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EFSAS Commentary

After the disillusionment and gloom of the past year, a brief take on South Asia in the upcoming year


Some of the stories and visuals from South Asia that have filled screens across the world in the year just gone by have been nothing short of harrowing. The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan from a war-weary United States (US), which gave the impression in the dying stages of its exit of being completely sapped of all its erstwhile intent, exuberance and optimism, was nothing short of surrender by a much vaunted international coalition before a conglomerate of motley terrorist groups under the banner of the Taliban. For those naive many that had begun to harbour hopes that the two-decade-long near normalcy that the US and the international coalition had brought to Afghanistan would take roots and persist well into the future, the re-take of Kabul by terrorists was a bitter pill to swallow. Equally painful were the images of the power hungry and dictatorial military junta in Myanmar unleashing inhuman brutality against its own people and killing thousands mercilessly just because they dared to question the junta’s illegal and humiliating dismissal of their will expressed through a bona fide electoral process. Other countries of the region also had their fair share of violence and troubles, and the explosive COVID-19 wave that engulfed and devastated the region in the spring and summer of 2021 was heart-rending. It brought to the fore the importance of prioritizing peace across the region, and the dire need to focus attention and resources into critical sectors such as health and education, rather than on guns and their destructive like. In this fresh new year, whether or not the lessons from 2021 are taken on board could dictate how 2022 plays out in South Asia.

Over the last couple of months, the tumultuous times that ordinary Afghans have had to endure has taken a turn for the worse. The victorious Taliban have begun to reveal and express their true selves. They have dismantled and done away with the Election Commission of Afghanistan, saying that there was no need for such a body to exist. Their message was clear – they see no role at all for the people of Afghanistan in the governing of Afghanistan. They have prevented girls from attending school and have ordered women not to venture out without a male chaperone in tow. Even as they took these draconian steps, the Taliban excelled in demonstrating that they actually had no clue on how a country ought to be run. The Afghan economy is in shambles and a humanitarian crisis is threatening to explode. Out of jobs and businesses, hundreds of thousands of Afghan families are on the brink of starvation. No country is willing to recognize or do business with a bunch of terrorists who suppress their own people. Not even Pakistan, the benefactor of the Taliban and its primary promoter in the international arena, is willing to do so although it has been liberally proffering the unsolicited advice to all and sundry in the rest of the world that they accept the Taliban and hold it in an embrace.

Substantial issues such as engaging with the Taliban are only likely to get more complex and take much longer to resolve. This is because other than a couple of regional powers that have taken baby steps towards the Taliban but have dared not venture any further, the really relevant international players are in no hurry to include the terrorist outfit’s leaders in their midst. Also, the Taliban’s earlier claims of being a softened and less conservative version of its earlier self has been exposed as hallow and deceptive untruth by each regressive action that the group has taken since seizing power. The Taliban has once again established a repressive, autocratic State that has carried out more than a hundred targeted killings and abductions of former Afghan officials, severely limited girls’ education, banned women from many workplaces, silenced local journalists, and beaten female protesters in the street with whips. 

Other substantial issues, though, are too pressing to be allowed to linger and need to be acted upon immediately. The devastating humanitarian crisis that has been unfolding in Afghanistan over the past few months has assumed mammoth proportions. Reports indicate that over twenty million Afghans are on the brink of famine and the rudimentary healthcare system that the country had developed over the last two decades is on the verge of collapse with the Taliban unable, or unwilling, to even pay the salaries of medical workers. A robust international response to this grave humanitarian crisis is what should be the focus in 2022. The international community, especially the US, must be assessed and judged by how far it will be willing to go to fulfill the undoubted responsibility that it has towards the Afghan people. Early signs have been encouraging, and through its biggest ever global appeal for a single country the United Nations (UN) is attempting to create a multibillion-dollar fund to avert famine in Afghanistan in 2022. A recent meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) also saw countries pledging funds to Afghanistan. It may, now, be an opportune time for the US to release the billions in frozen Afghan government funds back to the struggling people of Afghanistan, even if through humanitarian organizations if the Taliban route is understandably not an option.

