Annual International Conference on "Changing Political Context in South Asia: Prospect of Regional Security and Cooperation"
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  • Rapporteur Report on Session I

    November 5, 2008

    Prepared by Namrata Goswami

    The first session of the conference titled “The Changing Political Context in India’s Neighbourhood” was chaired by N.S. Sisodia, Director-General, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. There were four presentations by Haroun Mir from Afghanistan, Babar Sattar from Pakistan, Aditya Adhikari from Nepal, Than Than Htay from Myanmar and Aly Shameem from Maldives. In their respective presentations they dwelt on the political developments within their countries and implications for the region.

    In his presentation “ Attempts to Re-organize the Afghan Conflict: Will History Repeat Itself?” as well as during the discussions, Haroun Mir, Co-Founder and Deputy Director, Afghanistan’s Centre for Research and Policy Studies made the following points:

    • Afghanistan had been a buffer state throughout history.
    • The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 was the most important development in recent Afghan history.
    • The US is in Afghanistan because of 9/11 and its fear of terrorism and therefore has limited objectives. Its presence is necessary at the moment. To concede ground to the Taliban may be fatal and it is certainly not in the interest of Afghanistan and its people.
    • Afghanistan is in the grip of severe famine since 2007 with nearly 5 million people displaced and the world community needs to factor this while formulating their policy on Afghanistan.
    • The war on terror must target Pakistan’s tribal areas where all the terrorists have sought shelter. Pakistan has a duty towards Afghanistan and must bring order and peace in its tribal areas with the help of the international community.
    • Indian help has been substantial. People in Afghanistan look towards India as a friendly country and have lot of goodwill towards it.

    Babar Sattar, well-known columnist and lawyer from Pakistan, in his presentation on “The War on Terror”, indicated the following during his presentation as well as response to the questions raised during the discussions:

    • The War on Terror is highly unpopular in Pakistan. The ruling perception in Pakistan has been that Pakistan was brought into this war by the US. The anti-American sentiments are at an all-time high.
    • People attribute the rise in terrorist violence within Pakistan to this popular dissension with the state policies. Most people believe that the State is being pitted against its own people in this unfortunate war. The resistance to this war has provided legitimacy to the anti-state activities by the militant groups.
    • Pakistan has lost many soldiers in this war along with nearly 10,000 to 15,000 civilians. Pakistan has more soldiers on its side of the Durand line than the combined international forces on the other side. It has been sincere in its efforts to contain the extremist forces. But the indiscriminate aerial bombings have aggravated the situation leading to internal displacement of people and civilian casualties. This has led to popular opposition towartds the Pakistani government’s counter-terrorism efforts.
    • Talks with militants are necessary. But it has to be accompanied by change in the government’s approach towards the tribal reagion. Rather than treating it as a buffer to be ruled by the old Frontier Crimes Regulation Act, Pakistan has to bring the region into the constitutional fold and make all the rights and privileges available to the people there like in other parts of Pakistan.
    • The Pakistan military’s involvement with non-state actors has proved counter-productive. There is a realization within Pakistan today that this may not work. The new government’s approach towards Kashmir and India can be seen from this perspective. In spite of the trouble in Kashmir in recent months the media and the government in Pakistan was not as active as it would have been in earlier days.
    • Pakistan’s internal and external insecurities have led to the growth of radical and conservative elements even within the government and given legitimacy to the prevalence of the army in Pakistani society and polity. If the relationship with India improves and internal security problems are taken care of, the army’s salience will be reduced and the liberal constituency in Pakistan will gain immensely from this.
    • There is no debate on the role of religion in Pakistani politics. There is an inconclusive debate going on in Pakistan even today on whether Pakistan will be a Muslim state or an Islamic State. The state has veered towards one or the other position in different phases of its history.
    • Political instability and violence in Afghanistan continue to destabilize Pakistan. Pakistan shares a 16,000 mile long porous border with Afghanistan and has offered refuge to about two million Afghan refugees. Moreover, many Pakhtun tribes straddle the border and they consider the border almost non-existent.
    • Mutual suspicions and acrimonies between India and Pakistan need to be analysed and addressed properly. Today, Pakistan harbours misperceptions about Indian consulates in Afghanistan, as well its possible hand in the Baluchistan insurgency in Pakistan. India suspects Pakistani hand in Kashmir and insurgencies in other provinces within India. This has strengthened the hand of the conservatives in both the countries.
    • India, Iran and Pakistan, together with other regional countries, must come together and try to synchronise their foreign policies and address their mutual concerns. This will help them in improving the regional security and economic situation and contribute to peace and mutual goodwill.

