Emergency imposed 

Grenade attack at Thai anti-government gathering injures 40

Jan. 22, 2014: The Thai government has imposed emergency following widespread anti-government protests. Last week, a grenade attack at a Bangkok anti-government gathering has left 40 people injured, one seriously. Panic- stricken protesters ran away from the scene while emergency medical teams rescued the injured.

Over the last two months, anti-government protests have been a commonplace and at lest 8 people died so far in political violence. Country's tourism industry is virtually on the verge of collapse.

The opposition demands a 'peoples' council' and a new election under it which Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is unwilling to concede.

Political violence has rocked the Asian kingdom since former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, brother of the incumbent, was overthrown by royalist generals in a coup seven years ago.

 Taliban threaten to blow off Bangladesh High Commission

Dec 19, 2013: Amid threats to snap diplomatic ties with Pakistan and the repeated marching of a group of government-sponsored activists toward Dhaka's Pakistan High Commission, the outlawed Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has threatened to attack Bangladesh High Commission in Islamabad.

The threat follows building of tension between the two countries following the Pakistani Parliament's expression of condemnation on December 16 of the hanging of Bangladesh's Jamat leader Abdul Qader Mollah who was convicted by what most of the international observers claim an unfairly conducted war crime tribunal.

The tribunal has convicted many other accused who are alleged to have collaborated with the Pakistan forces during Bangladesh's 1971 war of liberation against Pakistani.

Despite ecurity around the Bangladesh High Commission in Islamabad being up to the scratch, according to officials, the power of the Pakistani Taliban is not being underestimated by authorities.

Meanwhile, Islamabad has requested formally to Bangladesh foreign office that the security of the Dhaka-based Pakistani diplomats be ensured with adequate protection agaisnt any untoward forrays at the mission or at residences of diplomats.

MORE ON BANGLADESH CRISIS...............http://bangladeshbulletin.net/

 Bangladesh crisis stirs waves in global capitals

M. Shahid Islam

Dan W. Mozena, US ambassador to Bangladesh, felt betrayed by Indian duplicity in Bangladesh affairs 

November 4, 2013

Born in the turbulent days of Cold War rivalries between Moscow and Washington, Bangladesh has failed to extricate itself from the regional and global geopolitical antagonism perpetrated by powerful nations. With China and the USA vying for global predominance, and, India playing as a joker in between, the allegiance of future Bangladesh governments is deemed as indispensable to preserving Washington's preeminence in the Asia-Pacific region. 

Democracy in danger

For decades, the USA has been in the forefront of an intense jockeying for power in the Indian Ocean littoral nations where Bangladesh sits as the gateway to South and Southeast Asia, and, where  a powerful  Nationalist-Islamist compact has been trying desperately to dislodge a secular regime accused of destroying democracy within and tilting blindly toward India.  The crisis is costing lives every day and stirring waves in the capitals of powerful nations.

A general election is only weeks away, as per constitutional guidelines, but the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its allies are up in arms to foil the election unless it's held under a non-party caretaker government. The crisis began in 2011 when the ruling Awami League changed the Constitution (Act # 14, 2011) to hold the election under its own umpire-ship, the incumbent Prime Minister staying in office as the chief executive of the country. 

Ever since, opposition parties waged a series of nation-wide strikes that had hit the economy hard and growth has slumped. The $22 billion strong garment industries are the worst victims of the crisis. Citing political uncertainty, weakening exports, consumer and investment demands, ADB's Asian Development Outlook Update (ADOU) 2013 cautioned that gross domestic product (GDP) growth in Bangladesh will be just 5.8 percent in fiscal 2013-14, down from the projected 7.2 percent.

Now that the protracted crisis is posing a grave danger to democracy too -- in a country which has seen its military snatching political power on three different occasions in the 42 years of it's existence -- no wonder an election under an incumbent regime is disliked by over 90 per cent of the population due to all elections under such regimes (held  in 1973, 1979, 1986, 1988) having resulted in the victory of the party in power only.

Pakistan factor

Faced with a deadline where elections must be held by early January 2014, the crisis is aggravating by the day, putting President Barack Obama into a tight spot with respect to sticking to a foreign policy posture that sought for years to act in concert with Delhi.   Worst still, Obama faces twin challenges from Bangladesh and Pakistan; the later a nuclear armed nation, an arch rival of India, and, at the center of US's success and failure in Afghanistan.

Following months of preoccupation with Bangladesh -- where incessant strikes and agitations to compel the government of Sheikh Hasina to cave in to the opposition's demand for a poll-time caretaker regime has paralyzed the nation -- Pakistan has added more fuel to the burning South Asian cauldron.

On Saturday, Newaz Sharif's government declared to postpone a scheduled meeting with the Obama administration in protest of Friday's drone attack near the Afghan border that had killed the Pakistani Taliban's top commander, Hakimullah Mehsud, and three of his associates. As Taliban vowed to avenge the incident, Pakistan's security forces have been put on high alert while a government minister in Islamabad said the strike by an unmanned aircraft on Friday had destroyed attempts to hold peace talks with the militants which began this week. Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, the interior minister, said: " This is not just the killing of one person, it's the death of all peace efforts." 

Similar sentiments were echoed by former cricketer turned politician, Imran Khan, who threatened to block lorries carrying supplies to NATO troops in Afghanistan unless the attacks stopped. "Dialogue has been broken with this drone attack,"  Khan lamented.

Dubious diplomacy

The Indian influence in Islamabad being almost non-existent, Delhi remained fixated on the Bangladesh affairs where its influence is maximal, and orchestrated a back-channel diplomacy to convince the Obama administration that election in Bangladesh be held under the incumbent regime, as is being said and planned by the Sheikh Hasina-led administration. 

"For months, Delhi tried to impose its will on the BNP," said a senior BNP leader. Having failed to convince Khaleda Zia, leader of the BNP, the US ambassador to Dhaka, Dan Mozena, sat for a series of consultations with the Indian High Commissioner in Dhaka, Pankaj Saran. Sources say Mozena tried to impress upon Delhi the necessity to hold election in Bangladesh under a caretaker regime, keeping in mind the fateful consequences of not doing so, which Delhi did not view kindly. "The US is trying to create a terror bogey in Bangladesh to ensure its military presence in the Indian Ocean," wrote a pro-administration Indian daily.

Upon advice from the Indian envoy in Dhaka, Mozena dashed for Delhi to discuss the Bangladesh situation. Kelly S McCarthy, the U.S. Embassy spokesperson in Dhaka, admitted that Ambassador Mozena and Mr. Saran met and discussed “a range of issues,” including Mr. Mozena’s four-day visit to New Delhi where he met Indian high officials, including Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh.

Upon return from Delhi, Mozena seperately  met Awami League's General Secretary Syed Ashraful Islam and BNP's acting Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir. As Mozena insisted that BNP would not participate in  a poll unless held under a caretaker regime, "Indians have reacted angrily to suggestions that they were on the 'same page' with Washington," said the source.  A leading Indian daily, The Economic Times, made things worse by reporting that the US ambassador in Dhaka went to Delhi “uninvited” and discussed Bangladesh.

And the consequences

The diplomatic dramatics organized by Delhi prove how far the administration in Delhi is willing to go to deprive the USA of any influence in the Bay of Bengal littoral states. In desperation, Dan Mozena decided to travel to China at one point to build a regional consensus on Bangladesh's election-related crisis, said the source, but Washington called him for a consultation before making such a move.  

According to another source, the US ambassador to Dhaka decided to stay away from his station for the whole month of November as a protest to what the Bangladesh Foreign Minister, Dipu Moni, obliquely accused him of doing. Moni insisted in the aftermath of Mozena's Delhi visit that foreign diplomats must follow codes of conduct. "If they want to discuss our issues, they must do it with us, not with others." she added. Moni also urged the envoys to stay within the 'boundaries of diplomatic etiquette', apparently expressing displeasure with those who were seen as actively interfering in the domestic affairs of Bangladesh.

These are not, however, the moot reasons why Delhi, Washington and Beijing are exploring diverse avenues in Bangladesh with respect to who to back up for governing this turbulent nation in coming years. In January, Bangladesh and Russia signed a billion dollars arms deal, which followed a nuclear collaboration agreement that will enable Bangladesh to install two nuclear power plants to generate electricity. Bangladesh also signed a deal with India to install a coal-powered power plant along the common border which environmentalists are fighting to stop due to the adverse impact it will have on the country's fragile eco-system in the globally-famed Sundarban region. 

However, the manner in which the contours of the latest regional military and economic collaborations have evolved are indicative of a growing consensus between Delhi, Moscow and Beijing to deprive Washington from having a lasting imprint in the regional matters, something Washington is unwilling to accept. Barack Obama's visit to Myanmar in May sought to befriend the former Communist nation through investment and inducement in order to ensure a lasting presence in the region. Bangladesh being the US's age-old partner in development collaborations, Washington wants a stable Bangladesh where it can work comfortably with both the major political parties. 

