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NIAS Global Politics News Database
South Asia This Week (25 Mar- 01 Apr 2024)

  NIAS South Asia Team

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

A major development from the region was India’s release of a second-term of grant to Bhutan for infrastructure development followed by visits of the Prime Ministers of both countries. From India, the major development was the Minister of External Affairs visit to Southeast Asian countries of Singapore, the Philippines, and Malaysia. Additionally, the protests in Ladakh were ongoing to demand constitutional safeguards and statehood. Also, Myanmarese organisations urged the Manipur government not to deport Myanmar refugees back to the war-torn country unless they wish to return.

In Pakistan, a major development was a suicide attack in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province killing five Chinese nationals. Additionally, the security forces claimed that they had swiftly intercepted an armed terrorist attack on the PNS Siddique, a naval airbase near Turbat of Balochistan city. The outlawed Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) claimed that its Majeed Brigade was behind the attack.  Also, the federal government pushes strategic projects along with the provincial government after the provincial projects dry up from the national kitty in January. A special polio eradication campaign will be commenced in seven districts of Punjab. 

From Sri Lanka, a major development was speculation around the election date. There is a high likelihood of elections being conducted in October this year. Additionally, the central bank cut saving and deposit rates to boost the economy. In Maldives, after the current President’s spat with India and his strategic tilt towards China, former President Solih advised President Muizzu to be less stubborn and mend ties with neighbours indicating huge losses that have occurred after his diplomatic spat with India. In Nepal, a major development was negotiations on the recovery of Nepalese people employed in Russia and the Ukraine army. In Bangladesh, the pirates have demanded USD 5 million for the release of 23 Bangladeshi crew members who were held captive on the ship MV Abdullah.

India: Second tranche of INR 500 crore given to Bhutan for infrastructure development
On 27 March, The Hindu reported that the second tranche of INR 500 crore earmarked for Bhutan’s GyalSung Project has been released by India. This comes in the wake of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s two-day visit to Bhutan that concluded on 23 March during which he reiterated India’s strong support for Bhutan’s infrastructure development. India has agreed to give INR 10,000 crore for the same over the next five years. The first tranche of INR 500 crore was handed over on 28 January this year. The Prime Minister of India said: “We will soon see our initiatives for a new airport for better air connectivity, rail links between Kokrajhar-Gelephu and Banarhat-Samtse, and waterways navigation on the Brahmaputra. To strengthen trade infrastructure, we will build integrated check posts (ICPs).”  

India: External Affairs visit to Singapore, Philippines and Malaysia
On 25 March, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar concluded his official visit to Singapore, as the first leg of his visit to Singapore, the Philippines, and Malaysia. In Singapore, he had several bilateral engagements with the leadership and senior Ministers of the Cabinet. He called on the Prime Minister of Singapore, Deputy Prime Minister, and Finance Minister. They exchanged views on deepening engagement in fintech, digitalization, green economy, skills development, and food security. He held comprehensive discussions with the Minister of Foreign Affairs on bilateral, regional, and global issues of mutual interest. In the Philippines, the External Affairs Minister called on the President of the Philippines and briefed President Marcos about recent developments in the India-Philippines partnership and on the joint initiatives to further fortify bilateral ties. He also met with the Secretary of Foreign Affairs of the Philippines and discussed progress made in bilateral cooperation since the fifth meeting of the Joint Commission on Bilateral Cooperation. Both countries reviewed the entire spectrum of engagements including political exchanges, trade & investment, defense & maritime security, development partnership, healthcare & medicine, agriculture & food security, education, infrastructure, engagements in new technologies, and people-to-people exchanges. In Malaysia, the Minister met with the Prime Minister of Malaysia and thanked him for his support in deepening bilateral ties under the India-Malaysia Enhanced Strategic Partnership. He also met with the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Malaysia. The two leaders held wide-ranging discussions on bilateral cooperation including political, trade and economic, defence, digital, culture, and education.

