VIF News Digest - Neighbourhood Studies: Pakistan, Afghanistan, PRC, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Maldives (Vol 1 Issue III)

November 15 – 30, 2017

Contents

Pakistan
State capitulates before Barelvi clerics;
Delimitation bill stuck in Senate, cloud over elections;
Nawaz breathes fire against judiciary as trial continues; Ishaq Dar quits;
Finance Minister Dar ‘quits’ after being labelled an absconder;
Imran ‘Taliban’ Khan strikes alliance with ‘father of Taliban’ Samiul Haq;
Hafiz Saeed released from detention;
Sunni ‘NATO’ holds first meeting; Iran fumes at Pakistan.

Afghanistan

US ramps up troops, airstrikes; targets heroin labs;
Increasing ISIS footprint in Afghanistan;
New connectivity project.

China

CPEC Long-Term Plan finalised, but no one knows what exactly it is;
India-China Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on Border Affairs Meeting;

Chinese Ambassador Proposes Renaming of China Pakistan Economic Corridor;
Senior military leader under investigation, commits suicide;
China and Djibouti Agree to Establish Strategic Partnership;
Li Keqiang Participates in 16+1 Summit.

Myanmar

US Secretary of State Tillerson Visits Myanmar;
China Comes to the Rescue of Myanmar and Mediates between Bangladesh and Yangon;
Pope Visits Myanmar; Avoids use of term Rohingya.

Pakistan

State Capitulates before Barelvi Clerics
The nearly three week long sit-in by Barelvi clerics who had blocked the main road connecting Rawalpindi with Islamabad was finally lifted after the Pakistan government abjectly surrendered and conceded virtually all the demands of fire-spitting mullahs. Earlier, after negotiations failed, the government tried to use force to end the sit-in. But the botched operation made the situation worse; not only did the police and para-military forces fail to lift the siege, riots broke out in various parts of the country, raising the spectre of a massive blowback by the clerics. With the Army adopting a hands-off approach - in fact the Army not only put the government and the demonstrators on the same pedestal by appealing to both sides to refrain from violence, it defied the orders of the civilian government by refusing to lift the sit-in – and the judiciary tying the hands of the government – on one hand ordering the government to vacate the sit-in, and on the other hand advising the law enforcers to not use firearms in the operation – the government was left with no option except to give in to all the demands of the new and rising religious party, Tehrik-e-Labbaik Ya Rasul Allah Pakistan (TLYR).

Quite interestingly, the guarantor of the ‘surrender document’ was a serving Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) Maj Gen. According to the terms of ‘surrender’, the law minister Zahid Hamid ‘resigned’ and the clerics very graciously agreed to not issue any fatwa against him. The government agreed to compensate for all the losses caused during the agitation, to release the report of an inquiry commission investigating the change in the declaration of candidates, and hold an inquiry into the botched operation to lift the sit-in. But a separate agreement with the Punjab government, referred to in the main document, includes lifting of all restrictions on loud speakers in mosques, declaring a public holiday on the birthday of the poet Iqbal, constituting a committee of ulemas before which the Punjab law minister will present himself to explain his defence of Ahmadis (a sort of inquisition council), and nominating two clerics on an education committee to make changes in syllabus and bring it in conformity with Islamic teachings. Although the main dharna is over, the massive defeat suffered by the State has undermined the entire governance structure and system, and it is feared that the repercussions of the capitulation by the government will be felt for years, even decades.[ Back to Contents ]

Delimitation Bill stuck in Senate, cloud over Elections

Despite the National Assembly passing with an overwhelming majority the constitutional amendment bill for fresh delimitation of constituencies, the bill has got stuck in the Senate where the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) has put a spanner in the works by stalling voting on the bill. After the provisional results of the 2017 census were released, the next general elections have to be held on the basis of the latest census data. Although the final census data will be released only next year, a political consensus was evolved to hold the 2018 polls on basis of the provisional data. Instead of increasing the seats in the assemblies, it was decided to alter the representation from different provinces keeping the total number of seats the same. This meant a loss of 9 seats for Punjab with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa gaining 5 seats, Balochistan 3 and Islamabad 1. Along with this, the constituency’s delimitation had to be undertaken. The Election Commission of Pakistan has said that it needs a minimum of 6 months to complete the exercise. This means that unless the constitutional amendment is passed latest by mid-December the elections will have to be held on the old census, or else the tenure of parliament will have to be extended by a few months, even a year.