Washington is mindful that Bangladesh has proven and lasting military and economic ties with Beijing while its people are mostly wary of Indian highhandedness in their domestic affairs. Hence the silence of Beijing must be interpreted as being partly diplomatic and partly strategic. "Beijing is supportive of the demand for the installation of a caretaker regime to conduct Bangladesh polls," according to senior BNP leaders dealing with foreign policy matters. Chinese Ambassador to Dhaka, Li Jun, met BNP chairperson Khaleda Zia on October 7 to discuss bilateral issues, including the election-related matters that have turned political situation in Bangladesh bloody and chaotic lately. Make no mistake, China too is watching from the sideline. (Read latest Bangladesh news)

 

Madness or desperation?

M. Shahid Islam  

 Evidence of genocide being taken away by police detectives from the human rights group Odikar's office on Saturday

August 12, 2013: The situation in Bangladesh has reached the proverbial point of no return and the world is stunned by the desperation of a political regime that is getting ever more draconian by the day.

Coinciding with the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) initiation of an investigation into the alleged commission of crimes against humanity by the country’s security forces in February, March and May, the police on Saturday raided the office of an independent human rights group, Odikar, seized computers, laptops and archive materials, and, arrested the outfit’s secretary, Adilur Rahman Khan. This is sheer madness.

Evidence confiscated

“All data, pictures and archive files relating to the massacres in late February, early March and on May 5 and 6 have been confiscated by police,” said a researcher working for the much famed independent watchdog which receives contributions for its noble works from a number of foreign governments and international organizations.

Insisting on anonymity, the researcher said, “When our officials went to Gulshan Police Station to file a complaint against Adilur’s arrest and the seizure of evidence from our head office, police refused to accept it.  Adilur was deprived of his rights. The law enforcers didn’t file any case before arresting him and had no warrant to make the arrest or to conduct the seizure.”

Adilur was charged on August 11 under Section 57 (1) and (2) of the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act for allegedly publishing false information on website while police obtained from the court a mandate to put him on a 5- day- remand for quizzing. One of his family members claimed the former Deputy Attorney General was being tortured in custody.

In Bangladesh, quizzing by police while on remand means torture in custody. Amidst chorus of uproar by rights groups within and outside the country protesting the crackdown on a human rights watchdog, media reports claimed the attack on Odikar followed the group’s publication on June 10 of its latest report on the alleged crime of genocide in which it claimed that 61 people died in the early hours of May 6 when a 10,000 strong force flushed out thousands of Hefajat activists from Dhaka’s Shapla Chattar where the group staged an overnight sit – in; demanding punishment of bloggers insulting the Prophet of Islam in the internet. The government claims that the report is false.

ICC probing

That claim sounds hollow given the slew of demands from national and international rights group to launch an independent investigation into the alleged massacre and the government’s stone-walled response that nobody was killed during the late-night raid in May on the Hefajat congregation.

Hence the desperate bids by rights groups and investigative journalists to unearth the truth behind the reports that 100s -- may be 1000s-- of Islamists may have been slaughtered during that brutal crackdown, and the filing of a formal complaint to the ICC. The Hefajat declared officially that over 2000 of its activists are still missing.

In early July, head of the ICC’s information and evidence unit of the office of the prosecutors, M.P. Dilon, confirmed having received a complaint relating to the alleged genocide in Dhaka on May 5-6, and, on February 28 and March 1, 2013. Dilon said the ICC would give consideration to the complaint “in accordance with the provisions of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.”

Mooted by the Washington based law office of Martin F. McMahon & Associates on behalf of Counsel for Human Rights and Development for Bangladesh, and, Bangladeshi Americans in Greater Washington DC, the complaint was indexed in the ICC’s registry as OTP-CR-214/13, according to the lawyers for the complainants.

Persecution galore

Adilur and the Odikar are the latest victims of a persistent campaign of persecution by the Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League regime which has been accused since 2009 of indulging in a killing spree and abetting the murder of 57 military officers during the February 25-26, 2009 mutiny in the Bangladesh Rifle (BDR) forces, and, of executing 1000s of other extrajudicial deaths, kidnapping and illegitimate incarcerations of opposition activists and dissenters.

In April, acting editor of the Bengali language daily Amar Desh, Mahmudur Rahman, was arrested and charged for sedition and unlawful publication of a conversation that led to the resignation of the lead judge of the country’s controversial war crimes tribunal. The Amar Desh was also accused of inciting violence by publishing the contents of the blogs in which the Prophet of Islam was denigrated by some government-sponsored youths seeking death sentences to the accused facing prosecutions in war crimes tribunal for alleged crimes against humanity during the country’s 1971 war of liberation against the Pakistani forces.

Recipe for dictatorship

These high-profile arrests signal the arrival of some sort of dictatorship in the country as the nation’s political crisis hits its climax in the run up to a scheduled general election in late December or early January 2014; for which no acceptable modality has yet been finalized. The air is thick with speculations that the military will seize power once again if the haggling over the election modality lingers, as it did in 2007.

Since its independence from Pakistan in 1971, Bangladesh has had two of its Presidents killed by the military, one military dictator jailed for corruption, and, two Prime Ministers, including the incumbent one, arrested and indicted for corruption and misuse of power.

Alarm bells

No wonder the latest incidents have begun to ring alarm bells among a group of bureaucrats aligned with the regime that’re getting increasingly fearful of retribution once the regime changes. Insisting on anonymity, one of them said: “Adilur’s arrest and the raid on Odikar office aimed at destroying the evidence of genocide which the group has painstakingly gathered and was about to handover to the ICC investigators.”   

That seems credible as the report of 61 deaths on that fateful night does not even go near to what happened to thousands of Islamists who’re still unaccounted for since the May 5-6 onslaughts on the Hefajat congregation. Other reports too paint similar conclusions.

The Economist magazine of London reported on May 11 that “What happened in Dhaka and beyond in the early hours of May 6 looks like a massacre.”  Citing Dhaka-based European diplomats the Economist reported, “The European diplomats say as many as 50 people were killed in the capital as security forces cracked down on members of an extreme Islamist group, Hefajat-e-Islam. Many more were killed elsewhere.”

Track record

From the beginning, the Odikar has been the most diligent in unearthing the truth of this bloodbath. Soon after the May 5-6 massacre, the watchdog reported that “Some hundreds of people died during a “killing spree” by a force of 10,000 made up of police, paramilitaries and armed men from the ruling Awami League.” It said “Bodies were strewn about the streets of Dhaka's commercial district. Deadly clashes took place elsewhere, such as at Narayanganj, south of the capital, where 20 people were reported killed.”

The Odikar report added, “Just what happened remains murky. Before opening fire in Dhaka, police cut the power supply in the city's commercial area. The idea seems to have been to flush out tens of thousands of often violent demonstrators, mostly young students, who had flocked in from madrassas (religious seminaries) in rural Bangladesh.”

AHRC report

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), an independent rights watchdog, summed up the massacre in its initial report on May 6 that read: “News reports from Bangladesh allege that a series of attacks on demonstrators have taken place, at around 3 am today, May 6, 2013. The extent of the injuries and death is difficult to be ascertained at the moment. The Daily Star, a Bangladeshi newspaper, gave the figure of deaths as 5. However, several internet reports have mentioned that the number of deaths could be as high as 2,500 or more. Pictures of dead bodies have also been distributed over the internet. Major news channels in Bangladesh have been silenced. Two private television channels that were showing live pictures of the attacks upon the demonstrators were immediately closed down. All forms of public gatherings, rallies and protests have been prohibited until the midnight of May 6.”

If actions are purveyors of intents, there is no reason to believe that the government was not involved in crimes against humanity after the disconnection of electricity on the night of the May massacre; instant closure of two TV channels broadcasting the onslaught live; arrest of Mahmudur Rahman and Adilur Rahman Khan; all of whom were involved in exposing the truth of a heinous crime committed in cold blood.

Rebellion within

Besides, as more evidence of atrocities came to the surface and the complaint in the ICC started to make an impact, the desperation of the government multiplied since late July.

Following the publication of an article on May 29 by ruling party MP Golam Moula Roni that had exhorted the government to explain to the nation the situation of a captive Hefajat leader, Junaid Babunogori, who has had his leg chopped off and was facing imminent death due to torture in custody, Roni became the target of police, ruling party thugs and a section of the pro-government media. He too was arrested on July 23 and charged for beating journalists.

With fire now swirling around its own backyard, the government of Sheikh Hasina must change course or risk getting thrown into the gutter of history.

