MonitorsPublished on Jan 15, 2019
Our weekly roundups from South Asia.
South Asia Weekly Report | Volume XII; Issue 2


Bhutan: New government reaffirms ‘India First’ policy

Mihir Bhonsale

New Bhutan Prime minister, Lotay Tshering’s year-end visit to New Delhi marked a new beginning in bilateral ties. Tshering making New Delhi his first port-of-call after becoming the Prime Minister underlines the importance that the Himalayan kingdom accords to her southern neighbour.

Tshering’s visit (27-29 December) brushed aside speculation that with a new party Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa at the helm, Thimphu was set to move away from New Delhi’s sphere of influence in South Asia. Bilateral talks were held between leaders of the two sides on taking forward developmental, economic and strategic partnership between the two countries.

The cornerstone of the bilateral ties between India and Bhutan has been the development cooperation that goes back to 1961 when India supported Bhutan’s maiden Five-Year Plan. Since, then India has become Bhutan’s development partner by supporting the latter’s Five Year Plans. Tshering in his meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi sought New Delhi’s support for the 12th Five Year Plan (2018-2023).

New Delhi committed to a sum of Nu 45 billion for the 12th Plan period that has just begun. The 12th Plan is Bhutan’s last-mile effort towards graduation into a developing economy. Incorporation of poll pledges, especially on health and education, by the new government has further strengthened the Plan. India’s contribution despite having remained the same from the previous one has won hearts back in Bhutan.

In addition to the support for the Plan, India also promised a Nu 4-billion transitional Trade Support Facility to Bhutan, for the latter’s trade with India. Bilateral trade was affected after New Delhi’s introduction of Goods and Services Tax (GST) in 2017. This support by India is expected to mitigate the losses borne by Bhutanese traders owing to the introduction of this tax.

Hydropower trade

Cooperation in hydropower is the fulcrum of modern day economic ties between the two countries. India’s support in tapping the huge hydropower potential of rivers in Bhutan has contributed positively in boosting revenue for the government and contributing maximum share of its exports.

During his visit, Tshering and Indian counterpart, Narendrar Modi, were successful in finalising the tariff for 720-MW Mangdecchu hydropower power plant, that is set to be commissioned soon. Earlier attempts at reaching a consensus on the tariff were inconclusive since, Bhutan had demanded tariff of Nu 4.27 per unit while India side Nu 3.9. Tshering was successful in settling the tariff at Nu 4.12 per unit. Outside the tariff, India also promised Nu 1 billion and an extension in the loan period.

Bhutan also received an assurance of Indian support for the Sunkoshi project, which would be Bhutan’s first reservoir based hydropower project, and would produce electricity even during the winter months. India imports about 5,000 MW of power from Bhutan and with the commissioning of the Mangdecchu project and Punatsangcchu project Bhutan supplying power to India is expected to increase further.

Tariff negotiations have been extremely important from Bhutan’s point of view as the loan component in financing hydropower projects has increased considerably. Also, Bhutan’s former Cabinet appointed committee on hydropower in its report had called for the need to ensure more participation from Bhutanese. The committee had also raised alarm on environmental sustainability of such projects.

Strategic balance

Bhutan is India’s steadfast strategic partner. Bhutan is the only country besides India that has unsettled borders with China. During the ‘Doklam stand-off’ between India and China in 2017 at the tri-junction with Bhutan, Thimphu had sided with India. However, there were murmurs within the civil society of the small Himalayan kingdom that it was being unnecessarily pulled into a conflict between two big powers- China and India.

The visit of Prime Minister to India testified that the political relations between the two countries were intact and did not have signs of bitterness over Doklam. As early as December, the new government indicated the “India First” policy in conduct of its foreign relations. The policy is in continuation with the excellent relations over six decades where Bhutan value’s India’s strategic interests in pursuing her foreign policy.

The writer is a Junior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Kolkata.

Sri Lanka: Running with the hare, hunting with the hound, yet?

