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Sri Lanka: not only a question of short-term security August 31, 2009

Posted by southasiamasala in : Perera, Jehan, Sri Lanka , comments closed

Jehan Perera

The issue that is proving to be the most contentious in Sri Lanka’s post-war context is that of the approximately 280,000 internally displaced persons who are presently confined to 32 welfare centres in the North.  This is taken as a necessary, and temporary, situation by the Sri Lankan government and a majority of the people.  The government has come under increased pressure to improve the conditions of those camps, which it is committed to doing, and also to release the people, which it has problems in doing.

While the facilities within the welfare camps have been a source of concern, the most controversial issue has been the barbed wire fences and army guards that surround them, which deny to the people the freedom to move.  There has also been no registering of people in a transparent manner. Hence even if people disappear there is no way to trace them.  The government has claimed that over 10,000 LTTE cadre have been discovered in these camps, and that there are more to be found.

tamil refugee camp

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Afghanistan’s Elections: the eye of the storm August 28, 2009

Posted by southasiamasala in : Afghanistan, Maley, William , comments closed

William Maley

This article first appeared in The Canberra Times on 25 August 2009

At 6 am on 20 August, I headed out from my hotel in the Kabul Shahr-e Naw district to join a team of observers visiting polling places in different parts of the Afghan capital. Most election observation by international observer teams is as much an exercise in confidence building as in detailed monitoring, since at best one can witness only a tiny fraction of the vote-casting even at a single polling station. My own day proved quite uneventful. A bomb blast in a nearby suburb, and a gunfight downtown, did nothing to disrupt my monitoring, and in the polling places I visited, the polling staff conducted themselves well, right down to the proper recording of serial numbers on the tamperproof seals that hold the lids of ballot boxes in place. Many journalists in Kabul saw much the same thing, and this lent a distinct tone of relief to reporting of election day.

Yet this represents only a small part of the story. Across Afghanistan, there were roughly six times as many violent incidents as one would expect on a ‘normal’ late summer day, and it is now clear that this, along with a generalized fear of carnage, had a major impact on turnout, especially of women. In the entire province of Uruzgan, in which Australian troops are based, only 6 polling stations for women actually opened, meaning that only 3600 ballot papers were available for women. And in the province of Kandahar, informed international staff concluded that even a suggested turnout figure of 5 per cent was a gross exaggeration. This is part of a different and alarming story about what actually happened on polling day.

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The China-India border issue: mired in the international politics of competing perceptions, mythmaking, and obfuscations August 27, 2009

Posted by southasiamasala in : Guest authors, India , comments closed

Guest author, Dibyesh Anand, University of Westminster

The recent warming up of international relations between China and India, as evidenced by frequent exchanges of high level visits and a massive increase in trade, has failed to replicate the fraternal relations of early 1950s, and the biggest hurdle in this is the unresolved border dispute. The legacy of the 1962 border war is very much alive as the nationalist narratives in both countries adopt a register of blame rather than critical examination and mutual understanding. Recently, the media in both the countries played up the disagreements; even a minor action by one country or statement by a leader gets amplified and sensationalised. There is no tangible evidence that allows commentators to ascribe responsibility to one or the other side and a fruitful way forward is to shift away from cataloguing blame to a critical understanding.

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Almost half a century on from the war, the dominant thinking in India continues to vacillate between accusing China of ‘stabbing in the back’ and blaming Jawaharlal Nehru for his naive and idealistic foreign policies. Even though a serious researcher can recognise the highly ideological and problematic nature of such a framing, Indian policy makers and politicians find it very difficult to shift away from it because the border issue is as much about national legitimacy as it is about state security. Revisiting the China-India border relations with an open mind is likely to be perceived as a betrayal of national interest by the general public that has been socialised into a victimisation paradigm. While democratic politics, and fear of being accused of selling out, engenders a conservatism amongst the Indian negotiators, there is hardly any statesman today who can bring about a radical shift of perception. Chinese actions, real as well as perceived, in Tibetan regions and countries around India (especially in Pakistan), increase the distrust and paranoia in India about China’s intentions.

The revisionist scholarship of Neville Maxwell and a few others who put the blame solely on India, and describe the 1962 war in terms of pre-emptive self-defence or punitive expedition by an aggrieved China, is refreshing but should be read with caution because they avoid a serious engagement with the domestic and international compulsions of the Chinese leadership in 1950s and 1960s. Chinese commentators who rely upon the Revisionist historians to buttress their claims do not offer a criticism of Chinese leadership during the war. Re-examination of what went wrong with China-India relations continues to consider Communist Party leadership of the time as beyond scrutiny and in this sense remains as blinkered as the dominant Indian position. A lack of self-reflection on the border issue comes mainly from a warped nationalism in India; in China it is a product of a political system that frowns upon dissent.

