South Asia has been the fastest growing sub-region in the world despite challenging conditions; and the year 2016 has seen the South Asian region being thrust into the spotlight of global affairs. Stretching across 5.8 million square kilometres (including Myanmar), six time zones, climatic conditions ranging from temperate tundra, deserts and tropical rainforests, the South Asian region is the most diverse and densely populated region in the world. Economically, the region is seeing development on a large scale despite the relative global slowdown; however, the fruits of this economic boom manifest in very concentrated swaths of area, and there is still no progressive trend seen uniformly across the region. The demographic and ethnic diversity has opened new markets and a dynamic trade pattern that differentiates itself distinctly from the rest of the world.
South Asia is also susceptible to varied climatic and environmental forces. The Indian Ocean dictates much of the seasonal proceedings within the region along with playing the role of an economic gateway. Shipping traffic passing through the South Asian Waters have gone up to constitute nearly 30% of the global traffic. The varied factors that dominate life in South Asia have also led to a scaling up of the South Asian Association for Regional Association (SAARC). Myanmar has officially applied for membership within SAARC. Several nations have realised that South Asia has huge economic potential as well as regional security implications; as a result Australia, United States of America, China, Japan, Iran, Mauritius and South Korea have been included as observers.
South Asia sees a vast gap in infrastructure development per capita. Most nations within the region still rank very poorly on the Ease of Doing Business Index. This can be attributed to a combination of factors such as political volatility, corruption, nepotism, legal challenges, underdeveloped economic framework, unpredictable local markets and a largely unskilled work force.
The unstable political conditions in the region have led to a deviation from internationally acceptable norms and ethics in Myanmar, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal. Illegal trade of drugs, precious minerals and weapons through porous borders within the region continues to fund anti-national and religious militant groups that are party to various conflicts. The lack of employment in many areas of the region continues to feed organised and petty crime in densely populated urban centres.
The South Asian Region has seen an alarmingly increasing trend of ethnic and religious intolerance in 2016. Extremist religious indoctrination, social media misinformation, complex political motives, transforming governments, and widening economic gaps have compounded this trend. Persecution of minorities has now increased steadily in several countries. The presence of the Islamic State footprint within the region has been validated in 2016 after a string of devastating attacks in Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Taliban and other Islamic militant groups have reestablished their authority post the withdrawal of US coalition forces.
Natural disasters, both cyclic and non-cyclic have cost thousands of lives in the region. South Asia sits on four active tectonic plates; and the variable ocean temperatures and meteorological anomalies have increased the intensity and occurrence of cyclones and other storms. The region still needs to adapt to these changes in terms of infrastructure, emergency response procedures and public awareness.
India is on the road to economic revival with the GDP peaking at 7.3 percent in 2016. Radical economic policies such as the recent demonetisation and proposed GST Bill go towards more transparency within the national economy. However, cross border insurgency and terrorism continued to threaten the security of the nation throughout the year. There were attacks by Pakistan-based terrorist groups not just in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), but also in Punjab, when, on January 2nd, around four to six terrorists attacked the Indian Air Force base in Pathankot. Two army camps were attacked by terrorists, near Uri town in Baramulla district, and Nagrota near Jammu, both in J&K. India is also facing a rising number of Islamic State sympathisers, with more than 50 key arrests in different parts of the country. However, with major states such as Punjab heading for elections in February and March 2016, issues such as sharing of river waters and caste-based reservation policies; the socioeconomic and geo-political scenario in 2017 will merit careful monitoring.
The coalition government in Nepal consisting of the CPN (M) and Nepali Congress has faced an administrative logjam due to delays in rebuilding the infrastructure in the country post the 2015 earthquake; and the proposed constitutional amendment that caters for the representation of minority groups (Madhesis and Tharus). This logjam has resulted in various incidents of violence in the southern fringe provinces of Nepal and has also affected various infrastructure projects. The internal unrest has led to a shift in Nepal’s precarious relations with India and China.
In Bangladesh the ruling Awami League (AL) led by Sheikh Hasina has come under domestic and international pressure due to the trend of increasing Islamic religious radicalisation, especially in the Northwestern part of the country. Political strikes and escalations of violence spurred by the Jamaat-e-Islami party leaders have disrupted economic progress and caused widespread destruction. The Islamic State threat in Bangladesh is ever increasing, with operatives being recruited from the educated urban youth. The rejuvenated militant organisation, the Jamaat-ul- Mujahideen Bangladesh ( JMB) has forged close ties with the IS and stepped up operations in the country. Religious minorities such as Christians and Hindus have come under attack from anti-government and religious hardliner groups.
