2012; Express Tribune, November 13/16, 2012; The New York Times, November 14, 2012.

Sri Lanka

TNA for zones, not Provinces

The Government should do away with the existing provinces and introduce a system of devolution and administration consisting of three or four zones so that the expenditure to maintain nine provincial councils could be reduced, TNA leader R Sampanthan, MP said in Parliament. He warned that any attempt to repeal the 13thAmendment could cause grave harm and irreparable damage to the country's future.

Taking part in the second reading stage of the Budget debate, TNA Leader Sampanthan said any attempt to modify or nullify the 13thAmendment or to make it ineffective and worthless, would be counterproductive. "The 13thAmendment is the only provision that recognizes the diversity of the country to a certain extent."

The TNA leader said that the President had mentioned national reconciliation in his Budget speech. He demanded to know what had been meant by those words. He said: "People undergo hardships and are unable to repay loans. How could they think of reconciliation when they are over-burdened with economic difficulties? Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced due to war. No allocation has been made for them in these Budget proposals. Is this the way towards reconciliation?"

Source: Daily Mirror Online, November 14, 2012.

Army recruits 100 Tamil women

One hundred young Tamil women joined the Sri Lanka Army on November 17 at Killinochchi. Official recruitment of those soldiers was done according to Hindu custom, where the parents of those girls handed them over to the Army and they would serve the North once they completed their training period.

The highest-ranking Tamil woman in the Army is said to be a Major while there are at least one Tamil male Major-General and a senior Brigadier holding a doctoral degree.

Source: The Island, November 16, 2012.

Afghanistan
Talks on post-2014 security

The US and Afghanistan are set to begin negotiations on a new security arrangement once the US withdraws its troops from Afghanistan by 2014. The bilateral security arrangement is said to define the level of American troops in Afghanistan post-2014 and the scope of their mission. In particular, negotiators will attempt to set broad outlines for air rights over Afghanistan and the use and disposition of hundreds of US-built bases. They may also discuss potential roles for unmanned drone aircraft, as well as the future of existing U.S. drone ground control stations in Afghanistan.

The talks are expected to be difficult and could last up to a year. While, the US would want to ensure that the new arrangement can satisfy their goal of preventing Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for terrorists, Afghanistan would want to protect its sovereignty. The most contentious issue in this regard is the question of immunity from Afghan persecution of the US troops accused of crimes.

This was an issue that disrupted similar talks between the US and Iraq in 2011. The Afghan Government, which has long complained about the conduct of the US troops in Afghanistan, has demanded that they be answerable to the Afghan law. The U.S. has insisted that troops accused of crimes in Afghanistan be tried in the American legal system.

However, inspite of the suspicions regarding the US motives in Afghanistan, some Afghan lawmakers welcomed the beginning of the talks saying the pact was necessary to maintain long-term stability in the country.

Source: Los Angeles Times, November 15, 2012; Reuters, November 15, 2012; Tolo News, November 14, 2012.

Haqqani network to enter peace talks

A senior commander of the Haqqani network claimed that they were willing to enter into peace talks with the US if sanctioned by Mullah Omar. However, he said that they would keep up the military pressure on the US and continue to pursue their goal of establishing an Islamic state.

The commander added that the Haqqani network welcomed Obama's re-election, predicting he would be demoralised by battlefield losses and pull out U.S. forces earlier than expected. "From what we see on the ground, Obama would not wait for 2014 to call back his forces," he said.

Source: Reuters, November 13, 201; The Telegraph, November 13, 2012.

Pakistan frees Taliban prisoners

Pakistan released at least seven low to mid-level fighters at the request of the Afghan Government in an effort to jumpstart a shaky peace process with the insurgent group. Mullah Nooruddin Toorabi, the former hardline Taliban justice minister who ordered men to grow beards, is said to be among the prisoners released.

Pakistan refused to release Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the former No 2 in the Taliban hierarchy who Kabul considers as the key to the success of its reconciliation plan, and has sought from Pakistan his release on several occasions. However, Pakistani officials have said that they would consider releasing Baradar if the current releases of Taliban members help advance the peace process.

The effort on the part of Pakistan is the most positive sign that Islamabad is willing to play a constructive role in the reconciliation process in Afghanistan. A joint statement issued by Pakistan and Afghanistan noted that Pakistan "supports Afghanistan's vision and road map for achieving durable and lasting peace" and that all sides would "facilitate safe passage to potential negotiators to advance the reconciliation process." The two countries also reiterated calls for the Taliban to cut its ties to Al Qaeda ? a major American demand.

Source: Reuters, November 15, 2012; The Christian Science Monitor, November 14, 2012; The Express Tribune, November 12, 2012; The New York Times, November 14, 2012.

Bangladesh
PM's trip to Pakistan scrapped

In a major development Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has cancelled her trip to Pakistan scheduled for later this month. The overlapping of the celebration of Armed Forces Day with the schedule of the visit was forwarded as the reason for the cancellation of the trip. Interestingly, no official announcement was made in this regard.

It needs to be recalled that Pakistan's Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar had visited Bangladesh on November 9 to formally invite Sheikh Hasina to attend the 8th D-8 summit to be held in Islamabad. During her visit the Government demanded unconditional apology for the genocide committed by Pakistani Army in the Bangladesh's Independence War of 1971. However, Khar responded to the demand by advising Bangladesh to look forward and forget the past.

Bangladesh-Pakistan bilateral engagement in the last four years has been limited during the term of the current Government led by the Awami League, the party which led the nation's freedom struggle. Bangladesh became independent after a bloody battle against Pakistan for nine months in 1971.

Source: bdnews24.com, November 15, 2012.

Politics over Khaleda's India visit

Politics in Bangladesh has warmed up over Opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party Chairman Begum Khaleda Zia's recent visit to India. Commenting on the visit, Prime Minister and Awami League chief Sheikh Hasina had alleged this week that leader of the opposition, Begum Zia, was playing a double game with people. Hasina accused Begum Zia of forgetting to raise her ( Begum Zia) demand before Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, for due share of the water of the Ganga. Hasina further expressed doubt about whether Khaleda Zia had forgotten to raise the Tipaimukh Dam and Teesta River water issue during her India visit.

Khaleda Zia was known for her reservations towards Bangladesh's relations with India. Her visit to India earlier this month surprised many and has been perceived as a major shift to the party's policy.

Source: The Independent, November 12, 2012.

Myanmar plans to boost border trade

To boost trade with Bangladesh Myanmar is planning to establish a wholesale market and to hold trade fairs along its border with Bangladesh. This revelation was made by Pwint San, Myanmar's deputy commerce minister, who visited Bangladesh in the week. San informed that communal tension in the region bordering Bangladesh has been the reason for the delay in enhancement of border trade. San was hopeful that improvement of situation in the bordering region will increase border trade.

After decades of military rule Myanmar has opened its economy, making it easier for Bangladeshi businessmen to engage in trade with Myanmar. Letters of credit with Myanmar could now be opened directly, while in the past trade was done through a third-party country, mainly Singapore.

Source: The Daily Star, November 12, 2012.

Contributors:

Afghanistan: Aryaman Bhatnagar;
Bangladesh: Joyeeta Bhattacharjee;
Bhutan and Myanmar: Sripathi Narayan;
India:Satish Misra;
Nepal: Akanshya Shah;
Pakistan: Matthias Vollhardt
Maldives & Sri Lanka: N Sathiya Moorthy;