The PPP has been holding out because it wants the government to specify the methodology of holding a re-verification exercise of the census data in 5 percent of the census blocks in every province. This is because of claims of under-enumeration, especially in Sindh and Karachi and over-enumeration in other areas. The government is trying to convince the PPP but so far the PPP has dug in its heels and refusing to compromise. According to the PPP, the Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz (PMLN) government has a habit of giving assurances which it then violates. [ Back to Contents ]

Nawaz breathes fire against Judiciary as Trial Continues

Even as the corruption references against former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his family members proceed in the Accountability Court, the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) has initiated the process for putting his name on the Exit Control List. Meanwhile, the NAB has filed an appeal in the Supreme Court to reopen the Hudaibiya money laundering case. Although the Supreme Court bench hearing the Hudaibiya case has asked the NAB to justify reopening of the case, the plea taken by the NAB is that the case couldn’t be reopened earlier because Nawaz Sharif used his influence to ensure that no appeal was filed against the judgment of the lower court. While Nawaz Sharif’s legal troubles show no sign of ending anytime soon, he has ratcheted up his strident rhetoric targeting the judges. Not only has he questioned their integrity by pointing to their legitimising dictators and taking oaths under Provisional Constitutional Orders, he has also been asking as to how ‘five people’ can oust a prime minister elected by 200 million Pakistanis. Nawaz Sharif’s attack on the judiciary is relentless and there is no sign that he has heeded the counsel of those who want him to desist from targeting the judiciary.

What might be a bigger problem for Nawaz Sharif are reports of his party members becoming skittish and extremely concerned over the state of affairs in the party, as well as its prospects in the next election if the army and judiciary turn against it. Signs of rebellion are increasingly visible and have been only fuelled by the reports of the escalating tussle between Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif. [ Back to Contents ]

Finance Minister Dar ‘quits’ after being Labelled an Absconder

Ishaq Dar has finally been eased out of the office of finance minister after the Accountability Court issued non-bailable arrest warrants against him and labelled him an absconder. Dar, who claims to be undergoing heart treatment in London, has stopped appearing in the corruption case filed against him on the orders of the Supreme Court. There was enormous pressure on Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi to remove Dar from the cabinet because he was apparently trying to run the finance ministry through ‘whatsapp’. The mounting economic crisis necessitated a full time finance minister but Dar refused to quit and Abbasi did not have the political capital or standing to sack Nawaz Sharif’s close relative (Sharif’s daughter is married to Dar’s son) from the cabinet. Finally, a lot of pressure was put on Dar to quit and he put in a leave application after which the finance portfolio was taken away from him. Technically, Dar remains a minister but no longer has any portfolio. For now, the Prime Minister is handling the finance ministry but there is some talk of an advisory council being set up to guide the finance ministry. [ Back to Contents ]

Imran ‘Taliban’ Khan strikes Alliance with ‘Father of Taliban’ Samiul Haq

Imran Khan has agreed to form a joint strategy for the 2018 elections with the Jamiat Ulema Islam (JUI) faction led by Maulana Samiul Haq, or the JUI-S who is often called the ‘father’ of the Taliban movement which emerged from his madarassa. According to Samiul Haq, there were ideological similarities in the two parties which would make it easy for them to work together. While this budding electoral alliance is aimed at putting a spoke in the wheel of efforts to revive the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), an alliance of mainstream religious parties including Fazlur Rehman’s JUI-F and the Jamaat Islami, it will also help Imran Khan take away some of the hardline vote which might otherwise have gravitated towards JUI-F. Electorally, the JUI-S has never been a very important player, but with PTI it can manage to get more seats than would otherwise be possible. The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has also given around Rs 30 Crore to Samiul Haq’s madarassa. [ Back to Contents ]

Hafiz Saeed Released from Detention

The internationally designation terrorist, Hafiz Saeed of the Jamaatud Dawa/Lashkar-e-Taiba has been set free after a review board of the Lahore High Court rejected the Punjab government’s plea to extend his detention by another three months. Saeed had been taken into custody in January 2017. Although the Pakistani authorities tried to rationalise the court ruling as an independent judicial decision, the fact of the matter is that the court was left with no option but to free Saeed in the absence of the government making a proper case against him. From the government’s side all that was presented before the court to justify his detention was that international sanctions could be imposed on Pakistan if he was freed. It was also claimed by the Punjab government that his life would be in danger if he was set free. The government however gave no evidence to back its charges against Saeed.

