[This article was first published here on The Huffington Post]
South Asia is often described as the most dangerous place on earth and the most promising emerging market – both in the same breath. The year 2011 illustrated in ample measure the implausible irony.
The biggest international story of the year, according to The Associated Press’ annual poll of US editors and news directors, was the killing of Osama Bin Laden in his hideout in Pakistan on 2 May.
Coming close on the heels of a serious diplomatic row between the US and Pakistan over the issue of Raymond Davis, an alleged CIA operative, killing three men in the busy streets of Pakistan’s second biggest city Lahore in late January, Pakistan brought frequent – and hugely unwelcome – spotlight to the South Asian region during the year.
The year of turmoil, which was preceded by the country losing hosting rights of many sporting events including South Asia’s biggest sporting event, the ICC Cricket World Cup, ended with one of the most public spats in recent history between the democratically elected government and the omnipotent Pakistan military.
In a spat that could spell serious trouble for the fragile democracy of the nation, President Asif Ali Zardari is alleged to have sought US assistance to quell a possible military coup in the aftermath of Osama’s killing. Called the ‘Memogate Scandal’, for the unsigned memo – allegedly crafted by former ambassador to the US Hussain Haqqani – that was used to convey the Pakistani request to the US administration, the matter has taken the scalp of Haqqani and dragged both Zardari and chiefs of military and Pakistan’s secret service agency Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) to nation’s supreme court.
Conflicts like these have in the past acted as the precursor to military rule in the country, which the nuclear-armed nation has been under for more than half the period of its independence from British rule in 1947. Though the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, decisively denied on 22 December the possibility of any extra-constitutional measure against the democratic system, a cursory glance at the nation’s volatile history informs that the military usually manages to have its way.
Unfortunately, Pakistan was not the only South Asian nation where dead bodies talked the most during the year. Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal grappled with the aftermath of armed conflicts of recent history, even as India played host to a fleeting visit by terror in 2011.
A tribunal, headed by Nizamul Haque Nasim and known as ‘International Crimes Tribunal’, was formed in March 2010 in Bangladesh to hold trial of those accused of their involvement in ‘crimes against humanity’, including genocide, murder and rape during the nine-month ‘Liberation War’ – the period between declaration of Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan in March 1971 and attaining freedom with India’s military help against Pakistan in December 1971. Many unofficial accounts put the figure of dead people at three million and those of women raped at 200,000. Hundreds of thousands of other, the then, East Pakistanis ended up as refugees in India.
Following up on the formation of the tribunal, the nation took its first step towards addressing that dark chapter of its young history when the police arrested three top Jamaat-e-Islami leaders in June 2010, two of which were cabinet ministers in the 2001-06 Bangladesh National Party (BNP) administration of the present opposition leader and then prime minister of Bangladesh, Begum Khalida Zia.
Khaleda Zia, in a statement to press, said that the tribunal is “nothing but a servile, rubber-stamp organisation” out to victimise the government’s political opponents.
The tribunal began its first trial in October this year when it charged Delwar Hossain Sayedee, a top authority of Jamaat-e-Islami and allegedly one of the leaders of a pro-Pakistan mercenary group, with involvement in the killing of more than 50 people, torching villages and forcibly converting Hindus to Islam.
Sayedee, who denies the charges, could be given the death penalty if found guilty.
International observers have cautiously welcomed the trials. With neutral researchers noting that about 1800 people collaborated with the Pakistani army in committing the ‘war crimes’, many more arrests in the case are expected.
In another case involving war in the SAARC region, to the south-west of Bangladesh, the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) of Sri Lanka submitted its final report to the government on November 20. Established by President Mahinda Rajapaksa in May 2010 to look into alleged war crimes committed during the final days of the 26-year-old civil war in Sri Lanka that ended with the defeat of the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) at the hands of the Sri Lankan army in May 2009, the LLRC – expectedly – exonerated the Sri Lankan government of any wrong doings between 21 February 2002 to 19 May 2009.
The commission is not recognised by most of the international rights groups because of its failure to satisfy the fairness and transparency criteria. But the Sri Lankan government, which has steadfastly resisted vociferous global support for external accountability mechanisms such as the UN Secretary General’s Panel of Expert, said that the LLRC report is impartial and objective, and would be presented verbatim at the next session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in March 2012.
Up north in the Himalayas, the erstwhile monarchy and the presently constitution-less fledgling democracy of Nepal struggled, for another year, to draft a new constitution and pave the way for a stable democracy.
On 28 November, members of parliament extended the Nepalese parliament’s term for a fourth and final time to allow the drafting of a new constitution that adheres to a peace accord brokered between political parties and the Maoist rebels, after the civil war ended in 2006.
Formed in 2008 after Nepal relinquished its monarchy, the current 601-member parliament, or Constituent Assembly (CA), was given an initial two-year mandate to write a new constitution for the young republic.
But three years since, the CA has not been able to produce even a first, consolidated draft. The previous three extensions of the assembly – first for a year and then two of three months each – failed to resolve differences between the various political parties on issues like federalism, presidential or prime ministerial formats and election procedures.
But the nation made some progress in what it called the ‘regrouping process’, entailing the re-integration of the cadre of Nepal’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in the mainstream Nepalese society. PLA was the military wing of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (UCPN-M) when the party was at civil conflict with the Nepalese monarchy.
19,500 PLA combatants who were living in a total of seven cantonments in different parts of the country after the commencement of the peace process in 2006 began appearing before a committee on November 18 to register their choice of either joining the Nepal army or taking a voluntary retirement.
The process is seen is one of the only successes of Nepalese democracy since the abolition of constitutional monarchy in 2006.
India, the SAARC nation that has the biggest stake in the Nepalese peace process, meanwhile continued to answer its own geo-political needs – supporting the Maoists in Nepal, while going after the group in India and gunning down one of its biggest leaders, Kishenji.
Indian analysts, however, point out that there is no contradiction in the approach, as while the Nepali Maoist are now firmly in the Himalayan nation’s mainstream polity, the Indian rebels are still caught in the time warp of trying to overthrow the government to establish their own ideological republic – through the barrel of a gun.
The South Asian giant, however, faced none of the security-related anxiety of the other SAARC nations mentioned in this year-end wrap; barring a jolting bomb blast outside a court premises in New Delhi. But it was kept on the tenterhooks by another kind of challenge – that of popular anger.