MonitorsPublished on Jun 10, 2020
South Asia Weekly Report | Volume XIII; 23

Bhutan: Prospects for energy cooperation under BIMSTEC

Mihir Bhonsale

On 6 June, the Bay of Bengal Multisectoral Technical Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), the sub-regional cooperation bloc, marked its 23rd anniversary. Leaders of member-nations in their congratulatory messages wished each other for a speedy recovery from the Covid-19 and reposed faith in the ability of the seven-member bloc to build a secure and prosperous Bay of Bengal region.

Prime Minister of Bhutan, Dr. Lotay Tshering, in his congratulatory message on the eve of the anniversary, conveyed his country’s sincere prayers and well-wishes to the governments and 1.5 billion citizens of the BIMSTEC region amidst the global pandemic. Bhutan became a member of the BIMSTEC at the Bangkok Summit in 2004. Nepal too joined in the same year.

Inter-grid connection

Bhutan’s maiden summit as a member of the BIMSTEC saw the countries reach an agreement to promote sustainable and optimal energy utilisation. It was also agreed that such energy cooperation was possible through the development of new hydrocarbon and hydropower projects, inter-connection of electricity and natural gas grids, energy conservation and renewable energy technologies.

Despite a promising start, the BIMSTEC and the initiatives in the energy sector lacked lustre until a belligerent India infused fresh life into the BIMSTEC bloc by hosting the BRICS-BIMSTEC Leaders’ Retreat in 2016 in Goa. The summit also saw BIMSTEC leaders deciding to expedite the signing of the MoU on BIMSTEC grid interconnection.

The grid interconnection MoU, signed in 2018 by member-states, sought to create a broad framework for the parties to cooperate towards the implementation of grid interconnections for the trade in electricity with a view to promoting rational and optimal power transmission in the BIMSTEC region. This was a leap forward in energy cooperation.

Regional energy frameworks agreed upon in the BIMSTEC present opportunities for Bhutan’s growing clean energy economy and offers scope for diversifying its energy mix. Bhutan’s energy mix is dominated by Biomass (36 percent) followed by hydropower (28 percent), petroleum (21 percent) and coal (15 percent).

Bhutan is a net exporter of electricity to India. It also imports electricity from India during winter months. Bhutan’s grid connections with India offer scope for electricity trade with other BIMSTEC countries.

India already has regional power system integration with Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal. Also, India has cross-border transactions with Myanmar and Sri Lanka. Such short-term, medium-term or long-term trading arrangements for import and export of electricity with neighboring countries would facilitate regional trade in power and help in meeting the requirement of power in the respective countries thereby moving towards greater energy security in the region.

Bhutan faces the challenge of non-diverse electricity generation resources. It is excessively concentrated in hydropower (37 GW) as a resource from 155 identified sites. Bhutan’s per-capita electricity consumption is highest among the region with 2,976 kWh per annum. However, most of the domestic electricity access provided by Bhutan is through off-grid systems.

Bhutan’s integration into the regional electricity networks will help optimisation of its energy resources. It will also benefit from investment through generation capacity addition. The country will earn revenue by power exchange through cross-border interconnections.

Trilateral power-trade

Early this year it was revealed that a trilateral cooperation between India-Myanmar-Thailand was underway for setting up a power grid which is 3,000 kilometre long. Similarly, Bangladesh is in talks with Nepal and Bhutan for trilateral power trade.

The $2 billion 1125 MW Dorjilung hydropower project involving Bangladesh, Bhutan and India that will allow Thimphu to export electricity to Dhaka through India is one such project identified for trilateral power trade. Last year, during a Prime Ministerial bilateral summit between Bhutan and Bangladesh, the latter’s eagerness for investing in hydropower projects in Bhutan was evident.

The Indo-Bhutan energy cooperation has already presented itself as a model for BIMSTEC countries. Despite its success, some of the joint hydropower projects underway in Bhutan have suffered delays due to ecological risks and funding issues. These include the Punatsangcchu-I and II projects that are not likely to be commissioned before 2024-25 and 2022-2023 respectively.

BIMSTEC member nations as per the 2018 Summit declaration have instructed relevant agencies in their respective countries to take concrete measures for harmonisation of technical, planning and operational standards for removing barriers to grid interconnections.

Thus, a spurt of activities in energy sector of BIMSTEC make it promising avenue for intensifying sub-regional cooperation. Littorals of the bay are rich in natural resources which through integration could optimise the energy security of member nations.

