South Asia Weekly Report | Vol. XI Issue 9

     SAW, South Asia Weekly, elections, democracies, FATF, IMU, connectivity, Lokpal, BNP


    Pakistan: Tryst with elections

    Mayuri Banerjee

    The general elections are due in July this year in Pakistan. Though these elections are a routine matter in democracies, the elections in Pakistan is keenly watched as it does not have an uninterrupted history of democratic transition. In fact, Pakistan’s political history is replete with instances of military engineered coup. And its journey to democracy has been anything but steady.  The first democratic and peaceful transition of power occurred in 2013 and if the 2018 elections are held successfully, it will just be the second one. Experts opine that current political indicators are favourable since no Parliament before had been able to complete its term. This election is essentially crucial for the country due to various volatile issues that shroud its possibility.

    There is considerable anxiety regarding how the event will unfold. There are three main parties; PML-N, PPP and PTI who are expected to rule over popular votes. The ruling party, Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N), holds 189 seats out of 342 with a strong hold in the Punjab province. The chief opposition, Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), holds 47 seats with strong hold over the Sindh province and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) which holds 33 seats is also making rapid electoral gains.

    Pre-electoral showdown is running high between PML-N and the apex court of the country. The Pakistan Supreme court had earlier barred Nawaz Sharif from his elected office and has extended his disqualification for the upcoming elections. While, some have welcomed the judgment hailing it as an important step towards introducing accountability others are more critical seeing the same as a move by the army to dislodge the popular leader.

    There is also speculation regarding emergence of new religious alliance under parties like Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah, Pakistan Awami Tehreek and Minhaj-ul-Quran who registered with the election commission in September 2017. Hafiz Saeed’s declaration of running for 2018 elections had raised serious concerns amongst international groups and media.  The Pakistan government has sought to assuage these concerns by quietly passing a Presidential ordinance banning JUD and other related groups.  However, mainstreaming of other extremist religious parties is likely to dilute the vote banks of the professed secular parties.

    The ‘three A’s’

    There is a popular saying in Pakistan that the “country is ruled by the Allah, Army and America”. The army as a powerful institution occupies an important position in the country and there have been more instances of military dictators tossing the constitution than elected leaders completing their term.  The latest incident being the disqualification of the popularly elected leader Nawaz Sharif from his office and later from 2018 elections. Critics suggest military meddling since the issue instead of being discussed in the Parliament was directly taken up by the Supreme Court. The event points towards a dangerous trend that any party can could be cut down to size by the military without a visible coup. Many Pakistanis point out that the event demonstrates that nothing will be able to keep a ruling party in power unless it shares a good relation with the army.

    The rise of religious and extremist groups is another major dynamic in the upcoming elections. These parties have found huge support in the religious mentality of the rural population of the provinces, especially at a time when the country is reeling under debates over blasphemy law and issues of corruption. The growing strength of these religious parties was manifested when a largely unknown group, Tehreek-e-Labbaik, held the administration hostage over demands for resignation of a federal minister and inclusion of information about blasphemy laws in school textbooks.

    According to reports, this group was also supported by some sections in the army who at that point had refused to extend support to the civilian government.  The current government is trying to mainstream the religious parties by encouraging their participation in election. The impact of their inclusion on Pakistan’s quality of democracy and the growing trend of intolerance in Pakistani civil society remains to be seen.

    Agenda on cards

    The upcoming elections will see a steep competition between three major parties; PML-N, PPP and PTI along with other religiously based parties.  And there are some pressing issues along which the electoral warfare is taking shape.

    The previous government led by PPP had to pay heavily in 2013 due to accusations of corruption and poor governance. This election too corruption will be a significant issue, primarily after Panama Papers revelation which led to disqualification of then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharrif.  The ruling government and other opposition parties are well aware of the political mileage that can be gained by exploiting electoral sensitivity over the issue.

    There has been growing trend of intolerance in the country with increasing attacks on minority and media.  The ruling government’s   performance in protecting individual rights and freedom has also been bleak. The 2013 manifesto had promised a law for protecting journalists from harassment. However, the suggested law has not been passed and the country also did not see any progress on professed amendments over Right to Information especially with regard to forced disappearances.

    Pakistan is one of the countries worst affected by terrorism. The country has recently come under immense international pressure to take a stronger stand against banned terrorist groups in the country. Particularly worrying is the condemnation it has received from United States and its inclusion in the FATF list. Both these events are likely to impact the country’s status as an investment destination. The menace of terrorism also poses considerable  internal security threat as was evinced by Peshawar attacks and again Quetta Church attacks.

