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

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

May, 16-31, 2017


Legal Troubles Mount for both Sharifs and Imran Khan

The political temperature in Pakistan spiked with both the main political rivals - Nawaz Sharif and his family on one side and Imran Khan on the other - facing legal setbacks, the Sharifs in the Panama papers investigation by the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) appointed by the Supreme Court (SC) and Imran Khan in the political funding case that is being looked into by both the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) and the Supreme Court.

The JIT commenced its investigations as mandated by the Supreme Court by seeking transcripts of speeches and statements made by members of the Sharif family on various occasions. They also started recording statements of some witnesses and sent a questionnaire to the Qatari prince who had furnished the controversial letter trying to explain the source of funds for the properties of the Sharif family in London. Statements by members of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League - Nawaz (PMLN) expressing reservations over the proceedings of the JIT probe suggested the growing discomfiture of the Sharifs with the JIT. Complaints by Tariq Shafi, a cousin of the Prime Minister and one of the crucial witnesses in the Sharifs case, of mistreatment by JIT officials only seemed to confirm that the Sharifs were not happy with the way matters were proceeding. This became apparent after Hussain Nawaz, the elder son of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, filed a formal complaint with the SC objecting to two of the six members of the JIT, who he alleged were politically aligned and therefore prejudiced against the Sharif family. The court however rejected his objection and Hussain Nawaz had to appear before the JIT which questioned him for over two hours. Hussain Nawaz was not allowed to be accompanied by his lawyer. The first round of questioning ended with Hussain Nawaz seeking more time to submit comprehensive answers to all the questions of the JIT. But the fact that the PM's son had to appear before the JIT and the rejection of the Sharifs objections to two members of the JIT is being seen as a serious setback to the Sharifs case.

While Imran Khan tried to milk the unease in the Sharif camp to his political advantage, and even went to the extent of calling Nawaz Sharif a security risk for Pakistan, legal troubles have been mounting for him, which could even end up in his disqualification and the deregistration of the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf (PTI) by the ECP. The issue dogging Imran Khan and some of his closest associates is twofold: one, explaining their financial dealings and the prima facie violation of law in not disclosing their assets, including ironically enough an off-shore company which is exactly what is haunting the Sharifs; two, and even more serious is the alleged violation of election laws in terms of foreign funding for the party. Imran Khan's legal strategy so far had been one of delay and obfuscation. But the space for this has increasingly got constricted over the second fortnight of May 2017 after even the SC bench wondered at the reluctance of Imran Khan to disclosing his accounts before a constitutional body like the ECP which is holding hearings in a case filed by a founding member of the PTI. The defence offered by the PTI in the case has been quite weak and is more based on whataboutery i.e. others are also guilty of the same offence, and that he wasn't a public servant etc. But none of this seemed to impress the SC bench hearing the case which resolved to get to the bottom of Imran's and PTI's financial records. Many lawmakers have been disqualified in the past on mere technicalities of not disclosing an account or a particular asset and therefore for Imran to seek immunity from infractions that others have been held liable for and punished, doesn’t really hold much water, at least not legally. Politically, however, there is little to suggest that Imran's core support base is affected by the cases against him.

The important thing is that if the Panama papers case manages to ensnare the Sharifs then chances are that Imran too will be made to suffer the consequences of his tardiness in disclosing his assets and following the letter of law in receiving foreign donations. Disqualifying a sitting PM while showing leniency to his adversary is clearly not going to wash down well with the legions of Sharifs supporters who are already accusing the institutions of being soft on PTI. Although this sort of legal discrimination and skullduggery has been done by the superior courts in Pakistan in the past, it will take some doing with a popular PM like Nawaz Sharif. Disqualifying both Sharifs and Imran could however create a massive political vacuum and therefore seems unlikely. The third option is that both the protagonists will be exonerated after a rap on the knuckles.