An open letter to Bangladesh PM, Sheikh Hasina

 Muslim League returns to lead Pakistan following election victory

 May 12, 2013: Nawaz Sharif (above), who was ousted from power by General Parvez Musharrof in 1999 and exiled to Saudi Arabia, is preparing to lead Pakistan for the third time following an weekend election victory.

Initial results showed Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) has emerged as the largest party in the parliament, with three times as many seats as each of its two main rivals; Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) of Asif Ali Zardari and the legendary cricketer Imran Khan-led Pakistan Tehriq- e- Insaf (PTI).  

Although Khan’s PTI won a clear victory in Peshawar and the rest of Khyber- Pakhtunwa region in the northwest and, looked set to be the second largest party, the massive votes could not be translated into parliamentary seats under the country’s first-past-the-post electoral system.

Sharif’s PML-N, on the other hand, made a major dent in Punjab, the province where 60 per cent of voters live and where his support base is anchored.

The secular PPP – led jointly by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and his father and the incumbent President Asif Ali Zardari – is traditionally strong in the Sindh province but lost support due to scandal, corruption and poor governance.

According to the state-run PTV, latest unofficial results showed Sharif’s PML-N leading in 118 of the 272 parliamentary seats up for grab.  Although Sharif needs 137 seats for a majority, analysts say his party is likely to get 125 seats in the end and form the government with support of independent candidates and smaller rightist parties like the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam which was ahead in 11 seats, according to last count.

Buoyed by the outcome, Sharif told a jubilant crowd, “We have been given a historic opportunity to serve Pakistan and to change Pakistan. Our program is to change the fate of this country.”

The election was historic in terms of high voter turnout, despite violence resulting in closing of many polling stations and deaths of 38 people. Besides, this is the first time in Pakistan’s history since becoming independent in 1947 that an elected government has completed its tenure and another one is about to take office soon.

 Is Washington left adrift by Dhaka-Moscow military collaboration?

M. Shahid Islam

Tighter grip: Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Russian President Vladimir Putin signed strategic arms and nuclear deals in Moscow on January 15.  

 

Jan. 15, 2013: A new geo-strategic reality is propelling Bangladesh’s foreign policy away from the traditional dependence on the USA and other Western countries, and, pushing the strategically located South Asian nation toward the rising Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) bloc of countries steered mainly by China and Russia.

This scenario bodes ill for Washington. Despite being ostensibly an economic power bloc, the SCO purports to counterbalance NATO’s military influence in the Asia-Pacific region in particular.

Bangladesh’s new foreign policy re-calibration has partly been ushered in by the aggressive Myanmar attitude in demarcating the mutual maritime boundaries while the USA’s increased softness toward- and collaboration with- the military-backed Myanmar regime has instilled fear among many within Bangladesh.

That fear is a genuine one. Many Bangladeshis are haunted constantly by Myanmar’s reckless flouting of human rights of the ethnic Rohingya Muslim minority, many of whom cross the border to flood Bangladesh which already has the highest geography vs. population ratio in the world.

Another reason is the increasingly stellar ties that have persisted between Dhaka and Washington over the preceding years due to Washington’s tougher stances on a number of issues; including human rights abuses and the demeaning attitude of the Awami League-led regime against the country’s Grameen Bank founder and Nobel laureate, Dr. Mohammed Yunus.  

As ties with Washington frosted, China, a traditional Myanmar ally, moved aggressively to fill the void. Beijing also lost its nerve with the Myanmar regime due to Myanmar embracing Washington as an ally and hedged much of its bets on neighbouring Bangladesh; spurring in the process enhanced collaborations with Dhaka of both Beijing and Moscow in economic and military fields.

Bangladesh’s desperate quest for energy added much to fasten the arrival of this changed reality, besides attempts by Beijing and Moscow to lure Bangladesh away from Washington. Bangladesh currently produces around 2.04 billion cubic feet of gas per day (bcfd) against a whopping demand for more than 3 bcfd. It has 160 million mouths to feed.

A big chunk of the country’s proven gas reserve, about 6 trillion cubic feet, lies beneath deep waters in the 2 million sq. km triangle-shaped Bay of Bengal which is the largest Bay in the world, and, the resources of which are claimed and contested by neighbouring Myanmar, India and Thailand too.

Over the years, tussle over the ownership of the Bay – and steps for off shore exploration of oil and gas - has led to Myanmar’s military preparedness to confront Bangladesh a number of times, compelling the latter to obtaining military capabilities of a kind that can match or outdo the Myanmar threats.

Since March 2012, Bangladesh also felt emboldened by the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea’s (ITLS) first ever verdict against Myanmar in the maritime boundary dispute, and, felt the necessity to prepare militarily in case Myanmar breaches the ITLS’s verdict.  

Hence, within months of obtaining 44 Chinese MBT- 2000 tanks worth about US$162 m, Bangladesh inked with Russia another major arms deal on January 15. The $ 1 billion deal is the largest of its kind signed by this impoverished South Asian nation. It contains a veritable package of much-needed military hardware; including armored vehicles, battlefield weapons, air defense systems and Mi-17 transport helicopters, according to defense officials.

The procurement will be financed from a soft-termed loan granted by Moscow as a gesture of goodwill to cement strategic bonds between the two countries which remained stalled since the mid-1970s following the removal from power of the Sheikh Mujib regime, deemed by the West as distinctly pro-Moscow at the height of the Cold War.

Decades on, this is the first visit to Moscow by a Bangladeshi PM since Mujib’s visit in 1972 when the two nations were best of allies due to Moscow’s diplomatic and military supports for Bangladesh’s 1971 war of independence. Hasina is Mujib’s daughter.

“Our countries intend to expand their military and technological cooperation,” President Vladimir Putin told Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina during a Kremlin ceremony. “Russia will extend Bangladesh a credit of $1 billion, which will be spent on the purchase of Russian weapons and military technology,” a seemingly exuberant Putin added.

Of the six MoUs and the three agreements signed during the Bangladesh PM’s three-day Moscow visit, one relates to the coveted - and, perhaps much needed - 2000 MW nuclear power plant construction for which Moscow has agreed to provide $500 m as the initial seed fund to kick start the project. The two reactors needed for the project are expected to cost $4 billion, for which Moscow agreed to continue financing after the first phase of the project is complete.

Observers say this was otherwise a remarkable feat for Bangladesh which got yanked by the USA and many other Western countries for over three decades when approached for nuclear cooperation for peaceful uses.

The six MoUs signed with Moscow encompassed mutual cooperation in the fields of agriculture, public health, medical science, education, counterterrorism, culture, law, justice and parliamentary affairs. The arms and nuclear deals aside, Dhaka and Moscow committed to pushing their bilateral trade level to $1 billion mark annually, from its current $700 m level.

One senior officer of the Bangladesh military said the induction of the 44 MBT-2000 tanks has ‘added some biting teeth to the army’s fighting capability’ which already has 200 other combat-ready Chinese tanks.

Earlier, Beijing agreed in principle to finance the construction of a deep-water port at Sonadia near the coastal town of Cox’s Bazar, where a new air base is also slated to be constructed with Chinese assistance to help protect the country’s offshore interests in the Bay of Bengal.

One source in the army said some of the soon-to-be purchased merchandise for the military includes two squadrons of Chinese-built FC-1/JF-17 and FC-20/J-10 fighter aircrafts - in lieu of the earlier planned decision to buy eight more Mig-29 fighter jets which is proving costly - and a submarine for the navy. “The fighter jet procrement decision is not final as yet,” said another source.

The newly procured military cargos add to the procurement in November of two new Dauphin AS 365 N3+ helicopters - each with a capacity to carry 12 personnel at 269 km per hour speed-  for the army’s aviation squadron. The helicopters  can be used for both disaster management and combat operations.

As these arms shopping spree continues, some critics within the country say these are pre-election stunts of a regime that is desperate to win over the hearts and minds of the military brasses to weather better an impending mass uprising being stirred by the regime’s negation to hold election under a neutral regime. Others say money is being wasted for reasons that are not productive enough.

Notwithstanding such criticism, which will keep pouring due to Bangladesh needing more carrots than cannons, the deals are unlikely to have any major impacts on the approximate $1.6 billion budgetary allocation slated for Bangladesh armed forces. “Our military earns much more annually from its UN peacekeeping mission,” swaggered a Colonel, insisting anonymity.

 

Despite promises of reform, military resorts to ethnic cleansing in Myanmar

Ethnic Rohingya minority people faces inhuman treatment in the hands of Myanmar security forces 


(Global Review Report)

June 10, 2012


Amidst confirmed reports that the US is set to station its Seventh Fleet in the Bay of Bengal to checkmate China‘s growing power, Myanmar dispatched troops and naval vessels to the western Rakhine state bordering Bangladesh while its  security forces killed at least eleven Rohinga minority Muslims and injured dozens more during a dawn to dusk curfew on Friday.


