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

Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka & Maldives
Sep 16-30, 2017
Pakistan

Nawaz Claws Back with By-Election Win, new Election Law

Despite the unseemly haste and inopportune timing with which the Supreme Court of Pakistan dismissed the review petition of Nawaz Sharif in the Panama Papers case one day before the by-election for Nawaz Sharif’s constituency NA-120 Lahore, the ruling Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PMLN) candidate and Nawaz Sharif’s wife Kulsoom Nawaz won the election, albeit with a much reduced margin. The PMLN however was jubilant over the verdict and projected it as the defeat of the forces arraigned against the Sharif family. The victory was also portrayed as a rejection of the Supreme Court verdict against Nawaz Sharif. The main opposition candidate of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) gave her own spin and claimed that her defeat was the result of misuse of government resources and foul play.

The victory in the by-election was seen as a shot in the arm for Nawaz Sharif. Despite all sorts of speculation and rumour that he will not return to Pakistan to face the accountability courts, he did return and presented himself before the court. The grapevine is that his decision to return followed confabulations with the new Prime Minister as well as with his brother Shahbaz Sharif who shuttled between Lahore and London, apparently carrying messages and assurances which finally helped Nawaz Sharif make up his mind to return. Other analysts however claim that Nawaz Sharif was always going to return and all the stories that it took a lot of convincing to make him return were only stories. There was also talk that Nawaz Sharif’s relative and Pakistan's finance minister, Ishaq Dar, who too is facing a corruption reference in the accountability court, dug in his heels and refused to return to Pakistan without Nawaz Sharif. Apparently he refused to take the fall alone and bear the brunt of the accountability trials.

Meanwhile, the legal difficulties of the Sharifs increased further after the Lahore High Court ruled in favour of making public the report of the one-man judicial commission investigating the police firing on Allama Tahirul Qadri’s Pakistan Awami Tehrik (PAT) headquarters in Model Town Lahore in 2014. Fourteen people had been killed and over a 100 injured in the incident. The report apparently indicts the Shahbaz Sharif government and has not been released by the Punjab government. Many analysts feel that this report could sound the death knell of the Shahbaz government and even lead to his imprisonment. The Punjab government has challenged the LHC ruling and so far the report has not been released. Yet another legal setback came when the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) filed an appeal in the Hudaibiya Paper Mills Money Laundering case before the Supreme Court. This case is widely regarded as the mother of all cases against the entire Sharif family and involves not just the Nawaz Sharif wing of the family but also the Shahbaz Sharif wing of the family.

The one bright spot for Nawaz Sharif was the passage of the Election Bill 2017 which removes the legal impediment in his remaining the president of the PMLN. While the National Assembly had cleared the bill, there was a lot of drama in the Senate where the bill was passed by the narrowest of margins after some opposition senators switched sides and some mysteriously went missing at the time of voting. With the bill all set to become law, Nawaz Sharif will once again assume the post of president of the PMLN. But the law will also allow for leaders of other parties who could face disqualification in the future to remain heads of their respective parties.

Jihadist Parties Announce their Arrival

The by-election in Nawaz Sharif’s home constituency NA-120 made waves not just because of the PMLN’s victory but also for the fairly strong showing by two extreme right-wing, jihadist parties – the Jamaat-ud Dawa/Lashkar-e-Taiba’s political wing Milli Muslim League (MML) and the extremist Barelvi party, Tehrik Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) – who between them took around 12% of the vote. While the TLP got over 7000 votes, the MML got over 5000 votes and came 3rd and 4th respectively, worsting the Pakistan People’s Party which with only around 2000 votes came 5th. Interestingly, the candidates backed by the TLP and MML fought the election as independent candidates but with the full backing of these parties. The MML candidate, Mohd. Yaqoob Sheikh, had been listed as a terror financier by the US State Department. The emergence of these two parties is seen as the mainstreaming of the jihadists by the Pakistani military and ‘deep state’. The ruling PMLN has however expressed serious concern over the political role being given to the jihadists and other mainstream political parties have expressed similar concerns. The jihad project of the Pakistani state is also being seen as many observers as an instrument to ensure that the verdict in the next general election is split, which will then allow the ‘establishment’ to play puppeteer. The fact that there is a move underway to once again forge all the religious parties into an alliance for the next election – harking back to the 2002 polls when the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) emerged as a big force – suggests that the Pakistani ‘establishment’ is now sold on getting the Islamists into politics in a big way. Even if the Islamists and jihadists don’t win too many seats, they will certainly play the role of a swing factor in the next elections and muddy the waters for most of the mainstream parties.

