BY SHASHI MALLA
A suicide bomb attack in the Indian part of the disputed Kashmir & Jammu state killed 40 paramilitary police last month. The Pakistan-based militant group Jaish-e-Mohammad immediately claimed responsibility. This in turn led to a soaring of tensions with arch-rival neighbouring Pakistan. There was an exchange of aerial dog-fights in which planes were gunned down and Indian planes allegedly bombed a militant training camp in Pakistan proper – the first time that Indian planes had crossed the international border since way back in 1971. The clash with Pakistan was a boon for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), facing a tough general election next month.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP basked in the spike in national sentiment with potential benefits accruing. However, the national sentiment on security and terror-related issues in India which had peaked early March, is now waning as tensions have cooled. A sharp fall in the security narrative complicates BJP’s positioning as this is one issue where the BJP comprehensively dominates the rival Indian National Congress and the entire opposition. According to the CVoter polling agency, the air strikes and nationalist rhetoric had diverted attention away from pressing socio-economic issues, including increasing unemployment [especially among the young] and an agrarian crisis, that critics have highlighted to attack the Modi government’s policies. These issues are back in voter’s minds to haunt Modi. In recent weeks, Modi and his lieutenants have consistently played up the air strikes.
Last week, the wily fox Modi revealed another trick which he had kept up his sleeve for just such an occasion. He cleverly ordered an anti-satellite missile test and promptly hailed it as making India a military space power.
The opposition parties rightly criticized the anti-satellite test as a political gimmick. The impact of this mission Shakti [= force/power/anti-satellite missile] is anticipated to be short-lived.
Currently, a coalition led by Modi’s BJP is widely expected to retain power in the looming general election, starting April 11 and to be conducted in 7 phases throughout the vast country. This is reputed to be the world’s biggest democratic exercise with about 900 million eligible voters. In contrast, the US is usually billed as the ‘greatest’ democracy, and the UK as the world’s oldest. Final results of the vote are expected on May 23.
In the ongoing Venezuela crisis, the hapless, autocratic Communist/Socialist regime of Nicolas Maduro has barred opposition leader and self-proclaimed president Juan Guaido from holding further public office for 15 years, the maximum allowed by law. This was announced by the state financial controller, who found “inconsistencies” in Senor Gaido’s personal financial statements! This is merely a weak and forlorn attempt by Maduro’s crumbling regime propped up by the military, as well as Cuban and Russian “advisers” to sideline Guaido. However, Maduro can be rest assured that he has the unstinted support of the ‘progressive’ Communists from the great secular, federal, democratic Himalayan republic of Nepal and its hydra-headed political leadership. As is usual in a Communist country, ideological principles trounce national interests. After all, Guaido has the support of ‘only’ 54 countries, including most of Latin America!
Senor Guaido countered: “The legitimate congress [National Assembly] is the only one with power to designate an auditor general”, and by inference look into his finances. The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Ms. Federica Mogherini condemned the action against Senor Guaido: “Such a political decision without regard to due process is yet another demonstrate of the arbitrary nature of judicial procedures in the country.” She said the EU would allocate a further 30 million euros in emergency funds to assist Venezuelans most in need.
In another nefarious action, Senor Guaido’s chief of staff Roberto Marrero, 49, was accused of planning “acts of sabotage” against officials after being arrested. Venezuela’s Interior Minister Nestor Reverol said that “weapons and foreign currency” were found by intelligence services during a raid in his home. Senor Guaaido retorted that the security forces had committed an “illegal and unconstitutional” act, adding that he believed the items allegedly found at Marrera’s home had been planted there.
Russia, which is attempting to be a major player in international politics, has in the meantime sent two plane-loads of military equipment and “military advisers” to prop up the Maduro regime – together with Cuba. This is testing President Donald Trump’s (un)usual affinity for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is clearly interfering in America’s own backyard or sphere of interest. Thereby, he is definitely crossing an imaginary red line and violating the pivotal Monroe Doctrine. According to Elliott Abrams, the US special representative for Venezuela, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has ordered the preparation of a range of options to end Maduro’s unpopular rule [in Fareed Zakaria’s CNN show last Sunday].