Myanmar’s state TV reported that the country’s naval forces were taking security measures along the nearby coast on the Bay of Bengal, prompting the Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) troopers to reinforce their presence along the Myanmar-Bangladesh bordering areas to prevent further influx of Rohingya Muslims into Bangladesh’s Cox's Bazar district, which is already burdened with thousands of Rohingya refugees. 


The crisis has regional and global ramifications. The Rakhine state comprises of historic Arakan, once a sovereign and independent State ruled respectively by Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim rulers until the Burmese king Bodaw Paya conquered it on 28th December 1784 AD.


Sandwiched between Muslim predominant Bangladesh and the Buddhist predominant Myanmar, the state of Arakan is mostly inhabited by two ethnic groups - the Rakhine Buddhists and the Rohingya Muslims, the latter having close ethno-cultural affinity with neighbouring Bangladesh.


In recent decades, the Rohingya refugee crisis has dogged relationship between Bangladesh and Myanmar; Myanmar being a tested clientele state of China and a strategic outpost for Beijing in the Bay of Bengal.


The latest round of violence started about three weeks ago, following the alleged rape and murder of a young Buddhist girl, reportedly by three Muslim youths. Long before an investigation into the incident could be concluded, radical Buddhist activists, ostensibly under state-sponsorship, distributed anti-Muslim pamphlets to stir a crisis.


More ominously, on June 3, 10 Muslims were killed by a group of Buddhist terrorists who attacked a bus carrying the victims from a religious gathering. The attackers also set on fire Muslim residences, stabbed people in groups and looted properties. The military-backed regime failed to take appropriate measures in stopping the latest pogrom, one of the many since the late 1970s.


Eye witnesses say, the enraged Rohingyas went on a retaliatory rampage after the Friday prayers, hurled rocks and torched houses and buildings belonging to the Rakhine community. This offered the desired pretext to the regime to clamp down curfew and resort to indiscriminate shooting of Muslims.


According to a recently released UNHCR report, Bangladesh still hosts more than 29,000 refugees from Myanmar, who are stranded indefinitely since over 250,000 of them entered the country in 1991 amidst another brutal military crackdown. In early 1991,  Myanmar’s military junta even dared to conduct a surprised and audacious raid deep inside Bangladesh to dismantle a Bangladeshi border outpost to facilitate massive Rohingya influx into Bangladesh.


Due to such backdrop, some analysts believe the crisis may be related to Bangladesh’s reported consent to allowing the US Seventh Fleet to station in its territorial water. By generating a fresh influx of Rohingya refugees, Myanmar may be seeking to strangulate Bangladesh into an awkward strategic loop. 


According to one Bangladeshi official, besides the UNHCR-registered refugees, another about 200,000 unregistered Rohingyas  live in Bangladesh without any legal status and ‘create undue burden on availability of works for the locals.’ Curiously, the recurring persecution and ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya minorities has been one of the least reported episodes in recent decades. 


The tale is a heart-touching one. According to rights group, total Rohingya population in Myanmar numbered about 3.7 million in the 1960s, of which less than a million survived the repeated onslaughts and brutal ethnic cleansing orchestrated jointly since the 1980s by the Rakhine Buddhist radicals and a military regime that had little respect for human rights. 


As many of the uprooted Rohingys  settled gradually in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, UAE,Thailand and Malaysia, the UNHCR claims only about 800,000 of them now live in the three contiguous districts of Rakhine state bordering Bangladesh.  


Insisting on anonymity, one senior Rohingya leader said, “A blue print is at work to eliminate them too.” True or not, Rohingyas remain stateless and neither Bangladesh, nor Myanmar, recognizes them as citizen. This is unacceptable.


Abu Tahay, chairman of the Rohingya’s political platform, National Democratic Party for Development, said the curfew was being abused by the Myanmar security forces to ransack Rohingya houses and round up suspects. He claimed more than 100 Rohingyas went missing in Maungdaw, but people are frightened to speak out. 


"It's very dangerous for them. If anyone talks to the media, the authorities take action. People are scared to speak," he added. Tahay himself is in hiding now.


The crisis poses a major challenge to President Thein Sein's seemingly reformist government, which, although backed by the military, is showing to be seeking to reform the secluded nation by uniting its ethnically diverse populations and by making an opening to the world outside. The recurring pogrom of minority Muslims, however, will undercut much of his efforts toward that direction.


 Koran burning sparks revolt within Afghan forces

Angry demonstrators gather near a NATO military base in Afghanistan to protest against burning of the Koran 

(Global Review Report)

February 25, 2012

Afghanistan is in flames amidst violence spreading like a forest fire since Tuesday. Two NATO military advisers were killed during another day of carnage as protests continue over the burning of Koran by US forces.

Our correspondent said the two killed officers were a US Colonel and Major who were attached to a command center inside the Afghan interior ministry from where anti-insurgency operations are guided.  

The shooting inside the interior ministry occurred following an altercation between Afghan security force members and the NATO advisers over the Koran burning incident.

There are reports in local media that NATO forces are besieged everywhere by thousands of protesters who have gathered around all foreign military installations and the UN compounds while Afghan soldiers seem to be empathising with the sentiments of the protesters.

According to one source, many US-trained Afghan soldiers and police have fled from the barracks and joined the protesters.

Earlier, a Taliban commander has urged Afghan people to attack western forces everywhere. The instances of rebellion within Afghan forces and the Taliban directive to attack foreign forces may not be related, says our correspondent.

The five-day-long violence has so far cost 27 lives, three protesters being shot dead today. Six Afghan soldiers also died today in a roadside bomb attack in Baghdis province.

Riots first erupted on Tuesday after U.S soldiers threw copies of the Muslim Holy book into a fire pit used for burning garbage at Bagram, north of Kabul, where a sprawling U.S. military base is located.

The situation is turning worse by the day despite an apology from President Barack Obama and a call for restraint from the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai. Local NATO commander also apologized for the incident and an investigation has been launched. Yet, on Friday, 12 people were killed and dozens wounded.

The incident has touched the raw nerves of the Afghan people across the ethnic and political divides and united the entire nation to demand for an immediate withdrawal of western forces from the country. Every demonstration carries a common placard: “Death to America.”

The reasons are profound, according to observers. In 2010, a Florida pastor organized a cavalcade of anti-Islamic showmanship to burn copies of the Koran formally, sparking protests all across the Muslim world.

The Afghan people too seem to have had enough of anti-Islamic bashing after a series of deliberate attempts by the NATO-led forces to desecrate their faith.

In January, US forces urinated on Taliban corpses.  In February, US Marines hoisted a Nazi SS flag. Days ago, NATO forces killed eight young Afghans in an air strike. Across the border in Pakistan, 24 Pakistani soldiers were killed last November in a NATO airstrike.

The crisis is bound to derail the US desire to sign a strategic pact with the Afghan government to allow US bases - and a reduced number of Western troops- in the country well beyond the 2014 exit deadline.

 

 Maldives: Fear of foreign intervention hovers in the horizon

Mohammed Waheed Hassan sworn in as the new Maldives President on February 7

(Global Review Report)

(Feb.7, 2012)

A South Asian paradise is mired in a perilous political crisis, raising the spectre of a foreign military intervention. Aides to Maldives deposed president, Mohamed Nasheed, described Tuesday's developments as a "coup by the former regime," although the army and the vice-president denied the claims.

As the island nation fears an external intervention and the ousted president’s loyalists try to regroup to protest against the attempted coup, curfew has been imposed.

Fear of foreign intervention has pushed opposition parties to the edge. "We have asked the military to keep Nasheed in protective custody, to face charges of corruption and misuse of power," Hassan Saeed, leader of the opposition Dhivehi Qaumee Party (DQP), said. "His rule was tainted with nepotism and corruption, often breaching the constitution," Saeed added.

Saeed emphasized that “Nasheed had requested help from India.” An Islamic nation with about 300,000 citizens, Maldivians have been vocal against excessive Indian influence since September 2009 when Nasheed agreed to sign a defence cooperation agreement with the latter; allowing regular dornier surveillance flights and an Indian air force squadron to operate from the island. Two Indian military helicopters have been conducting constant surveillance on the island ever since while 26 coastal radars have been installed as part of the joint security plan.

The defence pact with India entails global geopolitical ramifications, the plan being an integral part of India’s regional strategic blueprint.  It having followed the appoint on November 18th, 2008, of Maj. General Moosa Jaleel - a graduate of the Indian National Defense College (NDC)- as the Chief of Defence Force, rancour against Delhi grew louder. As thousands of Indian workers were allowed to occupy employment opportunities of the locals since 2009, further anti-Indian frenzy percolated the minds of the locals.

