Fortnightly Review & Analysis - Neighbourhood Studies (Vol 2 Issue II)

(Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka & Maldives)

January 16- 31, 2017


Hafiz Saeed’s Arrest: Crackdown or Chicanery?

Even as a the Trump administration in Washington started taking the first steps in its resolve to eradicate radical Islamic terrorism, Pakistani authorities placed the chief of the terrorist organisation Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD)/Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Hafiz Saeed, along with four of his top aides, under house arrest. Alongside the JuD, its ‘charity wing’, Falah-i-Insaniyat (FiF), was also placed under a terror watch list for six months. There was also a travel ban imposed on the JuD terrorists placed under ‘protective custody’. Reports in the Pakistani press also revealed that the offices of JuD and its affiliates were sealed and their posters and banners removed. Subsequent reports suggest that after a couple of days, the offices were back in business, albeit under a new label – Tehreek-e-Azaadi Kashmir.

Although there is no clarity on why the decision to detain/arrest Saeed and his aides was taken, the speculation in Pakistan is that this could have been done for the following reasons:-

a) To pre-empt the US pressure that is anticipated to come on Pakistan. This appears somewhat unlikely because US pressure hasn’t really made much difference even when Pakistan depended on US aid and is therefore unlikely to work now when Pakistan sees China as replacing US as the patron. But to the extent that the ‘Muslim ban’ imposed by the Trump administration and statements that Pakistanis will be subject to ‘extreme vetting’ before being allowed into the US has rattled Pakistan and could be a contributing factor in the move against JuD;

b) It could be some kind of Chinese advice to cool things with India. Once again this seems a little unlikely in light of China vetoing the UN sanctions on the Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar.

c) It could be the outcome of what a Pakistani newspaper has reported is a warning issued by the Financial Action Task Force that it could impose crippling financial sanctions unless action was taken against the UN sanctioned JuD.

d) There is also some talk that this could be a gesture by the Nawaz Sharif government to India to restart an engagement process. This too seems a little farfetched because it would open Nawaz Sharif to accusations of bending before India, but also because Nawaz Sharif has ratcheted up rhetoric on Kashmir to a point from which he will find it difficult to climb down.

The FATF threat appears to be the most likely reason why Pakistan which has not moved a small finger to place curbs on the activities of a UN designated terrorist organisation like JuD in all these years, has suddenly decided in ‘national interest’ to take, or at least be seen to be taking, action against Saeed and his organisation. Having seen this charade play out half a dozen times in the past, it is unlikely to impress India. The standard operating procedure of the Pakistanis is to put up an elaborate show of moving against ‘good’ terrorists without doing anything substantive to actually put the terrorists out of business. Once the pressure eases, its back to business as usual. Normally, the organisation continues to operate just as before, but there have also been occasions when the Pakistani handlers of the terror groups found it more expedient to change the brand name without disturbing the rest of the infrastructure of terror built by these organisations.

Given the fact that even after his ‘arrest’, Hafiz Saeed was allowed to address a press conference, it is clear that he has acquiesced to play along to ease the predicament in which Pakistan finds itself. There is virtually nothing happening on the ground to suggest any seriousness or sincerity on part of Pakistan’s crackdown on the JuD/LeT. But the big question remains whether the FATF (assuming this action has been taken because of its pressure) will be fooled by the eyewash of an action or it will turn the screws more on Pakistan.

Panama Papers Saga Continues

The arguments in the Panama Papers case continued to meander with both the ruling Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PMLN) and opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) parties declaring that things were tilted in their favour. On balance, however, it seems that despite the Sharif family producing yet another letter from the Qatari prince who has tried to provide some sort of a money trail to explain the controversial apartments owned by the Sharif family in London, the arguments made by the lawyers of the Sharifs only seemed to invite the skepticism of the judges. Although the judges on the bench hearing the case have maintained that their observations in the course of the case shouldn’t be interpreted as indicative of their inclinations, yet some of the things said do suggest that the bench is not going to give a free pass to the Sharifs. Of course, Pakistani judiciary is notorious for giving judgements that are completely opposite to the direction which cases seemed to be taking.

