Politics

South Asia Briefing: Political Jostling in Sri Lanka; Pakistan to Present Dossier on India at UN

A round-up of the most important stories from the South Asian region.

Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Credit: PTI

Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Credit: PTI

New Delhi: Politicians in South Asia barely took a pause to usher in the new year, with most countries preparing for high-stakes games – from keeping coalitions intact in Sri Lanka and Afghanistan to stable ruling regimes in Pakistan and Bangladesh keeping a constant vigil to detect potential challenges.

Here is The Wire’s roundup of the major happenings over the seven days in India’s neighbourhood.

Sri Lanka:

Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena (right) with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Credit: Reuters

Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena (right) with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Credit: Reuters

Political jostling over Hambantota

Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa dominated the news cycle in the emerald isle over his opposition to leasing of land to the Chinese in Hambantota and his intention to bring down the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP)-United National Party (UNP) government this year.

In his weekly column, The Sunday Times’ political editor had the most comprehensive laundry list of the ongoing name-calling between the SLFP and UNP. The verbal fights have become so bitter that UNP ministers have accused President Maithripala Sirisena’s brother of running the “rice mafia”.

With the SLFP spokesperson and ministers raising doubts about the validity of the MoU signed in September, which increased the term of the ruling coalition from two to five years, The Sunday Times‘ political editor wondered, “That begs answer to the question whether he has the blessings of his leadership to make those pronouncements. Many in the pro Sirisena SLFP believe he does. And that begs answer to an even more critical question — can the drift of the two sides from one another be stopped? If not, what happens to the many development programmes and the resuscitation of the country’s economy, an item of high priority?”

Former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Former president Mahinda Rajapaksa has said he intends to overthrow the government this year. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Meanwhile, Ceylon Today reported based on “informed sources” that ten ministers will be part of a group of SLFP members who will leave the government on January 8, the second anniversary of Sirisena’s surprise win.

Rajapaksa’s blunt statement to foreign correspondents in Colombo that his new year resolution was to overthrow the government of national unity got the attention of the Lankan media. “Man on Mission to topple government in 2017,” said the main lead of the business paper Daily FT, with similar iterations across all newspapers.

When asked about Rajapaksa’s threat, Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said, “Mr. Rajapaksa can do whatever he wants when I go to Switzerland”. He will be travelling soon to attend the World Economic Forum in Davos.

In an oped for the Daily News, Harim Peiris, advisor to the Sri Lankan foreign minister, was predictably dismissive with the likelihood of Rajapaksa getting his wish.

“The first obstacles in a Rajapaksa return is that the fundamental political dynamics that formed the foundation of Rajapaksa defeat, still holds true… If the Rajapaksa political comeback project is to succeed, two key changes need to take place, there must be an honest assessment of the failures of their governance, in all areas including economic, foreign, public sector management and social reconciliation policies and consequently seek to design a policy message and political outreach that is more pluralistic, tolerant and democratic.”

The Island’s editorial also seemed to hedge its bets. “Rajapaksa appears to command a majority of SLFP members of parliament, but even if the Sirisena-faction joins him, they are still short of a handful of MPs to ensure an absolute majority in the 225-majority national legislature…The unity of the fractured SLFP is the biggest threat to Wickremesinghe’s government and its failure to deliver on tackling corruption and prosecute alleged swindlers of the previous regime weighs heavily against it”.

On January 5, Wickremesinghe is set to make a “special statement on the current status of the UNP-SLFP unity Government and its future policies,” according to Ceylon Today.

The Hambantota port deal continues to be the eye of the political storm. The right-wing nationalist Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) and ruling alliance partner claimed that bribes of $100 million was paid to government politicians to expedite the agreement that will allow for a Chinese firm to get an 80% stake in the port and 15,000 acres to build a SEZ nearby. “We are against the deal as the government has not revealed the lease agreement with China Merchants Port Holdings so far,” JHU’s Nishantha Sri Warnasinghe told The Island.