    Economic and infrastructural development has been on the list for many years primarily after the initiation of the CPEC project. Although the implementation of the project has come under severe criticism over money laundering and corruption in resource allocation, the CPEC project is expected to bring revolutionary economic growth facilitating increased trade between Pakistan, China and other South East Asian countries. However, to make the project a success the government will have to create and sustain significant social and political capital. Therefore, this election will see severe campaigning on issues of development, improved infrastructural facilities and access to basic necessities and welfare.

    The on-going political and social chaos points to institutional tussles, and to the fragile nature of democratic structure in the country. Despite all that has followed a timely general election in 2018 offers new hopes and may prove to be a major feat in securing normalcy and stability in the country.

    The writer is a Research Assistant at Observer Research Foundation, Kolkata Chapter

     Afghanistan: IS future uncertain

    Sohini Bose

    The Islamic State, or the IS as it is commonly called, had extended its reach to the South Asian countries of Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2014. Galvanised by its success in Iraq and Syria, it indulged in propaganda and encouraged militants to defect from other insurgent groups and join its ranks. The allure of this international jihadist force was successful in attracting many recruiters. Very soon several groups pledged ‘bayat’ or allegiance to the IS. In 2015, these defectors proclaimed themselves to be the administrators of an official ‘wilayat’ or ‘Province in Afghanistan’, which was named the ‘Islamic State-Khorasan’.

    Later in the year, a former Taliban commander Abdur Rahim Muslim Dost, was named the ‘emir’ of the nascent ‘Islamic State-Khorasan’. Militants from Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, defectors from Afghanistan Taliban as well as members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and other foreign militant groups joined the ranks of the IS. At its peak, the IS was deemed to be a terrible threat in Afghanistan. However, the scenario changed soon afterwards.

    Decline begins

    To assert its presence in the country further, the IS sought to discredit its rival groups; the Taliban and al-Qaeda. However this was a faux pas, considering that the Talibans had been living in Afghanistan amidst the people for decades. It was the indigenous group whereas the IS had foreign roots and was seen as trying to encroach on foreign space.  Also, the IS goal of establishing a global caliphate did not appeal to the Afghans whose main aim was national insurgency.

    In the month of April in the same year, the IS and the Taliban declared ‘jihad’ against each other. However by the middle of 2015, the Taliban managed to confine the IS to the eastern provinces of Afghanistan, particularly to Nangarhar. The death of the Taliban chief Mullah Omar opened a window of opportunity for the IS to gain more Taliban defectors. But the attempt was unsuccessful as the Taliban was more engrossed in fighting one another in the aftermath of a fractured leadership. The IS was further impaired when the Taliban defeated the IMU forces in Zabul which completely confined the IS to the east of the country.

    But in this area, the IS continued to operate with unforeseen resilience. They continued to capture villages, governing them brutally, terrorise civilians, clash with the Afghan security forces and push out hundreds of Talibans along with their families into the refugee camps around Jalalabad. Schools and medical outlets were closed down and professionals were allowed to practise only if they refused a government salary. Through various measures like new training camps, and radio stations which propounded anti government propaganda and preaching of Islam, the IS tried to expand its influence in Afghanistan.

    However, the IS, despite their resilience, could not expand their sphere of activity, whereas the Taliban gained power in numerous districts. As a result, the amount of defection from Taliban to the IS significantly reduced. The IS gradually started losing support. It already lacked local roots and was consistently losing to the Taliban and the Afghan government forces. Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani declared in 2016 that the country would be a ‘graveyard’ for IS.

    Fighting on the ground

    The Taliban had sent a ‘special force’ to fight the IS on the ground whereas the US led mission in Afghanistan increased air strikes against the IS. Also, the airstrikes proved to be effective in dislodging the IS from their stronghold in Nangarhar. This two-pronged attack further corned the IS who were already existing in sparse pockets of the country and terminated the chances of IS growing roots in Afghan society.

    The IS also failed to appeal ideologically to its new recruits, many of whom had joined for better payment than the Taliban. Their rigid ideology, unnecessary cruelty to the civilians and utter disregard for ‘Pashtunwali’, the tribal code of the Pashtuns, further disoriented the IS from its new members. Also the Islamic State-Khorasan underwent certain changes which impaired the long term ambition of the IS in Afghanistan. Its emirs were reported to have been killed and there were high profile defections from its ranks.

    At the end of it all, the IS controlled only a small part of the territory. It seemed as if the IS had overestimated its expectations from this country and its regime showed traces of decline. They had suffered major losses and their future in Afghanistan seemed bleak. Even if their challenge to Afghanistan’s security could not be ruled out, they were no longer regarded as the insurmountable threat.