N. Sathiya Moorthy

Has the ‘post-crises’ government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe gone back to old Sri Lankan ways of running with the hare and hunting with the hound on the unending ethnic issue? Part-fulfilling the claims of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), whose parliamentary support is critical to the very survival of his government, Wickremesinghe presented the Experts’ Committee report on a new Constitution, as cleared by the Steering Committee, taking forward the process by inches, if not miles. But it ends there.

However, even while taking the constitutional initiative forward, the government also named a ‘war hero’ in Maj. Gen. Shavendra Silva as the Chief of Staff (CoS), the second highest-ranking post in the Sri Lanka Army (SLA). The Tamil demands as also the expectations of the ‘international community’ (read: West) are for possible prosecution of Silva for alleged ‘war crimes’ along with other unnamed personnel of the tri-Services.

The government cannot survive without the backing of the 14-member TNA parliamentary group. In defending the decision to support Wickremesinghe for Prime Minister, TNA spokespersons have claimed that the Prime Minister had promised to present the new Constitution draft by Independence Day on 4 February. What is now on offer, however, is a shadow of the same, if at all.

The TNA’s embarrassment in the matter has been worsened by the absence of a ruling party quorum when the Prime Minister presented the Experts’ Committee report to Parliament. With only 56 of the 225 MPs present, the ruling combine accounted for only half that number. The TNA too had only nine of 14 MPs present.

If the low turn-out had anything to do with the government’s decision to give only a 24-hour notice for the reconvening of Parliament acting as the Constituent Assembly after a year’s gap, it may require some probing to ascertain the truth. For the record, it could be interpreted as the Government’s failure bordering on unwillingness to push for the new Constitution, requiring a two-thirds majority in Parliament, and a possible national referendum-vote, depending on the contents and clauses.

No re-merger

Piloting the report, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe declared that the primacy of Buddhism would continue under the planned statute as well. He continued with the concept of abolishing the Executive Presidency, or whatever remains of it after the 19th Amendment that his Government had got passed as far back as 2015. However, he stoutly ruled out the re-merger of the Tamil-majority Northern Province and multi-ethnic Eastern Province, one of the Tamil expectations and TNA’s demands.

"It is time for the Constitution Assembly to decide on the future course of action with regard to compiling a new Constitution because the Steering Committee has completed its work," the local media quoted Wickremesinghe as telling the Constituent Assembly. “The Assembly can now decide on the future course of action as the Steering Committee has finished its work."

In a way, the Prime Minister’s declaration is tantamount to passing on the buck without delivering on the commitment to the nation to present a new Constitution. That commitment is both independent and inclusive of the promises purportedly made to the TNA in private and the Tamil community in the open, on a new power-devolution package through a new Constitution.

At the same time, by reiterating the supremacy of Buddhism, Wickremesinghe has ensured that the nation’s Sinhala majority has no cause to get upset at least at this stage. Neither the Government, nor the larger Sri Lankan State, could afford to upset the Sinhala-Buddhist majority, as much in terms of national integration and sovereignty as in terms of electoral anxieties of the ruling party/alliance.

Balancing act

The government’s decision to elevate Maj-Gen Silva to the second top-most position in the Army may have been inevitable, given the post-war history of such postings and promotions, whenever they became due. However, the coincidental timing of the announcement when the Prime Minister was presenting the Experts’ Committee report to the Constituent Assembly has had its own message, however unintended. On paper, it may sound like a political balancing act, but there could be more to it.

Silva was the Commander of the famed 58th Division, whose decisive battle victories contributed to troop-morale, national pride and final victory in ‘Eelam War IV’ against the dreaded LTTE. Before returning to home postings, he became the only serving official of the armed forces to be named a diplomat. In 2010, the Rajapaksa Government named him the Deputy Chief of Mission at the UN Headquarters, despite protests from inside the country and outside.

