Bangladesh 2017: The year in assessment
The year 2017 will be remembered in Bangladesh as a year of stability. There were no major incidences of violence, either political or militancy- related.
The year started with the horror memory of the terrorist-attack in a restaurant in Dhaka that killed more than 20 persons in July 2016. In spite of speculation about the likely escalation of terrorist activities in 2017, the country was able to avoid any major terrorist attacks following year-long counter-terrorism operations carried by security agencies.
Again, 2017 was noteworthy also because of limited occurrence of incidents of hartals (street-protest), an integral characteristic of the country’s political parties. Earlier, hartals staged by political parties were major cause of violence in the country. This does not necessarily indicate transformation of the political culture. Contrarily, observers suggest that unorganised cadre- base of the Opposition, fear of repressive measures of the government like forced disappearances of critics and the like as among the reasons for a steep fall in the number of hartals in the year.
Some rights-based international organisations have expressed concern over the issue of disappearances of critics and are accusing the ruling government of its connivance. The Human Rights Watch (HRW), in a July report, accused the government of secretly detaining hundreds of people, mostly activists and political figures opposed to Sheikh Hasina’s government. Media reports have claimed that at least 14 persons had disappeared in the last four months of 2017. The government, however, has denied such allegations.
On the economic front too, 2017 was a positive year for Bangladesh. The country registered more than seven per cent growth compared to the previous year. The country’s economy is steadily growing above six per cent for more than a decade now.
The most significant development for and in Bangladesh in 2017 was the exodus of Rohingya refugees from neighbouring Myanmar, following the outbreak of military violence against them. In August, streams of Rohingyas from the Rakhine border province started to flood Bangladesh. Around 600,000 refugees came to Bangladesh, making it one of the biggest episodes of forced cross-border movement of people in recent years.
On the positive side, the ‘Rohingya issue’ showed up Bangladesh’s maturity in responding to any crisis situation — however sudden it might be. It also showed the nation’s diplomatic skill in garnering support for the repatriation of Rohingyas from across the international community. Though the influx of Rohingya refugees was sudden, the country was able to manage initial relief assistance without any major hiccups and from internal resources. Again, through active diplomacy, it not only was able to gather relief assistance from the international community but also could move world opinion against the violence on Rohingyas.
As an outcome of diplomacy, Bangladesh and Myanmar also signed an agreement envisioning the return of Rohingya refugees in November. One of the major reasons for Bangladesh’s agony on the Rohingya issue was Myanmar’s refusal to recognise Rohingyas as their citizens. The agreement signed in November has brought some solace to the country, and also for the refugee people.
Another important development of the year was the beginning of the construction of the country’s first nuclear power plant in November 2017. The plant is built with Russian technology. This marks a new era for the country’s energy security, which is largely dependent on the natural gas, which is said to be depleting rapidly. The country is looking for new sources for energy and nuclear power is considered an important option.
With the parliamentary elections due later this year or early next year, the this year is going to be important politically. It is assumed that activities of the political parties will increase this year. However, the nature and tactics of political parties or their current strength is unclear as yet. Besides, there are fears about possible resurgence of militant activities as terror groups have not been fully neutralised. The year is still nascent, hence predictions of any kind at this stage is also too early. However, on most fronts, if not all, the course of events in the year will decide the future of the Bangladesh.
(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi).
Sri Lanka: Year for a closer watch by India?
N Sathiya Moorthy
Whether or not the Sri Lanka mends its domestic, political ways and behaviour in the New Year, starting with an eventful first quarter, it may become pertinent for the larger India up North, divided only by a small stretch of sea, to keep a closer watch on the island-nation for what all it may be worth, over the short, medium and long terms. This does not mean that India, or even Sri Lanka, should be concerned about any immediate revival of JVP kind of militancy or the more recent LTTE brand of terrorism, leave aside any ‘external invasion’ of the impossible kind, but then there would be no harm in the two nations working on the security front more than already, if only to upstage any possibility of the kind.
The New Year promises greater and possibly more direct political instability in and for Sri Lanka, what with the first quarter promising more than what even a resilient nation has got used to handling. Post-war, conventional laxity has set in, and the nation does not seem wanting to shake it all off and walk a new path that the incumbent ‘Government of National Unity’ (GNU) promised while taking over from a more stable but visibly autocratic and corrupt regime under President Percy Mahinda Rajapaksa.