While the Chinese position on the illegality of the McMahon Line has remained constant, the exact details of their claims to territories has shifted regularly. The principle behind the Chinese claim – lands that belonged to Tibet belong to China unless China has come to a different settlement through negotiations – is not as straightforward as it appears. In its zeal to modernise the historically and culturally complicated Sino-Tibetan relations, China ignores the fact that the ideas of sovereign statehood, clear boundaries, and distinct national identities were imposed in the Himalayan region only in twentieth century through the aegis first of British imperialism and then the postcolonial state-building.

Contrary to the widely held view of the Himalayan region as an impregnable natural barrier, the Himalayan region until the middle of the previous century was a zone of interaction through movements of people, goods, and ideas facilitated by a pluralistic yet shared sense of Tibetan Buddhism-influenced culture. The geopolitics of boundary formation and the state projects of nation-building did not appreciate the desires and interests of people living on the borders and in this China, as much as India, is guilty. Both countries are what I call ‘postcolonial informal empires’, accepting cultural differences in the borderlands but intolerant of any political difference.

The only durable way out for China-India is a willingness to forget history, and to negotiate seriously because it is not sovereignty but wellbeing of borderland peoples that should be the primary concern. Sovereignty claims without development and wellbeing serves no one’s long term interests; greatness lies not in the exercise of coercive control, but in a capacity to negotiate, compromise and move on.

This contribution first appeared in The East Asia Forum, a sister ANU web log.

Taliban in tribal Pakistan: down but not out? August 26, 2009

Posted by southasiamasala in : Kirpalani, Kunal P, Pakistan , comments closed

Kunal P. Kirpalani

Latest BBC reports confirm the death of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) leader Baitullah Mehsood.  Reports of his death have ignited an intense debate: is the TTP  ’on the run’ from Pakistani government forces or is it biding its time and awaiting an opportunistic moment to return, just as it did in Afghanistan?

Prior to the hardening of the resolve of the Pakistani government, there were widespread fears of ‘talibanisation’ generated by the takeover of the strategically valued Swat and Buner districts in Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP). By March of this year, the Taliban were only about 150 km away from Islamabad. They were ramping up their annexation of tribal districts. It was taken as an indicator of a ‘doomsday’ scenario in which a moderate Muslim country would be overrun by Taliban militants intent on creating a regime similar to that of the repressive and backward Taliban-administered Afghanistan of the 1990s.

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The Australia-India bilateral relationship: neglected or out of sync? August 25, 2009

Posted by southasiamasala in : India, Weigold, Auriol , comments closed

Auriol Weigold

Sixty-two years ago at “the stroke of the midnight hour” on 14/15 August 1947, India became an independent nation, its recent anniversary celebrated with congratulatory and hopeful words. Since 1947, however, the Australia-India bilateral relationship has attracted many ambivalent phrases to describe the stop-start, hot-cold nature of our bilateral connection.

Such phrases have suggested, for example, that Australia and India inhabit only each others’ peripheral vision, that India is Australia’s blind spot, that each should send the other the right signals about progressing the relationship and, perhaps the most graphic description of our on-again-off-again relationship, an allusion to the Grand Old Duke of York who “marched his men to the top of the hill, then marched them down again” – repeatedly.

Despite our many shared values and commonalities from democracy to cricket, these epithets resonate.  How indicative are they of ongoing reservations? Arguably they express both nations’ awareness of a gulf between their international priorities over time.

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India and Australia: back to the future August 24, 2009

Posted by southasiamasala in : India, Stoddart, Brian , comments closed

Brian Stoddart

One interesting book on my shelves has some evocative chapter titles: Australia’s Need for Exports; The New India; Is India Stable?; Must India Remain Poor; The Resources of India; India’s Financial Position; What Does India Plan?; Australia’s Trade with India; Australia’s Participation in the New Indian Market. That book might well have been published in the past few months but it is, of course, Bertram Stevens’ New Horizons: a Study of Australian-Indian Relationships published in 1946.

The evocation for me springs from two major sources.

First, Australia does have a long history of interaction with India as we all know. One long-term resident of Madras, for example, recalled watching Australian horses thrown overboard off the southern port and herded towards shore in the 1870s, perhaps at least a hundred years after the ‘Walers’ first appeared in India. Australian racehorses, jockeys, trainers and bookmakers were all prevalent in the later nineteenth century, as were polo players and cricket coaches in the early twentieth. That was without counting missionaries and teachers and business people and all the rest who went there from very early points.

That was transformed a few generations on into a strong academic interest with the line, perhaps, beginning with Sir Harold Bailey who, although born in England, grew up in Western Australia where he trained in linguistics before going back to England where he became pre-eminent in South Asian languages. By the 1960s history and politics had become the prime focus and Australia was a world centre for India expertise.

