BY SHASHI MALLA
INDIA REMAINS RIGID ON BORDER DISPUTE
The Indo-Nepalese border dispute – like the Sino-Indian border conflict – is not new. It has been festering for decades. It only surfaced once again after India published a new political map showing parts of Nepalese territory in the Far West as within India’s boundaries.
India is adamant about claiming the said territory and the political leadership in New Delhi has shown no goodwill to settle the issue amicably. It has rejected any negotiation at any level.
On its part, the Nepalese leadership has taken a lackadaisical approach to this vital question of sovereignty and territorial integrity. Like ostriches, they bury their heads in the sand and hope the whole nasty question will just go away. Others, including those of the legislative branch, act like flustered hens running hither and thither without any coordinated effort.
Considering India’s intransigence and to finally reach closure, Nepal has no other option than to ‘internationalize’ the issue, i.e. to bring this legitimate territorial dispute before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) of the United Nations at The Hague, Netherlands.
South Asia Watch
INDIA: DEADLY PROTESTS OVER CITIZENSHIP LAW
The Indian parliament passed a bill last week on Wednesday that would make it easier for minority religious groups from neighbouring Muslim-majority states [Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh] to apply for Indian citizenship. However, Muslims themselves would be excluded from the bill – a controversial and discriminatory decision by the Hindu-nationalist BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) government in a nation that has long had simmering disputes between Hindus and Muslims.
Protests have spread all over India and even university campuses. Anger with Modi’s government was further fueled by allegations of police brutality (Reuters).
The BJP move to exclude Muslims from seeking a fast track to citizenship is blatantly unconstitutional [the bill is yet to be challenged in the Supreme Court] and discriminatory. Critics point out that before long, the fundamental pluralistic and secular character of India is altered (DW/December 12).
People of the north-eastern state of Assam argue that the exodus of migrants from Bangladesh into Assam will result in a diminution of their culture and way of life, i.e. ‘Ueberfremdung’.
As a result, there have been deadly protests in Assam and also in the neighbouring state of West Bengal.
Opposition Congress Party MP and former central government minister Shashi Tharoor said on CNN’s Fareed Zakaria’s ‘Global Public Square’ that Modi’s ideology [and the BJP’s] goes against India’s history as a “secular, liberal, pluralist society.”
Region South-East Asia
THAILAND: PROTESTS AGAINST PRO-MILITARY GOVERNMENT
Thousands of people have taken to the streets of Bangkok to protest against the banning of the prominent opposition “Future Forward Party” that has challenged the government of former military ruler General Prayuth Chan-ocha (DW/Deutsche Welle online, December 15).
The rally was called by Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, the leader of the Future Forward Party, who was last month disqualified by the Constitutional Court as a member of parliament on [trumped up] charges that he held shares in a media company on the date his candidacy was registered for the March election. In addition, the authorities also ‘requested’ the Court to dissolve the Future Forward Party, accusing it of receiving multi-million-dollar loans from Thanathorn, a 41-year-old billionaire!
In the past few months, Thanathorn has emerged as the most outspoken opponent of Prayuth’s government. The combined opposition has claimed the polls were manipulated to favour the army-backed political parties.
The March general election was blighted by claims of widespread impropriety in ballot counting , as well as, allegations of vote buying. Critics also accused even the electoral system, which was revised by the military junta itself, of favouring pro-military parties. They claimed it was rigged to prevent the former governing Pheu Thai party from returning to power.
Thanathorn has signed an agreement with six other parties in an opposition alliance against the constitutional changes that were hammered through by the military junta just before the election.
Although the Pheu Thai party – originally founded by former premier-in-exile Thaksin Shinawatra – secured a majority in the lower house of parliament, it was unable to form a government as it required the backing of the 250 military-loyal senators from the upper house! According to the recent changes made to the Thai constitution, the prime minister is elected both by the House of Representatives and the Senate, which was entirely appointed by the previous ruling junta. This is a most unusual provision in a parliamentary democracy!
Among the parties supporting the recent Bangkok protests was also Pheu Thai, which had won the most seats in the 500-member House of Representatives in the March election. Thanathorn has claimed: ”The anger of the people is tangible” and promised to return in force next month! With a younger, determined and resolute leadership, the Thai democratic opposition maybe moving beyond the Shinawatras [with also both brother Thaksin and sister Yingluck outside the country in exile]. Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn has made Thaksin more-or-less irrelevant and persona non grata by stripping him of all royal honours just after the contentious election.
Analysts are of the opinion that “the military generals are pulling too many strings, controlling the election commission and influencing court decisions.” Like many other countries around the world [like Hungary and Poland in Europe], Thailand has degenerated into an oxymoronic “democratic dictatorship”.
In a strange twist of events and lacking any basis to oppose a democratic, legitimate and non-violent rally, “Palang Pracharat”, the pro-military party formed last year by members of the then junta’s cabinet has made the ridiculous statement that it was inappropriate to organize a demonstration towards the end of the year! [Thailand is a Buddhist-majority constitutional monarchy; so Christmas could not be on their minds!]