    In his presentation on “Nepal’s Recent Transition: Implications”, Aditya Adhikari, Deputy Op-ed Editor and Columnist with the Nepalese daily, The Kathmandu Post, made the following main arguments:

    • The peace process has helped Nepal transit from a country riven by civil war to a republic and a multi-party democracy. The mainstreaming of the Maoist rebel groups is indeed an encouraging development and offers important lessons for other such groups in the region.
    • However, there are important issues to be resolved. The integration of Maoist combatants (19,000) into the Nepalese Army, and the drafting of the new constitution by the Constituent Assembly are the two most important challenges that the newly elected constituent Assembly and the government will have to face in the coming days.
    • The demand for integration of the Maoist combatants into the army is being resisted by the Nepali Army and the Nepali Congress. They suspect that such integration will result in Maoist control of the army and does not augur well for democracy in Nepal.
    • There are major disagreements amongst the 25 political parties with regard to the rules and procedures to be written into the constitution which is being attempted today.
    • Even the Maoists are now divided over many issues. There is a hardline group which is adopting a nationalist and anti-India line, while the overall leadership of the party is so far in the hands of the moderates. Prachanda and Bhattarai appear much more flexible after assuming power.
    • There is a fear amongst many in the population that the Maoists might become authoritarian if they muster a clean majority.

    In her presentation on “Political Transition in Myanmar”, Than Than Htay, Secretary, Myanmar Institute of Strategic and International Studies, indicated the following:

    • Myanmar is going to hold multi-party democratic elections in 2010.
      This is a part of a Seven Step Road Map to democracy.
    • The constitution has been framed by the National Convention and ratified by nearly 92.48 percent of the population.
    • The border areas are now under the control of the Myanmar government after it involved almost all insurgent groups in negotiations. The only group left outside the negotiating table is the Karen National Union.
    • Western sanctions on Myanmar are not effective as it has abundant resources and its major trading partners are the ASEAN and East Asia.
    • The Myanmar government has been taking every possible step to improve education, healthcare and economic wellbeing of its people.

    Aly Shameem, a freelance Researcher on regional Politics and Deputy Secretary General, People’s Majlis, Secretariat, Maldives in his presentation on “Political Transition in Maldives” stated the following points:

    • The October 2008 multi-party presidential election was a unique event in the Maldives. The process of political reform had started in 2005 with the introduction of political parties and the constitution of the special People’s Majlis.
    • This change has been possible due to popular pressure on the previous government.
    • Thanks to rapid economic development, education, and political reform, the popular awareness has grown substantially and people now want to participate in the political processes more confidently than ever before.
    • Maldives is a highly developed society today with US$ 3,500 per capita and 90 percent of its population is literate.
    • President Gayoom, who ruled Maldives for nearly 30 years, conceded defeat on October 28, 2008 to his opponent, Naseed, of the Maldivian Democratic Party.

    Captain Alok Bhansal, Research Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses as discussant for the session, made the following observations:

    • 2008 is a significant year for South Asia since there have been so many democratic transitions, be it in Maldives or Nepal or Pakistan.
    • With regard to Afghanistan, he argued that talking to the Taliban may not help since one is not sure about its organizational status and intentions. Such a gesture would only add to the legitimacy of a discredited force.
    • In the case of Nepal, he indicated the anger in Nepal was due to the use of Hindi for the swearing in ceremony of the Vice President.
    • The federal process in Nepal would have to factor in the Madeshi parties.