The unexpected regime change reminds one of ‘Operation Cactus’ of November 1988 when two Indian Air Force IL-76 aircrafts flew 2,000 km from the Agra airbase to dispatch 1600 Parachute Regiment soldiers after about 800 mercenaries of the People's Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) attempted to overrun the island nation. The intervention turned controversial following publication of reports that the Tamil mercenaries, who had no ties with the mainstream LTTE, were sent to the Island by Indian intelligence to create the pretext for an intervention.

Nasheed too acknowledged while resigning, “I resign because I have to use force to stay in power. I resign because staying in power will call for foreign influence.” Although the beleaguered president did not name any particular country that might intervene, a spokesman for India’s external affairs ministry said, "We remain committed to extending the fullest support and cooperation to the government of Maldives in its endeavour to promote peace and progress.”

A committed human rights activist prior to winning the 2008 elections that had ended 30-year rule of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, Nasheed sparked a constitutional crisis by acting like a dictator. On Tuesday, Vice President Mohammed Waheed Hassan, a former UN official, has taken oath of office as the country’s President following weeks of protests and a mutiny by the country’s police force, who refused to obey orders and decided to side with the judiciary that was pitted against the army after President Nasheed ordered the army to arrest last month the chief justice of the criminal courts, Abdullah Mohamed, accusing him of political bias.

The government alleged that the judge's rulings - particularly the release of an opposition activist detained without a warrant - were politically motivated. Despite the stands of the President and the army having been overruled by the Supreme Court which ordered for the justice’s release, the President did not relent.  Over the weeks, the rights groups clamoured for the release of the judge, the opposition parties took to the streets, and the UN was urged to step in to resolve the dispute.

A UN team, headed by the Assistant Secretary-General of political affairs, Oscar Fernandez-Taranco, is on the way to defuse the crisis. But the move is belated and may prove unworthy.

The genesis of the crisis runs deeper and tension has been running high since December 23 when Nasheed held a rally and threw verbal jibes on religious parties. He was responding to a series of protests being organized by main opposition parties- and a consortium of Islamic outfits- demanding ban on arrival of flights with Israeli tourists, improper social conduct on island resorts, and, protesting over a government-sponsored mob attack on an ‘unspecified’ gift package from Pakistan.

Over the past two days in particular, scores of policemen joined the protesters and clashed with the military that took a pro-regime stance. On Monday, around 50 policemen allied with the protesters and refused to obey orders, prompting the military to lob tear gas canisters at rebelling police and protesters.

The final showdown occurred on Tuesday when a group of mutinying police officers took control of the state broadcaster in the capital, Male, rounded up journalists and played out messages in support of former President, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. After Nasheed visited the spot and failed to assuage the rebelling police officers, he decided to quit.

The crisis, however, is far from over. Despite a unified posture displayed by the police, political parties and the judiciary, fear of a foreign intervention still hovers in the horizon. The army and the police also remain pitted against each other.

As well, Nasheed’s family sources say the President is being held against his will by security forces at the presidential palace in the capital. His brother, Ibrahim Nasheed, said, "Security forces say they can't release him, he wants to come home," adding, “The security forces said there were concerns for his safety if he was released.”

According to a diplomatic source, “Police is trying to get custody of the deposed president from the military to prevent him seeking external help.” Vice-President Hassan, meanwhile, vowed to uphold the "rule of law." Ahmed Thoufeeg, vice president's secretary, told AP news agency, "It was not a coup at all, it was the wish of the people.''

That very wish may turn sour if the 5,000 strong armed forces makes a stand for the deposed president and seeks external help to subdue the police, which is the mainstay of the archipelago’s security structure.

Composed of 1,192 small coral islands in an area scattered across 425 km of the equator, 60% of the revenue to the Maldives government is derived from tourists streaming into the 100 islands developed as resorts.  Thanks to a booming tourism sector, the country has the highest per capita GDP ($4,100) among the SAARC member nations. Dependent fully on import of food and other essentials, the Maldives cannot endure a prolonged conflict.

 

 Ripe for a revolution

Rebellious officers move to end Indian hegemony in Bangladesh

Bangladesh army: The only force to earn more from peacekeeping missions than the budget accorded by the national exchequer. 

(Global Review Special)

January 20, 2012

The vicissitudes of history and geopolitics have seasoned the Bangladeshis to be prone to occasional bloodbath, military coup and political instability. The last week’s alleged coup attempt, however, seems more like the birth pang of an unfinished revolution to rid the country of the insidious Indian hegemony.

It all started in a cold February morning three years ago when 19 Indian commandos garbed themselves in the uniform of the paramilitary Bangladesh Rifle (BDR) soldiers and entered the BDR headquarter compound in Dhaka at 8.11 AM on February 25, 2009.

In one of the most inhuman conspiracies the world has ever witnessed, the Indian commandos had their pre-scheduled rendezvous with the collaborators from within the BDR ranks and slaughtered 57 of the 155 military officers gathered to conduct the annual darbar (meeting with soldiers) in the ornate Darbar hall of a colonial era fortress at the heart of the nation’s capital.

The marauding attackers minced and mutilated bodies, raped women and children as young as 12 years old. Evidence unearthed in the investigations that followed showed how a cabal from the ruling Awami League (AL) connived with the mutineers and the intelligence apparatuses of India to destroy Bangladesh’s armed forces as part of a grand design to settle what the strategists in Delhi fondly labeled the “Eastern question.”

All strategies are expected to be humane, but this was perhaps one of the rare conspiracies in human history by any government against its own armed forces, and, it embodied a grand design by Delhi to neutralize the Bangladeshi military in order to set Indian hands free to focus solely on China and Pakistan.

Amidst intense Indian meddling, the constitution of the nation was allowed to get tramped in 2007- deferring a scheduled election indifinitely- and the military's higher echelon was used to declare emergency rules in order to engineer an election mechanism to bring to power a pro-Indian regime. Economically, the game plan aimed at reaping windfall rewards by turning Bangladesh into an Indian hinterland.

Ever since, the young officers of the Bangladesh army kept reacting to a series of anti-national-interest policies of the Bangladesh government, with great risks. In October 2009, one Major and five Captains of the army’s elite para- commando unit were framed into a faked grenade attack on a ruling party MP, Fazle Nur Taposh, who is also a cousin of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

Although an army-led investigation report discovered Taposh’s involvement in the BDR mutiny, the fake attack did not carry any emblem of military artisanship; the drama having caused no injury to Taposh or his associates and proving an amateurish conduct aimed solely to create headlines and pretexts to nab the aggrieved army officers. At least 132 officers, their ranks ranging from Gentleman Cadet to General, were sacked under a host of pretexts since the 2009 mutiny while at least three Lt. Colonels and two Majors were arrested.

The third anniversary of that mutiny being only weeks away, the military is once again found fuming with anger over the indifference of the government to bringing to justice the political masterminds of that grisly crime.

The latest episode - which is yet another expression of anger displayed through internet/phone conversations among many of the aggrieved officers - led to the arrest last week of one Major General, one Brigadier General, two Lt. Colonels, four Majors and a Captain. Days ago, another Major was nabbed, but he managed to flee from custody and notified his colleagues how he was interrogated by an Indian officer on issues he termed as “sensitive to Bangladesh’s sovereignty and national security.”

After prolonged silence, the government finally decided to leap into the public domain with the news of a failed coup attempt. A press briefing organized by the army on January 19 confirmed that two retired officers — Lt. Col. Ehsan Yusuf and Maj. Zakir — have been arrested and the authorities are looking for another fugitive serving officer, Maj. Ziaul Haq. Brig. Gen. Muhammad Masud Razzaq, who had conducted the press briefing, said the military has specific evidence that up to 16 current and former Bangladeshi military officers “with extreme religious views” were involved in a “heinous conspiracy” to overthrow the government.

“Extreme religious views” has been the famous epithet in the post 9/11 era for crying wolf, using the Islamic militancy bogey. In Bangladesh’s context, it is not shared by experts who have spent times in researching the political indoctrination of the Bangladesh armed forces. Ataur Rahman, a political science professor at Dhaka University, categorically denies the existence of any reckonable political Islamist force within the Bangladesh military.

What then is causing so much of repulsion against the government within the armed forces, and, why so many officers dare to revolt?  Part of the answer lies in the fact that they are goaded and framed to indulge in stupidity in order to facilitate their exit from the military, which is what the Indian grand design is about. As one commentator puts it, “Bangladesh’s military officer cadre is composed of the best students of the nation. India wants this institution destroyed.”