Silva’s elevation may also serve as a message to the armed forces that this government like the predecessor war-time leadership of then President Mahinda Rajapaksa would not compromise the nation’s security interests at the altar of international pressures on ‘war crimes’ probe. Before Silva’s current appointment, the UNP constituent of the forgotten GNU was also seen as wanting on this score. From within the GNU, supporters presented President Sirisena as the ‘sole defender’ of ‘supreme national interests’ from within and outside, both inside the country and outside — however unconvincing it might have sounded.

Sounds hollow?

Europe-based Global Tamil Forum (GTF), a Sri Lankan Diaspora group, promptly declared that by elevating Silva as CoS, the government was ‘thumbing the nose at the international community’. The Wickremesinghe government had co-sponsored a series of UNHRC resolutions along with the US, on independent ‘war crimes probe,’ and the GTF now says that the current decision flies on the face of past commitments.

The GTF could not have reacted differently. It may also find a reflection in the Tamil sentiments on the ground in Sri Lanka. But given the Sinhala-Buddhist political dynamics, it may have won a debating-point for the Wickremesinghe leadership, if not an election, viz. the Rajapaksas in particular. The expectations are that given the domestic political dynamics, the West might view the Wickremesinghe Government with ‘understanding and sympathy’ at the next UNHRC review meet and beyond, in the coming months.

The GTF protests against Silva’s elevation sounds hollow after various Diaspora groups had long ago urged the Tamil community to vote against incumbent Rajapaksa in the post-war presidential polls of 2010. It amounted to the Tamils voting for war-time army chief, Lt-Gen Sarath Fonseka. If the Rajapaksa leadership hounded out Fonseka, post-poll, which the former won hands down, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe successor since was instrumental in creating the latter as the nation’s first and only Field Marshal, and making him a Cabinet Minister, under the latter’s UNP flag.

If Fonseka is not in the ‘post-crises’ government of the past month, it was not Wickremesinghe’s doing, but because President Sirisena would not have him. It had nothing to do with any ‘war crimes’ charge against Fonseka. If at all, it reportedly owed to Fonseka publicly demanding a medical examination of Sirisena, for his mental stability, first for replacing Wickremesinghe with Rajapaksa as Prime Minister, and following it up with the dissolution of Parliament. The Supreme Court annulled the dissolution, and the first issue was not agitated for want of a parliamentary majority for Rajapaksa.

Fresh polls

In yet another impassioned plea at the Constituent Assembly, TNA’s R Sampanthan reiterated the Tamils’ call for a political solution. He pooh-poohed the argument of Mahinda Rajapaksa, now Opposition leader in his place, that the nation should face fresh general elections before taking up the new Constitution.

Though Rajapaksa did not say it, fresh parliamentary polls may require the re-constitution of the Constituent Assembly, as there could be new MPs replacing some of the present ones. In effect, this could mean that the current drafts for the new Constitution could become null and void. JVP’s Anura Dissanayake, speaking in the Constituent Assembly, charged Rajapaksa-led Joint Opposition (JO) with playing politics with the ‘ethnic issue.’

Sirisena’s SLFP-UPFA has stoutly opposed diluting or doing away with the Executive Presidency, which as presidential candidate for 2015, he had vowed to abolish. The long and short of it, the Wickremesinghe Government does not have the two-thirds majority to have a new Constitution passed in this Parliament/Constituent Assembly, making Rajapaksa’s prescription and pre-determinant in effect.

This in turn implies that the Wickremesinghe-led UNP-UNF has piloted a project without hoping to see it through. The large-scale absence of ruling combine members from the House when the Prime Minister presented the draft report of the Experts’ Committee, and his own declaration that it was now up to the Constituent Assembly to take the next step in this regard, has added questions about the very credibility of the entire exercise, all over again.

The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Chennai.



India’s focus on peace

During a meeting between the US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, and the Indian Minister of External Affairs, Sushma Swaraj, the latter made it clear to the US that the peace process in Afghanistan should be absolutely led, owned and controlled by the Afghans. Moreover, the peace process should be inclusive towards attaining this goal. The meeting was part of Khalilzad’s series of trips to four countries (India, China, Pakistan and Afghanistan) to discuss peace efforts.