Even so, the Supreme Court bench has refused to accept the claims of immunity by the Prime Minister’s counsel for being questioned on something that he stated in Parliament. The court also questioned the circularity of gifts between different members of the Sharif family on the grounds that it wanted to figure out if this was a ‘rotational exercise to whiten money’. In what would have certainly not gone down well with the Sharif camp, the bench has let it be known that it could summon the PM to explain his position, if the need arose. The judges have pointed to the contradictory and inconsistent statements from members of the Sharif family. After the second letter from the Qatari prince was presented in court, the bench observed that it seemed as though the Sharifs were procuring documents as the case proceeded in order to cover up loose ends. At the same time, the court has made it clear that its final ruling will not be based on what people want but on the basis of evidence and law, which many observers believe would have given some relief to the Sharifs.

First Warning to Civilians from new Military Chief

In what appears to be the first warning from the new military dispensation to the civilian government, the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) issued a statement that the “debate [on allotment of agriculture land] with intent of maligning Army also has the potential to create misunderstandings between state institutions thus considered detrimental to existing cohesion.” The statement was issued after a public debate that followed a news report that revealed that the former army chief Gen Raheel Sharif had been allotted 90 acres of prime agricultural land worth over Rs 100 cr. on the outskirts of Lahore and near the Indian border. The land allotment was done in December 2014, and the fact that it happened around the time of the terror attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar led to insinuations, especially in the social media, about the greed for land among the top brass of the army. What also muddied waters were the allegations that the civilian government has leaked the story to tarnish the image of not just the former army chief but also of the army as an institution. Allegedly, the idea behind doing this was to pull down the military a peg or two from the exalted status and position that it had arrogated to itself in national affairs.

Although there is no illegality committed in the allotment of land to the former army chief, a debate has broken out on whether a colonial era tradition of giving large land parcels to military officers should continue. The government has maintained a studied silence over the issue but civil society activists and the social media has been weighing in on one side or another, thus prompting the ISPR to issue the statement that also claimed that the allotment of land was done under ‘constitutional provisions’. This was challenged, even mocked, by those opposed to the land policy of the government. Some analysts even questioned the post-allotment conditions – the officer would cultivate the land himself and be resident in the village where land was allotted – that were observed more in their violation. While the debate had lost steam, the fact that the army has fired the first warning shot towards the civilian government, is being seen by many analysts as the first crack in the civil-military relations.

Some Bloggers ‘Return’ Home, a Couple still Missing

Even as pro-military, right-wing circles in media launched a campaign accusing the bloggers and activists who went ‘missing’ after being allegedly kidnapped by ‘security agencies’ of the Pakistani state (read ISI) of blasphemy, three of the ‘missing persons’ either contacted their families or ‘returned’ to their homes. Two of the bloggers continue to remain missing. The bloggers who returned as mysteriously as they disappeared have maintained complete silence and haven’t as yet come before the media to explain the circumstances of their disappearance. According to reports, the returnees are just too scared to open their mouths and are believed to have been threatened by their abductors to keep quiet lest they and their families are made to pay the price for any revelations they make. There are also reports that one of the bloggers has already left Pakistan. The ‘independent’ media of Pakistan has by and large kept quiet about these disappearances except for a pro forma mention about the naked abuse of power by state agencies to crush any expression of dissent against the duplicitous policies of the Pakistani state.


Taliban vs Trump: US President Warned against Continuing with Obama’s Policy

In an audacious move, the Taliban have written an open letter to the new US President, Donald Trump, warning him against continuing with the policy of his predecessors in Afghanistan. Trump has been ‘advised’ to not rely on the ‘unrealistic reports’ that his officials give him and instead should withdraw from the ‘quagmire’ which in the last 15 years has only given ‘bloodshed and destruction’ to Afghanistan. Placing the responsibility for ending the war in Afghanistan on Trump’s shoulders, the Taliban have said that the US had ‘lost credibility after spending a trillion dollars on a fruitless entanglement’. The Taliban have also warned Trump that if the US “insists on continuing her failed arrogant policies, one can foresee that she will ruin herself beyond repair due to a historically shameful defeat.”