The Sunday Times reported that the Sri Lankan cabinet planned to examine the final text of the concession agreement, worth $1.2 billion, on January 3 and then sign on the dotted line on January 7. It also revealed that the Chinese ambassador to Sri Lanka had expressed concern about the allegations made by the JHU during his meeting with Sirisena on December 28.

Meanwhile, the joint opposition announced on Monday, January 2, that a petition has been filed in the Supreme Court against the Hambantota port deal.

Courtesy: The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka

Courtesy: The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka

In Hambantota, district authorities dropped in unannounced for a survey without prior notification to village residents, who had erected black flags, posters and banners against the land acquisition. “For generations our ancestors have shed blood and sweat to build these farmlands. Our economy and culture are bound to these lands. So we would not move away from these lands under any condition,” said a Hambantota farmer in The Sunday Leader.

New constitution

This week Lankan political parties prepare the debate on the draft proposals for a new constitution in parliament on January 9-10. Tamil National Alliance (TNA) chief and leader of the opposition R. Sampanthan has convened a special meeting of his party MPs ahead of the debate, with Tamil leaders pushing for a more federal structure to the constitution.

In an interview to Ceylon Today, Jaffna District TNA MP Dharmalingam Sithadthan said that there were “positive signals” that police and land powers could be devolved to the provinces.

Local government elections are expected to be further delayed, after provincial council and local government minister Faiszer Musthapa refused the accept the much-delayed report of the delimitation of local wards. The reason was that two committee members had not signed the report as they wanted to further study its provisions. The Island reports that the minister left in a huff when the chairman of the committee revealed the political affiliations of the two members in an answer to a media query.

An oily mess

There was no clarity on the incident of the alleged “detention” of four Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) by officials of the Sri Lankan subsidiary of Indian Oil Corporation (LIOC), which ended up as a blame game. According to the CPC, four officials were “held captive” for an hour when they went to inspect four of the oil tanks at the tank farm in China Bay, Trincomalee, while the LIOC complained to the local police about an attempt to enter the facility without an authorisation letter.

Petroleum minister Chandima Weerakody said that his government will go ahead with acquiring three oil tanks after talks with India in line with a cabinet decision. “The Cabinet decision was based on a national requirement and we have informed Indian Oil Company (IOC) of this decision in writing. We do not want a dispute with a neighbouring country but a company has no right to interfere with a Cabinet decision,” he said as reported by The Sunday Times.

Pakistan:

Chairman of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) political party Imran Khan addresses his supporters during what has been dubbed a "freedom march" in Islamabad August 21, 2014. Credit:Reuters/Faisal Mahmood/Files

Chairman of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) political party Imran Khan addresses his supporters in Islamabad. Credit: Reuters/Faisal Mahmood/Files

Panama Papers investigation

After weeks of acrimony, the first day in office for new Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar was an unusually harmonious one, with all parties hailing the constitution of a new bench for the Panama Papers hearings that will resume on January 4. Nisar excluded himself from the newly-constituted five-judge bench, which Dawn described in an edit as being crucial “to the fundamentals of the democratic order in the country”.

In its front-page lead about the new bench, Dawn quoted Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) leader Ishaq Khakwani as saying that the “majority of the judges in the new bench have the advantage of understanding and knowing the views of the petitioners because they have heard their stance”.

“On social media, pictures showing the purported meeting of Justice Saqib Nisar with Prime Minister Nawaz [Sharif] and President Mamnoon Hussain and that of Justice Hani with Senator Hashmi created doubts in the minds of the public. It is good that they are not part of the bench,” said an advocate in the Nation.

The Daily Times in its editorial reminded readers that both the opposition parties had insinuated at Nisar’s alleged links to the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN). “However, amid all of this, it seemed lost on most that such discourse was putting at risk the sanctity of the highest court of the land. No interest or issue — even as significant as the Panama Papers — is worth politicising the judiciary”.

