MonitorsPublished on Jun 11, 2018
South Asia Weekly Report | Vol. XI Issue 24


India: Strategic turn in the ASEAN ties

Ketan Mehta New Delhi is trying to deepen its strategic relations with South East Asia.  An initiative of the erstwhile Narasimha Rao government (1991-96), the ‘Look East’ policy was indicative of India’s intent to open up to the rest of the world, including the South-East Asian countries, going by the common ASEAN denominator. In the early 90’s, when the ‘Look East’ policy’ was being articulated, it primarily focused on augmenting India’s trade and economic ties with the 10 South-East Asian countries. Apart from the domestic motivation to rev up the stagnant economic growth rate which induced India to deepen existing ties with South-East Asian, New Delhi sought to re-imagine its relationship with these countries intending to benefit from its long-standing cultural and civilisation linkages. Strategic imperatives to engage the South-East region such as the 'Rise of China’ arguably had factored less then. In some ways, India’s out-reach to the region coincided with the period when it had embraced ‘economic liberalisation’ as a way forward. Times have changed since, though India continues to lay stress on heightening its economic engagement with the region, noteworthy being the India-ASEAN free trade agreement framework that was signed in 2003. Strategic concerns seem to have received greater attention in New Delhi’s contemporary out-reach to the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) member-countries.  This qualitative change is also evident under the incumbent Narendra Modi government.

Assertive China

Addressing the Shangri-La Dialogue, a primer strategic conclave that is organised by the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS), held at Singapore from 1-3 June, Prime Minister Narendra Modi emphasised the need for a stable, secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific region. Modi was the first Indian Prime Minister to speak at the Shangri-La Dialogue since its inception in the year 2002.  India’s growing acceptance in the ASEAN community is reflective of their shared apprehension regarding China’s assertive behaviour in the South China Sea. In his book, ‘Chinese Assertiveness in the South China Sea’, Richard Turcsanyi claims that China’s assertive behaviour had started towards the end of former Chinese President, Hu Jintao’s term.  Alarmed by such a development, the South-East Asian states had turned towards India as they saw it imperative in the emerging security architecture in Asia. India was subsequently invited to the first East Asia Summit in 2005.  Another major milestone in India-ASEAN ties was reached in December 2012 on the sidelines of the 20th anniversary of the India-ASEAN sectoral dialogue partnership. Both sides elevated their bilateral ties to the level of strategic partnership. Born out of the ‘Look East’ policy, the present-day ‘Act East’ policy is now charting out ways to expand New Delhi’s relations with the South-East Asia  in the background of an assertive China that has increasingly been defiant of the rules based order in the South China Sea. PM Modi’s visit to Vietnam in 2016 further signified that New Delhi was no longer hesitant to develop partnerships in China’s periphery. In line with this, India has offered the BrahMos cruise missile to Vietnam alongside a concessional line of credit of $100 million for the procurement of defence equipment. Indonesia is another potential operator of the BrahMos cruise missile system. India has also shown interest in joining the Malacca Strait Patrol (MSP), which allows for coordinated sea and air patrols between Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand in the Malacca Straits.

The Modi way

The Modi government invited all 10 ASEAN leaders as chief guests for India’s 69th Republic Day this year, which also marked 25 years of the India-ASEAN Dialogue Partnership. Then later in May 2018, Modi as part of India’s ‘Act East’ initiative visited three South-East nations, namely, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. In Indonesia, India has shown keenness to develop the economic zone at Sabang, which is at the tip of the Sumatran Island. Indonesia’s Presiden, Joko Widodo on the occasion of Modi’s visit again emphasized the need to preserve ‘rules-based order’ and to respect the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), a reference this to China’s transgressions in the South-China and East China Seas. Both sides held extensive discussions ranging from maritime security to outer space. From India’s viewpoint, Indonesia is a key South-East Asia actor as it is the largest archipelagic state which shares maritime and territorial borders with other South East Asian countries. In Singapore, apart from delivering address at the Shangri-La Dialogue, Modi underlined how Singapore has turned out to be a bridge between India and the ASEAN. The two nations have already established military-to-military ties with an agreement in 2003 that allows the Singapore army to train in India. Both countries in 2016 also conceived a strategic agreement which allows for expanding cooperation in defence and trade areas. In all, the convergence of strategic interest of the ASEAN member-States and India gravitates both sides to diversify their engagement. However, it remains to be seen whether India would be able to bring on board, other ASEAN members such as Cambodia, which are politically much closer to Beijing.
The writer is a Research Assistant at Observer Research Foundation