But that leads to the second evocation, which is: how did it all go so wrong? We now have columnists telling us to get interested in India when we have already cycled at least a couple of academic generations through the system and having failed to convince successive governments of what Stevens was telling us over sixty years ago: India is important!

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India and the Copenhagen summit August 20, 2009

Posted by southasiamasala in : India, Jha, Raghbendra , comments closed

Raghbendra Jha

As the world moves inexorably towards the Climate Summit in Copenhagen in end 2009, immense pressure has been brought to bear on India to accept legally binding carbon emissions targets.  The latest attempt  to pressure India came from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during her recently concluded visit to India.

Such pressures on India and some other countries (particularly China) are occurring against the backdrop of a new wave of environmental activism among western commentators over the climate change debate.  For example, Al Gore has called on all countries to place an immediate moratorium on coal-fired power plants. This would simply be a no go for India. More than half of the 800,000 megawatts of power India plans to produce by 2030 are to come from coal-fired plants because coal is abundant in India and other energy sources are relatively scarce.

Turbines-thar-india

Wind turbines in the Thar desert, India.  Source: Wiki commons. (more…)

Doha Round: what India’s new government needs to do August 19, 2009

Posted by southasiamasala in : India, Kalirajan, Kaliappa , comments closed

Kaliappa Kalirajan

Though India has demonstrated that there exists broad political support for its economic reform program, agricultural trade policy reforms need to be accelerated. The new government enjoys a better standing than before in terms of stability.  Its challenge now is to mitigate the inefficiency that exists in Indian agriculture and close the gap between its potential and actual performances by implementing a proper policy framework.

As a net exporter in agriculture products, India has more to gain than to lose from trade reforms. It has sufficiently high bound rates on most of the products and therefore flexibility can be ensured against unfair competition. It does not have to worry about its agricultural subsidies as they are already below the required ceiling. And it also does not have any serious domestic opposition to reckon with. All of these factors place India in an advantageous position. (more…)

The Afghan presidential elections: some scenarios August 18, 2009

Posted by southasiamasala in : Afghanistan, Maley, William , comments closed

William Maley

With Afghanistan’s presidential election only days away, the political temperature is beginning to rise notably. A suicide bomb blast outside NATO-ISAF headquarters in the heart of Kabul on Saturday August 15 pointed to the capacity of Taliban militants to strike at a heavily-protected targets, and a ‘night-letter’ (shabnamah) posted near mosques in Kandahar on 16 August signaled a direct threat to polling places in Afghanistan’s south. The Taliban seem to be keen to strike at Afghanistan’s election where they can. But the exact nature of the outcome that they are seeking remains obscure. Their aim may be to wreck the electoral process as a whole, but it might also be to strike a direct blow against President Karzai.

The presidential election will be conducted using a variant of the French system. If no candidate secures more than 50% of the vote in the first round of voting (scheduled for 20 August), then a second round (notionally scheduled for 1 October) will be held between the two candidates who did best in the first round. President Karzai won only 55.4% of the vote in the October 2004 election, when according to Asia Foundation polling, 64% of respondents believed the country was going in the right direction. It would be astounding if in 2009, when the most recent Asia Foundation polling suggests that only 38% of respondents believed the country was going in the right direction, he were still able to win more than 50%. In all the circumstances, a run-off seems highly likely; a first-round Karzai victory would likely trigger a rish of fraud allegations. (more…)

Afghanistan: a British nightmare? August 18, 2009

Posted by southasiamasala in : Afghanistan, Saikal, Amin , comments closed

Amin Saikal

General Sir David Richards, the incoming head of the British Army and former commander of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, has predicted that the British involvement in Afghanistan’s state and security building could last for another four decades. His comment, which comes at a time when the number of British troops killed and wounded has dramatically escalated and the domestic support for the Afghan war has evaporated, is bound to invoke further among the Afghans the bitter historical memory of British interferences in their country. This can only assist the Taliban and their supporters to reinforce their claim that the British have come once again to subjugate Afghanistan.

Of course, it was a strategic mistake from the start to deploy British troops in the hotbed of the Taliban insurgency in Helmand Province along the border with Pakistan. The Taliban could not have wished for a better nationality to fight than the British. It has provided them with a very effective propaganda tool to galvanise public support and enlarge their circles of recruitment.Royal_Horse_Artillery_fleeing_from_Afghan_attack_at_the_Battle_of_Maiwand

Royal Horse Artillery fleeing Afghan attack in the battle of Maiwand, Second Anglo-Afghan War, 1880.  Source: Wikicommons.  Artist unknown.  

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