While expressing his faith in the judiciary in investigating the allegations in the Panama Papers, PTI leader Imran Khan had on December 31 accused the Pakistani prime minister of subverting another constitutional body by putting “his own people in the Election Commission”. “We will again take to streets before the general elections in 2018 as we will not let the upcoming general polls happen in the manner the elections were held in 2013,” Khan said. This led the Election Commission to issue a statement, saying it regretted “such highly irresponsible statements of Imran Khan or any other leader trying to undermine integrity of the institution”.

jadhav smile

Alleged Indian spy Kulbushan Jadhav.

A dossier on India at the UN

Along with the resumption of the Supreme Court hearing on the Panama papers, the other anticipated event in Pakistan this week seems to be the submission of another dossier to the UN on Indian ‘spy’ Kulbhushan Jadhav and ‘evidence’ of an attempted violation of the maritime boundary by an Indian submarine. In its report, Dawn noted that the government had “faced a lot of criticism for the delay in presenting to the international community evidence of Jadhav’s involvement in subversive activities”. Pakistan’s permanent representative to the UN will be handing over the dossier the new UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres on his “first working day” (January 2). Dawn that three dossiers were previously handed over to UN, “but, the move did not get much traction”.

In a follow-up editorial, the Nation also criticised the Pakistan government for its failure to pursue “proper dissemination of these files”. “Some pundits have alleged that these dossiers were weak in their provision of evidence, and the government knew this. Whether this is true or not, the weakness lies in our diplomatic and investigative prowess,” it said.

Year-end hopes and fears

In their year-end editorials, Pakistani newspapers mentioned that 2016 had been yet another difficult year for Pakistan, but also dared to express some optimism about the PML-N managing to survive yet another year.

“The ship of state currently under the command of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz took a few hits but was never in serious trouble, and sails into the New Year in at least reasonable shape. Democracy, or at least the elective feudalism that is the local iteration thereof, won the day. Mostly,” stated the Express Tribune on December 31.

Echoing these sentiments, The News said in its editorial titled ‘Fear and Hope’: “At home, we saw democracy pull through for another year, even if there were some struggles. In the coming year, we hope this process will accelerate, the institutions in Pakistan will continue to perform their defined roles and that this will result in the kind of progress we need to promote a more egalitarian and humane society”.

However, there was concern that there had not been much serious effort to combat extremism at home. “On the downside the National Action Plan (NAP) remains mostly inactive, the National Counter-Terrorism Authority is all but dormant, madrassa registration in incomplete, money continues to flow into extremist coffers from abroad and the Islamic State remains a very large elephant in the room,” said the Express Tribune editorial, ‘Year of Mixed Fortunes’.

Similarly, Dawn also criticised the implementation of the NAP as being “either minimal or non-existent”. “The government has attempted to explain away the situation by blaming various factors, but the fight against militancy and extremism must become a core part of the PML-N`s agenda if there is to be success in the long war”.

Incidentally, Dawn had published an article on December 26 based on a “progess report” on the implementation of the NAP. The report said that the NAP had not been able take action against terror groups and political reconciliation in Balochistan was far from achieved. However, the story was updated with not one but two caveats, with a “clarification” at the start and a “correction” at the end. Both of them stated that the interior ministry had never authorised nor released such a “progress report”.

On January 2, the Sindh chief minister Murad Ali Shah expressed reservations that “the federal government has no clear policy with regard to banned militants”. He expressed his doubts at a meeting of the apex committee, which was also attended by the army, police and paramilitary chiefs.

The same day, the Senate legislative committee also demanded “zero tolerance” for proscribed organisations. A Daily Times report quoted the Pakistan People’s Party senator Farhatullah Babar as asking why Jaish-e-Muhammad chief Maulana Masood Azhar was being protected from UN sanctions by China and Pakistan. “We need to know why an outfit that is banned in Pakistan as a militant organisation should be protected from sanctions by the UN,” Babar asserted.

