Welcome to the South Asia Foreign Policy Letter. This week’s highlights: Bangladesh is celebrating 50 years of independence, India and Pakistan face each other new coronavirus wavesand what to do with it Role of the United Arab Emirates in easing tensions between India and Pakistan.
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Bangladesh’s mixed record, 50 years later
Bangladesh celebrates the 50th anniversary of its independence on Friday and the country celebrates in style. A 10-day “golden anniversary” started on March 17th with parades, fireworks, tributes to the independence hero Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and visits to neighboring heads of government. Those farther away, from Chinese President Xi Jinping to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, have sent congratulatory video messages.
The celebration contrasts sharply with the bloody events that led to Bangladesh’s independence. When Pakistan gained independence in 1947, what is now Bangladesh was one of its provinces known as East Bengal and later East Pakistan. She was reluctant to be marginalized by the Pakistani government and advocated greater autonomy. With US support, the Pakistani military tried to suppress the nationalist sentiment and in March 1971 unleashed a terrible level of brutality.
Rahman, a leading political figure in East Pakistan, then issued a declaration of independence for the new nation of Bangladesh. The war raged in early December 1971 when the Indian military invaded in support of the breakaway region. Pakistan surrendered two weeks later and formalized Bangladesh’s independence. The exact extent of the war casualties is unknown: it is estimated that 300,000 to 3 million people will be killed.
Fifty years after independence, Bangladesh has a lot to celebrate. It was one of the greatest economic growth stories in the world. Since 1980, the average economic growth has increased steadily in every decade. Exports have increased about 80 percent in US dollars over the past 10 years. In October last year, the International Monetary Fund forecast that its domestic GDP per capita would surpass India’s in 2020.
Experts attribute Bangladesh’s history of growth to a number of factors: one of the most competitive clothing industries in the world, the education and empowerment of women, a vibrant network of non-governmental organizations and a high level of remittances. As C. Raja Mohan states in Foreign Policy, the country is ready to become a major player in regional and global geopolitics – not least thanks to this growth.
A few weeks ago, the United Nations Development Policy Committee recommended that Bangladesh adopt the status of “least developed country” in order to become a developing country. This move prompted the Wall Street Journal to label it the “Economic Bull Case” of South Asia – a response to the denigration of then US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger as a “basket case” after Bangladesh gained independence.
However, the economic success of Bangladesh was accompanied by a decline into authoritarianism. The ruling party of the Awami League (AL), led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina – daughter of independence hero Rahman – has cemented its rule by cracking down on the opposition and dampening dissent. While the AL has real support, many analysts argue that the party won elections in 2018 and 2014 that were neither free nor fair. The democracy value of Freedom House in Bangladesh fell by 35 percent between 2013 and 2020.
Other Asian countries like China and Singapore have seen economic growth without democracy, but Bangladesh’s democratic relapse could jeopardize its economic success, FP’s Sumit Ganguly wrote last November. The AL’s consolidation of power could contribute to corruption and cronyism, and Dhaka’s strict restrictions on internet freedoms could constrain the country’s digital economy and discourage foreign investment.
Despite its impressive track record, Bangladesh’s economy still faces major challenges, including persistent income inequality and poor transport infrastructure. If democracy continues to suffer, Bangladesh’s confident march to middle-income status could suffer further setbacks – with a future that is not as bright as the proud nation’s 50th birthday celebrations suggest.
Thursday and Friday March 25-26: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi Visits Bangladesh.
Tuesday March 30th: The ninth ministerial conference of the Heart of the Asia-Istanbul process, an Afghanistan-focused multilateral grouping, meets in Tajikistan.
New waves in India and Pakistan. India and Pakistan are both facing new waves of coronavirus. On March 24, the Indian Ministry of Health reported more than 47,000 new cases. The numbers are much lower than the 100,000 new daily infections counted during the peak of the pandemic last September, but they haven’t been that high since November.