Talks for Chinese cooperation

Dr. Hamdullah Mohib, the National Security Adviser of Afghanistan, recently visited the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Beijing. The officials held talks on bilateral cooperation, an Afghan led peace process and strategic collaboration between China and Afghanistan. He also thanked China for its cooperation in various sectors. In turn Wang Yi emphasised on an Afghan owned and led peace process and added that lasting peace would only come through direct talks between the Government and the Taliban.

Converging interests

In an interaction with a group of journalists in New Delhi, the Russian deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov remarked that both countries are highly concerned about the situation in Afghanistan. Both countries are also exploring joint projects in Afghanistan and have held two rounds of it since November. India is one of the key seekers of rehabilitation of Afghanistan and has already invested more than two billion dollars on reconstruction projects. Russian interests are in sync with India.


Hasina begins fourth term

Awami League leader Sheikh Hasina has taken the oath for the fourth time as the Prime Minister of Bangladesh. This was her third consecutive term as Prime Minister of Bangladesh after her landslide victory in the 11th parliamentary election on 30 December 2018, which is rare in the history of Bangladesh. She has been holding the office of at a stress Prime Minister of Bangladesh since 2009. She became Prime Minister for the first time in 1996 and was in office until 2001. Sheikh Hasina has formed a 46-member cabinet that includes 24 full ministers, 19 ministers of state and 3 deputy ministers. It is worthy to mention that she has dropped 35 of her all cabinet ministers. Most of the ministers are first-timers.

No Rohingya militants

The foreign ministry this week denied claims by neighbouring Myanmar about the existence of Rohingya and Arakan militants in Bangladeshi soil. The ministry categorically said that no groups like Arakan Rohingya Solidarity Army (ARSA) and Arakan Army (AA) are operating from Bangladesh. The ministry further added that it is not possible to operate terrorist bases in Bangladesh because of high alertness and effective preventive measures by the security forces.


Deferring loan-repayment

Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay said that his government was weighing the possibility of postponing the loan repayment deadline of Bhutanese youth employed in Japan. The overseas employment scheme was discussed along with the high rate of unemployment of youth, during the question-hour session in Parliament. The Prime Minister is said to have appointed a committee to examine the situation and they will be going to Japan very soon.

Call for national language

Promoting Dzongkha, the national language, should not be left to the government alone said the Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering. Promoting Dzongkha would be the easiest task to achieve as one of the indicators of the 12th Plan’s key result area on culture preservation and promotion, he said. However, on the policy front, he acknowledged that there is a lack of coordination among the stakeholders like home ministry, Dzongkha Development Commission and education ministry.


Quota for poor

The BJP-NDA Government has got a new scheme for 10 percent reservations in jobs and educational institutions for the economically weaker sections (EWS) among general category. Passed by both Houses of Parliament without much opposition and cleared by President Ram Nath Kovind, the proposed quota will be over and above the existing 50-percent upper-limit set for social backwardness and the rest under the Supreme Court’s 1992 verdict in the ‘Mandal case.’

Panel sacks CBI chief

Two days after he was reinstated by the Supreme Court, CBI director Alok Verma was on Thursday removed unceremoniously by a high-powered committee headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Verma is the first chief in the CBI’s 55-year history to face such a harsh action. His two-year tenure as CBI director was to end on 31 January, and he has since resigned, without taking up alternative posting as Director-General of Fire Services.

Terror, here to stay

Asserting that terrorism is becoming a new form of warfare, Army chief Gen Bipin Rawat said Wednesday the menace is spreading its head like a "multi-headed monster" and is "here to stay" as long as states continue to use it as a policy. Gen Rawat, speaking at a panel discussion at the Raisina Dialogue in Delhi, also said that there was a need to control social media as it was becoming a source of spreading radicalisation.