Bhutan: Addressing the social media challenge

Gone are the days when the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan was aloof from satellite television and was also unaware of the worldwide web. Beginning in the late 90’s with the introduction of TV and the internet, a boom in information and communication technology (ICT) set forth. From e-governance to e-commerce to social media, over the past couple of decades the Bhutanese are living a digital dream. ICTs also gave birth to enfant terrible, the social media. In just about two decades the nation is debating the impact of social media on its polity and culture. Bhutan rose to internet in 1999 and social media like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and We Chat caught the imagination of the people in no time. The Ministry of Education in a notice on 1 May this year drew flak upon its personnel on comments made on social media on a host of issues related to education and cautioned against a serious breach of their responsibilities. By serving the notice, the ministry sustained the ongoing debate on the use of social media.

Storm in tea-cups

While views, information, news over the social media led to a storm in many tea cups, the use of social media by some were also mired in controversies. In August 2016, Sonam Phuntsho filed a defamation case against freelance journalist Namgay Zam and Dr Shacha Wangmo for writing and sharing a facebook post on a court case against the former. The post alleged that Phuntsho had tried to take away Wangmo’s family building in Thimphu when an estranged family member could not repay Nu 0.7 million borrowed from him. She claimed that the amount had increased to Nu 19.5 million with compound interest. The post went viral within hours. The case that went on for six months before the plaintiff, Sonam Phuntsho, withdrew the case. Even though the court had not come to any conclusion, the social media had already found Phuntsho guilty, causing loss of public esteem and worse. Cases of embezzlement of money through use of social media have also come forth, since. In a recent case two individuals claiming to be reincarnated spiritual leaders in Trashigang were reported to have collected money through a WeChat group.

False messages

With General Elections round the corner, political parties are worried about the social media advancing false messages and negative campaigns that could put the future of the nation at stake. Political parties fear the proliferation of fake identities that spread rumours, tarnish images of candidates and divide the voters on false information. One such set of politicians have called upon the government to address through authorities such as Election Commission of Bhutan, Bhutan InfoComm and Media Authority, and Bhutan Media Foundation to consider interventions, carry out civic education and launch awareness campaigns to educate voters to filter messages they receive. The Government has already in place a social media policy that aims to use social media as a tool of governance but also to overcome the challenge of social media that its users spread defamatory, abusive and threatening messages and prevent children for getting exposed to it.

Monitoring hub

There are about 250,000 Facebook users in the country, accounting for a 32.5 percent of the population besides those accessing Twitter, WhatsApp, WeChat, and other social networking sites. Bhutan, a democracy with large literate population, could have hardly ignored the winds of change that the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) signalled. Neighbour, India is also pondering over the possibility of creating a hub that is dedicated towards monitoring social media platforms. Bhutan can take a cue from its southern neighbour or at least learn from the latter’s experience. It could take time before a fool-proof system is put in place to address the challenge of social media. In the meantime, Bhutan needs to strengthen and empower users, preventing abuse and misuse of the social media. It needs to bring in stricter laws for curbing crime, defamatory and hate speeches circulated over social media. At a time when Bhutan addresses the challenges of social media, it needs to streamline and further expand the role of social media in governance and ensure a free, fair and transparent society.
The writer is a Junior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Kolkata

Country Reports


Humvees destroyed

The US Air Force in Afghanistan has destroyed the 40 Humvee armoured personnel carrier which were captured by the Taliban in 2015. In cases where military equipment is stolen, the government forces try to recapture the equipment or destroy the same, so that the insurgents cannot put it to their use in the war-front or use them to hoodwink the army. The latest instance of such con attack was the insurgent infiltration in the Ministry of Interior.

Withholding hostilities

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s announcement to hold a ceasefire from the 27th day of Ramadan to 5th day of Eid-ul-Fitr with the Taliban has been endorsed by the NATO and the US Forces in Afghanistan. This decision was made in response to the issuance of a Fatwa by religious scholars who held the violence in Afghanistan to be un-Islamic. It is an opportunity for the Taliban to introspect on their violent campaign which is alienating them from the masses.

Ceasefire, not for all

The ceasefire announced by President Ghani is functional only with regard to the Taliban and by an extension the Haqqani network. Meanwhile, the Afghan National Army Chief of Staff, General Mohammad Sharif Yaftali stated that the armed forces will continue to fight the foreign terrorists; Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, ISIS-Khurasan and Al-Qaeda operative in Afghanistan. But the army will also remain alert in case the ceasefire is breached by the Taliban. If they respond positively the ceasefire may even be extended.