India: External Affairs Minister visits Manila, reassures India’s support to Philippines sovereignty
On 26 March, External Affairs Minister Dr S. Jaishankar visited Manila, where he stated that India supported the Philippines' sovereignty. The comments come in the backdrop of heightened Philippines-China tension over reported incursions of the Chinese Navy and Coast Guard into the sovereign waters of other countries in the South China Sea region. Vietnam and Indonesia have also raised voices against the same. He added that the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Seas has to be seen as the “constitution of the seas” and all parties “must adhere to it in its entirety, both in letter and in spirit.” The Chinese responded to these comments, stating: “Maritime disputes are issues between countries concerned. Third parties have no right to interfere whatsoever.” China is also keenly observing the sale of Brahmos missiles to the Philippines by India. Further, he discussed trade and capacity-building in digital infrastructure, India’s naval deployment in the Red Sea against Houthi militia, issues regarding the Indo-Pacific, Myanmar, and the Ukraine war with the Philippines’ Foreign Minister Enrique Manalo during the visit. 

India: Ladakh continues protest to ensure constitutional safeguards
On 26 March, climate activist Sonam Wangchuk ended his 21-day hunger strike for demanding constitutional safeguards for Ladakh. He was quoted by The Hindu and said: “It was for 21 days. From tomorrow, women’s groups will start their fast and will be followed by youth, then monks and so on,” He urged voters to “use their ballot power very carefully this time in the interest of the nation” He added: “Citizens are the kingmakers. We can compel a government to change their ways or change the government if that doesn’t work,” Ladakh has been protesting for its longstanding demand of ensuring statehood for the UT, inclusion in the sixth schedule, and one seat in the Rajya Sabha. The demands were put forth in 2019 after the abrogation of A-370 and the separation of Ladakh as a UT from Jammu and Kashmir.

India: Six insurgents killed in Chhattisgarh
On 27 March, The Hindu reported the Police saying “At least six alleged Naxalites were killed in an encounter with security forces in Chhattisgarh’s Bijapur on Wednesday morning,” Out of the six, two were from women cadres. The gunfight took place in the forest areas of Pusbala and Chikurbhatti. A joint security personnel team was sent on an anti-naxal operation. The police recovered the bodies and a large number of arms and ammunition while the search operation was still ongoing. So far in 2023, around three dozen Maoists have been killed.

India: Chinese presence in mineral-rich Indian Ocean tracts prompts response from India
On 26 March, The Hindu reported on India’s application to the International Seabed Authority (ISBA) in Jamaica regarding the rights to explore two tracts in the Indian Ocean seabed that do not fall within India’s jurisdiction. The Afanasy Nikitin Seamount, one of these regions, is a cobalt-rich crust located about 3000 km off the Indian coast. However, Sri Lanka has already claimed these regions under another set of laws. An anonymous official said to The Hindu that India’s application for access to these regions is also motivated by reports of China conducting reconnaissance in the same area. 

India: Myanmar-based Organisation asks Manipur government to reconsider refugee deportation
On 25 March, The Hindu reported that a Myanmar-based organisation had urged the Manipur government not to deport Myanmar refugees back to the war-torn country unless they wish to return. According to them, those who return will most certainly face conscription. On 8 March, the Nongthombam Biren Singh government began the process of returning 77 Myanmar refugees, deporting eight of them. In a statement made on 24 March, the Burma Refugees Committee - Kabaw Valley expressed concern that they might be handed over to the military regime. According to the group, Myanmar implemented the People's Military Service Law on 10 February. The group added, “We are extremely worried that handing the Myanmar nationals over to the junta would prompt the military regime to use them as human shields on the battlefields.” The group urged the Manipur government to reconsider the deportation plan on the grounds of socio-political and humanity.

Pakistan: The federal government pushes strategic projects along with the provincial government
On 28 March, Dawn reported that the federal government is pushing for “strategic nature projects” along with the provincial government besides the formation of “synergies among the provinces through an integration of provincial projects.” This move comes as the provincial projects dry up from the national kitty in January. A working paper for the forthcoming meeting of the National Economic Council (NEC) ahead of next year's budget read: “Federal and provincial projects in sectors such as health, education, infrastructure, urban services, agriculture, industries, etc., are generally implemented in isolation. There is no cross-learning between provinces and federal government and between provinces themselves that, reduces the efficiency of such investments when viewed with a lens focused on national economic growth goal.” It states that similar projects are implemented using different methodologies with different funding sources. It further argued that “Integration of such projects can help the provinces achieve economies of scale and optimise public investment spending.” Dawn further reported that the draft National Development Framework (NDF) will be taken up by the NEC in two months for financing of strategic projects. 