    Come-back chance

    However, despite such odds like unfriendly neighbours and unwelcome environment, what seems remarkable is the stubborn resilience with which IS continues to exist till date in Afghanistan. It is the only insurgent group which continues to be strictly Salafist. Also the social cleavages so prominent in Iraq and Syria which had been so favourable to the propagation of IS’s sectarian ideologies are significantly lacking in Afghanistan.

    The ongoing flow of recruits, specifically from Pakistan Taliban fighters who have been forced to move into Afghanistan because of counter terrorism operations, sustained the IS. Also foreign occupation, the ongoing conflict, poverty and general sense of hopelessness results in an inflow of fresh recruits to the IS. The areas which are controlled by local clans and tribes like the Achin district are the IS strongholds.

    The attacks on ‘Save the Children’ INGO’s Jalalabad office, the assault on Kabul’s military academy and the attack on the Shia cultural centre by the IS are still severe blows to Afghan security. But it is unlikely that ISIS will let Islamic State-Khorasan wither away. It is likely to pour in all the finances required to ensure that its ‘wilayats’ are not eliminated. Hence the IS ambition to establish a permanent foothold in the region cannot yet be ruled out. The Islamic State-Khorasan is definitely shrinking. It may be more a nuisance than a strategic threat. However, it is still a force to reckon with.

    The writer is a Research Assistant at Observer Research Foundation, Kolkata Chapter

    Country Reports


    Chance of connectivity

    President Ashraf Ghani insists on the Afghan government’s policy of connectivity over the construction of the TAPI gas pipeline project. He says this pipeline will connect South Asia with Central Asia via Afghanistan. This is also proof that the countries in the region are jointly considering economic development.  It also provides the opportunity of ending poverty and extremism and greater cooperation amongst the future generations. The inauguration of the second leg of the project is due in Herat.

    Support from Saudis

    Mohammad Atmar, the National Security Advisor, met the Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Issues such as bilateral interests, the Afghan peace process and fight against terrorism were discussed. Saudi’s support to Afghanistan was reconfirmed and the Prince called on all parties to participate in peace talks. They also agreed on fight against foreign forces and insurgent group unwilling to engage in peace talks. Economic cooperation and facilities to Afghan workers in Saudi was also pledged.


    BNP targets police

    The Opposition BNP has criticised the police for breaking up their planned black-flag protest on Saturday, after denying them permission to hold a rally on Friday. The protest and the police action come during the long run-up to the general elections, which the has raised questions about the BNP’s participation after boycotting the same the last time round, and in the aftermath of efforts to have party boss, Begum Khaleda Zia, jailed for alleged acts of misdemeanour while in power.


    Hydel plant back

     The country dedicated the re-commissioning of the 360 kilowatt Thimphu mini-hydropower plant to King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck’s 38th birth anniversary and the marking of 50 years of formal diplomatic relations with India. Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay who was present on the occasion said that the plant, Bhutan’s first, caters to 180 households.

    Conference restrictions

    All government and private agencies in the country have been asked not to host big international and regional conferences during the peak tourist season. A notification issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and implemented with effect from January 1 called this measure necessary for the peak season starting from March to May and again from September to November for avoiding strain on tourism infrastructure and airline tickets.


    Lokpal on cards

    The government told the Supreme Court that the meeting of the Lok Pal selection panel, which includes the Prime Minister and the Chief Justice of India, will take place on 1 March. In April last year, the court told the government that the anti-corruption body should be set up without delay and the lack of a Leader of Opposition should not hold up the process.

    ‘Special status’ sought

    Chief Minister Amarinder Singh has sought special status for Punjab as it would entitle the State a bigger chunk of central assistance as grants rather than loans. In a meeting with the NITI Aayog Vice Chairman Rajiv Kumar, he pointed out that the sharing pattern for his State had been changed to 50:50, and Mr Singh called for it to be restored to the original 90:10, which is now applicable only to special category states.


    BNP targets police

    The Opposition BNP has criticised the police for breaking up their planned black-flag protest on Saturday, after denying them permission to hold a rally on Friday. The protest and the police action come during the long run-up to the general elections, which the has raised questions about the BNP’s participation after boycotting the same the last time round, and in the aftermath of efforts to have party boss, Begum Khaleda Zia, jailed for alleged acts of misdemeanour while in power.


    Border trade increases with Bangladesh

    The value of border trade with Bangladesh has increased. Border exports this Financial Year (FY) excelled by more than $21.759 million, compared with last FY, whereas the value of border imports was $0.567 million. Border trade between the two countries is conducted through the Sittway and Maungtaw cross-border trade camps. From last April until February, trade through the Maungtaw gate reached $10.928 million, while trade from the Sittway border point was valued at $10.831 million.