While it is still not clear what the Trump administration’s Afghanistan policy will be, given Trump’s resolve to fight radical Islamic terrorism, it would be quite surprising if the US was to leave the field in Afghanistan open for the Taliban.

Afghan Government Tries to Revive Peace Process

Over the last fortnight, there is again some movement, or at least fledgling steps being taken, by the Afghan government to explore the possibility of re-engaging the Taliban. The Afghan president spoke to some Pakistani clerics like Samiul Haq who are believed to have influence on the Taliban leadership and discussed options for restoring peace in Afghanistan. The Afghan ambassador in Islamabad has also been meeting top political and religious leaders in Pakistan to “push for constructive engagement to end mistrust between the two countries”. In an interview to the Chinese new agency Xinhua, the Afghan envoy claimed that his government is in contact with the Taliban office in Qatar and also with individual Taliban leaders elsewhere but so far there have been no formal negotiations. He said that the Afghan government is open to an unconditional dialogue with the Taliban, but his formulation of unconditional appears to be not so much about conditions put by the Afghan government for a dialogue but more that the Taliban cannot impose pre-conditions on a dialogue.

Interestingly, this new attempt to restart the negotiations comes even as the Afghans and the Pakistanis seemed to be at variance on the discussions held between the new Pakistani army chief and the Afghan president. Gen Qamar Bajwa had called the Afghan president to commiserate with him after the Kandahar blast in which top Afghan officials and UAE diplomats became casualties. While the Pakistanis reported that Bajwa had asked the Afghan president to end the blame game as it benefitted the enemy, the Afghan president’s office maintained that Ashraf Ghani didn’t mince any words in telling the Pakistan army chief that the people who launched the attack "lived, were recruited and operated freely in Pakistan and no action was taken against them". Meanwhile, there are reports that the British are also jumping into the fray to play the bridge between the Afghans and the Pakistanis. The British had also played a critical role in Ashraf Ghani’s outreach to Pakistan shortly after assuming the office of President. That experience didn’t turn out too good for either Ghani or Afghanistan. It remains to be seen if this time around, the British intercession leads to new ground being broken or a repeat of the past.


Political Slug-Fest on Constitution Amendment Continues

There has been a reported fall-out between the Communist Party of Nepal (CPN) - Maoist Centre, and the Madhes based parties. During one of their official meetings with the ruling coalition – CPN (Maoist Centre) and the Nepali Congress (NC) leaders, the Madhes based parties categorically said that they would part ways with the government if it did not revise the constitution amendment proposals and get it endorsed. Several representatives from Samjukta Loktrantrik Madhesi Morcha (SLMM) attended the meeting at Baluwatar. SLMM leaders told Prime Minister Dahal that they would not let the elections take place in the Tarai. It may be recalled that PM Dahal came to power after accepting a 3 point agreement that called for addressing the Madhesi concerns through constitutional amendment. The bill has become contentious with the main opposition led by CPN-UML objecting to it and the Madhes based parties finding faults with the document. PM Dahal has asked the Madhesi parties to come-up with ways to resolve the outstanding issues. The Prime Minister requires to assuage the Madhes based parties in order to resolve the deadlock.

While the government’s attempt to address the demands of the agitating parties has made no headway, the Prime Minister is also under severe pressure from leaders of NC who want the Prime Minister to honour the informal agreement and hand over the government leadership after holding polls by May 2017. Simultaneously, the CPN (Maoist Centre) wants the Prime Minister to announce the election date without any further delay. The redress of the Madhesi demands before the elections is unlikely to happen. Meanwhile, the Parliament is likely to endorse two election related bills soon and there has been a mutual understanding among the ruling parties and the Madhes based parties to revise the local level restructuring commission report. The Madhes-based parties are adamant that their demands should be addressed before the announcement of elections.