Pakistan: Suicide attack in KP kills five Chinese nationals
On 26 March, according to Malakand's deputy inspector general of police (DIG) five Chinese nationals and a Pakistani woman were killed in a suicide bombing near Bisham city in northwest Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Briefing about the incident, the DIG asserted that a suicide bomber collided his vehicle that had explosives into the Chinese nationals’ car. The official in charge of Rescue 1122 station in Bisham Sheraz Khan said: “The area was engulfed in smoke as the bus that had fallen into the ravine was on fire.” Following the attack, the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) asserted that with the help of Pakistan’s ally China, the military had pledged to ensure accountability of all the components comprising the terrorism aid. The military media wing in a statement said: “Certain foreign elements are complicit in aiding and abetting terrorism in Pakistan, driven by their vested interests. Despite the veneer of innocence, these elements are being continuously exposed as sponsors of terror.” The ISPR further added that the two attempts were successfully intercepted by the Pakistani security forces, however, the recent resulted in causalities. 

Pakistan: Majeed Brigade targets Turbat naval base 
On 25 March, the Security forces claimed that they had swiftly intercepted an armed terrorist attack on the PNS Siddique, a naval airbase near Turbat of Balochistan city. The outlawed Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) claimed that its Majeed Brigade was behind the attack.  Makran Commissioner Saeed Ahmed Umrani asserted that heavy exchange of fire and explosions were reported near Turbat.  He said: “The armed men attacked from three sides of the airport boundary, but security forces responded immediately and foiled their attempt to infiltrate the premises.” The Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) in a statement said: “Synergetic and effective response by the armed forces enabled the killing of all four terrorists in the ensuing joint clearance operation.” Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif lauded the swift move of the security forces. Behram Baloch and Saleem Shahid.

Pakistan: Torkham border closes after the scuffle between FIA and FC
On 24 March, according to the sources, six Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) were injured in a confrontation with Frontier Corps (FC) personnel at the Torkham. The clash occurred in the Immigration Section at Zero Point on the border. In their defense, FC officials said that they were bound to check the documents, however, refuting the statement FIA staff said that FC men had no work in the immigration section. According to the locals, six of the FIA were injured and were taken to District Headquarters Hospital in Landikotal. Due to the clashes, the Torkham border crossing was closed to all types of traffic and was resumed after four hours. 

Pakistan: Special polio campaign commences in seven districts
On 24 March, according to the head of the polio programme and Punjab Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) Coordinator Khizer Afzaal a “special polio eradication campaign” will be commenced in seven districts of Punjab. The districts include Multan, DG Khan, Dera Ghazi Khan, RY Khan, Faisalabad, Kasur and Okara. The campaign is said to be conducted for seven days in Faisalabad whereas in other districts it will last long for five days. Around 30,000 polio workers and supervisors are said to participate in the drive to “immunise 4.5 million children” under the age of five. The EOC coordinator cautioned by stating: “Amid poliovirus circulation in other provinces, Punjab has not reported any polio case since October 2020 which is an achievement of the programme. But, movement of population from core reservoirs to Punjab was one the major causes of virus importation in Punjab.” Afzaal further ensured that the Punjab government through the health department “ensuring the safety and security of polio workers”. Highlighting the need for the vaccine, the EOC coordinator said that multiple doses of Polio drops are the best protection against poliovirus. 

Sri Lanka: Presidential elections likely in the first week of October
On 26 March, the Daily Mirror reported that President Ranil Wickremesinghe had notified his close associates and intimated to his cabinet that the presidential election would take place as scheduled. According to a senior political insider, Wickremesinghe discussed the elections at the previous two cabinet sessions and suggested that the presidential election would take place as planned. Although the Elections Commission has yet to be officially notified, sources say that the polls will take place in the first week of October. The three primary contenders for the president are Ranil Wickremesinghe from the UNP, Sajith Premadasa from the SJB, and Anura Kumara Dissanayake from the NPP. The main Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), is unlikely to submit its candidate instead, it will back Wickremesinghe, with several members already promising their support to the President. The SLPP has been advocating in recent weeks for a parliamentary election to be held first, with Basil meeting Wickremesinghe last week in an attempt to convince him, but talks appear to have failed, with the President holding his decision. 