No one expected overnight and/or outright political stability of a majority/majoritarian Government with absolute majority for an incumbent President’s party in Parliament too, especially when the nation was experimenting with a unique political readjustment. Yet, what has actually followed is a calculated political one-upmanship between President Maithiripala Sirisena of the SLFP and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s majority UNP partner in Parliament and outside.
Over the past three years of the Government’s continuance, bordering on sheer survival, both domestic commentators and international supporters have been sympathetic to Sri Lanka’s plight and that of the current coalition government, be it on the corruption and governance fronts (in the case of the former) and on the much talked and threatened about ‘war crimes probe’ in the case of the latter. But they will have to have greater patience bordering on outright indifference and worse if they were to continue taking the upcoming and developments in the country with more than bags full of salt, pepper and all.
In the pipeline
It may be a travesty of the emerging domestic situation in Sri Lanka if anyone locally should link the unexpressed Indian concerns to the continuing reality of direct Chinese presence and domination in the immediate Indian Ocean neighbourhood, more so when the Hambantota swap-deal Bill is presented to Parliament for ratification by March, as reported. In December 2017, China handed over the first tranche of $ 292-m equity price for the long-term port lease, which Sri Lankan Prime Minister Wickremesinghe in an unwitting cover-up declared was the single largest cheque the nation had received in all time.
If the joint opposition of former President Rajapaksa did not embarrass the Government and the Prime Minister more than contesting the equity-swap, it owed to their inviting China to the nation when in power than owing to any domestic political or economic justification. This may not be the case in the New Year, when the Government brings forward the new Bill before Parliament, where the joint oppositioin especially is likely to contest the surrender of Sri Lankan sovereignty, if only to embarrass and ‘expose’ the Government parties and ‘outside supporters’, including the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), not to leave out ‘disenchanted sections’ within Sirisena-led ministerial faction of the SLFP.
Instead, what should be concern to Sri Lanka in particular, and by extension to India, may be other purely domestic developments. Addressing the nation in the New Year, President Sirisena has promised special laws to recover the massive losses suffered by the Exchequer in the Central Bank (CB) bonds scam under the current government’s care. The Presidential Commission of Inquiry earlier appointed by Sirisena presented its report at the end of the bygone year, and the President could not have but come out with his decision, if only to avoid a direct hit at from him from the political Opposition and other domestic critics, especially ahead of the much-delayed, nation-wide local government polls, scheduled for February.
If the President’s camp thought that they had staved off either political criticism and/or a judicial pronouncement/criticism, by appointed the bonds probe panel, after the Supreme Court had begun taking an unavoidable interest, it is now not to be. Pointing to the fact that Sirisena had appointed Wickremesinghe’s choice of Singapore citizen Arjun Mahendran as the Central Bank Governor, and that he had also presided over Cabinet meetings where the bonds decision was approved in the first place, critics have also charged the Prime Minister with possible ‘active collusion’ despite the probe fixing political responsibility only on sacked UNP Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake of the time.
Sri Lankan critics in particular have also pointed to the fact that the first of the two bonds scams of this government happened in the first month of the new Government, in February 2015 to be precise. They imply that not only did Ranil’s choice of Mahendran for CB Governor, but also possible details of the impending scam had been worked out by those concerned even before they had won the elections and Sirisena had become President in the 8 January elections that very year.
Likewise, the joint opposition in particular has also pointed to Sirisena hurriedly dissolving Parliament, long after the passage of his pre-poll promise of fresh polls within 100 days of coming to office, on the very eve the House was to vote on a no-trust vote against Minister Karunanayake. With the SLFP parliamentary numbers weighed more in favour of the Rajapaksa camp, there was every chance that Karunanayake would have lost his job, the Opposition now claims, pointing out that the second bonds scam occurred during the parliamentary interregnum, ahead of the 18 August polls.
LG polls and after
What should be of equal and equally immediate concern for the Government parties is the 10 February local government polls. Though the TNA is likely to retain the North and Tamil areas in the East, despite a continuing internal shadow-boxing, in the larger Sinhala areas, the Government is already weighed down by ‘incumbency’ on the one hand and inevitable divisions between the SLFP and UNP partners, inherent to such coalition arrangements without an eye on the immediate and the medium term.