Work to begin on Agartala-Akhaurarail Link

The Northeast Frontier Railway (NFR) will commence groundwork to connect India’s Agartala and Bangladesh’s Akhaura after completion of land acquisition in April, 2017. India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and the Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region (DoNER) will fund the entire project on both the side of the boundary. An initial fund of Rs. 100 cr has already been released. The Tripura state government and the NFR have marked 67 acre land in 5 km stretch on the Indian side. Around 10 km of the railway line will fall in Bangladesh. It may be recalled that India has allocated Rs. 968 cr for the total project of which Rs. 388 crs will be spent in Bangladesh.

Bangladesh PM to Visit India after Indian State Elections

According to well-informed sources, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who was earlier planning to visit India in February 2017, may now be coming after the conclusion of the ongoing state elections in India. Even though the meeting between the two leaders might not lead to resolution of the contentious Teesta Water agreement, the visit is still being seen as an important mile-stone in bilateral relations in terms of ensuring faster implementation of projects already in the pipeline as also in exploring new areas of cooperation.

India, Bangladesh sign MOUs on Rajshahi Projects

According to the Indian envoy to Bangladesh, MoUs covering a number of development projects in Rajshahi and the neighbouring area in India have been signed as part of the connectivity drive in northern Bangladesh. Under this, India would provide financial assistance of nearly Taka 211 million for different construction and conservation projects including reconstruction of Padma library, Rajshahi Cultural Sangho, construction of footpath and restoration of temples in the city. The Land Port Authority of India has identified the Mahdipur Land Customs station for up gradation into Integrated Check Post with state of art infrastructure. Besides, the new MoU, India has also supported the construction of India-Bangladesh Friendship Building and an Information Technology Centre in the Bangladesh Police Academy in Rajshahi which is considered as the “gateway to Bangladesh/India”.


Special Presidential Commission of Inquiry for Central Bank Bond Issue

President Maithripala Sirisena has appointed a Special Presidential Commission (SPC) of Inquiry to investigate into the controversial Central Bank bond issue. His decision has been criticized by the JVP as ‘closing the stable doors after the horse has bolted’. The Central Bank Bond issue under the former Governor of Central Bank ArjunaMahendran and subsequent actions of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to shield him, has undermined the credentials of the government as the ‘champions of the good governance’. The Scam has been projected by the Joint Opposition under Mahinda Rajapaksa as ‘blatant abuse of democracy’. Even the civil society groups and people by large, who had supported President Sirisena’s candidature as the Presidential Candidate in 2015, were feeling disillusioned with such a scam under the nose of current President. It is assessed by some analysts that the scam and the way it was handled, can have bearing on local government elections and provincial council elections of three provinces scheduled in August 2017.

Sri Lankan Navy Chief Assures India on Presence of Chinese submarines:

Naval Chief, Vice Admiral RC Wijegunaratne, paid 2-day official visit to India (January 29 to February 2). He held bilateral discussions with Indian Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Sunil Lamba and other senior officials of the Indian Navy on 30 January. The visit was aimed at consolidating bilateral naval relations between India and Sri Lanka and exploring new avenues for naval cooperation. During his meetings, the Sri Lankan chief assured India that the presence of Chinese nuclear submarines in Sri Lanka was "purely economic reasons" even as India views the development with some reservation.

Naval cooperation between India and Sri Lanka has been traditionally strong, encompassing a wide range of issues including operational interactions through bilateral exercises, training, port calls, hydrographic co-operation, interactions among Special Forces, capability building and capacity augmentation initiatives. Two Advanced Offshore Patrol Vessels (AOPVs) are also being constructed for the Sri Lankan Navy at M/s Goa Shipyard Limited.