Dar Presents an Election Year Budget

Finance Minister Ishaq Dar presented the fifth and likely to be the last budget of the PML-N government before the next general elections. A day before the Budget was presented, the Economic Survey for 2016-17 was issued. According to it, Pakistan managed to register the highest growth in ten years, clocking a 5.3% rise in GDP. The economy is believed to have crossed the $300 billion mark and per capita income registered an over 6% jump and is estimated to be $1629. This last number is a little intriguing because even if the 5.3% GDP growth number is accepted (independent economists are skeptical over the claim of Ishaq Dar), with a population growth of over 2%, per capita income registering a 6% growth appears a little strange. Be that as it may, the biggest worry for the Pakistan economy is that despite claiming a healthy growth which is putting the economy on the take-off stage, the old structural imbalances have still not been addressed. The current account deficit is ballooning with exports falling to just $17 billion and imports rising to over $38 billion. With remittances not keeping pace and foreign aid on a bit of a drip, there is speculation that Pakistan could once again be heading for a bailout to the IMF. Alongside the current account deficit is the saving-investment deficit with savings falling to just 13.1% of GDP and investment rising to 15.8% of GDP. The public debt of the government has also risen and is around Rupees 19 trillion. The Economic Survey has claimed that Pakistan lost $3.8 billion in combating terrorism last year and the total losses incurred by Pakistan in the War on Terror have accumulated to $123 billion.
The Budget for 2017-18 has an outlay of Rs 4.75 Trillion with a deficit of 4.1% of GDP. For the first time, the public sector development program has crossed the Rs 1 trillion mark. The gross tax revenue is estimated at Rs 4.33 Trillion and non-tax revenue at Rs 980 billion making a total revenue estimate of Rs 5.31 Trillion. But after provincial transfers of Rs 2.135 Trillion the total resources available for the Federal government are Rs 3.175 Trillion. Out of this Rs 1.363 Trillion will go into debt servicing, Rs 138 billion in subsidies, Rs 377 billion for government and administration and Rs 980 billion for defence. The defence budget however doesnt include Rs 180 billion for pensions, Rs 180 billion towards contingent liabilities and Rs 86 billion of Coalition Support Funds that come from the US. Add these and the total defence spending comes to Rs 1.426 Trillion! This means that debt servicing and defence together consume almost the entire federal government revenue.

ICJ case setback causes heartburn and recriminations

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruling in the Kulbhushan Jadhav case, which went totally against Pakistan's stand, caused a lot of heart-burn and lots of recriminations against the Nawaz Sharif government from not only the opposition parties but also the community of analysts. Ironically, many of the analysts who before the ruling were boasting about the merits of Pakistan's case and how well the Pakistani side had argued its brief, started complaining how ill-prepared Pakistan was in presenting its case before the ICJ. On every single count, including maintainability of India's case and the urgency in the Jadhav case to prevent any miscarriage of justice, the court ruled in India's favour. Nawaz Sharif's detractors accused him of ensuring that a weak case was presented and linked it with back-channel diplomacy which was allegedly conducted by Sajjan Jindal, an Indian businessman and a personal friend of the Pakistani PM. The ridiculousness of this allegation was only surpassed by laments of bias against a Muslim country. And then there were complaints over why Pakistan didn’t appoint its own ad-hoc judge in the case.

Post the ruling, the official reaction from Pakistan was fairly predictable. There was the expected defiance about how Pakistan wasn't bound by the ruling, how there was precedence of countries ignoring the ICJ rulings, and how Pakistan would give primacy to its own laws instead of following the ICJ ruling. But at the same time, more sober sections in Pakistan pointed to how it wouldn't be easy for Pakistan to flout the ICJ ruling - after all, Pakistan wasn't the US - and why Pakistan was on the wrong by denying India consular access to Jadhav. For Pakistan, the unkindest cut of all was the refusal of the ICJ to even see the forced confession of Jadhav. The failed attempt to use the forum of ICJ for propaganda purpose was painted by the embedded media as a sign of the anti-Muslim bias of the ICJ.