In the milieu, the two major Government partners are contesting against each other, as at the 2015 parliamentary polls but with the Rajapaksa faction of the SLFP contesting alone. The last time the Sirisena SLFP managed to hide its political and electoral weaknesses, over-shadowing their acquired parliamentary majority, they too had allowed the rival party faction to project Mahinda R as their common prime ministerial candidate without the party boss acknowledging it as such. Today, there is thus a three-way contest among the Sinhala majors in Sinhala-majority areas across the country, with the likes of JVP and lesser parties too in the fray, independent of a strong joint opposition under Brothers Rajapaksa.
All of it foretells a nebulous to rocky post-poll situation, flowing from the LG elections. While the results in no way would interfere directly with the parliamentary majority of the Government, any greater say for the opposition, as some sections predict, either viz the Sirisena SLFP and/or the traditional rival in the UNP could mean an early attempt at realignment inside Parliament and outside, as MPs in the presidential faction especially may begin reconsidering their own chances of winning back their seats in the next parliamentary polls, even if not due before August 2020, preceded by presidential elections in January that year.
Across the world, more so the so-called democratic world, more pronouncement and noticeable with the turn of the new millennium and the advent, accessibility and popularity of the social media, GenNext youth have been feeling that their aspirations, political promises and electoral behaviour are linked to one another, but in the end are put at naught by the polity and the State. If the foot-soldiers of the IS world-wide are seen as a product of such a turn, even in the oldest democracy in the US and the largest democracy, India, the social media and GenNext youth decided the fate of popular mandate.
Sri Lanka was no exception. Leave aside the minority voters of the Tamil and Muslim community, en bloc, the incumbent President and the Prime Minister both owe their positions to a section of the youthful voters belonging to the majority community, swayed as they were by the social media, whose penetration and consequent influence in semi-urban centres was palpable in the electoral results. In the land of forgotten JVP militancy, they are a frustrated lot, what with similar charges of corruption, economic downtrend and job losses all remain as with the out-voted Rajapaksa regime, with the restoration of the people’s democratic voice and space giving them also an extra edge, unavailable earlier.
In the Tamil North, the internal feuds within the TNA and the ‘predictable’ political waywardness of the Sinhala majority polity, leading to eternal postponement of the promised constitutional reforms, all have a making of a frustration that in its time had fed the formation of youth militancy and consolidation of the LTTE from among them. This does not mean that the past, be it the JVP kind of Sinhala socialist militancy, or the LTTE type of ethnic terrorism are back and here.
At least there is no JVP type militancy in the air just now, but the socio-economic causes remain and are more pronounced. LTTE rump is there, both inside the country, and more visible and protected outside. Both are causes for concern for the Sri Lankan State, which otherwise has tied itself down in knots. The Sinhala left militancy, or stronger politics of the kind initially, may not impact India directly, at least in the initial stages.
Truth be acknowledged, the twin ‘JVP insurgencies’ of 1971 and 1987 did not owe to any support from India, which was involved only in crushing the same. That was/is not the case with any revival of LTTE kind of Tamil militancy, which may not still want to use India as its base as even during the IPKF era, but definitely could stir up political support, across the Palk Strait, in Tamil Nadu, and possibly so even in ‘distant’ Delhi. Year-2018, starting with the first quarter, could hold the light to the future, though not necessarily the key.
(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter)
Many militants killed in air-strikes
Airstrikes against the ISIS continue in the Nangarhar province of Afghanistan. The assault left several militants dead, as was confirmed by the provincial government media office. Another counter terrorism airstrike in Gorgori, in Shabe and in Esta Karan, earlier in the week had killed almost fifteen ISIS militants. Nagarhar province is now relatively calm but the security situation in the country is deteriorating. The ISIS insurgents have yet refrained from making any comments in this regard.
11 killed in blast
The police district of Bani Hesar in Kabul witnessed a massive explosion recently, which left many dead or injured. According to the Ministry of Public Health, at least 11 persons were killed and 20 injured. Though no group has claimed responsibility for the attack, a suicide-bomber is the suspected trigger. The attack is believed to be one of the deadliest among the many unleashed in Kabul by insurgents.
Hekmatyar calls for peace
At a news conference in Kabul, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, leader of the Hezb-e-Islami party, confirmed that the group was in touch with the Taliban to encourage the latter for peace talks. Hekmatyar further urged all political parties to encourage the peace process by engaging in political rivalries rather than armed attacks, and resisting from making provocative remarks likely to spark religious discrimination and chaos. He added that if any changes are desired in the present government, they should be done legally.