Immediately after his release, Saeed went on the offensive and said his release was a slap on India’s face. He accused India of funding and fuelling terrorism and extremism in Pakistan. He even accused India of using chemical weapons in Kashmir and promised that Kashmir would soon be freed from India’s control. While India reacted with fury to the news of Saeed’s release, the response of the US was even more ominous. The US State Department spokesperson called for Saeed’s re-arrest and charging him with crimes he has committed. This was followed by a statement from the White House that warned of repercussions on bilateral relations and Pakistan's global reputation if no action was taken against Saeed. [ Back to Contents ]

IMCTC holds First Meeting; Iran Fumes at Pakistan

The much talked about 41 nation Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC) held its first meeting of defence ministers in Riyadh. Alongside this meeting, the Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi visited Saudi Arabia to beef up relations between the two countries. The Saudis formally announced the appointment of the former Pakistan army chief Gen Raheel Sharif as the commander of IMCTC. According to Raheel Sharif, the alliance was aimed at building capacity of member states and improving coordination between them so that information sharing could and resource sharing could help countries combat terrorism more effectively. The alliance is very loosely structured and it is up to individual countries to decide the extent of their participation according to its capabilities and resources, as well as its desire to participate in any military operation. During his visit to Riyadh, Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, accompanied by foreign minister Khawaja Asif, Army Chief Qamar Bajwa and ISI chief Naveed Mukhtar, “endorsed Saudi Arabia’s policies in the region and assured it of Pakistan’s support in its efforts for maintaining peace and stability”. But clearly Pakistan’s participation in the IMCTC hasn’t gone down well in Iran which sees it as an anti-Iran, anti-Shia alliance. It has put paid to recent efforts by the Pakistani army chief to improve relations with Iran. The Iranians have asked Pakistan to “reconsider its decision of spearheading the Saudi-led military alliance”. [ Back to Contents ]

CPEC Long-Term Plan Finalised, but no one knows What Exactly It Is

A lot of expectations were attached to the 7th Joint Cooperation Committee meeting between China and Pakistan to kick-start the second phase of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project and unveil the Long-Term Plan (LTP) that would set the roadmap until 2030 for the ambitious project. But things didn’t quite go according to plan and significant differences seem to have emerged from the two-day meeting. The Pakistanis have rejected Chinese proposal for making the RMB legal tender in Gwadar. According to the Pakistanis this would compromise Pakistani sovereignty. The Pakistanis have also balked at the Chinese terms for financing and constructing the Diamer-Bhasha dam in the Pakistan-occupied Gilgit-Baltistan. The Chinese of course claim that the reason is more technical than financial. The ambitious Karachi Circular Railway project has been shelved for now. Instead of the earlier nine SEZs, financing for only three has been decided. Even on the $8.5 billion main Karachi-Lahore-Peshawar railway line some issues appear to have emerged after railway minister Saad Rafique said that Chinese financing wouldn’t be accepted if Pakistan didn’t get favourable terms. Considerable heart-burn was caused in Pakistan after the revelation that 91 percent of the revenues from the Gwadar port would go to China and only 9 percent would come Pakistan's way. Subsequent clarifications by officials that this wasn’t unusual and was in fact a carry forward of the old contract between the previous operator of Gwadar port and the Pakistani authorities.

Despite these issues, and Chinese concerns over political instability as well as differences over taxation issues, the LTP was approved during the meeting. According to a report in the Dawn, Pakistan's point man for CPEC, Ahsan Iqbal, said that “LTP had now finalised a comprehensive framework for bilateral cooperation, particularly towards industrialisation, value-addition and job creation. Under the framework, he added, investments would now flow to the special economic zones, while a Joint Working Group (JWG) on agriculture had been created because China had made great progress from moving out of low value commodities to technological advancements in agriculture output. He said that in view of the growing water scarcity, the JWG would work on drip irrigation techniques and transfer of technology from China”.[ Back to Contents ]

Afghanistan

US ramps up Troops, Airstrikes; targets Heroin Labs
The US has deployed 3000 additional troops in Afghanistan bringing the total number of US forces in that country to 14000. The ramping up of the troop levels is as per the South Asia policy of President Donald Trump that was unveiled in August 2017. There is also a significant spike in the air strikes carried out by the US in Afghanistan and according to one report, the number of airstrikes in Afghanistan in October 2017 was the highest in the last seven years. The year-on-year comparison reveals that as compared to 2016, there is likely to be a three-fold rise in the bombs released over Afghanistan in 2017. Interestingly, the air operations over Afghanistan are rising even as the operations against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are touching a low point. Clearly it appears that the focus of the US is shifting from the Middle-East back to Afghanistan and assets and resources are being shifted from Iraq and Syria to take the war to the Taliban and other Islamist terror groups operating in Afghanistan.