Preparing second satellite

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina informed Parliament informed that the country was preparing for launching the second communication satellite ‘Bangabandhu-2’. She further opined that the country needs the second satellite so that it can replace the first one when it becomes obsolete.  Preparation for the second satellite will have to be started now since takes at least five to six years to complete. In May, Bangladesh launched its first satellite.

GDP target set at 7.8 pc

The Finance minister this week presented the national budget worth Bangladeshi Taka 4, 64,573 crores in Parliament The government is targeting a GDP growth rate of 7.8 per cent. This year is the election year; the budget has attained special significance.  Analysts suggested that the budget is welcoming, as it tends to preserve the macroeconomic stability of the country by taking steps to keep the fiscal deficit to control at 5 percent of GDP. The analysts were critical of the budget following an absence of measure policy for tax mobilisation, reforming the banking sector. They believe that policy intervention in these areas is key to achieving the proposed growth and strengthening of the economy.


Tariff –talks for Mangdechu

Negotiations are on between officials of Bhutan and India for deciding the tariff for the 720 MW Mangdechu Project that is scheduled to be commissioned in November this year. The negotiations are crucial not just as it would be on internal revenue, determining a fair tariff rate is significant as it form a precedent for the bigger Punatsangchu I and II projects. Three rounds of tariff negotiations have taken place so far between the two sides, the last meeting being held on 9 May. The Mangdechu project is worth Nu 47 billion which would be funded through a 70:30 loan, grant ratio.

66,000 job-seekers

Around 66,000 jobseekers would enter the labour market and a budget of Nu 1.9 billion has been provisioned under the 12th Plan human resource development master plan. The master plan published by the labour ministry focuses on entrepreneurship programmes, industry attachment, short courses and revamping the technical training institutes, among others.

Nipah virus under scanner

The Health Ministry has ordered for starting a mandatory health declaration at the point of entry with bordering India for the prevention of Nipah virus outbreak. The ministry notification issued on 1 June asked the health sectors to put a team of health workers at check-posts to monitor all non-Bhutanese entering Bhutan from India. Bhutanese coming from affected areas will also be screened.


‘Quad’ meet at Singapore

India, Australia, the US and Japan or the ‘Quad’ is set to meet in Singapore on the 7 June. This would be the second meet of the quad grouping and will take place on the sidelines of the ASEAN group meet. For India, the quadrilateral meet involving the four major Indo-Pacific powers comes at a juncture when Prime Minister Narendra Modi has finished his address at the Shangri-La dialogue and days before the SCO summit in Qingdao in China.

Shah meets Sena chief

In an effort to mitigate tensions, ruling Bhartiya Janta Party’s national President, Amit Shah reached out to NDA’s alliance partner, the Shiva Sena. Amit Shah was received by Shiv Sena chief, Udhav Thackery at the latter’s residence. During the meet, Udhav raised multiple issues with the BJP chief including the lack of NDA coordination meet, the neglect of Shiv Sena ministers in the Maharashtra government. The meet comes after Shiv Sena threatened to discontinue support to the BJP.


President polls on 23 Sept

The Maldives Election Commission has since announced that the first round of the nation’s presidential polls will be held on 23 September. Under the Constitution, the winner has to secure 50 percent-plus-one of all the votes cast, or a second, run-off round would be held within the next 30 days, where the top two from the first round alone will be the contestant. With the ruling PPM nominating incumbent Abdulla Yameen as its candidate, the rival MDP leader of the four-party Joint Opposition has since reiterated its criticism of the EC, more so after the latter declared the party primaries that unanimously named jailed and self-exiled former President Mohammed Nasheed as its candidate, threatening the party with de-registration.

Loses UNSC contest

Maldives has lost the Asia seat polls for the non-permanent member of the UN Security Council (UNSC) to later-day entrant Indonesia by a huge margin. Though India refused to say to whom did the country vote in the secret-ballot, sticking to its tradition in the matter, Maldives India envoy, Ahmed Mohammed, said that even as late as the poll-eve, India had given written assurances at the UN that it would be voting for the nation, the third time since Male announced its candidacy months ago.


Finance Minister at 80

Myanmar's President on 4 June nominated 80-year-old Soe Win, a well-known financial professional, as the next finance minister after the previous one resigned, amid reports he was being investigated over graft accusations. The appointment, expected to be confirmed by parliament this week, will probably reassure potential investors worried about the slow pace of financial reform and a lack of focus on the economy by the administration of Aung San Suu Kyi.