Dostum has ‘right to return’
Ata Mohammad Noor, chief executive of Jamia-e-Islami, has declared that Afghanistan’s Vice-President Abdul Rashid Dostum has the right to return to Afghanistan and re-assume office. Following the accusative rumours of sexual-abuse, Dostum had left the country for and it was reported that four months ago his plane was prevented from landing at the Balk airport. Noor said that it was a part of the government’s ploy to lay aside influential political figures and is critical of the same.
Khaleda faces arrest
A court this week issued an arrest warrant against opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) chief and former prime minister Begum Khaleda Zia accusing her involvement in an arson attack during an anti-government protest two years back. Law enforcement officials found Zia and 48 others responsible for the attack on a bus that killed eight people in 2015. Possibility of her arrest is very limited she often gets legal protection from the High Court against arrest or harassment. It is not the first arrest warrant against Zia. There are multiple cases against her. Zia’s party claims cases against her are politically motivated.
Neo-JMB cadres held
The security agencies have arrested two activists of Neo JMB, the dreaded militant organisation alleged to have been involved in many incidents of militancy in the country. The militants were conspiring to launch attacks on the law enforcement agencies, it is said.
Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay dismissed the speculation of strategic civil service pay hike before the 2018 elections. Tobgay said that such hike before the general elections would be driven by political interests, and such a hike might hurt the economy of the country.
‘Dress’ debate still on
Dzongkhag Tshogdu (DT) of Zhemgang District will re-deliberate on its earlier decision of making it compulsory to wear the national dress from 9 am to 5 pm. However, from an early indication, it looks like the DT may decide to uphold its previous decision if it goes by the feedback received during the recent consultations.
LPG price-hike denied
Minister for Economic Affairs, Lekey Dorji dismissed the rumors that there would be a big price rise for subsidised cylinders from January. The minister said there would be no dramatic price changes from January. He said the gas depots have also not been able to pick up Bhutan’s full monthly quota of 750 metric tons of subsidized LPG gas.
P-81 deal cleared
The Ministry of Defence has given final approval for the purchase of P-81 long-range maritime patrol aircraft for the navy. The MoD also cleared the purchase of electronic warfare for the army. P-81 will be purchased from the Boeing corporation for Rs 1949.32 crore and comes with a 10-year comprehensive maintenance service. This apart, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has also cleared Low -ntensity Conflict Electronic Warfare System for the army will be purchased from the Bharat Electronics Limited at a cost of 470 crore.
Indian denounces Pak’s Jadhav video
Indian foreign Ministry spokesperson Raveesh Kumar denounced the video released by Pakistan confessing that he was a serving officer of the Indian Navy and that a diplomat who accompanied his family for a meeting with him on 25 December shouted at his mother. Jadhav was in April last year sentenced to death by Pakistan Field General Court Martial on charges of his alleged “involvement in espionage and sabotage activities” against Pakistan.
Aadhar misuse ‘traceable’
The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) on Thursday dismissed the reports of full Aadhar details being made available on payment of 500 rupees by anonymous seller. The UIDAI stated that there has not been any Aadhar data breach and that the issuing authority has given the “search facility” for grievance redressal to designated officials to help residents. The UIDAI said legal action, including FIR against the person involved in the case, is being initiated.
Mallya ‘proclaimed offender’
A Delhi court has declared Vijay Mallya a proclaimed offender in the FERA (Foreign Exchange Regulation Act) violation case of 1995. The case is related to his non-appearance before the ED despite issuing four summons between 1999 and 2000 for investigation into charges of entering into an agreement with London-based company Messers Benetton Formula Limited in 1995. Chief Metropolitan Magistrate, Deepak Shehrawat, declared Mallya proclaimed offender after the latter failed to appear before the court despite a lapse of more than 30 days.
Ahead of the November presidential polls, the Government of President Abdulla Yameen has contracted a local technology company for the purchase of 71,000 tablets to digitise the nation’s schools. With limited scope for collegiate education of any kind, school education, that through Government schools, has great significance in the country, with families shifting to larger islands, and on many occasions to capital Male, thus changing the nation’s demographic profile, too.