While the main case is still to be decided by the ICJ, chances are that the Pakistanis will avoid taking any precipitate action against Jadhav, either pending the final ruling of the ICJ or even after that ruling. While the Pakistanis are likely to continue making all the noises about Jadhav meeting his fate, they will desist from taking any action that is irreversible. The Pakistanis are aware that the consequences on relations with India of any major and irreversible miscarriage of justice against Jadhav. But until Jadhav remains a major political scoring point and the rhetoric around him remains high, chances of any mutually acceptable deal between India and Pakistan on this issue remains very unlikely.


Second Phase of Local Polls Rescheduled for June 28

On a representation submitted by Muslim organisations that the second phase of the local bodies election on June 23 was coinciding with the Ramadan, the government has decided to re-schedule the polling for June 28, 2017. Meanwhile, government’s move to increase the number of local units in the Tarai region on the basis of population by adding 22 local units in 12 Tarai districts as demanded by the Rashtriya Janta Party–Nepal (RJPN) and some other Janjati parties, was blocked by Supreme Court on Friday the 26th of May on grounds that changing the number and boundaries of local units in the midst of 2 phase of elections was contrary to the local level Elections Act 2017. Hence the government decided to amend the Election Act 2017 to allow the RJPN enough time to provide names and signatures of the party officials to the Election Commission for its participation in the polls. With the deferment of polling now to June 28, these parties are likely to participate in the 2nd phase.
Communist Party of Nepal–United Maoist Leninist (CPN-UML) Vice Chairman Bhim Bahadur Rawal alleged that Nepali Congress (NC) and Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist Centre (CPN-MC) were reluctant to hold the second phase of civic polls fearing its results. He insisted that the 1st phase of polls were held at his party’s insistence and his party would force the government to conduct the second phase of polls too.

Deadline for Government Formation Nears - NC Leader Deuba Leads the Race

As the 7-day deadline of June 1, 2017 given by President Bhandari to elect a consensus government nears, NC has formally laid claim to lead the new government during an all-party meeting called to discuss the next cabinet formation process. NC’s Parliamentary Party Leader, President Sher Bahadur Deuba is the undisputed candidate from the biggest party in the House to lead the next government.The third and fourth largest political forces, the CPN-MC and the Rastriya Prajatantra Party respectively, responded positively to Deuba’s claim.

Speaking at the meeting, outgoing Prime Minister and Maoist Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal said his party would extend the support to NC on the basis of an understanding made between the two parties last year. The Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) Chairman Kamal Thapa said his party would not have any objection to the Congress leadership, adding further discussions could decide if his party would join the next government. Other fringe parties which had joined the Dahal government said they would extend support to NC President Mr Deuba.

CPN-UML, the main opposition, however, boycotted the meeting since it has reservations on policy issues. In another development, RJPN leader Laxman Lal Karna has said that his group will not support the NC’s bid to form a consensus government unless it agreed to implement the three-point understanding between the Federal Alliance, the Nepali Congress, CPN- Maoist Centre signed last year.

NC and CPN-MC ask Speaker to Drop Impeachment of Chief Justice

The impeachment motion filed against Chief Justice Sushila Karkiwas withdrawn on 29th May 2017 following NC and CPN-Maoist Centre deciding not to proceed further with the impeachment motion that was filed by as many as 249 law makers on April 30. It may be recalled that the Supreme Court had on May 5 ordered not to move forward the motion as it was ‘not in sync with the constitutional fervor and spirit’.

The accusation against Chief Justice Karki was her alleged interference in the appointment of Nepal’s Police Chief, breaching the Constitution and failing to fulfill her duties from the post of Chief Justice.