Multi-purpose terminal

Myanmar's Yangon region authorities are seeking to establish a new multi-purpose terminal in the region. A new port will be set up in Kawhmu township aiming at promoting regional development, facilitating the country's trade with neighbouring countries as well as attracting foreign investments in the region. With storage terminal for fuel oil imports, the new port will be set up on 1,053 acres of land with a 2.2 km waterfront, having a 9-meter draft of river which is deeper than the Thilawa port.

Trade with Sweden down

According to the latest report of the Ministry of Commerce, trade between Myanmar and Sweden reached US$55.848 million in the 2017-2018 fiscal year, which saw a slight decrease in value by $6.148 million than the previous financial year. In the 2017-2018 FY, the total bilateral exports of the two countries amounted to $31.934 million, increasing by $10.611 million against the 2016-2017 FY, while Myanmar’s imports from European member states were worth $23.914 million, decreasing by $19.808 million.


NCP formally registered

The Nepal Communist Party (NCP) has been formally registered by the lection body under the aegis of the Election Commission of Nepal. This newly formed party – the CPN-UML and the Maoist Centre merged together-with its registered symbol of the ‘sun’ was recently handed over the certificate of party registration by Chief Election Commissioner, Ayodhee Prasad Sharma, with a lot of fanfare in the EC Headquarter.

Integrity policy ‘within a week’

As informed by Kundal Aryal, Chief Advisor to Prime Minister K. P Oli, the Chief Secretary Lok Darshan Regmi would be presenting the National Integrity Policy, 2018 to the Cabinet within a week’s time. This is primarily a revised version of the policy framework that had been under construction, following the feedback of the stakeholders including the NGOs and the INGOs. As has been understood, the people concerned were unhappy with the contents as displayed, which empowered legal and structural bodies to regulate and monitor the NGOs.

No SCO invite

Despite being a Dialogue Partner in the 2015 Summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the 2018 Summit of the same has not yet invited Nepal. The programme to be held in Quingdao, China, is most likely to go ahead without the Himalayan country. According to the government officials, this time there might not be any suitable forum for the country to participate in. Leaders of the eight SCO member-States and the four observer states, including India, were invited


Caretaker govt takes over

A six-member cabinet under Prime Minister Nasirul Mulk took oath on 5 June, for running the country till the upcoming general election. The Prime Minister’s Office informed that Abdullah Hussain Haroon who has been appointed as the foreign minister will have additional responsibilities as minister of defence of and defence production. The former chief secretary of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Azam Khan has been appointed as interior minister and former governor of State Bank of Pakistan Shamshad Akhtarm, as finance minister and Ali Zafar has been given the charge of law ministry.

US tensions eased

Washington in an act of ‘reaching out’ to Pakistan telephoned the caretaker Prime Minister Nasirul Mulk to congratulate him on assuming office. In a telephonic conversation between US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Pakistan army chief Gen Bajwa, the two countries discussed the need for political reconciliation over Afghanistan, especially when the latter has declared ceasefire on the Taliban. Last month bilateral ties between the two governments were disrupted over diplomatic issues and the US support for India on the Kishanganga dam project. After the telephonic conversation the Foreign Office issued a statement that Pakistan will continue to pursue World Bank for arbitration court on dispute.

Draft on terror-funding

Pakistan is at the risk of being placed on the blacklist of the countries that financially aid terrorism. The caretaker government which took oath on Tuesday is now responsible for submitting an action plan which will be acceptable to the Asia Pacific Group on Money-Laundering. The caretaker cabinet has discussed the recommendations of the APG in a meeting chaired by Finance Minister Shamshad Akhtar. Information and Law Minister Ali Zafar in an interview to the press stated that the ministry of Finance will require some more time to review the proposals and finalise the draft to be submitted.

Sri Lanka

Sirisena provokes alliance-split?

Heading the junior SLFP partner in the ruling coalition, President Maithiripala Sirisena has provoked senior UNP leadership of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe by ordering the unilateral shutdown of the a few transmission towers of the TNL television network, owned the latter’s brother, for alleged violations of relevant rules. The idea is to pin down Ranil for partisanship if he joined issue with the President, as paint him as a weak leader, if he did not react and allow the law to take its course.