Japan important: Yameen
Japan is an important partner in the socio-economic development of Maldives, President Abdulla Yameen said, during the Male visit of Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono, the first in many years. In turn, Kono said that Japan wanted prosperity of the Maldivian economy even as in New Delhi, Maldivian Ambassador Ahmed Mohamed, criticised Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for cancelling his 2015 state visit, claiming that his Government was kept in the dark over the reason behind the Indian decision.
President calls for reforms
President Htin Kway, in his Independence Day speech on January 4, called for reform of the military-drafted constitution. He also called for justice for all recognised minorities under a federal system, but made no mention of the treatment of its Rohingya Muslim people.
Rakhine State, a ‘challenge’
The ruling National League for Democracy addressed the crisis in the Rakhine state as a “challenge to national sovereignty and dignity,” according to a statement from the NLD, on the occasion of the 70th Independence Day on January 4.
KIA accuses army
The Kachin Independence Army (KIA) has accused the government forces of launching assaults on several positions across Kachin state, including rounds of artillery directed at the Kachin army’s headquarters at Laiza on the Sino-Myanmar border.
Deuba appoints Governors
Amidst a lot of disagreement, Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba has finally received the responsibility of appointing the Provincial Governors and adjusting the temporary provincial capital. This decision was in line with the compliance provided by the leaders of the Left Alliance. Since the National Assembly elections are due only in February, this was the best possible way out for some stability.
President wants poll results
Given the priority for necessitating the formation of the new government, President Bidya Devi Bhandari called upon the Election Commission of Nepal to come up with the final poll results at the earliest. Chief Election Commissioner Ayodhee Prasad Yadav has been instructed to do the needful to facilitate the process as per the people’s mandate. The EC could also attempt political consensus, if necessary.
The Nepal Rastra Bank recently noted the inflow of around Rs 151 billion worth of Foreign Direct Investment. With the sole motive of promoting exports, the Society of Economic Journalists (SEJON) organised a programme, identifying 252 companies of such investment. Several suggestions came up, like reflecting upon the fixed exchange regime with India and increasing the capacity of the private sector enterprise.
Aid only for ‘act’: US
The US Trump administration has announced the freezing of its further military aid. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert stated at a briefing that Pakistan has been one of the worst sufferers of terrorism. Yet, they have not taken adequate steps to combat that. He expected that withholding military aid might “change the situation”. The spokesperson also 2clarified that humanitarian assistance will not be stopped at this point.
The Pakistan navy conducted live weapon firing of a newly commissioned fast attack craft surface to surface missile. PNS Himmat fired the indigenously developed Harbah Cruise Missile in the North Arabian Sea. The Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Zafar Mahmood Abbasi lauded the efforts made by engineers and researchers for achieving this significant milestone in Pakistani military history. He laid emphasis on the development of indigenous capabilities and re-affirmed Pakistan Navy’s resolve of securing the country’s national maritime interest at any cost.
Refugees’ stay extended
In a sixth extension granted to Afghani refugees, the government of Pakistan extended their stay for another 30 days. The Ministry of States and Frontier Regions had suggested to the Prime Minister’s Secretariat that the refugees be granted to stay till December 2018. However, a cabinet meeting presided by Pakistan Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbassi decided that only 30 days extension will be allowed. In the beginning of the meeting, Foreign Secretary Khawaja Asif briefed the cabinet regarding current American allegations upon Pakistan and the cabinet unanimously agreed that such allegations were detrimental US-Pakistan bi-lateral ties.
Bonds scam: President promises new laws
Addressing the nation on the Central Bank bonds scam probe commission’s report, President Maithiripala Sirisena has promised new laws to recover the massive losses to the Exchequer. Bowing to the Joint Opposition demand, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, whose UNP partner in the coalition government, is on the dock over the scam even as political attempts are on to fix him as also Sirisena for their alleged culpability.
In London, Sri Lanka Army chief, Lt-Gen Mahesh Senanayake has said that efforts are now on for ‘right-sizing’ the Army a decade after the end of the ‘ethnic war’ in the country. However, there was no question of ‘down-sizing’, indicating that they were attempting only re-distribution of army duties, by increasing the Navy and Air Force strength and stabilising the Army, which was fighting a land-war with the LTTE.
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Afghanistan: Sohini Bose
Pakistan: Mayuri Banerjee
Bangladesh: Dr Joyeeta Bhattacharjee
Bhutan & Myanmar: Mihiir Bhonsale
India: Ketan Mehta
Maldives & Sri Lanka: N Sathiya Moorthy
Nepal: Sohini Nayak