Cyclone ‘Mora’ hits Bangladesh

Cyclone Mora hit the Bangladesh Cox’s Bazaar coast, leaving a trail of destruction in Sadar Upazila, Teknaf, Maheshkhali and Kutubia. Till last reports, 7 persons were killed and around 20,000 houses damaged in the cyclone. While the administration has rushed food and other supplies for the cyclone affected people, activities at the Mongla port have remained suspended. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has claimed that government’s quick response reduced the damage and averted major disaster. Hasina has further assured rebuilding of houses and other establishments damaged by cyclone. Two Naval ships have been placed in Kutubia and Teknaf, the worst affected areas to carry out the relief work. Further, helicopters have been deployed to carry out relief operations in the remote areas. The water resources ministry and the power sectors have been ordered to work more efficiently and restore power in the affected areas.

Sri Lanka

Catastrophic Flooding and Mudslides Strikes Lanka

Since May 26, incessant south-western monsoon hit the Sri Lanka followed by which massive flooding and mudslides began swamping the southern and western areas of the country. The Disaster Management Center as on May 31 confirmed death of 202 people. More than 77,000 have been displaced and over 1,500 homes destroyed since then. Nearly 100 people are still missing, and more than 80,000 people remain in relief camps. This is the worst flood that Sri Lanka has faced since 2003.

India, the first country to respond, dispatched three Navy ships with emergency supplies to help Sri Lanka in the rescue and relief operations. INS Kirch operating in South Bay of Bengal was immediately diverted to Colombo. The ship carried medical and diving teams along with Gemini crafts and helicopters. INS Jalashwan sailed out from Visakhapatnam on May 27 with Humanitarian Assistance Disaster Relief (HADR) stores which include victualing, clothing, medicines and water. INS Shardul arrived in Colombo on May 30, bringing relief supplies including rice, lentils, sugar, milk and blankets for the displaced. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi condoled the loss of lives and property while reasserting India’s solidarity with “our Sri Lankan brothers and sisters in their hour of need.” The United Nations was also donating water purification tablets, tents and other supplies, and the United States, China and Pakistan also promised relief supplies.

Mudslides have become common during Sri Lanka's summer monsoon season as forests across the nation have been cleared for export crops such as tea and rubber. Another massive landslide a year ago killed more than 100 people in central Sri Lanka. The weather has begun to clear from May 28 onwards, and many of the more than 100,000 people who are evacuated had returned home to begin clearing debris and mud from their waterlogged homes. Meanwhile the tropical storm that had unleashed these downpours has moved farther north and destroyed hundreds of coastal homes in Bangladesh.

President Sirisena Reshuffles Cabinet:

In the first major cabinet reshuffle since he assumed office in 2015, Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena swapped the portfolios of ten ministers including Foreign and Finance Ministers. Since early this year, political circles in Colombo were speculating on a likely Cabinet shakeup, amid apparent differences within Sri Lanka’s first national unity government, formed by the traditionally-rival Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the United National Party (UNP). This reshuffle comes amid mounting political pressure from a breakaway faction of President’s political party. While the UNP and the SLFP continue holding the portfolios formerly with them, all eyes were on the switch between the Foreign and Finance Ministers. “This Cabinet reshuffle will provide a new impetus to Sri Lanka’s development”, President Sirisena said in a statement. Great care was taken to maintain a balance between the UNP and SLFP in the re-shuffle. Thus the swearing in ceremony saw a fifty-fifty ratios being kept between both parties. Five among the ten, who took oaths belonged to or had contested on the UNP ticket. They were Mangala Samaraweera, Ravi Karunanayake, Gayantha Karunathilaka, Tilak Marapana and Arjuna Ranatunga.