Tussle for Leader of Opposition Fizzles out, for Now

A move by some of the opposition parties led by the PTI and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) to replace the Leader of Opposition (LOP) in the National Assembly appears to have fizzled out for now. The LOP is currently from the largest opposition party, PPP. But the PPPs hold over the LOP position is tenuous and other things remaining the same, on paper at least if the PTI, MQM, Jamaat Islami and some other opposition parties gang up, they can outvote the PPP and grab the LOP position. The position is important because constitutionally the Prime Minister has to consult with the LOP for making critical appointments like NAB chief, Election Commissioners and Chief Election Commissioner etc. The PTI fears that the PMLN and PPP could reach agreement on some of these appointments – the incumbent NAB chief is due to retire soon and his replacement has to be picked – and confront them with a fait accompli.

The problem for the PTI is that it is not able to cobble together the numbers, in part because the numbers on paper are different from the numbers in the House, and in part because the PPP is manoeuvring to ensure that it will be able to get the numbers by a bit of sleight of hand – for example, the Jamiat Ulema Islam of Fazlur Rehman could walk out of government, sit on the opposition benches and vote for PPP and then return to the treasury benches. Even otherwise, merely getting the LOP won’t be of much help to the PTI because if there is a deadlock between the government and opposition, then the matter goes to a parliamentary committee in which the PMLN and PPP will be able to get their nominee appointed. Not surprisingly then, the PTI which seems to have made a Faustian bargain with its bete noire, MQM, has realised that this move will earn it a bad name among its core constituency without yielding any major benefit. As a result, for now at least, the move seems to be fizzling out.

Spy vs. Spy

The civil-military tension in Pakistan has spilled over in the administrative domain as well and its impact is most apparent in the tussle between the civilian controlled Intelligence Bureau (IB) and the military-run Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). While selected leaks by the ISI taking pot-shots at the IB have been happening ever since the constitution of the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) to probe the Panama Papers case, things took a much more nasty turn after a very junior level officer – an Assistant Sub-Inspector – of the IB filed a petition in the Islamabad High Court against his own department and its senior officers alleging that they were in close contact with intelligence agencies of other countries and undermining the security of Pakistan. The ASI petitioned the court to order an ISI inquiry into the charges being levelled by him. Apparently, he handed over a sealed envelope to the court containing ‘evidence’ against the IB officers and the presiding judge found enough substance in the material given to not throw out the case unceremoniously.

While the antecedents of the ASI are very suspect – he has been a habitual offender of discipline and has even been hauled up for extortion – the big question that many are asking is how a low level officer could gain access to very sensitive information which is way above his pay grade. The finger of suspicion is pointing in the direction of the ISI and analysts believe that the murky record of the ASI made him susceptible to some blandishment and arm twisting by the ISI to embarrass the IB. The reason, of course, is that the IB is seen as a potent instrument in the hand of the civilian government and over the last few years has managed to block many of the tricks that were played on the civilian government.