Even as US ratchets up operations against the Taliban, it has alongside started hitting the financial nerve centre of the Taliban – heroin labs – which are believed to be generating a substantial part of the financial resources of the Taliban. This new prong of attacks comes amidst UN warnings that opium production in Afghanistan has touched record levels and has almost doubled in the last one year. In a series of attacks on November 19, eight narcotics labs were bombed in Northern Helmand province. According to the US Drug Enforcement Agency, there are over 500 drug labs across Afghanistan and the new policy is not to go after poppy fields but to take out the drug labs. [ Back to Contents ]

Increasing ISIS footprint in Afghanistan

ISIS fighters are increasingly making a beeline for Afghanistan and Afghan officials estimate that around 3000 of them might have entered their country. Most of these are believed to have come from Pakistan and Uzbekistan, but there are also reports of Arab fighters entering Afghanistan. Some Taliban factions too are joining the ISIS ranks because of their extreme views. The Afghan assessment doesn’t quite gel with the US assessment of ISIS strength in Afghanistan because while the latter estimates that the ISIS has been pared down to under a thousand fighters, the Afghans are of the view that the ISIS has rebuilt itself and has become stronger. What is of even greater concern is the fact that the ISIS presence is growing in Northern Afghanistan where Uzbek fighters are relocating from Central Asia as well as Middle East.

With the rise in numbers of ISIS terrorists, there is growing internecine conflicts as well as rising clashes with the Taliban. In Nangarhar province, for example, 15 ISIS fighters were beheaded after infighting between two factions. Clashes between ISIS and Taliban have also resulted in displacement of hundreds of local people in Nangarhar province. [ Back to Contents ]

New Connectivity Project

The Turkmenistan railways has signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Afghanistan railways to overhaul the track between the two countries. Once completed, this will open Afghanistan’s access to Central Asia by linking it to the Turkmen railway system and by extension to other Central Asian countries and beyond. [ Back to Contents ]

China

India-China Border Affairs Meeting

On 17 November 2017, the 10th round of Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs (WMCC) was held in Beijing. Both sides reviewed the situation sector wise and agreed that maintenance of peace and tranquillity in the border areas was an important prerequisite for the sustained growth of bilateral relations. The two sides also exchanged views on further confidence-building measures and strengthening of military-to-military contacts. The two delegations were led by Pranay Verma, Joint Secretary East Asia, Ministry of External Affairs and Xiao Qian, Director General, Department of Asian Affairs, in the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and included diplomatic and military officials from each side. [ Back to Contents ]

Chinese Ambassador proposes Renaming of China CPEC

During an interaction with scholars of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, the Chinese Ambassador to India Luo Zhaohui offered to rename and reroute the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). He said if India joins the Belt and Road Initiative, China can consider to rename CPEC as well as build an alternative corridor through Jammu and Kashmir, Nathu La pass or Nepal. The Spokesperson of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said, “China is ready to strengthen connectivity with all neighbouring countries and promote regional economic cooperation and common prosperity". The spokesperson neither endorsed nor denied Ambassador’s statement. [ Back to Contents ]

Senior Military Leader under Investigation, commits Suicide

On 23 November 2017, Zhang Yang, former head of the political work department of the Central Military Commission (CMC) committed suicide at his residence in Beijing. Zhang Yang hanged himself in his home after authorities launched an investigation against him over alleged links to former CMC vice chairmen Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou. Zhang was the first senior military officer exposed of having engaged in corruption after the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China. He was suspected of engaging in bribery and receiving large sums of money from undisclosed sources [ Back to Contents ]

China and Djibouti Agree to Establish Strategic Partnership

Djibouti President Ismail Omar Guelleh paid a state visit to China from 22-24 November 2017. As an outcome of his visit, China and Djibouti agreed to establish strategic partnership to strengthen all-round cooperation. Guelleh is the first head of state of an African country to visit China since the conclusion of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in October. [ Back to Contents ]