    Dawei SEZ under scanner

    Civil society organisations have demanded the authorities to reconsider the plans to revive the controversial Dawei Special Economic Zone (SEZ). They argued that a site-wide environment impact assessment must be carried out and all past problems must be “fully and completely” resolved before the project resumes. The SEZ has been accused of grave human rights violations including forced evictions, a lack of transparency and environmental disruption as the land lease contract for its initial phase is expected to be signed before April.

    Germany to provide support

    Myanmar and Germany have agreed to jointly conserve the cultural heritage of Bagan in northern Mandalay region. A Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) has been signed on February 20 stating that Germany will provide technical aid to conduct a project of conserving the Nanpaya Temple, one of the 389 pagodas destroyed following a 6.8-magnitude earthquake on August 24 in 2016. A training program for maintaining and preserving murals in the Narathihapate Pagoda will also be carried out, the MoU said.


    Prez poll in March

    As Nepal is all set to move beyond its transitional period and embrace federalism in full bloom. The election of the new President has been decided to be held in March. The announcement has been made by the Election Commission as per the Election of President and Vice President act which requires such balloting within one month of the Parliamentary and National Assembly poll results.

    New ministries formed

    After the much-awaited formation of the new government in the country, the total number of ministries has been decided to be 17. Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli and Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal are reported to have agreed to dispense the ministerial portfolios on 60:40 ratio. Out of this, the CPN-UML will be holding 10 out of 17 ministries excluding the office of the PM, while the Maoists would take the rest.


    Russian backing

    Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated that Russia will continue to support Pakistan’s counter-terrorism operations. The Foreign Minister announced that co-operation over counter terrorism operations will gradually extend to other fields like trade and co-operation in the energy sector. His Pakistani counterpart Khawaja Asif declared that the IS has relocated to Afghanistan which poses considerable security threat to Pakistan, Central Asia and Russia. He stated that Russia and Pakistan will work closely over this issue and also announced formation of a military council for the same.

    ‘Crackdown on freedom’

    According to an annual report of the Amnesty International, the crackdown on freedom of expression has intensified in Pakistan. The report states that number of forced disappearances has increased in the country along with abuse of impunity in sensitive cases. Number of attacks on journalists has also increased throughout the country. The report painted a bleak picture of the country’s performance in ensuring social and economic rights for its citizens, equal rights for women, or ensuring food security. Increasing attacks over minority communities was also highlighted in the report.

    Plea on Afghan refugees

    Pakistan’s federal cabinet has requested the international community to shoulder its responsibility regarding repatriation of millions of Afghan refugees. Official sources stated that according to the Afghan refugees’ management and repatriation policy 2018 the Pakistan government does not intend to provide any further extension to the refugees and UNHCR will have to take appropriate steps for their speedy repatriation. The cabinet also declared that Afghan refugees with valid POR cards will be allowed to reside in Pakistan for a fixed period of time.

    Sri Lanka


    After a lot of muscle-flexing and shadow-boxing in the aftermath of the 10 February local-government elections, the political parties of President Maithiripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, the SLFP and the UNP respectively, have patched up and decided to continue with the incumbent ‘unity government’ under the latter’s continued leadership. A Cabinet reshuffle is on cards as a part of the patch-up, and PM Ranil has also vowed to enforce the yahapalana, or reforms commitment, which includes ethnic reconciliation, good governances, starting with punishing the corrupt and the guilty under the predecessor regime of then President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

    UNHRC call

    In his report to the UNHRC 37th session in Sri Lanka, High Commissioner Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein has called for exploring ‘other avenues’ on the ‘accountability’ front in Sri Lanka, including ‘universal jurisdiction’. This, even as he commended the encouraging engagement with the Sri Lankan Government, thus implying that he was leaving it open to the session ending late-March to explore all avenues, before voting on a resolution, on the future course.