Myanmar: Displaced Rohingyas and ICJ ruling

Sreeparna Banerjee

As nations around the world work to find a way to lift the lock down measures, the focus continues to remain on controlling the number of rising cases, enhancement of health capacities as well as recuperating economic activities. Amidst this, Myanmar last month submitted the most anticipated first report to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). The report is regarding steps the nation has taken towards preventing further acts of genocide against the country's Muslim Rohingya minority as well as preserving evidence of the genocidal campaign seen in recent years.

If we carefully read the initial ruling, it necessitates Myanmar to avoid a set of acts under the Genocide Convention that indicate razing all or part of a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group. These include not only killing members of a group (Rohingya in this instance), but also seriously harming them physically or mentally. The court further ordered Myanmar to ensure that its military and any irregular armed units under its control will not commit any of these acts, form any conspiracy to do so, incite genocide, attempt to commit genocide, or be complicit in genocide.

The submission of the first compliance report has brought great joy and hopes to the international community at large, but there lingers a question regarding the ground situation of the displaced people living in the open air detention camps since 2012 especially after two COVID 19 cases have been reported at Rakhine State during end of May.

Dark year

First, it may be important to understand that why these displaced people are living in camps since 2012.  2012 has been a thorny year where lethal sectarian hostility erupted between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims over the rape and killing of a Buddhist woman.

Details of the crime were circulated locally through provocative pamphlets incriminating the Rohingya muslims. Following this on 3 June, a large group of Buddhists in Toungop stopped a bus and viciously assassinated 10 Rohingyas on board while the police stood and watched the entire episode without intervening.

This led to the major violations in the Rakhine state where gangs from both communities soon created havoc by killing people, devastating residential and non residential places. Fearing that this violence may engulf other parts of the nation, the then President Thein Sein announced a state of emergency. The civilian power was transferred to the Tatmadaw in affected areas of the state. At this point, a wave of concerted violence by various state security forces against Rohingya communities began. The Rohingyas saw themselves being evicted from their homes, their land confiscated and their villages and habitations attacked by the military forces.

Thus, thousands of Rohingya Muslims affected are put in something resembling the infamous ‘concentration camps’. They are not allowed to leave the camp areas and denied proper food, living conditions or health care. This has caused spread of various communicable diseases and deaths within the camps. While some escaped or fled to other nations yet about 126,000 Rohingyas are currently somehow scraping off their existence within such complex conditions.

Camp conditions

If one investigates, it seems there is no drastic change within the functioning of the camps post COVID situation. Though lockdown measures have been declared nevertheless they displaced people are not equipped with proper shelters, water, sanitation or hygiene facilities or food arrangements. Overcrowding restricts the scope of social distancing and self isolation. On top of this, communal water points which is accessed by around 600 people and latrines makes it impossible for proper water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) conditions to prevail.

In terms of health capacity, there are only two government-run health centers with few beds, both inaccessible to those in remote camps, and part-time basic mobile clinics. Such centers typically suffer from a shortage of trained health professionals. They are often headed by poorly-trained medical staffs that perform only basic treatments. These centers also lack adequate medical devices, equipments and also medicines. In addition, none have COVID-19 testing capacity.

For those facing serious medical problems, obtaining an emergency transfer to Sittwe General Hospital is difficult due to restriction of movement and financial constrains. Only 16 percent of Rohingya in the camps reported receiving necessary medical care. According to Human Refugee Watch report, number of masks distributed within the camp areas remains paltry. Even there are instances where families have been asked to share a mask or buy it in exchange of one day’s meal. There have also been instances where though one is wearing mask but still monetary benefits have been asked by the authority. There remains fear that if COVID 19 cases increase within the camp areas proper treatment may not be arranged.

In addition, there is widespread food insecurity within the camp areas. Since the displaced people are not supposed to work outside, they depend entirely on aids received from humanitarian organisations. Apart from governmental oppositions, organisations like the World Food Programme (WFP) are faced with the ubiquitous dilemma of logistics, weather and internal strife’s, among others which is predominant to that region. This limits their ability to consistently provide food security to the displaced Rohingya.

Food insecurities lead to malnutrition as well as low immunity which is susceptible to rising number of diseases like tubercolosis, unknown fever, dysentery, etc. Thus, low immunity coupled with COVID and no treatment is definitively detrimental for these hapless people.

Furthermore, no internet connections have further disrupted chances of swift communication as well as adequate response. The humanitarian organizations have tried to pursue the government by providing letters to uplift the internet blockade due to the current emergency situation. However, no steps on such lines have been drawn as of yet. Misinformation and rumours have the potential to deeply aggravate the spread and impact of the virus. Thus, precise and reliable public health messaging and knowledge is decisive in preventing and controlling outbreaks.