The court case was followed by a report that the IB had prepared a dossier on nearly 40 politicians, including cabinet ministers and the deputy speaker of the National Assembly, who were supposed to have close links with terrorist organisations inside the country. This report was made public by a TV journalist who is well known for being a mouthpiece of the ISI, especially when it comes to targeting the Sharif family. The report caused a huge furore and despite denials by the IB and a clarification by the government that the report was a fabrication, it did manage to create cracks in the ranks of the ruling party. Meanwhile, Imran Khan fired a broadside against the IB chief, alleging that he had been confabulating with the disqualified former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in London.

All these developments came even as the name of the IB chief has been recommended by the ruling PMLN for the post of the Chairman of the anti-corruption watchdog, NAB. Although the IB chief enjoys a very good reputation, these developments appear to have been designed to target him and ensure that his chances for becoming the NAB chief are snuffed out. But more than the damage caused to the IB chief, the damage to the civil-military relations and to the image of the country has been substantial. After all, reports that intelligence officers are hobnobbing with hostile agencies and international terror groups, coupled with reports that top politicians are working hand in glove with terrorists have only reconfirmed the reputation of Pakistan as an epicenter of terrorism.

US-Pak Re-Establish High-Level Contact, Ice Breaks but Freeze Continues

The deep freeze in relations between the US and Pakistan that followed the announcement of the new South Asia policy of US President Donald Trump, thawed a little during the visit of Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and his foreign minister to New York for the UN General Assembly session. Prime Minister Abbasi met the US Vice President Mike Pence in what was described by the Pakistanis as an ‘ice-breaker’. The meeting paved the way for re-establishing contacts at the level of top officials and follow up meetings will not only include a visit to Washington by the Pakistani foreign minister, but also visits to Pakistan by top US officials as well as members of the Trump administration.

But there is as yet no clear roadmap on how both sides will take things forward. For their part, the Pakistanis are setting some ground rules of engagement to convey a message to the Americans that their access to top leadership will be restricted and they will no longer have a run of Islamabad as in the past. The Pakistanis are following a blow hot-blow cold strategy in the dealings with the Americans. At one level they are making all the right noises, impressing upon the Americans their utility in the war on terror, the folly of using military means instead of diplomacy and politics to end the fighting in Afghanistan, assuring the Americans of their bona fides etc.

But at another level, the Pakistanis are baring their fangs and sending the message that if the US takes the tough line then Pakistan will start by limiting diplomatic relations with the US (partly this will be done by strictly following protocol and one example of this came after the defence minister Khurram Dastgir refused to meet the CENTCOM chief Gen. Joseph Vetel during the latter’s visit to Islamabad), follow this up by reducing cooperation on terrorism related issues and finally stopping all cooperation on Afghanistan.

The Americans on their part are playing good cop-bad cop routine. The State Department, Pentagon, National Security Council and the CIA are making both conciliatory and hostile noises. The Americans are sending out the message that they have many options that they can exercise to pressure Pakistan. The grapevine is that during the meetings between Pakistani and US officials, there was plenty of plain-speaking and that the Americans clearly told the Pakistanis what they expected from them. The Americans have also carried out the first drone strike inside Pakistan in the Kurram Agency against the Haqqani network. The strike is seen as a sign of US muscle flexing. The response from the Pakistani side was extremely muted, quite a change from earlier times when the Pakistanis would scream and shout after each drone strike. All in all, it seems that despite desperate efforts by the Pakistani officials to convince the Americans to desist from taking any precipitate action in the region, they have received much traction for the line they are selling.

Afghanistan

Rockets Rain as Mattis Visits Kabul; Afghans Welcome US Resolve

Taliban terrorists fired a barrage of rockets at the Kabul airport during the visit of US Defence Secretary James Mattis to the Afghan capital city. The attack however did little to change the renewed US commitment to Afghan security. Mattis made it clear that the US wasn’t going anywhere in a hurry. An additional 3000 US troops are being deployed in Afghanistan to beef up the security in the country. Afghan security forces have also started receiving Black Hawk helicopters which will address a deficiency that had hobbled the operations of the ANSF. There are also reports of the Afghans reviving the old plan to arm around 20,000 civilians and creating civilian militias to confront the Taliban. Meanwhile, the Pakistanis have once again started wooing the Afghans and there is lot of talk of renewed engagement between Afghan and Pakistani officials to try and put the relationship back on track.