Sri Lanka: Central Bank cuts interest rates in hopes of boosting economy
On 26 March, the Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL) reduced the interest rates by 50 basis points, lowering the Standing Deposit Facility Rate to 8.50 per cent and the Standing Lending Facility Rate to 9.50 per cent. CBSL Governor P. Nandalal Weerasinghe stated: “Going forward if we see that inflation on a stable basis remains between 4 per cent, I see space for monetary policy to be reduced further in the current cycle.” CBSL maintained its policy rates without changes in January to manage inflation rates. A 3 per cent increase in sales tax at the beginning of the year led to rising prices with inflation reaching 5.9 per cent in February. The current move is considered an attempt to support demand conditions and increase growth as Sri Lanka begins to recover from its worst financial crisis since 1948. While the economy shrank 2.3 per cent in 2023, it grew 4.5 per cent in the fourth quarter, a positive sign for recovery.

Maldives: Former President Solih advises President Muizzu to mend ties with neighbour
On 25 March, The Hindu reported that Maldives’ former President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih has urged current President Mohamed Muizzu to stop being “stubborn” and pursue dialogue with neighbours to tackle financial issues. This comes in the wake of President Muizzu seeking debt relief measures from India, stating that India was the archipelago nation’s “closest ally.” The former President said that the financial challenges facing Maldives were not due to Indian loans, adding that Maldives owes MVR 18 billion to China compared to the MVR 8 billion owed to India. He also stated that the current government was lying to the people by reinitiating projects that the former MDP government had launched. President Muizzu’s toned-down statements come at a time when the Maldives is preparing to hold its Parliamentary elections on 21 April. The current Maldives government's tough ‘India out’ stance has resulted in strained relationships between the neighbours since Muizzu came to power in November 2023.

Nepal: Release of Nepalis from Russia
On 26 March, The Kathmandu Post reported that Russian Ambassador to Nepal Alexei Novikov has stated that the Russian government is making efforts to secure the release of Nepalis held captive by Ukrainian forces. During a courtesy call on Finance Minister Barsha Man Pun, Ambassador Novikov mentioned that efforts are underway to release the Nepalis through a potential prisoner swap agreement. The exact number of Nepalis under the captivity of the Ukrainian army remains unknown. Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs Narayan Kaji Shrestha had previously stated that the Ukrainian forces captured some Nepali nationals as prisoners of war, and Nepal had demanded their safe release. Minister Pun urged the ambassador to help create a condition conducive to the safe return of Nepalis employed in the Russian army. Additionally, Minister Pun stressed the need for the Russian government to facilitate the repatriation of those killed, provide medical treatment for the injured, and offer relief and compensation to the families of the deceased. During the meeting, they also discussed the upcoming Nepal Investment Summit scheduled for April. 

Bangladesh: Pirates demand ransom to release the crew
On 25 March, WION reported that Pirates have demanded USD 5 million for the release of 23 Bangladeshi crew members who were held captive on the ship MV Abdullah. The Bangladeshi-flagged vessel was seized on 12 March, while en route from Mozambique to the United Arab Emirates and then brought to Somalia by pirates. The Indian Navy quickly responded to a piracy attack on the Bangladeshi-flagged MV Abdullah, deploying both a warship and an LRMP (long-range maritime patrol). On 14 March, the Indian Navy intercepted the stolen vessel, assuring the initial safety of the Bangladeshi crew held hostage by armed pirates and maintaining proximity till it reached Somalia's national waters. Indian Navy also offered to conduct operations aboard the smuggled ship. On 23 March, Indian Navy Chief Admiral R Hari Kumar stated that the Indian Navy is "keeping a close watch" on the MV Abdullah issue after it was brought to Somalia. He said that it may be turned into a "mother ship" for pirates. 

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

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