The Zardaris are back

Asif Ali Zardari. Credit: Reuters

Asif Ali Zardari. Credit: Reuters

The return of Asif Ali Zardari after a year-and-a-half of exile continued to cause ripples in Pakistani politics. On December 27, Zardari made his “big announcement” at a rally in Garhi Khuda Baksh that he and his son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari will stand for National Assembly by-elections. “We had handed over this politics to you as trust but deplorably you did not fulfil the promises… This war is not for the seat but for the sake of Pakistan and the constitution…Mr Prime Minister is more interested in tweeting to Indian PM Modi and exchanging gifts with him,”Zardari said at the rally, according to The News. The Pakistani prime minister does not have a Twitter account, but his daughter Maryam Nawaz Sharif usually acknowledges any tweets from Modi.

Khan claimed that Zardari’s return was fuelled by the realisation that the PPP had to become a “real opposition” after facing setbacks in the recent elections.

The PTI chief said the PPP did not play the role of “real opposition” since the Panama leaks surfaced. He said there was a clear difference between the strategy of Zardari and his son, the PPP chairman. “Bilawal has made utmost efforts to play the role of real opposition and revive the Punjab chapter of his party as well,” Khan said, as per a report in The Nation.

Where the CPEC is headed

On December 29, the Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce and Industry released a report on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which anticipated that on calculations based on current rate of migration, Chinese nationals would outnumber the natives in Balochistan by 2048. The Nation’s editorial recommended that the report should be seen through the prism of the “deeper issue” of insecurity in the province over the impact of CPEC. “A change in the population is only acceptable if the people of Balochistan take precedence initially in terms of important developmental outreach programmes such as education and skill training. The government cannot just leave the fate of the people of Balochistan up to market forces”.

Dawn wrote about a meeting of the heads of chambers of commerce and industry of three cities, Gujarat, Gujranwala and Sialkot, where they expressed worry that China’s plan to build industrial units along CPEC route would destroy local industry and “turn Pakistan into a purely consumer market”.

Relationship with Afghanistan

In terms of the neighbourhood, the new year also began with an invitation from the Afghan leadership for the new Pakistan army chief Qamar Ahmed Bajwa to visit Kabul, which Pakistan newspapers projected as a possible breakthrough in the strained ties between the two neighbours.

2017 also heralded another milestone for Pak-Afghan ties. From December 31, it became mandatory for Pakistani nationals to carry a passport to enter Afghanistan – further hardening the cross-border movement at Torkham. The new rule was introduced after “arrest of a number of suspected Afghans with fake Pakistani Computerised National Identity Cards (CNICs)”.

Afghanistan:

 

Afghan First Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum. Credit: Reuters

Afghan First Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum. Credit: Reuters

Trilateral talks between Russia, China and Pakistan angers Kabul

The trilateral talks between Russia, China and Pakistan on December 27 ticked Kabul off, especially the suggestion that some Taliban officials could be removed from the UNSC sanctions list in order to revive the peace talks.

Pakistan, China and Russia recently held trilateral talks on Afghanistan. Credit: Twitter

Pakistan, China and Russia recently held trilateral talks on Afghanistan. Credit: Twitter

The Taliban quickly welcome the statement from the trilateral. Kabul, however, took umbrage and pointed out that any decision of lifting the sanctions had to come from the Afghan government. Any delisting of the Taliban could happen only when they abhorred violence and joined the peace process, interior ministry spokesperson said.

Afghan authorities have been increasingly vocal about the fact that Russia was providing weapons to the Taliban to fight against militant groups flying the ISIS flag. Former Kunduz governor Mohammad Omar Safi had earlier claimed that Russian military engineers based in Tajikistan have been refurbishing weapons and vehicles for Taliban for two years. A spokesperson for the Tajik border guard agency called these allegations baseless, but offered to investigate the claims.

