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NIAS Global Politics News Database
South Asia This Week (3-10 Feb 2024)

  NIAS South Asia Team


Akriti Sharma, Vetriselvi Baskaran, Sanjay Manivannan, Navinan Govindaraj, and Narmatha S

The major development from South Asia this week was Myanmar’s security personnel fleeing their posts and entering Bangladesh raising security concerns, and India’s suspension of the Free Movement Regime with Myanmar for better security against the backdrop of ongoing clashes in Myanmar between the government and insurgent groups. Additionally, its impact on the delay of the Kaladan Project between India and Myanmar. Some other regional developments were the visit of the Foreign Minister of Bangladesh to India to enhance bilateral relations and discuss regional initiatives including BIMSTEC and BBIN, the stationing of an Indian submarine at Colombo Port during Sri Lanka’s independence day, the President of Maldives claiming to boost defence after the exit of Indian troops, and a trade agreement between Nepal and Australia. The national developments include Nepal becoming the largest troop contributor to the UN Peacekeeping Mission surpassing Bangladesh, the State of Uttarakhand in India becoming the first to pass the Uniform Covil Code, protests in the Indian UT of Ladakh for statehood and constitutional safeguards, delay in the progress of  Chinese projects in Nepal, and deteriorating air quality of Dhaka. Major economic developments in the region include a decline in Bangladesh’s textile industry, Bhutan’s kerosene price hike, and Sri Lanka becoming the most expensive country for electricity rates in South Asia.

Bangladesh: Hundreds of Myanmar security personnel flee to Bangladesh
On 5 February, hundreds of Myanmar Border Guard Police fled their posts and entered Bangladesh after clashes between the Arakan Army and Myanmar security forces. The security personnel have entered through the Tombru border in Bandarban district. The Arakan Army has been fighting for autonomy from the military junta and has attacked several times during the past few months.

India: Suspension of Free Movement Regime with Myanmar
On 8 February, Union Home Minister Amit Shah stated that the government has decided to end the Free Movement Regime (FMR) with Myanmar by fencing to ensure internal security. According to the FMR, any member of a hill tribe who is a citizen of either India or Myanmar and lives within 16 kilometres of the border on either side can cross by a border pass. Both countries have an unfenced 1,643-kilometer border as people have familial and ethnic ties. In its 2011-12 annual report, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) remarked that the FMR renders the international border particularly porous, and the rugged and unforgiving terrain provides cover for the actions of numerous Indian insurgent groups (IIGs).

India: Kaladan Project at stake in Myanmar
On 09 February, The Hindu reported that Myanmar's rebel Arakan Army (AA) captured the Paletwa township near the Mizoram border in January which is now causing troubles for the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project (KMTTP). Myanmar's opposition described it as “almost died," adding, “There is no way that any connectivity project can take place in Rakhine State right now as the AA has established control in almost all the major towns and supply routes. As a result, the Kaladan project too has almost died as Paletwa is essential for this project and Paletwa is no longer in control of the military junta." It is one of the most crucial connectivity projects that aims at connecting the port of Kolkata to the port of Sittwe in Rakhine or Arakan State which will lead to Mizoram by roadways and then to the Paletwa which flows by Kaladan River.

Bangladesh: Foreign Minister’s visit to India
On 8 February, Bangladesh's Foreign Minister, Hasan Mahmud met with the External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and National Security Adviser, Ajit Doval during his first visit to India. Both sides reviewed the progress in wide-ranging areas of bilateral relations, including cross-border connectivity, economic and development partnership, cooperation in defence and security, power, energy, water resources, and people-to-people exchanges. They also discussed areas of future engagement in line with the national development goals of the two countries, including the visions of “Viksit Bharat 2047” and “Smart Bangladesh 2041”. Both countries exchanged views on regional and multilateral issues of common interest and expressed commitment to further enhance their collaboration to promote sub-regional cooperation within the framework of the BIMSTEC, IORA, and BBIN initiatives. Both sides also discussed the escalating situation in Myanmar along the Bangladesh border with Doval. The visit contributed to further strengthening the traditional, long-standing friendship and cooperation between the two countries.

Maldives: President to boost defence after India withdraws troops
On 5 February, the President of Maldives, Mohamed Muizzu, during his first parliamentary address said that small but strategically placed Maldives will strengthen its military to defend its maritime territory. He told the Parliament that Indian troops will leave by March 10 and the process will be completed within two months. He added that the Maldivian Defence Forces will be able to conduct surveillance of the 9,00,000 square kilometer Exclusive Economic Zone. On 09 February, Sun Siyam Media highlighted that the Indian government announced that it would replace its military personnel in the Maldives with "competent technical personnel." Currently, there are 88 Indian military personnel in the Maldives, providing support for military equipment given by India.