Brunei, a Muslim-majority state in South-East Asia sandwiched between the Malaysian provinces of Sabah and Sarawak, and the Indonesian region of Kalimantan on the island of Borneo has enacted draconian Islamic laws from April 3, punishing sodomy, adultery and rape with the death penalty, including by stoning, and theft with amputation. It places itself on par with the murderous regime of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Brunei is a former British protectorate with a population of around 400,000 ruled by the autocratic Sultan Hassanai Bolkiah, who is also the prime minister and defence minister. It is a member of the regional organization Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and has claims to a portion of the South China Sea [claimed wholly by China].
The punitive Sharia laws, elements of which were already adopted in 2014 and which have been rolled out in phases since then, have now been fully implemented. The cruel and oppressive laws that allows death by stoning for adultery and homosexuality faces growing global criticism. According to a statement from the prime minister’s office: “The [Sharia] Law, apart from criminalizing and deterring acts that are against the teachings of Islam, also aims to educate, respect and protect the legitimate rights of all individuals, society or nationality of any faiths and race.” However, some aspects of the laws will also apply to non-Muslims.
The sultan, 72, is the world’s second-longest reigning monarch [after Queen Elizabeth II], and is prime minister of the oil-rich country. He ranks as one of the world’s wealthiest people. A Gurkha battalion is one of his protection squads. His administration enforces Islamic teachings more strictly than Malaysia and Indonesia, the other majority Muslim countries in South-East Asia.
Politicians in Europe and the United States have attacked the implementation of the harsh laws and raised concerns with Brunei. Oscar-winning Hollywood actor George Clooney, whose Muslim-wife Amal is the international human rights lawyer, has called for a boycott of luxury hotels owned by Brunei in Beverly Hills, London and Paris. Clooney has now been joined by legendary British singer Sir Elton John in condemning the imposition of the death penalty for gay sex or adultery.
The United Nations has also decried the new “cruel and inhuman laws”. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet [former president of Chile] commented: Any religion-based legislation must not violate human rights, including the rights of those belonging to the majority religion as well as of religious minorities and non-believers.”
After parliamentary elections, Thai authorities have said that discrepancies in the election results were a result of computer software error. After a week, the results of Thailand’s parliamentary elections remain inconclusive. This also means that an orderly transition from the administration of the military junta to an elected opposition must be postponed. The jockeying among political parties continues unabated, resulting in a de facto hung parliament.
The political parties close to the military won the popular vote by a very narrow margin. However, anti-junta parties including those linked to ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Yingluck, announced that they would align to form a pro-democracy coalition to reach a majority in the lower house. At the last count, this alliance seemed to be poised in roping in 255 representatives in the lower house of parliament out of a total of 500 to form a 7-party coalition. Although this would allow the opposition to form the government, the election of the prime minister is a completely different matter. For this, according to the constitution, the 250 military-loyal senators from the upper house also have the right to vote.
The situation became more complicated last Saturday after King Vajiralongkorn stripped Thaksin of his royal honours – a major rebuke in Thai society. The move was brought in conjunction with the former PM’s corruption sentence in 2008 and his subsequent fleeing the country to avoid prison time. However, one of the political parties close to the Shinawatra had projected the king’s own sister as a prime ministerial candidate [and therefore anti-establishment figure], until the king himself quashed the move as inappropriate for a member of the royal family. Then, Thaksin claimed in an opinion piece in The New York Times [March 27, 2019] that the election results were rigged and there were several discrepancies with the electoral process. He also told the media about the plans for the anti-junta coalition government.
Thailand has a complicated electoral system, whereby 350 seats [in the lower house] are allocated by direct mandate, and 150 are appointed according to a proportional representation procedure. The exact distribution of seats will be announced only on May 9, after the elaborate coronation ceremonies for the new king are completed.
The writer can be reached at: [email protected]