Free breakfast scheme

Keeping up President Ibrahim Solih’s poll promise, Vice President Faisal Naseem has launched a pilot programme in 25 schools across the country, including three in capital Male, to provide free, nutritious breakfast to school students and teachers. “The government’s target is to provide the best education that is provided in highly developed countries. This Government will spend a record amount to reach that target,” Naseem said. According to the Education Ministry, there are 213 schools with 73,035 students and 9,800 teachers, of which 7,900 are Maldivian and 1,900 are foreign nationals.


French team visit

The Ambassador of France to Myanmar, Mr. Christian Lechervy, will visit Thanintharyi Region from 15-18 January with a delegation of representatives from the French Embassy and the French Development Agency (AFD). This field trip will allow Mr. Christian Lechervy and his delegation to see some of the activities supported by French stake-holders in the region, particularly one project financed by the AFD and implemented with the support of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). This EUR 9,2 M regional project, which covers Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos, aims at promoting an integrated and inclusive approach of natural resources management and targets this highly bio diverse region of Thanintharyi.

18 years eligible to vote

Yangon municipal election commission Chairman Aung Khaing said that Yangon Region government would spend 2-billion kyats budget to hold a municipal election on 31 March for Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC). This election will be different from 2014 election. In 2014, only head of each household could vote in this election. But in this forthcoming election all voters who have attained 18 years of age and have lived in respective constituency for at least one year can vote. So, the number of eligible voters will be higher than last election.

China to renovate hospital

China will renovate and donate a township hospital in Natmauk, Myanmar's Magway region where national hero General Aung San was born. The renovation project of the township hospital in Natmauk will be jointly conducted by the Chinese Embassy in Myanmar and Myanmar-China Exchange and Cooperation Association. A new emergency patient ward will also be constructed along with the renovation project which will be completed in next May. The hospital upgrade not only improves public health of the people in the region but also promotes friendship between China and Myanmar.


Strengthened ties with Japan

Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono returned home after completing his two-day Nepal visit on 10 January. During the visit, Kono met with President Bidya Devi Bhandari, Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli and other senior government officials. During the meeting, Oli and Kono discussed various aspects of Nepal-Japan bilateral relations, regional and global issues of common concerns. Kono stressed the need for development of regional organisations like SAARC and BIMSTEC, while expressing Japan’s readiness for support. Also figured in the meeting was expansion of Suryabinayak-Dhulikhel road stretch, construction of Nagdhunga-Naubise tunnel works, employment opportunity for Nepali workers in Japan.


UNGA chief expected

The President of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) Maria Fernanda Espinosa is scheduled to visit Pakistan from 18 to 22 January on an invitation from the country’s government. In her first official visit the aim is to strengthen ties between Pakistan and UNGA and continue working on the priorities for the 73rd session of the General Assembly. She is to meet the Pakistani Prime Minister, President, Foreign Minister and representatives of the civil society and women’s organization.

Coalition in the making?

The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) and the Majlis-i-Wahadtul Muslimeen (MWM) have formed a joint coordination committee to speculate on the prospects of collaboration to realise common goals and objectives. The committee is to consist of six members; three from each party. This has the consent of Pakistani Prime Minister and PTI Chief Imran Khan and the Chief of MWM Allama Nasir Abbas. The two groups had earlier developed working relations during the 2014 sit-in against the Nawaz Shariff government.

Promise of due portion

A meeting between the Chief Minister of Balochistan Jam Kamal Khan Alyani and the Federal Minister for Petroleum Ghulam Sarwar Khan was recently held. In it, the former was assured that Balochisan would be involved in the decisions on exploration and development of natural resources and would be provided a share of the same. A joint working group consisting of federal and provincial authorities would be set up with the task of decision making in the said province.

Sri Lanka

Drifting away?

After coming closer to each other at the height of the recent ‘constitutional crises’, President Maithripala Sirisena-led SLFP and his predecessor Mahinda Rajapaksa’s SLPP seem to be drifting away, over the choice of their respective presidential candidates. The SLFP has since declared that Sirisena would be their candidate in the presidential poll, due by early next year while the SLPP has said that they would have their own candidate.