Mangala Samaraweera, who served as Foreign Minister from January 2015, took over the Finance and Media portfolios, while Ravi Karunanayake — who was Finance Minister – will now handle External Affairs. Widely regarded a successful Foreign Minister, Mr. Samaraweera played an important role in renewing Colombo’s relations with key international actors, including Washington DC and New Delhi, following an evident pro-China tilt under ex-President Mahinda Rajapaksa. His diplomatic outreach is said to have helped Sri Lanka obtain a politically crucial two-year extension for post-war reconciliation efforts, at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in March. More recently, the European Union restored GSP + benefits to the country that is regarded as a big diplomatic victory.

According to some political analysts, Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake was the primary target of “Operation Reshuffle”. President Sirisena also removed former cricketer Arjuna Ranatunga from the Ports Ministry, shifting him to the Petroleum Ministry. This is an important development because earlier Mr. Ranatunga has voiced concern over the government’s move to ink a deal with China to develop a deep-sea port in the southern town of Hambantota.

Increase in Communal Tensions as Muslims Face New Wave of Violence

There has been a recent spate of attacks against mosques and business establishments owned by Muslims and the resurgence of anti-Muslim verbal attacks by the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS). Muslim Ministers and MPs in the Government would meet President Maitripala Sirisena to discuss action that should be taken against anti-Muslim sentiments. Eastern Provincial Council member, Shibly Farooq has remarked that “If the Muslims of this country are to lose their patience the country will face dire consequences”. Muslim MPs are suggesting that nothing had been done by this Government so far to curb religious and communal hatred. President Maithripala Sirisena during that Cabinet meeting stated that the politically defeated elements were behind the recent communal stir in order to discredit his Government.

A similar situation prevailed during the last three years of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s regime, where not only Muslim religious places but also Christian churches and Hindu temples had also been attacked. But with the new government coming to power in January 2015, the extremist groups almost vanished from the scene despite their repeated warning earlier of a threat of extinction of Sinhala race and Buddhism at the hands of the minorities, especially the Muslims. However, the BBS has sprung into action all of a sudden since last month, with inflammatory speeches by its leader Ven. Galagodaatte Gnanasara Thera and a wave of communal invectives in the social media and physical attacks against Muslims in various parts of the country spreading.

Against the backdrop of the Sri Lanka sponsored UN Human Rights Council resolution having insisted on the prevention of recurrence of communal tension, the US and UK governments had expressed concern over the heightening threats against the minorities. It is evident through the Tamil media that the Muslim community is fast losing confidence in the Yahapalanaya Government for which they voted en-masse at the last Presidential and the Parliamentary elections.

SAARC, BIMSTEC Inactive, Ineffective: CBK

Former Sri Lankan President Chandrika Bandarnaike Kumaratunga (CBK) has slammed the SAARC and BIMSTEC for not doing anything to solve the regional crises. Delivering a lecture in Dhaka, CBK pointed out that both of these regional organisations failed to resolve any political problems”. She said during her time as Lankan President at a summit in Maldives, she along with the then Maldives President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom slightly changed the language in the founding document of SAARC so that it could discuss bilateral or trilateral issues.‎ Yet SAARC has not been able to do anything to the political problems (of any member state).“I would say the same for the BIMSTEC,” she added, referring to the grouping that connects South Asia with Southeast Asia and which is being seen as an alternative to SAARC as Pakistan is not a member of that grouping.


Maldives to Join IORA Soon

President Yameen Gayoom has decided on the Maldivian participation in the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IORA). The decision was made following a Cabinet meeting on May 25. At the meeting, Cabinet members noted that membership of IORA would facilitate resolving issues of piracy, terrorism, and other security concerns in the Indian Ocean.

President Yameen Attends Arab Islamic American Summit

President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom attended the ‘Arab Islamic American Summit’ held in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on May 21. The President was on an official visit to Saudi Arabia on the invitation of the Custodian of King Salmaan Bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud. The aim of the summit is to establish an Arab Islamic-American Alliance in the fight against terrorism. Leaders from more than 50 Arab and Islamic states from around the world met the US President Donald Trump at the summit “to renew their collective commitment to confronting the threat of violent extremism and global terrorism”.