Opinion Pieces

Gareth Hutchens, “Allegations of Australian war crimes in Afghanistan being taken seriously”, The Guardian, 8 June 2018 Mujib Mashal, Taimoor Shah and Najim Rahim, “30,000 Afghan Police Officers, on Front Line of War, Are Denied Pay”, The New York Times, 6 June 2018 Mohammad Zahir Akbari, “Reaction Against Religious Scholars’ Gathering”, Daily Outlook Afghanistan, 6 June 2018 Mujib Mashal and Jawad Sukhanyar, “Bomber Attacks Afghan Scholars Gathered to Denounce Violence”, The New York Times, 4 June 2018 Hujjatullah Zia, “China’s Role in Building Trust between Afghanistan and Pakistan”, Daily Outlook Afghanistan, 4 June 2018 Abbas Nasir, “The Generals and the Art of Undermining Democracy in Pakistan”, The New York Times, 3 June 2018 Mohammed Gul Sahibbzada, “Attack on Ministry of Interior - A Lesson for Afghan Police”, Daily Outlook Afghanistan, 3 June 2018


Afghanistan Times, “Brave ANDSF”, 7 June 2018 Afghanistan Times, “Turbulent times for children”, 4 June 2018 Daily Outlook Afghanistan, “Violence against Women: A Culture to Be Abolished”, 2 June 2018


Opinion Pieces

Shah Husain Imam, “Women migrant workers in Saudi Arabia: Can't they get a better deal?”,The Daily Star, 8 June 2018 Ziauddin Choudhury, “The reality of being India’s neighbour”, Dhaka Tribune, 6 June 2018



Kuensel, “Thoughts on politics as election nears”, 4 June 2018 The Bhutanese, “Mangdechu Tariff”, 2 June 2018


Opinion Pieces

Shashi Tharoor and Avinash Tharoor, “High time India, the land of bhang, legalises marijuana: Shashi Tharoor”, The Print, 5 June 2018 Chaitanya Kalbag, “How PM Modi has run UPA's legacy programmes better than his predecessors, The Economic Times, 7 June 2018 Karamatullah K Ghori, “Book that stirred up a storm in Pak, The New Indian Express, 6 June 2018


Opinion Pieces

Bidhayak Das, “On Nagaland, New Delhi Must Move Beyond Window Dressing”, The Irrawaddy, 7 June 2018 Kavi Chongkittavorn, “ASEAN is key to Indo-Pacific: Modi”, The Myanmar Times, 6 June 2018


The Irrawaddy, “Is the President Truly Above the Commander-in-Chief?”, 1 June 2018


Opinion Pieces

Kabi Adhikary, “Migration no solution”, The Kathmandu Post, 8 June 2018 Narayan Manandhar, “Nepal’s political paradox”, Republica, 7 June 2018 Binay K. Mishra, “One hundred days of federalism”, The Kathmandu Post, 8 June 2018 Veeshan Raayamajhee, “Politics of protest”, Republica, 6 June 2018


The Kathmandu Post, “Act without bias”, 8 June 2018 Republica, “Questionable credentials”, 6 June 2018 The Himalayan Times, “Masculine parties”, 8 June 2018


Opinion Pieces

Kamran Yusuf, “Reasons behind Indo-Pak truce”, The Express Tribune, 4 June 2018 Hasaan Khawar, “CPEC: Transport or economic corridor”, The Express Tribune, 5 June 2018 Shamila Mahmood, “Indus Treaty in jeopardy”, Dawn, 8 June 2018


Dawn, “Foreign Policy challenges”, 5 June 2018 Dawn,Human Rights promises”, 7 June 2018

Sri Lanka

Kumar David, “Stop Gotabaya Rex”, The Island, 10 June 2018 Gnana Moonasinghe, “The widening gap between promises and delivery made to the people...”, The Island, 10 June 2018 N Sathiya Moorthy, “Whose ‘hundred days’ was it anyway?”, The Island, 10 June 2018 Neveille Laduwahetty, “On the practice of foreign policy”, The Island, 9 June 2018 M S M Ayub, “A Government that itself is the Opposition”, Daily Mirror Online, 8 June 2018 Kusal Perera, “It’s the development, stupid”, Daily Mirror Online, 8 June 2018 S Ratnajeevan H Hoole, “Are we a democracy? Maybe?”, The Island, 8 June 2018 Jehan Perera, “Revival of national unity government is still possible”, The Island, 5 June 2018 N Sathiya Moorthy, “TNA deserves a positive response”, The Island, 5 June 2018


Afghanistan: Sohini Bose Bangladesh: Dr Joyeeta Bhattacharjee Bhutan: Mihir Bhonsale India: Parth Giri and Ketan Mehta Maldives & Sri Lanka: N Sathiya Moorthy Myanmar: Sreeparna Banerjee Nepal: Sohini Nayak Pakistan: Mayuri Banerjee Coordinator: Sreeparna Banerjee
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