Opinion Pieces

Mohammad Zahir Akbari, Regional Competition over Hosting Afghan Peace Process, Daily Outlook Afghanistan, 12 January 2019.

Najim Rahim and Mujib Mashal, Violence Grows in Northern Afghanistan, but Neither Side Is Gaining Much Ground, The New York Times, 10 January 2019.

Najim Rahim and Mujib Mashal, Afghan Villagers Panning for Gold Die as Tunnels Collapse, The New York Times, 6 January 2019.


Daily Outlook Afghanistan, Why Afghanistan Needs Media Convergence, 12 January 2019.

Afghanistan Times, Daudzai talks to Pakhtoon leaders, 11 January 2019.

Daily Outlook Afghanistan, The Most Threatening Economic Challenge, 7 January 2019.


Opinion Pieces

Shah Husain Imam, Change of style or substance?,The Daily Star, 11 January 2019.

Manzoor Ahmed, Challenges for the new ministers, The Daily Star, 10 January 2019.

C. Raja Mohan, The centre moves east: Rise of Bangladesh augurs well for the future of the eastern Subcontinent, The Indian Express, 8 January 2019.



Kuensel, Water shortage in broader perspective, 5 January 2019.


Opinion Pieces

Ipsita Chakravarty, “The Daily Fix: With AlokVerma’s removal, CBI’s credibility is in graver doubt than ever before”, The Scroll, 11 January 2019.


Opinion Pieces

Ye Min Zaw, What Does the Arakan Army Bring to Rakhine State?, The Irrawaddy, 11 January 2019.

Joe Kumbun, China’s Belt and Road Initiative—A Bargaining Chip for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, The Irrawaddy, 8 January 2019.


Opinion Pieces

Nabin Bhandari, Two heads better than one, The Kathmandu Post, 11 January 2019.

Raju Chauchan, Rubble without a cause, The Kathmandu Post, 11 January 2019.

Kedar Neupane, Road to misrule, Republica, 10 January 2019.


The Kathmandu Post, Not to let, 11 January 2019.

Republica, Nepali Congress could be better opposition, 10 January 2019.


Opinion Pieces

Rashid Amjad, A blessing in disguise?, Dawn, 12 January 2019.

Rustam Shah Mohmand, What needs to be done in the tribal area?, The Express Tribune, 12 January 2019.

Irfan Hussain, Our missing mojo, Dawn, 12 January 2019.


The Express Tribune, Red tape at work, 12 January 2019.

Dawn, FATF progress, 12 January 2019.

The Express Tribune, One curriculum mission, 11 January 2019.

Sri Lanka

Opinion pieces

Rajan Philips, Ranil’s constitutional damp squib and Mahinda’s media mafia, The Island, 13 January 2019.

Rajeewa Jayaweera, TNA’s principled stand and draft Constitution, The Island, 13 January 2019.

Kusal Perera, Prov. Governors as political agents and the Rajapaksa phobia, Daily Mirror Online, 12 January 2019.

M.S.M. Ayub, The federal bogey again, Daily Mirror Online, 11 January 2019.

Ameen Izzadeen, Whatever Trump does, Sri Lanka needs to deliver transitional justice and take the high road, Daily Mirror Online, 11 January 2019.

Maj-Gen Boniface Perera (retd), Is the national existence of Sri Lanka threatened?, Daily Mirror Online, 10 January 2019.

N. Sathiya Moorthy, Will the new UNF partners show up?, Ceylon Today, 8 January 2019.

N. Sathiya Moorthy, Needed, a new narrative, Colombo Gazette, 7 January 2019.


Afghanistan & Pakistan: Sohini Bose

Bangladesh: Joyeeta Bhattacharjee

Bhutan: Mihir Bhonsale

India: Ketan Mehta

Maldives & Sri Lanka: N. Sathiya Moorthy

Myanmar: Sreeparna Banerjee

Nepal: Sohini Nayak

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