On the eastern periphery of South Asia, Myanmar continued to burn throughout 2021. How difficult the year was for Myanmar can be gauged by the fact that an issue as weighty as that of the Rohingyas got relegated deep into the background as news of the horrific excess by the junta and stories of resistance by civilians and armed groups alike dominated the narrative. The junta has turned Myanmar into a killing field and continues to murder and detain activists and other civilians across the country, with tens of thousands displaced from their homes by the junta’s campaign of terror in the countryside. Despite this, the junta has so far failed to consolidate its grip on the country and opposition to the February 2021 coup remains fierce and is only likely to strengthen in 2022.

The international community has so far failed the people of Myanmar completely. As Aung Zaw wrote in The Irrawaddy, “The junta continues to act like an occupying force, much like the British and Japanese forces during the colonial period, who with total impunity implemented a scorched-earth policy in which anything that might be of use to the enemy was destroyed. Last year, the Myanmar people experienced these same horrors at the hands of their own military; they resisted and they are not giving up now. Having realized that their early hope of international intervention was misplaced, Myanmar’s people have decided it is time to take up arms to oppose the brutal regime... Images of smoldering corpses, some with their limbs tied, have shocked the world but there has been little action to match the expressions of concern”.

Although the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) did show some spine last autumn in uncharacteristically nudging the junta to mend its ways, the gains from that brief period of bravado have come under threat as Cambodia’s strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen is scheduled to begin a two-day visit to Nay Pyi Taw today. Cambodia recently took over the rotating chairmanship of the ASEAN, and many believe that this trip will only serve to legitimize the brutal coup leaders. Meanwhile, even as his Prime Minister was gearing up for his meetings with the generals of the junta, Cambodia’s Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn, who has also been appointed ASEAN’s special envoy on Myanmar, described the outlook in the country as dire. He said, “The political and security crisis in Myanmar is deepening, and has led to an economic, health and humanitarian crisis. We feel that all the ingredients for civil war are now on the table. There are now two governments, there are several armed forces, people are undergoing what they call the civil disobedience movement and there is guerrilla warfare around the country”.

For the people of Myanmar, unfortunately, more strife and bloodshed lies ahead in 2022 even as the many global champions of democracy remain in a Rip Van Winkle-like slumber. Just as Rip Van Winkle slept through the American Revolution and woke to a radically different world, if they do not jolt awake quickly enough the custodians of democracy may well be looking at a radically altered world order a few years down the line. Meanwhile, Prak Sokhonn, refuting the suggestion that Hun Sen’s visit would legitimize the junta, asserted that the visit aimed “to pave the way for progress” by “creating a conducive environment for inclusive dialogue and political trust among all parties concerned”. If what Sokhonn has predicted does indeed happen during and following Hun Sen’s visit, it will be the best outcome one can wish for Myanmar in 2022.

Bangladesh, once best known for its military coups and frequent natural disasters, has made great strides over the past decade to evolve into a country confident and successful enough to recently announce $200 million in aid to a struggling Sri Lanka. Bangladesh is the second-largest economy in South Asia, only behind India, and the 41st-largest in the world. It is projected to rise to the world’s 28th-largest economy by 2030. The average growth rate in the country over the past two decades has been about 7%. Strong female labor participation in the Bangladeshi economy has been one of the hallmarks of the counytry’s progress. Politically, despite Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s mode of operations raising some eyebrows, the country is by and large seen as stable. The success of the Sheikh Hasina regime in keeping the once abundant and freely operating terrorist and extremist groups in check has engendered confidence in the economy and earned the appreciation of critical partners, including India and the US. Bangladesh has entered 2022 as an influential player in the region, and it could enhance its standing even more were it to recognize in the run up to the general elections that are due in 2023 that providing space for political opposition to exist has considerable merit in a democratic system and that overenthusiastic suppression of dissent often proves counterproductive.