Food for thought

Neglecting the displaced Rohingyas may tend to breach the ICJ ruling of not physically or mentally harming them further. Therefore, proper provisions need to be sought out to ensure that they receive proper health services, food and WASH facilities. Not addressing their concerns will reflect poorly on the government as well as the opposition parties.

Internet access must be granted as that may ensure proper information to the displaced people and will also help the authorities to keep tab on the activities within the camp areas. However, for ensuring all the above points political will is extremely crucial. Whether the authorities adhere to such measures is yet to be seen.

Country Reports


Virus-spread undetected

The International Rescue Committee (IRC) has warned of the impending humanitarian crisis that is waiting to be unleashed, as the government has only been able to test 20% of coronavirus cases in the country. The IRC further stated that the number of new cases rose by 684% in the month of May, as the virus spread rapidly, undetected. The international aid organization called on the international community to help Afghanistan improve testing capacity, and support first responders like the IRC.

Call for inclusive talks

A number of western envoys, in a joint statement released on 4 June, called for intra-Afghan negotiations to be inclusive of women, minorities, and civil society institutions, for meaningful talks. The statement welcomed the formation of the High Council for National Reconciliation, and urged men to actively advocate for gender equality in all spheres of the peace process, emphasising the importance of women being fully integrated and engaged in all processes of nation building.


Contact-tracing app unveiled

The government attempting to flatten the curve of the coronavirus infection has unveiled the country’s first contact tracing app this week. Initially, the app will be on a trial and aims to alert the user of the presence of any corona positive person near the user. Around 50 countries have introduced contact tracing app to control the spread of the disease.  The user can take advantage of the app by downloading it in his/her smartphone.  The app utilises Bluetooth signal to locate corona positive people near the user.  The app has been developed by an indigenous company Shohoz under an initiative of the ICT Division and the Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS).

Crackdown on human trafficker

The law enforcement agencies undertook a massive crackdown on the human trafficking racket in the country and arrested four of the perpetrators.  The crackdown followed after 26 Bangladeshis who were kidnapped and murdered by their abductor in Libya last week.  The people killed were migrants and have been victims of human trafficking. The traffickers took the migrants to Libya promising to arrange their entry into Europe, where they pledged to have for better opportunities. To law enforcement agencies suspect nearly 50 Bangladeshi nationals are involved in the human trafficking activities in Libya.  Every year hundreds of Bangladeshi migrants are trafficked to Lydia on their way to Europe.


47 test positive

Bhutan has reported 47 Covid19 cases as of 2 June. A total of nine positive patients have recovered so far. On 31 May, 10 people from the Middle East with 7 males and three females tested positive taking the total to 43. On 2 June, four tested positive with 2 females and 2 males from the Middle East taking the tally to 47 cases. While 23, COVID-19 patients are recovering at the isolation ward in the Jigme Dorji Wangchuck National Referral Hospital (JDWNRH) and one is in Phuentsholing. There are 15 patients at the de-isolation facility after testing negative. The COVID-19 patients are said to be doing well.

Foreign workers allowed

Despite, the home ministry lifting restrictions on the entry of foreign workers, the number of skilled foreign workers entering the country would depend on the health ministry’s capacity to test and availability of test kits. The entry of foreign workers in the labour category will also be allowed once quarantine facilities have been identified and approved. This means the earlier ban on the entry of foreign workers issued on March 6 due to Covid-19 pandemic is revoked.

Contract holds back returnees

The country is witnessing the plight of Bhutanese workers in Kuwait who are stranded in the oil rich kingdom after their employers refused to let them go. Such migrants sound desperate, willing to forgo benefits and even termination if they can come home. Earlier, thousands of Bhutanese have returned from the Middle East. But they are those who went to the gulf countries for employment directly through the MoLHR. According to the terms and conditions of some Kuwaiti employers, workers have to tender resignation three months in advance and pay for the remaining months of the contract tenure. This is reported to be the main reason for the Bhutanese being stuck in Kuwait.


Talks with China

As India-China border tension continues at the Actual Line of Control (LAC), the foreign ministries of both the countries held talks on 5 June. The meeting took place between Joint secretary (East Asia) in the Ministry of External Affairs Naveen Srivastava and Wu Jianghao, Director General of the Asia Department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China. Both sides agreed that the differences between the two countries must be dealt with peacefully and by keeping the interests of each other in mind. The joint challenges due to the pandemic that both the countries are facing have also been discussed in the diplomatic interaction.