Maldives: President claims he is "pro-Maldives"
On 09 January, Sun Siyam Media reported that President Mohamed Muizzu wants to move away from the labels of "pro-India" or "pro-China" and instead focus on a "pro-Maldives" foreign policy. During the victory rally in Male, he criticized the media giants for referring to him as "Pro-China" when he won the elections. This comes after the previous administrations leaned towards either India or China, raising concerns about foreign interference. President Mohamed Muizzu promised to maintain friendly relations with all countries while respecting Maldives' autonomy and independence. Recent administrations tilted towards either India or China, leading to critiques of over-reliance on a single country. Muizzu's "pro-Maldives" approach aims to restore balance and prioritize the nation's interests in its international relations.

Sri Lanka: Indian submarine reached Colombo
On 03 February, The Hindu reported that India's naval submarine, INS karanj reached the Colombo port in Sri Lanka for a two-day visit ahead of 76th Lankan independence. A crew of 53 members commanded under Commander Arunabh, INS Karanj is 67.5 meters long. This is to strengthen the maritime relationship between the countries. Meanwhile, a Lankan news portal mentioned the event; “The diplomatic and cultural exchange during this visit contributes to the broader cooperation between the two nations in the maritime domain.” The development came after the Maldives allowed a Chinese research vessel to operate in its waters.

Nepal: Largest troop contributor to the UN Peacekeeping missions
On 08 February, the United Nations Peacekeeping mission website declared that Nepal has beaten Bangladesh in contributing troops from South Asia to the UN peacekeeping mission in terms of both military and police. As of 30 November 2023, Nepal has sent almost  6,247 military personnel to serve in the various conflict zones. Out of 6,247 troops deployed, the number of male troops is 5,645 and the remaining 602 are female. Additionally, the Nepal Army stands at the top when compared to the country's Armed police and police force. Bangladesh holds the second top position in contribution.

India: The State of Uttarakhand passed the Uniform Civil Code
On 8 February, the Uttarakhand Assembly passed the Uniform Civil Code, making it the first legislature in India to impose common rules for all communities on marriage, divorce, inheritances, and live-in relationships, except for Scheduled Tribes. The bill was passed despite the Opposition's demand to refer the Bill to the House’s select committee first. The demand for a Uniform Civil Code has been a longstanding issue in India, with arguments for its need to ensure gender equality and national integration, and against it as an attack on the right to freedom of religion and customary laws. The passage of the code in Uttarakhand is a significant development in the ongoing debate about the implementation of a Uniform Civil Code in India.

India: Protests in Ladakh demands statehood
On 3 February, Ladakh faced a complete shutdown due to thousands taking the streets demanding statehood for the Union Territory, Leh. This was jointly run by the Leh Apex Body (LAB) and Kargil Democratic Alliance (KDA). The objective of the protest is to ultimately demand statehood, protection of cultural identity, and environmental and constitutional safeguards. According to The Hindu, a member of the Leh Apex Body (LAB) said: “All parts of Ladakh were shut down. People from the China border and Nubra Valley traveled to Leh to participate in the protest. We will continue to press for our four demands.” Ladakh was separated from Jammu and Kashmir after the abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian constitution. The Ministry of Home Affairs has assigned a committee to look after the grievances.

India: Ethnic conflict in Manipur impacts Nagas
On 8 February, the United Naga Council (UNC) urged the Meitei and Kuki-Zo communities in Manipur to cease targeting the Nagas and to refrain from involving them in the ongoing conflict between the two communities. The UNC highlighted several instances of violence and atrocities committed against the Nagas, despite their declared position of neutrality in the conflict. The organization warned that if the targeting and provocation of the Nagas continue, they may be compelled to take measures such as vacating the Imphal Valley and restricting access to Naga towns and villages. The UNC also criticized the Meitei legislators and the Government of India for not preventing the attacks on the Nagas and for allowing the situation to deteriorate. The appeal emphasized the need for peace and communal harmony in the region and called for an immediate end to the violence and provocation against the Nagas.

Nepal: Key Chinese projects in delay and face criticism
On 09 February, The Kathmandu Post reported that China has recently communicated its intent to expedite at least six projects across multiple sectors in Nepal, amid criticism that Chinese-funded projects have not made desired progress. Projects such as Narayanghat-Butwal road upgrade, Kathmandu Tarai fast track, Kanchanpur-Kamala road expansion, Syafrubesi-Rasuwagadhi road building, second phase of widening of Kathmandu Ring Road, Tokha-Chhahare tunnel construction, widening of the Muglin-Kathmandu road section, and the Rasuwagadhi-Kerung cross-border transmission line have either shown dismal progress or are yet to take off. The Chinese Ambassador to Nepal conveyed to Prime Minister Dahal that a Chinese technical team will arrive soon to conduct the feasibility study of the Hilsa-Simikot road, whose passage-opening work is almost complete, and a new bridge will be built with Chinese assistance.