Myanmar In Myanmar, the Rohingya crisis continues to dominate the concerns of the international community. The countries citizen act does not recognise the Rohingyas who are a Muslim minority in the Rakhine state. Many within the national Buddhist population still consider the Rohingyas to be outsiders and oppose international intervention in solving the crisis. The 2008 constitution enshrines deep political powers for the military by reserving over a quarter of the parliament seats for unelected military officers, giving them an effective veto over constitution changes. Hence political reforms are slow, and despite having won the elections, the leader of National League for Democracy (NLD), Aung Suu Kyi is still barred from holding the official position of the President due to a provision in the military-drafted constitution.
The Defamation and Freedom of Expression Act has severely limited the functioning of the media and other NGO’s from operating in Maldives. President Abdulla Yameen’s recent clamp down on civil liberties has ensured that the functioning of the opposition party, the Maldives United Opposition (MUO), is curtailed considerably. The recent exit of Maldives from the Commonwealth has further isolated the country that is also at risk of soon turning into a potential source of Islamic extremists. Crime and civil unrest is at an all-time high in Male, due to the economic stagnation.
Sri Lanka has seen a relative high GDP growth rate of over 5 percent in 2016 which was however limited to the western part of the country. Much of the conflict based Eastern and North Eastern region has not seen any substantial growth due to the Sinhala- Tamil conflict. Tensions between the Buddhist majority and the Muslim minority (9 percent of the population) remain serious. In addition, Sri Lanka is facing international pressure on the issue of human rights violations; and the adoption of recommendations enabling permanent reconciliation between Tamils and Sinhalese. A high fiscal and public debt owing to the decade’s year old war against the LTTE has limited the growth of key infrastructure projects.
In 2016 Pakistan has seen over 800 fatalities in violence related activities. The Tehreek-e-Taliban have increased attacks on government targets in the North-Western provinces and major cities in reprisal against anti-militant operations. Attacks against religious minorities have increased considerably and this was amplified by the Easter attacks in Lahore targeting Christians. Shias have been targeted repeatedly by organisations such as the LeJ, TTP and the Islamic State. The Balochistan Province has come increasingly into the spotlight due to various factors including the CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor), attacks by the Balochistan Liberation Army, and attacks by the LeJ/Islamic State on security infrastructure as well as Shia shrines.The appointment of General Qamar Javed Bajwa as Army Chief is not likely to affect Pakistan’s policy towards India; nor interrupt anti-militant operations in the North West.
In 2016, Afghanistan witnessed the after-effects of the NATO withdrawal, especially in the Helmand province. The Taliban have capitalised on the reduced security cover and captured large swaths of land, and launched major offensives in Kunduz, Lashkar Gar and Tarinkot. The Afghan National Security Force, despite being trained and armed by the US, continues to face challenges in coping with the unconventional warfare of the Taliban. The Afghanistan government under President Ashraf Ghani is still in turmoil after the dismissal of seven key cabinet ministers. One of the gravest threats that Afghanistan has seen in recent months is the growing influence of the Islamic State and direct attacks on civilians. The Shia community and other minorities have been targeted indiscriminately.
Bhutan has the distinction of having the highest Gross National Income per capita in South Asia. Bhutan’s Eleventh Five Year Plan of “Self-reliance and Green Socio- Economic development” has evolved in a positive manner owing to hydropower projects and a stable Bicameral Government. Corruption levels are the lowest in South Asia and the monarchy still enjoys popular public support. Urban infrastructure management, however, is an area of concern, especially in upcoming commercial hubs such as Thimpu and Phuntsholing.
Outlook for 2017
The endemic fault lines in the geopolitical landscape of South Asia deepened further this year. New paradigms emerging from the jostling of influence by big powers like Russia, China and America in the region are bound to impact negatively on the already fragile interstate relations. The worsening of the security scenario in Afghanistan, continued terror related risks and the virtual breakup of SAARC, in the wake of rapidly deteriorating relations between India and Pakistan, will see new strategic dynamics at play, and newer regional alliances taking shape. The year 2017 can be expected to be tumultuous for South Asia with the overall security scenario showing a downward trend.
A distinguished military veteran, Col Sushil Pradhan is Director Information Services at MitKat. He has led complex security operational, logistic, audit and training assignments in Europe (Germany), Africa, Middle East (Iraq) & Myanmar. He is an accredited trainer with United Nations, an effective communicator, an analytical and accomplished regular contributor to professional journals; and speaker in several forums such as ACSG, OSAC & ASIS (West Asia). He was invited as a speaker at The China Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing in June 2015, and at the Duty of Care Conference in London in February 2016, in New York in October 2016.