Opposition attacks lockdown

Congress leader, Rahul Gandhi, attacked the central government for implementing a failed lockdown in the country as the lockdown has been unable to check the spread of the contagion as the spike in the coronavirus cases continues. The Congress party, during an online press conference also termed centre’s 20 lakh crore economic package as ‘empty rhetoric’ as it failed to provide relief to the vulnerable sections of people during the pandemic.


Eighth Covid-19 death

Even as the Government is battling the Covid19 pandemic, the nation has recorded the eighth death, even as 18 more positive cases – 13 locals and five foreigner -- were reported on Saturday, with 46 recoveries. According to Government data, 30 May recorded the highest single-day high of 101 cases in a week, indicating that the way to total recovery may be long way off.


Ambiguity over elections

Legislators of the main opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) urged the Union Election Commission to meet with all political parties to discuss this year’s elections before the election date is set. U Thein Tun Oo, spokesperson of the USDP, said the UEC and party representatives especially need to discuss the possibility of postponing the vote due to the COVID19 pandemic. According to him, the UEC should announce the election date only after discussion is held with other political parties.

Ceasefire talks rejected

The Brotherhood Alliance of ethnic armies — the Arakan Army (AA), the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) — extended invitation to begin peace talks on 1 June. However, the Myanmar military has not only rejected the proposal instead has vowed towards further retaliation for armed offensives and ambushes.


Border issue lingers on

In the wake of the Indo-Nepal border tension, Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh has recently made remarks about maintaining harmony. He was very clear about resolving the dispute through bilateral talks and that the two neighbours must co-exist with peace. Though Nepal is stuck with its own stance of maintaining Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura within the Nepalese territory, only time and a detailed dialogue between the two nations can conclusively determine the same.

To self-reliance in power

The country has recently made a major move by connecting the biggest solar energy plant, by the Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA) to the national grid. The total capacity is 25 MW and now 1.25 MW has been transferred to the grid. The World Bank has invested around USD 8 million for the project and is being implemented by a Chinese company. The main idea is to make electricity easily available apart from other sources like hydropower.


Three million jobs in danger

Pakistan’s economy has taken a hit owing to the rising number of Covid19 cases. Finance Minister of Pakistan said in a written reply to senate that nearly three million jobs will be lost in the initial round of Covid19 outbreak. The industrial sector will lose one million and other two million in service sector. People living under poverty will also increase from 24.3 per cent to 33.5 percent. The Finance Minister also said there will be lot of stress on exports as well as foreign remittances as most of the countries face decreased economic activity because of pandemic. Providing the details of economic packages to deal with the situation, the country has announced a relief package of PKR 1,240 trillion. 

‘Concern’ over Kashmir

Pakistan once again used fake concerns about India’s Jammu & Kashmir and urged world leaders to act. Pakistan has said that K&L has been put under draconian lockdown by India for past ten months after the abrogation of Article 370 and 35-A in August last year. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFa) urged world leaders including the United Nations to take cognisance of human rights situation in the Kashmir Valley. The ministry also reported that in past ten months, New Delhi have violated every single right of the Kashmiris and tried every possible tool of oppression. Furthermore, the MoFa reaffirmed Pakistan’s full support to Kashmiris and their struggle for right to self-determination according to United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions. The foreign office also accused New Delhi of extra judicial killings of Kashmiri youth in fake encounters.

Sri Lanka

SC dismisses poll plea

A five-judge Bench of the Supreme Court has dismissed all seven petitions, seeking directions for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to recall the dissolved Parliament, as the scheduled polls for 25 April, later fixed for 20 June, could not be held on time owing to Covid19 pandemic. Following the court ruling, the three-member Election Commission is all set to fix a new date for polling in the coming week, even as the Government has indicated that the pandemic positive numbers are coming down.