Sri Lanka, at the start of the new year, is in dire straits. The country announced a national emergency in August 2021 as it ran short of a massive $80 billion in State revenues. COVID-19 and disastrous government decisions have led to unprecedented economic contraction and plummeting foreign exchange reserves. As The Guardian observed, Sri Lanka is facing a deepening financial and humanitarian crisis with fears it could go bankrupt in 2022 as inflation rises to record levels, food prices rocket and its coffers run dry. The World Bank, meanwhile, has estimated that 500,000 people have fallen below the poverty line since the beginning of the pandemic, the equivalent of five years’ progress in fighting poverty. One of the most pressing problems for Sri Lanka is its huge foreign debt burden, in particular to China. It owes China more than $5 billion in debt and last year took an additional $1 billion loan from Beijing to help with its acute financial crisis. In the next 12 months Sri Lanka will be required to repay an estimated $7.3 billion in domestic and foreign loans, including a $500 million international sovereign bond repayment this month. However, as of November 2021, available foreign currency reserves were just $1.6 billion. As Sri Lanka fights to stay afloat economically, it would do well to shed some of the policies of the strongman President Gotabaya Rajapaksa that have contributed to the polarization of society along religious and ethnic lines. A united Sri Lanka may have the strength and resolve to overturn the serious economic crisis, but a divided country won’t.

India had a mixed 2021, with a particularly severe COVID-19 outbreak devastating the country in spring. It bounced back through an economic revival driven by public spending on infrastructure, including big-ticket road, railway, port and airport projects. 2022, similarly, is also likely to be a year of mixed fortunes for India. The democratic spirit in the country will be aglow with elections due to be held in several states of the country. Economic growth is expected to continue, and the country is likely to ramp up efforts to meet its commitments to the climate cause. However, Chinese belligerence and propensity to unilaterally alter territorial boundaries has meant that tensions along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) have persisted despite several rounds of talks aimed at resolving the issue. In the troubled region of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), terrorism has again begun raising its ugly head. The political process is stalled, and the delimitation of electoral constituencies that was recently carried out in the region has led to consternation in the Muslim-majority Kashmir valley. A mixed year could turn into an excellent one for India if ways could be found in 2022 to bridge the growing distance between New Delhi and Srinagar with the aim of arriving at acceptable solutions that incorporate the wishes of the people of the region.

Pakistan has spent most of 2021 on the brink of bankruptcy. Given its deep indebtedness to China and its gross inability to handle its finances in a responsible manner, it is likely to remain on similar edge throughout 2022. Prime Minister Imran Khan’s popularity has taken a beating as his party’s recent electoral loss in its stronghold of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has demonstrated, and the military establishment seems to be disillusioned with Khan. Extremist groups have been dictating to the meek government, which has time and again succumbed to their pressure. On the foreign policy front, Pakistan may have succeeded in getting its proxy the Taliban back into power in Kabul in 2021, but 2022 may yet turn out to be the year of reckoning for Pakistan’s Afghan misadventures as the fallout of the crisis in Afghanistan spills over across the Durrand Line. Furthermore, Pakistan is likely to cede more of its sovereignty to China as it gets further buried under the weight of Chinese loans. Pakistan’s continuing support to terrorist groups is also likely to remain under close watch.

We, at EFSAS, were privileged to host an interview with the renowned Pakistani human rights activist and politician Afrasiab Khattak, a towering personality who despite constantly being subjected to threats, attacks and intimidation has continued to fearlessly pursue his mission of peace and democracy in defiance of the hostile military establishment. The vision of a truly democratic Pakistan that opposes terrorism in all its manifestations and in which the rights of every human being is accorded the respect that it deserves, in essence the vision of Afrasiab Khattak’s Pakistan as painted in the interview, is what would be most heartening to see as the country eases into 2022.       

As for South Asia as a whole, EFSAS’ one defining wish for 2022 is for an end to the rising divisiveness that has gripped much of the region, which, if left unchecked, could spew sinister outcomes that would prove very difficult for anyone to manage.