One may also seek the right answer by asking any former or serving military officer of Bangladesh, or a businessman, who will invariably tell how India has strangulated this great nation of 160 million strong by orchestrating the bogey of Islamic fanaticism to secularize the nation. In reality, political Islamists in Bangladesh never even shot a bullet at police, let alone the military. Bangladesh is one of the most fanaticism-free nations in the world.

The nation is loathed to fall under India’s ambit for historic reasons. Britain divided Bengal in 1905 only to annul the division six years later. But the relic of historic divisiveness is all pervasive and predominantly Muslim Bangladesh chose to be part of Pakistan in 1947.  This generational struggle for independence from Indian hegemony stands at the core of the ongoing struggle and the military as an institution feels it intensely.

One former army officer wrote in a recent email, “At least 10,000 Indian covert operatives masquerade as businessmen in Bangladesh’s air and sea ports, key point installations and other vantage places, to spy on the nation. Their prime target is serving and retired military officers whom they never trust.” Such an assertion cannot be brushed aside off hand.

Since 2009, the economy of Bangladesh has been overtaken by India and major garment and textile outlets have given up competing with Indian companies. Three of the four main telecommunication companies have gone to Indian hands while a national icon, the Grameen phone, and its founder and Nobel Laureate, Dr. Mohammad Yunus, are being constantly ostracized and hounded by the Prime Minister and her staffers. As well, Bangladesh’s export to India has barely reached $500 million although Indian export to Bangladesh has surged from $ 2 billion in 2009 to nearly $5 billion by 2011.

Surprisingly, even the Prime Minister herself behaves like one of the Chief Ministers of the many Indian states. Least bothered to adhering age-old international protocol, the Prime Minister has visited the Indian state of Tripura last week to receive an honorary D.Lit Accolade. Insisting on anonymity, a renowned Bangladeshi columnist lamented, “This was the fifth such honorarium for an inconsiderate woman who had never qualified to attend any university at home or abroad.”

Yet, the Prime Minister remains the main decision maker and since coming to power in 2009, she has allowed India to use Bangladesh as a corridor to ferry Indian goods and military hardware from the mainland to the landlocked, insurgency-infested, seven Indian provinces in the North East, abutting Bangladesh and China. The Hasina regime also allowed all Bangladeshi ports for uses by Indian ships while the telecommunication security of the nation, including submarine cables, are being jointly managed with India. “Tiny Nepal has better national security mechanism than us,” writes a blogger.

This is not the Bangladesh the AL regime had inherited in 2009. In 2008-2009, growth was nearly 7 per cent and garment exports totalled $12.3 billion in FY09 while the remittances from overseas Bangladeshis fetched another $11 billion in FY10. Combined, the two sectors accounted for almost 25% of GDP. Those rosy pictures have changed drastically, thanks to the ubiquitous Indian hegemony and the silence of a regime that seems helpless.

That helplessness is what Bangladesh needs to overcome before it’s too late. For months, the government has been living on borrowing and cumulative current account balance for the ongoing fiscal year (FY2011/12, July-June) has entered into a deficit – for the first time since November 2008. The deficit is expected to reach $1.3b (1.1% of GDP) soon as the government’s revenue inflows are shrinking phenomenally under a crony culture of selective opportunism. Export growth has substantially weakened, reduced by another 1.9% y-o-y in November 2011 (from 16.7% in the previous month) while remittances have plunged to an unprecedented -9.0% y-o-y in the same month.

Anger has exacerbated due to a whopping inflation far outpacing consumers’ ability to cope, tipping past the 10 per cent threshold and criminality becoming the popular culture among the youths, 60 per cent of whom are unemployed. In recent weeks, capital flight has turned so intensive that each US dollar is selling for Taka 90-95 in open market. According to the Heritage Foundation and the Wall Street Journal, Bangladesh trails behind Sri Lanka (58.3), Bhutan (56.6), Pakistan (54.7) and India (54.6) in business atmosphere ranking.

Corruption is too widespread and nothing can be done without assuring a hefty commission to one of the family members of the Prime Minister. In August 2011, the World Bank censored $2.2b funding for the construction of the Padma Bridge and the Canadian RCMP moved in to investigate a cobweb of corruptions involving underhand deals between a major Canadian company and the Canada-based family members of the Bangladeshi premier and the concerned minister in her cabinet.

The report of a foiled military coup comes at a time when the anger and repulsion among the Bangladeshis have reached the proverbial point of no return. Aminur Rahman, a businessman who had to close his textile industry in 2010 after Bangladesh government allowed Indian textile to flood the market, says, “The army should do what it did in 1975."  Rahman hinted to the August 1975 coup when a group of young army officers killed Sheikh Mujib, father of the current Prime Minister, and many members of the Mujib family to steer Bangladesh away from despotism within and pro-Indian-ism without.

As that generational struggle continues, many believe another major bloodbath await to plunge Bangladesh into utter chaos unless the puppet regime in Dhaka is replaced by a national government composed of patriotic forces from home and abroad.

Related Story: National security in tatters: http://www.weeklyholiday.net/Homepage/Pages/UserHome.aspx


 China wary of US-Myanmar rapprochement

Breaking the ice: US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meets with Myanmar's democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.

 

 
(Global Review feature)

Nov. 19, 2011

The dark curtain hiding Myanmar from the global spotlight is being lifted gradually, thanks to the triangular jostling by China, India and the USA to bring the strategically important Indian Ocean littoral nation to their respective spheres of influence.

Beijing is wary of this development. A diplomatic source said Beijing ‘has requested for a consultation’ with Myanmar’s new regime amid concerns that its staunchest regional ally may be on its way to slipping out of the grip.

For its part, China’s regional rival, India, has done much of the footwork on the USA’s behalf, offering finally a hefty line of credit for US$500 million in October to the newly elected Myanmar regime. The line of credit seems like a quid pro quo in return for Myanmar’s negation to accept Chinese help for the construction of the $3.6 billion Myitsone Dam in the far north Kachin province abutting China.

True or not, Myanmar’s decision not to to jointly collaborate in constructing the Myitsone Dam displayed a radical policy shift away from its dependency on China and showed an intent to get closer with the West and India.

It also foretold what may follow. For over two decades since the first military coup in 1962, Chinese-sponsored communist rebels kept Myanmar hinged into a vortex of instability. Myanmar is indispensable to China due to China’s southern provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan being landlocked and, Myanmar’s rail-heads at Myitkyina and Lashio in the north-east, as well as the Irrawaddy River basin, being the only available conduits.

Politics, however, posed a serious problem. The bordering outposts were largely in control of the Chinese-backed Communist Party of Burma (CPB) fighters against whom the military regime was at war. After prolonged hesitation, Beijing had to change track to befriend the military regime, with which it signed an agreement on 6 August 1988, establishing official trade across common borders. This was Myanmar’s first such agreement with any of its neighbours.

The anti-Chinese political activists could not digest the deal. Millions took to the streets to demand an end to army rule and restoration of democracy. The brutal crackdown with which the rebellion was crushed made Myanmar totally isolated. The US withdrew its ambassador from Yangon following that bloody crackdown. By 1990, the army has, however, systematically crushed the communist rebels by removing Beijing’s support for them and turning Myanmar into a clientele state of China.

The dividend was hefty. Beijing poured huge arms into Myanmar in the following decades to shore up the military government and brought neighbouring Bangladesh under its sphere of influence to create a string  of strategic pearls along the prized Bay of Bengal littorals. Beijing also agreed to construct a gas pipeline from the Bay of Bengal to southern China, supplemented by an oil pipeline to carry Mid-Eastern oil, skirting off the increased congestion and the preying eyes of US's Pacific fleet at the Malacca Strait.

Finally, Beijing committed to invest $3 billion in upgrading the main Bangladeshi port at Chittagong and in constructing a new one at Sonadia, about 7 km off the Bangladeshi beach city of Cox’s Bazar. Elsewhere in the region, Beijing undertook to develop Sri Lankan Hambantota port and invested $1.6 billion in constructing the Gwadar port in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province, to reach the warm waters of the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea.

Myanmar's geo-strategic importance received further fillip when it consented to allow the construction of a highway from Bangladesh’s Chittgaong port to China’s Kunming, via Myanmar. In anticipation of the tri-nation Bangladesh-China road communication via Myanmar, Beijing committed to invest another $320 million for an assortment of 168 projects inside Bangladesh.

Bangladesh still maintains equi-distance from China and India despite Indian predominance having gripped the South Asian nation since the coming to power of the current government in 2009. Myanmar either want to copy cat Bangladesh, or has changed heart and decided to side distinctly with the Indo-US camp in the global geopolitical posturing.