Sri Lanka Key Part of India’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ Policy

At the 68th Republic Day of India celebrations held at India House in Colombo, the Indian High Commissioner stated that Sri Lanka continues to be a key part of India’s “neighbourhood first” policy and expressed the hope that Sri Lankan businesses would take advantage of their proximity to the fastest growing major economy. India’s total development assistance commitment to Sri Lanka is now to the tune of US $ 2.6 billion, with over US $ 435 million as outright grants. The Indian flagship housing project, aiming to construct 50,000 houses, is proceeding well with over 45,300 houses constructed till date. The envoy cautioned against the threats posed by the dark forces of terrorism and stressed the necessity of defeating these forces decisively.

Sumanthiran Assassination Plot - Facts and Implications

It is reported that two plots hatched to kill Abraham Sumanthiran, a Tamil Member of Parliament, on the Soranpatru-Thaalayady road on December 12, 2016 and January 13, 2017 did not succeed due to "accidental" reasons. The plot involved exploding claymore mine while he was travelling along the Soranpatru-Thaalayadi Road in the Jaffna peninsula and it was uncovered by the Police Terrorism Investigation Department (TID). Four former Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) cadres were arrested in this connection and produced before the Kilinochchi District Judge on January 20, and were remanded at the Anuradhapura prisons. It is also suspected that the assassination plot was backed by the overseas LTTE faction headed by the Norway-based Perinbanayagam Sivaparan alias Nediyavan.

Political parties suspect that this incident signals the regrouping of the LTTE and the possibility of terrorism raising its ugly head once again in Sri Lanka. As a matter of fact, after the defeat of terrorism on May 19, 2009 several attempts were made by the leftovers of the LTTE to re-assemble and rise up as an organised group again. In 2016 a suicide vest was found in the Killinochchi area. It has not yet been discerned as to whether these developments are mutually exclusive or have some common thread with involvement of overseas Lankans. Also, this can probably bolster a perception that international governments and non-governmental organisations are trying to weaken the security net set up by the Sri Lankan government by demanding the removal of high security zones, Army camps, check points and barracks.

Joint Opposition Rally in Nugegoda

The public rally ‘Beginning of a Struggle’ (Peraliyaka Arambuma) organised by the Joint Opposition was launched in Nugegoda on January 27. The aim of the rally is to cite five key misdeeds of the government including corruption. This is an exercise by the pro-Mahinda Rajapaksa (MR) faction to create ground for his political comeback by exposing the ‘misdeed’ of the present political administration.
Addressing the rally MR criticized the government for drafting a Constitution which would divide the country and betray the historic war victory. He urged the gathering to pressurize the government to give up this new Constitution that will divide the country. The pro-MR lobby is expected to continue to organize such rallies and other events like protests to expose this government and project MR as the sole nationalistic leader who can save the country from gamut of looming challenges.


Political Developments

The fortnight witnessed two significant, though, unrelated developments in the political arena. The first was the arrival in Sri Lanka of the former President Mohamed Nasheed, on January 30, 2017. While details of his visit are not yet available, media reports suggest that the purpose of Nasheed’s visit is to discuss the future of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) with the party leaders. Nasheed had also been the former President of MDP.

It may be recalled that Nasheed, while serving imprisonment in Maldives, had gone to London and did not return, seeking political asylum instead. The Maldivian government had cancelled Nasheed’s passport. The former President had previously declared his intention to return to the Maldives before the next Presidential Election. Against this backdrop, his current visit to Sri Lanka and the proposed political discussions with MDP Leaders, will have bearing on Maldivian politics.

The second event relates to the appointment of Ms. Dhunya Maumoon as the new State Minister in the Ministry of Health. Dhunya was earlier Minister of Foreign Affairs in President Yameen’s administration before resigning in June, 2016 over conflicts of opinion over some of the administration’s policies. She is daughter of the former President and Maldivian strongman Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who has openly fallen out with his half-brother, Yameen Gayoom due to serious political differences. Her decision now to re-join President Yameen’s administration as State Minister of Ministry of Health six months afterwards, on January 5 has raised speculations of possible patch up between the two Gayooms, particularly triggered by her public statement, describing President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom’s policies as extremely effective and that under his leadership, ‘Maldives was going in the right direction despite various challenges’.