AIHRC urges Afghan government to address Dostum-Eschi issue

The matter of the allegations of assault by the men of Afghan’s First Vice President, Abdul Rashid Dostum, refuses to die down. On January 1, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission called on the Afghan government to conduct a “transparent” investigation into the claims that Dostum had directed his men to beat and sexually assault a rival, the former governor of Jawzjan province Ahmad Eschi.

Ahmad Ishchi, who said he was beaten and detained by Afghanistan’s vice president, Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum in November. Credit: Reuters

Ahmad Ishchi, who said he was beaten and detained by Afghanistan’s vice president, Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum in November. Credit: Reuters

Dostum had refused a summons by the country’s attorney general over the allegations and has not been attending work since the allegations surfaced last month, hence causing a rising crescendo of criticism.

Changing political dynamic of national unity government

A private English news agency, Khaama Press, reported on the changing political dynamics of the national unity government based on an interview of Ata Mohammad Noor, a former ally of chief executive Abdullah Abdullah, with BBC Afghanistan. The Tajik strongman and Jamaat-e-Islami leader said that he was “no more counting on the decision making capabilities” of Abdullah.

The ‘weak’ performance by Abdullah of putting forward the views of Jamaat-e-Islami in the last two and half year was the reason for the direct talks between him and President Ashraf Ghani, Noor said. He revealed that an agreement which will institutionalise their “political understanding” would be signed.

The private TV channel TOLOnews published a report stating that there was a growing loss of faith in the national unity government (NUG). It quoted analysts and MPs who are unhappy with the continuing drift within the NUG.  An analyst Haroon Mir said that the spread of rift to “other parties” like Noor was a “sign of political failure.”

Khaama also reported about the emergence of photos on Afghan social media of women in the northern province of Jawzjan who have picked up arms to resist against the Taliban and ISIS. The group is apparently led by a 53-year-old women fighter and comprises around 45 fighters.

Nepal:

Nepal earthquake reconstruction work has hit a lag. Credit:Reuters/Navesh Chitrakar

Nepal earthquake reconstruction work has hit a lag. Credit:Reuters/Navesh Chitrakar

Earthquake reconstruction work hits a lag

Meanwhile, the earthquake reconstruction process moves at a snail’s space, with the cabinet seeking a clarification within seven days from Sushil Gyawali, the head of the Nepal Reconstruction Authority (NRA) about his “failure” to produce any results.

Supreme Court tables second Constitution Amendment Bill

With the Nepal Supreme Court refusing to pass an interim order on two separate writs to declare the second Constitution Amendment Bill as unconstitutional, decks were cleared for the tabling of the contentious legislation that has been blocked for a month by the main opposition party, the Communist Party of Nepal-United Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML).

According to The Himalayan Times the verdict of the division bench said, “The right to make a decision in accordance to the constitution after examining and determining the Constitution Amendment Bill’s appropriateness is in the legislature-parliament.” This puts additional pressure on the UML to relax its rigid position, with all parties welcoming the Supreme Court decision, the Kathmandu Post reported.

However, a meeting held by the three parties on Monday to find a breakthrough did not result in a consensus yet again. My Republica reported that the UML had obliquely indicated that they could end their obstruction in the parliament after holding its rally against the constitutional amendment on Friday.

In its year-end editorial, the Kathmandu Post opined, “So 2016 appears positive mostly because 2015 was catastrophic.” But, there was a long list of “missed opportunities.”

“To start with, throughout the year of 2016, very little was done politically to address the concerns of the Madhesi parties about the new constitution, and the disagreements over the amendment seem to deepen. As a result, a large section of the population feels alienated from the state. In addition, the impasse over the amendment has made it uncertain whether elections can be held by January 2018, the deadline mentioned in the constitution,” it read.