If it is a change of heart, it has begun to draw global attention only since the visit to Delhi of the newly elected President of Myanmar, Thein Sein, in mid-October when he met with the Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh. The visit was preceded by a number of visits to Myanmar by India's army chief, General Ved Prakash Malik, and return trips to Delhi of his counterpart, General Maung Aye.

The two neighbours signed an assortment of bilateral agreements on October 15 to enhance trade, energy, security and border cooperation. Myanmar and India share 1,600 km border and bilateral trade stood at $1.28 billion in 2009, slated to reach $ 3 billion by 2015.

In preceding years, India also made deep infiltration into Myanmar’s energy outlets; the state-run ONGC Videsh Ltd, the GAIL India Ltd, and privately owned Essar group of India having secured lucrative contracts.  

This radical change of stance away from Beijing has allowed Myanmar to assume the scheduled rotating chairmanship of the ASEAN grouping from which it was deprived earlier, and, the US decided to dispatch Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Myanmar on December 1, the first ever visit by a senior US diplomat in 50 years. The visit occurs amid intense jostling for Myanmar’s allegiance by India and the USA on one hand, and China on the other.

Observers say this tectonic shift in South East Asian geopolitical configuration has been in the making since the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and the gradual rise of China as a major economic and military rival to both the USA and India. Like Myanmar, Vietnam too faces a Cold- War- like pressure from the opposing forces in Beijing and Washington, as do many other regional nations.

But Myanmar being one of China’s strategic pearls in the Bay of Bengal, any major US breakthrough is likely to be construed in Washington as Obama’s foreign policy coup, something the crisis-ridden President badly needs to shore up support amidst stymied growth, high unemployment and social tension. It may also beef up his efforts to get re-elected in 2012.

The move, however, is fraught with too many hazards. Many fear serious instability may follow, given the existence of too many pro-Chinese insurgent groups within India’s north east.

Myanmar sits next to China, and, over the preceding decade, Beijing invested sweat and money to make its military regime heavily dependent on Chinese aid and largesse. Since 1989, $1.6 billion worth of armament and military hardware were shipped to Myanmar and nearly $5 billion invested in bilateral aid, infrastructure and energy projects. Beijing also provided robust diplomatic shield to a regime constantly squeezed and hammered by crippling sanctions from Western governments.

The dent being made by the US came on the heels of an arduous but treacherous manoeuvring, mostly using India as a proxy, to turn Myanmar into a game changing nation in South East Asia.

Following a series of behind the scene diplomacy, formal talks started on the sideline in February 2010 when the U.S. Ambassador for ASEAN Affairs, Scot Marciel, and the ASEAN Secretary-General, Surin Pitsuwan, chalked out a course for Myanmar’s return to democracy. The result was the holding of a national election in November 2010, first time in 20 years, in which the ruling junta declared a landslide victory.

Prior to the election, the regime enacted a law, forcing the National League for Democracy (NLD) to remove Aung Suu Kyi from the party’s leadership, or face the risk of being banned. The NLD choose the later and boycotted the polls. The election thus squandered its credibility.

Yet, the US President was determined to cruise ahead with his game plan. During a meeting with the Asia-Pacific leaders in Bali, Indonesia, Obama said on November 17 that he’d spoken to the recently released NLD  leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who had welcomed the planned visit to Myanmar of the US Secretary of State and ‘ supported the US initiative.’  

Earlier, the NLD has re-registered to contest electoral posts in the upcoming by-elections for the 48 parliamentary seats left vacant by junta members appointed in various executive branches of the government. The NLD won more than 80% of the legislative seats in the 1990 election- the first free elections in nearly 30 years- but the junta refused to recognize the polls’ outcome.  

Although US officials insist the moves are aimed at integrating Myanmar into the global community, Beijing feels fazed and may be compelled to react. One US official said, "It's about Burma (Myanmar), not about China.” Burma is Myanmar’s former name and the US, like the NLD, does not recognize the new name. “The U.S. decision to engage Myanmar should not be seen as an attempt to encircle or contain China,” said another US official.

 Flailing Indian economy deserves reduced military spending

Friendship amidst animosity: Change of guards ceremony at a jointly- manned Indo-Pak border outpost

 (November 29, 2011)

The Indian economy was supposed to be the third largest global economy in 2012, overtaking Japan. That hope has been put on hold for now amid reduced export, higher inflation, massive public debt and an ever- yawning budget deficit. 

While Japan is recovering slowly from the Tsunami- induced setbacks, Indian economy is flailing and faltering. Latest economic forecasts portray a much gloomier picture than what was feared earlier. Budget deficit is likely to overshoot US$100 billion while public debt is attaining Himalayan height. 

Cumulative public debt may surpass 70% of the GDP by the end of the fiscal year 2011-12 and, current account is set to register a staggering deficit of more than $50 billion. In 2011, g
lobal commodity prices have had a devastating impact on the Indian economy, as did the devalued Rupee

Since August, Rupee has lost over 15 per cent of its value against US dollar, 
but export did not show any commensurable sign of robustness. The Indian Rupee now is the worst performing currency in Asia. The devaluaed Rupee has, meanwhile, made cost of living unbearable for ordinary Indians; by hiking prices of many essential commodities imported from abroad. 

Based on wholesale price, food and fuel costs alone have pushed the inflation past the dreaded 10 per cent mark. The rising inflation, in turn, has pushed interest rates to higher levels, well over 12 per cent, making it more difficult to borrow and rejuvenate growth by making new investments. Being the fifth largest oil consuming nation, India has to import over 3 million barrels of oil per day to keep the economy moving. 

And, export alone contributing over 15 per cent to the $4.3 trillion GDP (2010 data), reduced demand for Indian goods abroad has brought the prediction of growth in the current fiscal to dip as low as 6 per cent, or less. Growth is also sluggish in all the three main destinations where Indian exports are headed –UAE, USA & China. European debt crisis and turmoil in the Mid-East have impacted the growth of export further, which is slated to be reduced by at least 18 per cent from its previous year’s total of $200 billion. 

More than the ordinary people, the captains of the industries find the situation  unnerving. They have borrowed heavily during the decade-long higher growth trajectory, reaching over 9 per cent. That picture is changing too fast, and, so is the pressure on them to repay bank loans. 

In desperation, the government has turned its focus on enticing foreign investment by lifting quotas on foreign ownership of Indian bonds. Even foreign pension managers are being allowed to the country, for the first time. 

Lately, the retail sector has also been opened to foreign investment, by agreeing to allow foreign owners to own majority stakes (51 per cent). The US retail giant Wal-Mart may be the first one to avail that opportunity, despite vehement opposition from a diverse mix of political, economic and social organizations. 

These moves will take time to yield any tangible dividend due to the necessity to change land ownership laws and the irritating delays expected to be caused by poor infrastructure and the availability of gas, electricity and other essential utilities. 

What then is the choice for this 1.2 billion- population- strong nation? Unless the economic house is thoroughly reorganized, India faces the prospect of being downgraded in its credit ratings. The current credit rating is not a lucrative one either; barely enough not to scare foreign investment. 

A single downgrading will relegate India’s status as a junk economy. Should that happen, it will not only tarnish the image of this ambitious nation, foreign investors may flee from the country. 

The only perceivable wiggle room, hence, lies in reduced defense spending. In 2010, India spent over $41 billion in national defense, roughly about one-fourth of its export earnings. The comparatively hefty defense expenditures need to be trimmed further. 

The same lesson must be emulated by all the major military powers, who, in totality, have squandered nearly 3 per cent of the global GDP in military expenditures over the preceding decade. China and India are two of the 15 top military spenders in Asia (see chart below). They’re also the second and the fourth largest economies, respectively. 

At a time when much hope is pinned on them to reverse the plunging pace of the global economy, a substantial chunk of their military expenditures must get diverted to spurring regional and global growths.


Top 15 military spenders in 2010

Rank

Country

2010 Spending ($ b.)

Share of 2010 GDP (%)

World Share (%)

World Total

1 630

2.6

100

1

United States United States

698

4.8

43

2

China China

119

2.1

7.3

3

United Kingdom United Kingdom

59.6

2.7

3.7

4

France France

59.3

2.3

3.6

5

Russia Russia

58.7

4.0

3.5

6

Japan Japan

54.5

1.0

3.3

7

Germany Germany

45.2

1.3

2.8

7

Saudi Arabia Saudi Arabia

45.2

10.4

2.8

9

India India

41.3

2.7

2.5

10

Italy Italya

37.0

1.8

2.3

11

Brazil Brazil

33.5

1.6

2.1

12

South Korea South Korea

27.6

2.8

1.7

13

Australia Australia

24.0

2.0

1.5

14

Canada Canadaa

22.8

1.5

1.4

15

Turkey Turkeya

17.5

2.4

1.1

Source: SIPRI


 

Kabul embraces Delhi’s protection

Is another war inevitable in South Asia?