Estonia, Lithuania and Slovenia Signs MoU with China

China has now signed Memorandums of Understanding with Estonia, Lithuania and Slovenia to promote the Belt and Road Initiative. This indicates that all 16 Central and Eastern European Countries (CEEC) have agreed to take part in the Belt and Road Initiative. Last year, Latvia had signed a similar document during the fifth China-CEEC leaders meeting. Hungary has already endorsed the initiative in 2015. [ Back to Contents ]

Li Keqiang Participates in 16+1 Summit

Premier Li Keqiang visited Hungry to participate in the 16+1 summit which is the framework of bilateral and multilateral initiatives concentrated in three main areas: trade, investment, and transportation networks. For China, these countries are a gateway to Western Europe and critical for the success of Belt and Road Initiative.

Addressing the meeting Li Keqiang put forward a five-point proposal to further advance 16+1 cooperation. First, he called on the two sides to expand economic and trade scale, and boost trade and investment liberalization and facilitation. Second, he encouraged the countries to speed up major projects on connectivity, promoting links through land, sea, air and the Internet. Third, he suggested that the two sides should probe into cooperation modes such as industrial parks in the areas of production capacity, energy, logistics and agriculture. Fourth, he called for strong financial support for the 16+1 cooperation. Fifth, he called on the countries to conduct more cultural and people-to-people exchanges, enhance cooperation on tourism, and start cooperation between youths, in areas of traditional Chinese medicine, sports and protection of women and children. [ Back to Contents ]

Myanmar

US Secretary of State Tillerson Visits Myanmar

In his first visit to Myanmar, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Myanmar in mid-November and met both Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing. The most important issue on the menu was to discuss the issue in Rakhine State and also to cover Myanmar’s democratic transition, which faces challenges and uncertainty, as well as the ethnic conflict in Northern Myanmar. Tillerson said the United States would consider individual sanctions against security personnel found to be responsible for human rights abuses against the Rohingya in northern Rakhine State. He was careful to avoid use of the term Rohingya which is reviled by both civilian government and the military. The secretary of state said he would not advise “broad-based economic sanctions” against the entire country, and this indeed is welcome news to the government and military leaders. [ Back to Contents ]

China Comes to the Rescue of Myanmar and Mediates between Bangladesh and Yangon
However, later on 22 November, the United States for the first time referred to the Myanmar military’s operation against the Rohingya as “ethnic cleansing” and threatened targeted sanctions against those responsible for “horrendous atrocities.”

Meanwhile, Myanmar’s military commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing had already paid a visit to China for its support. Li Zuocheng, a member of China’s Central Military Commission, said during a meeting with Min Aung Hlaing that China’s increasing development and prosperity represented an important development opportunity for Myanmar.

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Myanmar on 19 November and met with President U Htin Kyaw, State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and military Commander-in-Chief Snr Gen Min Aung Hlaing. Adopting the role of mediator, the Chinese foreign minister voiced support for bilateral negotiations between Bangladesh and Myanmar to resolve the crisis in Rakhine, instead of an international initiative. During the meetings, Wang Yi suggested a three-stage path for Myanmar and Bangladesh to work out the Rohingya crisis — ensuring a ceasefire and restoring stability, talks between the two countries to create a workable solution for repatriation, and poverty alleviation as a sustainable solution. In a meeting with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, he stressed that the international community should create the necessary conditions and a sound environment to facilitate this. China has been backing Myanmar at the United Nations and defended it from criticism over a number of issues, as it has done in Rakhine State. [ Back to Contents ]

Pope Visits Myanmar; Avoids use of term Rohingya

Pope Francis met with Myanmar’s military chief on 27 November in St. Mary’s Cathedral in the heart of Yangon. They discussed the great responsibility of authorities of the country in this time of transition. The army chief told the pope that “there’s no religious discrimination in Myanmar and there’s the freedom of religion”. Pope also did not use the word Rohingya but when he visited Bangladesh later he did use the term Rohingya inviting criticism from Myanmar. The Vatican had defended Pope Francis’s decision not to use the word “Rohingya” in public during his visit to Myanmar, saying his moral authority was unblemished and that his mere presence drew attention to the refugee crisis. [ Back to Contents ]