In Pakistan earlier this month, new cases increased by almost 70 percent in 10 days, compared to the previous 10 days, and the positive test rate has increased to over 7 percent. Health experts consider this surge to be Pakistan’s third wave of COVID-19 after a surge in January.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan tested positive for COVID-19 on March 20, two days after receiving the first dose of a vaccine. Officials stressed that Khan was likely infected before he was vaccinated, but the news has raised concerns that people who are already reluctant to get vaccinated will now be even more reluctant.
Experts attribute the rise in both countries to increasingly poor compliance with public health protocols. India is preparing for major state elections in the coming days, and campaign rallies have hosted large gatherings with many maskless participants. The presence of the UK-derived variant in both India and Pakistan is another factor.
The angle of the UAE. Bloomberg reported this week that the United Arab Emirates facilitated talks between India and Pakistan a few months ago that led to the ceasefire on the border announced on Feb.25. In fact, this connection with the UAE was first revealed in a March 4 foreign policy essay by Sushant Singh. The UAE has close ties to Islamabad and New Delhi and wants to be a geopolitically influential actor, said Singh.
However, this external mediation should not be overestimated. Islamabad and New Delhi had their own motives for signing a ceasefire. Pakistan wanted to focus more on the peace process in Afghanistan, India sought to free up political space to address challenges on the border with China, and each side sought to end the worst border violence in nearly two decades.
In the case of mediation by third parties, it appears to be a case in which an already ajar door is pushed. “Many foreign capitals have promoted peace between India and Pakistan. However, the process was led by the two countries, not outside actors, ”an unnamed source told Indian CNN News18.
Ghani’s counter-proposal for peace. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has officially rejected the new US peace plan, which calls for the formation of a transitional government. Instead, he intends to announce an alternative plan that calls for early elections within six months, as long as the Taliban agree to a ceasefire.
Ghani’s proposal is completely unrealistic. It takes more than six months to plan elections in Afghanistan, and Afghans living in Taliban-controlled areas – 19 percent of around 400 districts – are unable to vote. Intense violence would pose a major challenge to voter turnout across the country, and Ghani’s ceasefire requirement would not be met by the insurgents. They would ask for much more than an electoral process that they are already rejecting.
Ghani likely intended to protest Washington’s plan rather than propose a real political initiative. The Taliban have already rejected the proposal.
A luxury resort in the Maldives has an enticing new vacation proposition for the richest 1 percent: an entire private island to yourself for the price of $ 1 million. The nightly rate is $ 250,000 for a minimum stay of four nights. Fortunately, there are tons of freebies out there, from a personal butler to sunset cocktails.
Seriously, caring for the super-rich makes sense for developing countries like the Maldives that are trying to recover economically from a pandemic that has robbed them of the tourism revenues on which they depend. Although the Maldives reopened its borders last July, it only had 500,000 visitors last year, compared to nearly 2 million in a typical year.
“You are now talking about a trial that has always been scandalous.”
– Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid responded to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s proposal for early elections in exchange for a Taliban ceasefire
At the Kathmandu Post, economics professor Roshee Lamichhane discusses the challenges agricultural entrepreneurs face in rural Nepal and advocates “breaking the myths and stereotypes that farming is a badly placed job”.
Piyumi Fonseka, a reporter for Sri Lanka’s Daily Mirror, writes about how microfinance credit has failed to improve economic conditions and has driven dozens of Sri Lankan women to suicide. “Sometimes a loan given to save one life can cost another life in the indebted villages of Sri Lanka,” writes Fonseka.
An editorial in the Bhutanese newspaper Kuensel laments the sight of dilapidated and abandoned temples across the country: “Every monument that falls into disrepair and finally perishes makes us socially, culturally and economically poorer – in view of its tourist potential.”
On a summer night in 2014, two teenage girls were found hanging from a mango tree in a village in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Sonia Faleiro’s The Good Girls is a masterful attempt to get to the bottom of this terrible crime. Faleiro, who previously published a widely acclaimed book on the sex industry in Mumbai, carefully delves into disturbing and sensitive topics.
The Good Girls provides a harrowing page-turning reading that says as much about India’s lower abdomen – institutional and political corruption, violence against women, caste prejudice – as it does about the two young women who fell victim to it.
That’s it for this week.
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