(Global Review feature)

(Published: October 2011)

Like politics, diplomacy too can be an art of impossibility. Afghan President Hamid karzai is up into some high stake diplomacy with India, which is bound to land him flat-footed sooner. Karzai’s excessive coziness with Delhi is not only antagonizing Pakistan and undercutting President Barak Obama’s desperate quest to keep the cash-rich Beijing on the same boat amidst an unprecedented economic turmoil sweeping nations, it’s generating further war hysteria in a region that has had more than its deserved share of war and mayhem.

Delhi-Kabul nexus

The Pak-Afghan relations have nosedived to a dreadful depth in recent weeks and Karzai was intimately courted by Delhi where the two nations have inked a strategic cooperation agreement on October 4. The most disturbing aspect of the pact is the Indian commitment to train and arm Afghan military and other security forces, something Islamabad is construing as a new major threat emanating from India. In the context of the time and space, it also implies that Delhi will stand by Kabul in case of any major showdown with Pakistan which President Karzai blames for much of the tragedies plauging his nation. “Pakistan is double-playing,” claimed the distraught Afghan President prior to his departure for Delhi.

Earlier, the Afghan government has accused the Pakistani military intelligence agency, the ISI, of plotting the assassination last month of Burhanuddin Rabbani, a former President and Kabul's chief peace negotiator with the Taliban. Karzai himself said, “There is a Pakistani link to the killing; the assassin is from Pakistan and the suicide bombing was plotted in the Pakistani city of Quetta.”

This is not what’s prompted Karzai to throw himself to Delhi’s embrace. The fact that the visit followed the visit in June to Delhi of Marshal M. Qasim Fahim - the first vice president of the Afghan Republic and who is known to have finalized the modalities of a far-reaching strategic agreement between the two nations - must help debunk any contention that the latest incidents in Afghanistan, and the alleged complicity of Pakistan, have pushed Kabul into Delhi’s embrace.

War for resources

Afghanistan may be landlocked and war-devastated, but it is rich in mineral and other natural resources. Virtually floating on trillions of dollars worth of unexplored reserve of oil and natural gas - mostly in the north abutting former Central Asian Republics of the Soviet era –the country must juggle adroitly to cash on such coveted gifts. The US geological survey estimates Afghan oil reserves to be 1,596 m barrels and the natural gas reserve to total 15,687 trillion cubic feet (Tcf).

Added to the proven reserve of iron ore deposits between Herat and the Panjsher Valley, and, gold reserves in the northern provinces of Badakshan, Takhar, and Ghazni, the country is awash with vast deposits of valued resources. Major discoveries of copper in Jawkhar, Darband and Aynak have made the nation a veritable target for competition among and between regional and global potentates.

Strategic tangle

No wonder the ongoing war in Afghanistan is a multi - layered one: The US-led NATO forces engaged with the Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters on the surface while India, China and Pakistan vying for their respective spheres of influence. The increased Indian influence in Afghanistan – the two not even sharing a common border - is viewed by Islamabad as an encirclement of Pakistan from the West by its arch regional rival. Besides, Islamabad could not forget how Delhi had trained and armed the non-Poshtun Northern Alliance forces (mostly of Tajik descent) and led them to battle to dislodge the Poshtun-predominant Taliban government in 2001. Straddled across the Afghan-Pakistan borders, the Poshtun tribe constitutes nearly 52% of Afghan population and the bulk of the Taliban forces.

For years Islamabad tried to convince Washington about this reality and insisted that the Indian presence in Afghanistan was not acceptable. Nor is it believable that Washington doesn’t know how doggedly the Pakistani military plan­ners consider Afghanistan as the ‘fulcrum of strategic depth’ with respect to preserving regional balance of power against India. Yet, the US allowed Delhi to move too aggressively to negate Pakistan of such advantages. Since 2002, Delhi had briskly opened consulates in Herat, Mazar-e-Sharif, Jalalabad and Kandahar; moves that Islamabad viewed as providing diplomatic camouflages to Indian intelligence agencies to run covert operations and  instigate insurgency in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province.

The Pakistani paranoia accentuated further due to Indian move to establish its first military airbase abroad in neighbouring Farkhor, Tajikistan, which too aimed at tightening the leashes against Pakistan and China. Besides, Pakistan sees Iran's Chabahar port, where Delhi invested heavily and plans to use as an alternative conduit for trade with Afghanistan, as dwarfing the commercial viability of Pakistan’s Gwadar port built with Chinese assistance.

Economic competition

Despite Pakistan’s opposition, by 2010, India became one of Afghanistan's biggest bilateral donors, having pledged about $2 billion since the 2001 U.S. led – invasion; for projects ranging from construction of highways to the building of a verdant Afghan parliament. As well, the Steel Authority of India Limited (SAIL) has committed to invest up to $6 billion in mines, railroads and a steel plant. The Indian plan to control the Hajigak iron ore mines in Bamiyan province is considered the single biggest foreign investment in Afghanistan.

with the Taliban in the preceding months, until an anti-climax descended in September following the assassination of former President Burhanuddin Rabbani. Karzai was quick to blame Pakistan for the crime, although in the deceptive universe of covert warfare, none is sure who killed who. Islamabad not only categorically denied the accusation, reports say Pakistan might retaliate by closing transit for Afghan exports to India via Pakistan.

Sino-India rivalry

As is the case with Pakistan, Afghanistan has no on-land transit dependency on India, although Delhi needs Afghanistan for something more than trade. The strategists in Delhi see Afghanistan as a potential route for access to the Central Asian energy riches. India has built a 218 kms road from Zaranj to Delaram in south-western Afghanistan, leading to the Iranian border, and, onward to the Chahbahar Port, to bypass Pakistan while reaching Afghanistan and other Central Asian states. Delhi also constructed a 202 km 220 kV DC transmission line from Pul--e- Khumri to Kabul and a 220/110/20 kV substation at Chimtala, bringing Uzbek electricity up into the Afghan capital. Meanwhile, the construction of the Indian-financed Salma Dam power project is likely to be commissioned by early 2012.

China, on the other hand, is more interested in energy and mineral extractions in Afghanistan. China’s Metallurgical group pitched a $3.5 billion bid in 2007 to develop Afghanistan’s Aynak copper field in Logar province. Besides mining, the project involves construction of a $500 million electrical plant and a railway line from Tajikistan (where India has set up a military air base) to Pakistan. The mine will create 10,000 jobs and bring $400m royalty to the Afghan national exchequer. Beijing so valued the project that, despite initially valued only at $2 billion, the Chinese company moved desperately to outbid its competitors (such as the Russian Strikeforce and Kazakhmys Consortium and the US’s Hunter Dickinson and Phelps Dodge).

 Afghan misperception

By signing this strategic agreement with Delhi, President Karzai has drawn an indelible conflict-line  in the already turbulent regional geopolitics; pushing Pakistan and China to blend more seamlessly with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) that include Russia and the Central Asian states abutting Afghanistan. This perilous development in the regional geopolitics is unwarranted. President Karzai should have realized that his is a walk on the tightrope as the timing for a US withdrawal nears and the Afghan forces have no chance of facing the Taliban at the battles. Besides, Beijing made no secret of its ultimate intent with respect to the kind of geopolitical ambiance it wishes to unfold after the US withdrawal from the region.

As early as in early 2009,the Peoples’ Daily (a mouthpiece for the Communist regime) had emphatically stated: “It is clear that without Pakistan's cooperation, the US cannot win the war on terror. Therefore, to safeguard its own interests in the fight against terrorism in South Asia, the US must ensure a stable domestic and international environment for Pakistan and ease the tension between Pakistan and India.” What Beijing implied is that the Kashmir imbroglio must be diffused first before any attempt for a lasting regional peace is expected to gain a credible traction. Unless the Pak-US ties normalize sooner and the US puts a brake on Kabul’s inexorable move to  lean on Delhi as a military-strategic ally, a major regional conflagration may engulf South Asia sooner.

Pakistan being a major competitor of India for Afghan consumer market and bilateral trade between Kabul and Islamabad expected to hit the $5b mark by 2015 from the current $2b, Islamabad became desperate to reverse the situation.

The signing in July 2010 of a trade and transit agreement between Kabul and Islamabad to allow landlocked Afghanistan access to Pakistani ports aimed at making Kabul happier. As the new accord expanded vastly on the limited agreement signed in 1965, Islamabad hoped Kabul would retract from depending on Delhi with which Kabul’s bilateral trade increased to nearly $500m by 2010. An intensely pro-Indian Karzai failed to read the Islamabad's pulse and pushed Pakistan to war readiness under intense domestic compulsions.