Nepal
Nepal Completes Local Level Elections

The third and final phase of local level elections in Nepal were completed on September 18, 2017 with polling held in 136 local units of 8 Tarai districts in Province 2. Results of all 136 local levels in the Province have been declared. The Nepali Congress has secured 40 wins, followed by Sanghiya Samajbadi Forum securing 26 seats. The Rashtriya Janata Party-Nepal has done well by securing 25 seats closely followed by Maoist Centre winning 21 seats. Communist Party of Nepal Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML) could win only 18 seats. The remaining seats went to Nepal Loktantrik Forum (3), Nepali Janata Dal (2) and Naya Shakti Party Nepal got 1 seat.

UML likely to forge Electoral Alliance with CPN (MC)

The Communist Party of Nepali Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML) leader Madhav Kumar Nepal has insisted on the necessity of an alliance among the left forces in the upcoming federal & provincial elections. The leader mooted the idea of a high possibility of his party forging an alliance with the CPN (Maoist Centre). He further said that if the Maoist Centre was ready to forge electoral alliance with the CPN-UML, his party was also ready. (Later developments and reports have since confirmed the forging of alliance by the left parties on October 3, 2017)

PM Deuba Visits New York

Prime Minster Deuba visited New York (September 19-25, 2017), to attend the 72nd Session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) which he addressed on September 23, 2017. He was accompanied by a high powered 20-member delegation comprising Minister for Women, Children and Social Welfare Asha Koirala, Foreign Affairs Advisor to Prime Minister Dr. Dinesh Bhattarai, Foreign Secretary Mr. Shankar Das Bairagi, and the permanent Representative of Nepal to the United Nations in New York.

On the sidelines of UNGA, PM Deuba held bilateral meetings with the President of Afghanistan Mohammad Ashraf Ghani, President of Sri Lanka Maithripala Sirisena, Prime Minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina and Prime Minister of Pakistan Shahid Khaqan Abbasi on September 21.

Deuba also Visits United Arab Emirates and Oman

After attending the UNGA meet, Deuba visited Abu Dhabi on September 25 for a day and left for Muscat, Oman. He was accompanied by Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Krishna Bahadur Mahara, Minister of Labour and Employment Farmullah Mansoor, Minister for Women, Children and Social Welfare Asha Koirala and Nepali Ambassador to Oman, Sarmila Prajuli alongwith other high ranking officials. Oman’s Deputy Prime Minister Sayyid Fahad Bin Mohmood Al-Said along with 10 other ministers received the Nepali Prime Minister at the airport. He also interacted with the Nepali ambassadors based in the Gulf region to discuss measures to find lasting solution to the plight of the Nepali migrants.

Nepal and the Sultanate of Oman signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on establishing a bilateral consultation mechanism between their ministers of Foreign Affairs. As Nepal and Oman mark the 40th anniversary of the establishment of the bilateral ties, the conclusion of the MoU reflects the determination of the two governments to enhance and deepen mutual relations in various spectrums of cooperation particularly economic, cultural, technological, scientific and educational. Through this platform, bilateral meeting will be organized in future. The MoU comes into force from the date of its signature for a period of five years and shall be renewed automatically.

China Expects to become Nepal’s Key Stake Holder

Speaking at a ceremony in Kathmandu on September 24 to mark the 68th Anniversary of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, Chinese Ambassador to Nepal Yu Hong expressed the view that China that Nepal’s advancement on the developmental path with sound implementation of Constitutional will pave the way for political stability in the country. The ambassador added that the recent visit of Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Mahara to Beijing translated into a successful extension of cooperation in all sectors namely transportation post-earthquake reconstruction, business, investments energy and tourism. It may be mentioned that Mahara and Vice President Nanda Bahadur Pun had visited China in July and Parliament Speaker Omari Gharti Magar participated in the 2017 Euro-Asia Economic Forum in September.