The last month has witnessed a heightened level of political activity, with the Nepal Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal negotiating with the Madhesi groups on one side and UML on the other end to break the stalemate in the parliament. The Madhesis agreed to take part in the trifecta of local, provincial and parliamentary polls and support the election related bills based on the commitment from Dahal that the constitutional amendment would be first endorsed by the parliament.

Pushpa Kamal Dahab. Credit: Reuters/Navesh Chitrakar/Files

Pushpa Kamal Dahab. Credit: Reuters/Navesh Chitrakar/Files

Dahal apparently held talks with the UML leader and former prime minister K.P. Oli at an “undisclosed location” on Sunday, but it didn’t soften the second largest political party in Nepal. UML apparently suggested that it would agree to parliamentary discussion only if the demarcation of provinces was left up to the federal commission, but it didn’t get a very positive response from Dahal, Kathmandu Post reported.

According to The Himalayan Times, in order to hold the local polls by mid-May – as agreed by the big three parties – the Election Commission has said that five election-related bills and administrative centres of restructured bodies “will have to be in operation within 15 days.”

All eyes are now on speaker Onsari Gharti Magar to hold talks with all parties to find a way to let the parliament function.

Sources told The Kathmandu Post that this move is “intended to ‘sack’ Gyawali as Prime Minister Dahal has been expressing dissatisfaction at his works”. Two years after the devastating earthquake, the second tranche of compensation is yet to be disbursed completely for survivours to reconstruct their houses. In an editorial, My Republica castigated the NRA and Gyawali for the sluggish implementation, but stated that removing the CEO may not be wise “as it could mean another protracted battle over the appointment of a new NRA head, and more delays in reconstruction.”

 

Insensitive to China?

Meanwhile, the Nepal government had to again defend itself against accusations that it has not been sensitive to Chinese concerns, after Mongolian foreign minister Tsend Munkh-Orgil was in Kathmandu on the same day as Liu Qibao, a member of Communist Party of China’s Politburo.

The two trips had taken place when China had imposed a blockade against Mongolia following the visit of the Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama. “While we continuously struggle to balance India and China, recent moves by the government and former prime minister Deuba have put our relations with China in jeopardy, with as yet unimaginable consequences,” wrote My Republica’s editor, Subhas Ghimire.

Foreign minister Ram Sharan Mahat called a press meet to respond to the criticism, where he described the timing as a “mere coincidence” and claimed that China had not registered any objection.

Nepal, China agree to manage Rasuwagadhi-Kerung border point

With the Tatopani-Khasa border point still not having been opened after the 2015 earthquake, China has apparently relaxed its rules of entry permits for Nepali importers through the Rasuwagadhi-Kerung border point. China has also asked Nepal to step up border security due for Dalai Lama’s visit to Bodh Gaya for the Kalchakra Puja, which could fuel Tibet protests around the region.

Bhutan:

royal-monetary-authority-of-bhutan

Royal Monetary Authority in Bhutan. Credit: Twitter

Demonetisation woes

The large number of Bhutanese pilgrims making a beeline for Kalchakra initiation at Bodh Gaya has also led to Indian rupees being sold at high rates at the Indo-Bhutan border. Kuensel reported that while there had been Bhutanese pilgrims, ticketing agents and exporters were paying between Nu 108-120 for every 100 rupees.

The Bhutanese Ngultrum is officially pegged to the Indian rupee and therefore, the demonetisation of high-value Indian notes has impacted the Himalayan nation. Indian currency is currently being doled out in a very restricted manner at the office of the Royal Monetary Authority (RMA) in Thimphu.

Kuensel carried a detailed report about the negative impact of demonetisation in which the Association of Bhutanese Industries (ABI) have asked the RMA to let them operate their Indian rupee accounts – frozen after November 8 as a short-term measure. “Should the restrictions to withdraw equivalent amounts of INR in Ngultrum continue and if the banks don’t provide INR for daily dispatch of goods, [ABI general secretary] Jochu Thinley said the companies may have to shut down some of the business operations”.