    Opinion Pieces

    Andrew E. Kramer, ‘Using Night-Vision Goggles, Taliban Stage Lethal Attack’, The New York Times, 20 February 2018

    Andrew E. Kramer, ‘Second Afghan Governor Defies Kabul Order to Resign, Adding to U.S. Headache’, The New York Times, 18 February 2018


     Afghanistan Times, ‘Why government’s writ is defied’, 20 February 2018

    Afghanistan Times, ‘Another headache for NUG’, 19 February 2018


    Opinion Pieces

    Nafisa Naval, “February 25: All but forgotten”, Dhaka Tribune, 25 February 2018

    Saquib Rahman, “The cry for justice”, Dhaka Tribune, 25 February 2018

    Ziauddin Chaudhury, “Language as a seed of nationhood”, Dhaka Tribune, 1 February 2018


    Opinion Pieces

    Nima Dorji, “Have we undermined the law?”, Kuensel, 19 February 2018


    Kuensel, “The people’s king is Thirty-Eight”, 21 February 2018

    Kuensel, “Mission 2018 begins”, 19 February 2018


    Opinion Pieces

    Chaitanya Kalbag, “Bench strength: Why the judiciary must pick itself up”, The Economic Times, 22 February 2018

    Mihir Swarup Sharma, “Congress Flubs Trudeau Visit. Modi Does No Better”, NDTV, 16 February 2018

    Kanwaljeet Singh, “India & Iran Might Soon Have an Answer to China’s CPEC”, Quint, 22 February 2018


    Opinion Pieces

    P K Balachandran, “Maldives political crisis moves further away from solution”, Daily Mirror Online, 20 February 2018


    Opinion Pieces

    Nauvarat Suksamran, “College key to Shan regeneration”, The Myanmar Times, 21 February 2018

    Aung Zaw, “How Prepared Is Myanmar To Counter Terror Attacks? ”, The Irrawaddy, 19 February 2018


    The Irrawaddy, “EU Set to Prepare Sanctions on Myanmar Generals — Diplomats”, 23 February 2018


    Opinion Pieces

    Akhilesh Upadhyay, “Oli and Dahal form a formidable team”, The Kathmandu Post, 23 February 2018

    Gaurav Bhattarai, “Beyond neighborhood”, Republica, 22 February 2018

    Purushottam Ojha, “Redirecting economy”, Republica, 19 February 2018


    Republica, “Deuba’s legacy”, 15 February 2018

    The Kathmandu Post, “A road not taken”, 22 February 2018


    Opinion Pieces

    Kamran Yousuf, “Pakistani boots on foreign soil”, The Express Tribune, 19 February 2018

    Khurram Hussain, “Between FATF and GSP”, Dawn, 22 February 2018


    Dawn,Forgotten Poll Promises”, 19 February 2018

    The Express Tribune,Building new roads”, 21 February 2018

    Sri Lanka

    Rajan Philips, “Two weeks of non-governance and non-Opposition”, The Island, 25 February 2018

    N Sathiya Moorthy, “For whom did the ‘Bud’ bloom?”, The Sunday Leader, 25 February 2018

    Kumar David, “Containing Mahinda’s racist and kleptomaniacal neo-populism”, The Island, 25 February 2018

    Sanja de Silva Jayatilleka, “What to expect at upcoming UNHRC session?”, The Island, 23 February 2018

    N Sathiya Moorthy, “Who has the last laugh?”, Ceylon Today, 23 February 2018

    M S M Ayub, “Crisis spontaneous, or stage-managed?”, Daily Mirror Online, 23 February 2018

    Malinda Seveniratne, “Buds that (are said to) bloom”, Daily Mirror Online, 22 February 2018

    Sanjeeva Fernando, “Local Government elections: Why not all is lost?”, Daily Mirror Online, 21 February 2018

    K K S Perera, “Winds of change that rattled yahapalana structure”, Daily Mirror Online, 21 February 2018

    Dr Dayan Jayatilleka, “Ranil’s tactical success, Mahinda’s strategic victory”, The Island, 20 February 2018

    Jehan Perera, “Give post-election message of care to the marginalised”, The Island, 20 February 2018

    Kelum Bandara, “People not only the Govt but the President will also step down”, Daily Mirror Online, 20 February 2018

    N Sathiya Moorthy, “Now is the time for all ‘good men’ to come to the aid of the Govt”, The Island, 19 February 2018  


    Afghanistan: Sohini Bose

    Bangladesh: Dr Joyeeta Bhattacharjee

    Bhutan: Mihir Bhonsale

    India: Ketan Mehta

    Maldives & Sri Lanka: N Sathiya Moorthy

    Myanmar: Sreeparna Banerjee

    Nepal: Sohini Nayak

    Pakistan: Mayuri Banerjee



    Past Events

    Brexit and Global Britain: A pipe dream?

    Book launch — Taming the Sun: Innovations to Harness Solar Energy and Power the Planet

    Big Data and Agent-Based Simulation for Policy Analysis— Talk by Prof. Alok Chaturvedi

    Book Discussion on Dr. Chaitanya Ravi’ ‘A Debate to Remember: The US-India Nuclear Deal”

    Seven years of civil war in Syria