Nepal: Trade agreement with Australia
On 09 February, according to The Kathmandu Post, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs signed a trade and investment framework arrangement with Australia The agreement was signed by Kailash Raj Pokharel, Ambassador of Nepal to Australia, and Tim Watts, Australian Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs, in Perth, Australia. The signing ceremony was witnessed by Foreign Minister NP Saud, who is on an Australian visit, and his Australian counterpart Penny Wong. The Ministers also held a bilateral meeting to exchange views on mutual interests. The signing of the agreement is expected to strengthen the economic relationship between the two countries. Australian Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs Watts said, “Australia and Nepal are close friends, and our relationship is underpinned by deep people-to-people links- Nepali Australians are our fastest-growing migrant community.” The foreign minister is also scheduled to participate in the 7th Indian Ocean Conference and hold meetings with participating heads of delegations from different countries on the sidelines of the conference.

Sri Lanka: Opposition parties scramble for India's Attention
On 08 February, the Sri Lankan party NPP is currently on a five-day visit to India, meeting with top officials like the External Affairs Minister and National Security Advisor. This has prompted the main opposition party SJB to request a similar visit, sensing a political opportunity ahead of the presidential election. India has reportedly responded favorably to their request. This highlights the growing rivalry between the two parties as they jockey for position in the upcoming election.

Sri Lanka: Online Safety Act Amendments
On 06 February, the proposed amendments to Sri Lanka's Online Safety Act fell short from a technological perspective. Experts say they lack implementable details and violate international human rights covenants. Obtaining evidence for prosecutions may require international cooperation with tech companies, demanding a more collaborative approach. In the backdrop of mounting criticism, an official of the Public Security Ministry mentioned: “We will proceed with the incorporation of the new amendments after Cabinet approval.” Rushing through amendments without proper consultation risks eroding trust in digital platforms and hindering the country's digital economy goals. Additionally, the Act's broad powers clash with the Data Protection Act, raising further concerns.

Bangladesh: Decline in the textile sector
On 8 February, The Daily Star reported that the home textile sector of Bangladesh, which had shown significant growth in exports, is now facing a decline due to various challenges. The lingering gas crisis, volatile exchange rates, and higher production costs have led to many factories going out of business. The decline in exports has also led to a reduction in the number of active home textile mills, with only eight mills currently operational, down from 38 a few years ago. The sector is also facing increased competition from countries like Pakistan, which has benefited from a weakened currency, making its exports more competitive. The challenges have led to a significant decrease in profit margins for home textile millers, forcing many to stop taking new orders and reduce production capacity. The industry is also being affected by global events, such as the Russia-Ukraine conflict and the Gaza-Israel conflict, which have further impacted exports. The future of the sector remains uncertain, with warnings that more textile mills might close if the gas situation does not improve.

Sri Lanka: Highest electricity charges in South Asia
On 08 February, The Daily Mirror released an analysis report conducted by Verité Research on electricity costs among South Asian countries. The report said as compared with other South Asian countries, Sri Lankan households pay high electricity charges. This is seen as a major gap between Sri Lanka and other regional countries and a serious burden on the country. The research examined the tariff and cost structure in February, July, and October of 2023. The households pay around three times higher compared with other countries which is seen as a stark figure. Consuming 100 units in Sri Lanka costs LKR 5,280, while the average in South Asian countries stands at LKR 2,078. A marginal decrease in the tariff is expected in February 2024 which would reduce to 4 per cent from the present charges.

Bhutan: Hike in Kerosene prices
On 09 February, the Kuensel reported that people had been suffering as the price of Kerosene increased. Most of the households in Bhutan rely on Kerosene, especially in winter to heat houses. Last month Kerosene cost more than petrol with Nu 73.02. However, it dropped by Nu 1.52 in February. People reported that there were losses in the business, and some were unable to afford and adapt to the harsh climate. Reports said that prices have increased from Nu 40 per litre in 2020 to Nu 54 in 2021, reaching close to Nu 100 in 2022, and fluctuating between Nu 70-80 in 2023.  The BOD employees point out that the cost fluctuations for oil in India are the cause of price hikes in Bhutan.

Sri Lanka: India to supply LNG to Sri Lanka by 2025
On 8 February, the CEO of Petronet LNG Ltd. said it would start to supply LNG to Sri Lanka by 2025. The company is said to send 850 tonnes of gas daily in containers for five years. Petronet plans to construct a Floating Storage Regasification Unit (FSRU) in Colombo for the shipment of gas. It hopes to get approval for the FSRU from the Sri Lankan government by 2025 and expects the facility will be built by 2028.

Bangladesh: Deteriorating Air Quality in Dhaka
On 09 February, The Daily Star reported that Dhaka ranked sixth on the list of cities worldwide with the worst air quality, with an AQI score of 179. The city's air was classified as “unhealthy”, according to the air quality index. When the AQI value for particle pollution is between 101 and 150, air quality is considered "unhealthy for sensitive groups", between 150 and 200 is "unhealthy", and between 201 and 300 is said to be "very unhealthy". A reading of 301+ is considered "hazardous", posing serious health risks to residents. The impact of air pollution on health, with a focus on the estimated seven million annual deaths worldwide due to air pollution-related causes.

About the authors
Akriti Sharma is a doctoral scholar at NIAS.  Vetriselvi Baskaran, Sanjay Manivannan, Navinan Govindaraj, and Narmatha S are postgraduate scholars at Madras University.

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