After the local government elections in 2016, a notification by the concerned line ministry about the start of the tenure of the elected local authorities led to much confusion. This led the Election Commission of Bhutan and the Upper House, National Council to weigh in and declare that “members of local government are ‘declared elected’ from the day the election results are declared, and not on the day they are administered oath”. The date is important as it will mark the beginning of their government emoluments.

Rampant corruption

On December 22, Bhutan Transparency Initiative had launched a report on the National Corruption Barometer Survey, which found high level of tolerance for corrupt practices. Around a quarter of the respondents surveyed said that corruption was ‘normal’. About 31.5% believed that corruption had “increased somewhat” after the advent of democracy. The survey listed favouritism and nepotism in recruitment, promotion and transfer as the most common forms of corrupt practice in Bhutan.

In an editorial, Kuensel noted that the survey showed “corruption is pervasive in our society and is accepted as something that is part of our national life.”

“This means if the initiative doesn’t come from the top, corruption will only grow. What is important is that there must be uniform application of laws and rules. At the same time, it is vitally important that media be given the space to exercise their mandate without fear of possible repercussions.”

Maldives: 

Maldives President Abdulla Yameen. Credit: Reuters

Maldives President Abdulla Yameen. Credit: Reuters

Housing issues 

Affordable housing – or the lack of it – dominated domestic politics in the Maldives last week. The Maldivian government found itself under pressure from a group of protesting citizens who won apartments as part of an affordable social housing programme that was initiated during the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) regime. The winners held a protest after they were told to pay $1,30,000 upfront for their flats or obtain loans to make a downpayment of $25,940. The future apartment owners insisted that the cost of each apartment was 1.1 million Malidivian rufiyaa or $71,500. Incidentally, the houses built under the Veshi Fahi Malé affordable housing programme were constructed by Apex Realty, an SPV of Tata Housing.

At a press conference, Maldives’ housing minister Mohamed Muiz claimed that the MDP government had assessed the value of the flats incorrectly. He also asserted that the previous president Mohamed Nasheed’s government had to “bear responsibility” for the “poor quality of fixtures” in the apartments. The MDP hit back by noting that since Muiz has been the housing minister for the last four years, his complaints are “proof as well that he has not overseen work under the project from 2012 to the present day”.

Airport renamed

On January 1, Maldives’ main international airport got a new name on – Ibrahim Nasir international airport will now be known as Velana International Airport. Maldivian Q2701 from Trivandrum, which was the first plane to land in the rebranded airport after its name officially changed at midnight, received a water salute for the memorable occasion.

The airport was packed with private jets as celebrities and businessmen flew into the islands in time to celebrate the new year. In total, 42 private jets were parked at the airport, as per Mihaaru. India’s GMR group had previously won a contract to develop and maintain the main airport, but the agreement was rescinded after Mohamed Nasheed was ousted as president in 2012. The Maldives had in mid-2016 unveiled an ambitious expansion plan for the airport.

Tension over sovereign bonds

To finance its big infrastructure projects, the Maldivian government announced that it will sell sovereign bonds in the international financial market to raise around $200 million. This was criticised by the Maldives president’s estranged half-brother and former dictator Abdul Yameen Gayoom, who termed it a “severe burden on the future well-being of Maldives”. The country’s finance ministry issued a statement last Wednesday defending the proposal, stating that it would pave the way for both private and state-owned companies to raise funds overseas.

In its report on the sovereign bond proposal, Maldives Independent noted the IMF warning that the Indian Ocean nation is facing a “high risk of external debt distress”. The report added that Moody’s, the credit rating agency, had assigned a local and foreign currency issuer rating of B2 to Maldives, which is considered “speculative and subject to high credit risk.”