Opinion Pieces

Emran Feroz, “In Afghanistan, the Islamic State Threatens Long-Term Peace”, Foreign Policy, 4 June 2020 

Daniel L. Davis, “The Risks of Staying in Afghanistan Far Outweigh the Risk of Withdrawal”, The Hill, 3 June 2020


Afghanistan Times, “Leadership in Disarray”, 1 June 2020

The Daily Outlook Afghanistan, “Militancy Continues Unabated Despite US-Taliban Peace Deal”, 1 June 2020


Opinion Pieces

Haseeb Md Irfanullah, “It’s time for the Sundarbans”,  The Dhaka Tribune, 5 June 2020

Sreeradha Datta, “India-Bangladesh waterway project will herald a new chapter in bilateral cooperation”, South Asia Monitor, 1 June 2020



Kuensel, “The government steps in”, 6 June 2020


Opinion Pieces

Rama Bijapurkar, “‘Migrant’ has become a label that declares someone a perpetual outsider”, The Indian Express, 5 June 2020

Yashovardhan Azad, “The RTI regime failed India during Covid-19”, hindustantimes, 5 June 2020

Manish Sisodia, “Covid-19: A historic opportunity to redefine the Indian school system”, hindustantimes, 5 June 2020

Prabhat Patnaik, “A legal question”, The Telegraph, 5 June 2020

Swami Agnivesh, “When poverty became visible”, The Indian Express, 5 June 2020

GopalKrishna Gandhi, “When Gandhi battled an epidemic”, hindustantimes, 4 June 2020

Aditya Sharma, “Human rights for public health”, The Telegraph, 4 June 2020


The Hindu, “Killing Gajah: On the killing of an elephant in Kerala”, 5 June 2020

The Hindu, “Curves and recoveries: On India’s coronavirus numbers”, 4 June 2020

Economic Times, “Improving India’s Covid testing rate”, 4 June 2020

The Telegraph, “Ugly truth: A still unequipped healthcare infrastructure”, 4 June 2020

The Hindu, “Seven to eleven: On India and G-7”, 4 June 2020

The Hindu, “Monumental hurry: On Central Vista project”, 3 June 2020


Opinion Pieces

N Sathiya Moorthy, “Development aid as diplomatic tool”,, 2 June 2020 


Opinion Pieces

Aung Zaw, “What Do We Want a Post-Pandemic Myanmar to Look Like?”, The Irrawaddy, 29 May 2020


Opinion Pieces

Mandira Singh Shrestha, “Is Nepal prepared to deal with floods in light of COVID-19?”, Republica, 5 June 2020

Naresh Koirala, “Limpiyadhura-Kalapani-Lipulekh dispute”, The Kathmandu Post, 4 June 2020

Mahabir Paudyal, “Who is playing China card?”, Republica, 4 June 2020


The Kathmandu Post, “Feed the hungry”, 4 June 2020


Opinion Pieces

Ashaar Rehman, “Grey in the picture”, Dawn, 5 June 2020

Shahab Usto, “Fighting corruptionDawn, 5June 2020

Inam Ul Haque, “The future of warfare and Artificial Intelligence”, The Express Tribune, 4 June 2020

Abdul Qayyum, “Balance of power and nuclearisation of South Asia”, The Express Tribune, 5 June 2020


Dawn, “A common threat”, 6 June 2020

The Express Tribune, “ISPR warning, 5 June 2020

Dawn, “Spy games”, 2 June 2020

Dawn, “Resurgent militancy”, 1 June 2020

Sri Lanka

Opinion Pieces

Rajan Philips, “The Supreme Court ruling: Gift horse or Trojan horse?”, The Island, 7 June 2020

Kumar David, “No easy road to economic survival”, The Island, 7 June 2020

M S M Ayub, “Constitutional crisis: Back to square one”, Daily Mirror Online, 6 June 2020

Dr Upal Wijayawardana, “US riots: Why drag Sri Lanka?”, The Island,  6 June 2020

Kelum Bandara, “UNP asserts itself in full measure against SJB”, Daily Mirror Online, 4 June 2020

Malinda Seneviratne, “I can’t breathe, Ms Teplitz”, Daily Mirror Online, 4 June 2020

Ravi Nagahawatte, “Arumugam Thondaman: A struggle left incomplete”, Daily Mirror Online, 4 June 2020

Robert Pallihakara, “Easter Sunday massacre: Rewards for criminal negligence?”, The Island, 2 June 2020

N Sathiya Moorthy, “Upcountry Tamils and the Thondaman legacy”, Ceylon Today, 2 June 2020

N Sathiya Moorthy, “Upcountry Tamil politics after Thonda”, Colombo Gazette, 1 June 2020


Daily Mirror Online, “SC dismisses FR petitions: Let’s get set for elections”, 4 June 2020


Afghanistan: Shubhangi Pandey

Bangladesh: Joyeeta Bhattacharjee

Bhutan: Mihir Bhonsale

India: Ambar Kumar Ghosh

Maldives & Sri Lanka: N Sathiya Moorthy

Myanmar: Sreeparna Banerjee

Nepal: Sohini Nayak

Pakistan: Ayjaz Wani

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