Bangladesh

Rohingyas Influx into Bangladesh: 480,000 and still Counting

The United Nations Security Council met behind closed doors on September 26, 2017 to discuss the violence in Myanmar moving to step up its response to the mass exodus of 480,000 Rohingyas. This meeting will set the platform for a public session of the top UN body during which UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres will brief on the crisis. International alarm is growing at a very fast pace with regards to the fate of the Rohingyas fleeing the Rakhine state. The mass exodus followed the attacks on August 25 by militants on police posts.

Nations, globally seek a strong and united response from the Security Council to exert pressure on the Myanmar authorities. Several Right groups have accused the Security Council of dragging its feet on Myanmar and have denounced the exodus as crime against humanity. The Human Rights watch’s UN Director Lou Charbonneau has asked the Council to consider an arms embargo against Myanmar military and targeted sanctions against those responsible for ‘criminal campaign’ against the Rohingyas. The Human Rights Groups felt disappointed at Aung San Suu Kyi’s stand on the crisis. Security Council may adopt a formal statement if the situation worsen. Here China and Russia are unlikely to agree to stronger action that would require the adoption of a resolution they could veto. It has been reported that Myanmar was negotiating with China and Russia to ensure their support in the Security Council.

The numbers of Rohingyas who have fled recently have increased by 45,000 over the last few days. Between the new arrivals and some previously existing Rohingyas in Bangladesh, there are roughly over 8, 00,000 refugees living in Cox’s Bazar area of Bangladesh. UN Refugee Agency has called for redoubling of international humanitarian response in view of the deteriorating condition of the refugees. UNHCR has flown in its fourth humanitarian airlift of 100 metric tones of aid on the 25 of September and two more aid flights are being scheduled.

Pressure on Bangladesh to accommodate the Rohingyas has increased tremendously. The government has eased restriction on private aid groups to facilitate their work in Cox’s Bazar camps. Bangladesh’s NGO Affairs Bureau Director Shahdat Hossain recently cleared 30 local and international groups to meet “emergency needs” in the camps. Off late Bangladesh has deployed dozens of emergency medical teams and sent reinforcements to hospitals in Cox’z Bazar. The authorities however, fear a Muslim influx that could tempt extremist groups to enter the country as refugees.

According to reports, a team from Myanmar will be shortly arriving in Bangladesh to discuss the issues. The team is likely to be led by Kyaw Tintswe, Minister of the Office of State Counselor. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has recently proposed creating UN supervised safe zones inside Myanmar to protect the Rohingyas fleeing the military crackdown.

PM Sheikh Hasina Raises Rohingya Refugees Issue at UNGA

Speaking at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) on September 21, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina raised her concerns over the exodus and the problems in sheltering over 800,000 forcibly displaced Rohingyas from Myanmar. She said that the ongoing atrocities and gross human rights violations in Myanmar’s Rakhine state had aggravated the situation at the Bangladesh-Myanmar border. She urged Myanmar to immediately stop, what she described as “ethnic cleansing” and requested the UN Secretary General to send a fact finding mission to Myanmar. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina further proposed of creation of “safe zones” under the UN supervision inside Myanmar to protect all civilians, irrespective of their religion and ethnicity. She further called for ensuring ‘sustainable return’ of all forcibly displaced Rohingyas to their homes in Myanmar, adding that the recommendations of Kofi Annan Commission Report be immediately implemented unconditionally and in its entirety.

Prime Minister announced a contribution of $ 100,000 from Bangladesh to United Nations Peace Building Fund (UNPBF). She further announced a contribution of $ 100,000 to the exploitation and Abuse Victims Support Fund.