Islamic TV channel

On December 29, President Abdulla Yameen inaugurated Maldives’ first Islamic television channel. The Islamic affairs minister Ahmed Ziyad Baqir announced that the TV channel will “eliminate the challenges faced in providing religious information to the atolls”. The Maldivian president has been slowly increasing his hold on Islamic matters. In November, the parliament amended the Religious Unity Act to give the president powers to make appointments to the Fatwa Majlis, the top religious body which has final say on religious affairs in Maldives. Then, in mid-December, he used these new powers to appoint a controversial preacher, who is known for “preaching against multi-party democracy, liberalism and for being a jihadist-sympathizer in the on going Syrian conflict”.

Bangladesh:

Bangladesh's Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina addresses a high-level summit on strengthening international peace operations during the 69th session of the United Nations General Assembly at United Nations headquarters in New York September 26, 2014. Credit: Reuters/Andrew Gombert/Pool/Files

Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina addresses a high-level summit on strengthening international peace operations during the 69th session of the United Nations General Assembly at United Nations headquarters in New York September 26, 2014. Credit: Reuters/Andrew Gombert/Pool/Files

MP murdered

The murder of an Awami League MP jolted Bangladesh on New Year’s eve. According to reports, five masked men entered the house of Manzurul Islam Liton after evening prayers on December 31 and shot him point-blank. He was rushed to hospital, but declared dead on arrival. Police officials said that it was a “targeted” killing. Awami League leaders and policemen immediately pointed fingers at the Jamaat-e-Islami, since the MP had spoken out against the Islamist group. The house of a local Jamaat leader was set on fire, even as Awami League supporters held demonstrations.

In October 2015, Liton was arrested, but then released on bail, for shooting an eight-year-old boy. However, at her weekly cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had said that the charges were a conspiracy to bring down Liton. “He was humiliated in a planned way. It was reported in the media that the lawmaker shot at a minor body, but the attack on him that led to the shooting did not come in the media,” a minister told New Age quoting Hasina.

Awami League MP Manzurul Islam Liton, who was killed on. Credit: YouTube screengrab

Awami League MP Manzurul Islam Liton, who was killed on December 31. Credit: YouTube screengrab

Deputy speaker Fazle Rabbi Miah claimed that if the man accused of attacking four policemen at a Jamaat stronghold had been arrested, then Liton would not have been murdered. He requested the Bangladeshi prime minister to provide additional security for all members of parliament. The last time that an Awami League MP was killed was when the party was in the opposition during the Bangladesh National Party (BNP)-Jamaat government’s tenure.

New election commission 

President Abdul Hamid has been consulting various parties to formulate a proposal to constitute the next election commission in February, which is when the current chief election commissioner is set to retire. The constitution of the new election commission will be crucial as the body will supervise the general election in 2019. The Daily Star published a detailed report about the convivial meeting between the president and the BNP delegation, led by Begum Khaleda Zia, which included even the snacks menu for the event. Zia handed over a list of names that were recommended to be members of the election commission. But, she also repeated the BNP demand that there should be a caretaker government to take over the running of the country when elections are being conducted. The BNP had boycotted the 2014 parliamentary polls on this very demand.

In an editorial, the Daily Star also reminded the prime minister that she wished “that election in Bangladesh would be held the way it is conducted in other democratic countries”. “Election in a true democracy is a complex affair where the commission exercises its clout without extraneous let or hindrance to keep the electoral process free, fair and impartial. We believe the PM should address this issue and enact a law to take care of this problem soonest,” it said.

The Awami League’s near monopoly over all levels of elected government could soon lead to serious in-fighting, warns an article in the Daily Star titled, ‘Imbalance in Political Power: How good is it for AL?’ Quoting from a report by a human rights body, the author said that 56 Awami League men had been killed and 3500 injured in 334 incidents of internal clashes between January 2015 and October 2016. “BNP men no longer seem to be major rivals of the leaders and activists of the AL. Members of JP and even the Jamaat-e-Islami men do not pose any threat to the ruling party either. The ruling AL men now fight none but their own party colleagues,” it noted.