Region East Asia
NORTH KOREA CONDUCTS “CRUCIAL TEST”
North Korea announced last Saturday that it successfully performed another “crucial test” at its long-range rocket launch site Tongchang-ri that (in addition to the test on December 7) will further strengthen its strategic nuclear deterrent (AP/Associated Press). This is another damaging setback for Donald Trump’s nuclear diplomacy [he has also failed miserably with Iran]. As he seeks re-election in November 2020, his domestic agenda is in tatters, and he has little to show in foreign policy.
The tests possibly involved technologies to improve intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that could potentially reach the continental United States. North Korea is already in possession of short- and middle-range missiles that threaten neighbouring South Korea and Japan.
During a provocative run of weapons tests in 2017, North Korea conducted three flight tests of ICBMs that demonstrated potential range to reach deep into the U.S. mainland, raising tensions and triggering verbal warfare between Trump and Kim as they exchanged crude insults and threats of nuclear annihilation.
Relations between Kim and Trump became chummier in 2018 after Kim initiated diplomacy that led to their first summit in June that year in Singapore, where they issued a vague statement on a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula, without describing the modalities of when or how it should be achieved.
Negotiations faltered after the United States rejected North Korean demands for broad sanctions relief in exchange for a partial surrender of the North’s nuclear capabilities at the second Kim-Trump summit in Vietnam in February this year.
They met dramatically for a third time in June this year at the border between North and South Korea and agreed to resume talks.
However, an October working-level meeting in Sweden broke down over what the North Koreans designated as the Americans’ “old stance and attitude”. Kim has warned that Pyongyang could seek a “new path” if the U.S. persists with sanctions and pressure against the North.
The latest announcement comes as North Korea continues to pressure the Trump administration for major concessons on sanctions relief as it approaches an end of year deadline set by impetuous leader Kim Jong-Un to salvage deadlocked nuclear negotiations.
Most analysts do not expect Kim to revive the tensions of 2017 by restarting actual nuclear and ICBM tests, which would cross a metaphorical “red line” and risk fracturing his hard-won diplomacy with Washington.
Rather, Kim is more likely to pressure Trump with low-key military activities that pose less of a direct threat to the US, and simultaneously promote an united front with China [already irritated with Trump’s unnecessary trade war] and Russia [playing spoilsport and seeking recognition as a great power] to ease sanctions on Pyongyang to help nuclear negotiations move forward.
UK GENERAL ELECTIONS
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s resounding election victory now gives Britain a chance to move past years of gridlock over ‘Brexit” – exiting the European Union (EU) – especially in Northern Ireland, where social, religious and political divides run deep.
Last Thursday’s snap general election became a re-run of the 2016 EU membership referendum in which Johnson championed the Brexit cause (AFP/Agence France-Presse).
PM Johnson and his Conservative Party ran this campaign on the promise to “Get Brexit Done” – a simple but most effective message with profound implications for Britain’s most politically volatile regions – Scotland and Northern Ireland. The Conservatives won their biggest majority since the heyday of PM Margaret Thatcher [the ‘Iron Lady’] in the 1980s of the last century. For most voters it was the end of limbo, the stalled process of extricating Britain from the EU.
In 2016, Northern Ireland voted by 56 percent to remain in the European Union. Since then, it has become central to a Brexit deal with Brussels. There was mounting unease about the prospect of a no-deal Brexit and the re-emergence of a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, a EU member – to the south.
Border checks between ‘the two Irelands’ are generally associated with three decades of sectarian violence [between Republicans/Roman Catholics and Unionists/Protestants) over British rule of Northern Ireland that left some 3,500 people dead – commonly known as “The Troubles”. The potential removal of an open border, which was a major factor of the 1998 agreement that ended the factional/partisan violence, has been seen as an unwelcome return to the past.
At the same time, it has also reopened the issue of Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom with England, Scotland and Wales, and above all, the potential of Northern Ireland uniting with the Irish Republic.
For the first time, the general election returned more Irish republican [and Catholic] than British unionist [Protestant] parliamentarians to the UK House of Commons.
The largest republican party “Sinn Fein” even wrested the North Belfast seat from unionist hands for the first time since it was drawn up as far back as 1885. Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald called it a “historic moment”. Jamie Pow, politics lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast even ventured: “It’s safe to say that Irish unity will be firmly on the agenda in a way that it has never been before”, although the combined republican vote still amounts to a minority and the fence-sitters will be key.
The election results also stripped Northern Ireland’s “Democratic Unionist Party” (DUP) of its kingmaker role in the British parliament. It had propped up the government of Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, after she failed to secure a majority in the 2017 general election. On a wider scale, the new arithmetic in Westminster and the DUP’s loss of influence in London could help kick-start talks for the resumption of Stormont, the devolved legislative assembly in Belfast. The general perception was that the DUP had wielded power for themselves, not for the greater good of Northern Ireland. To remain relevant and demonstrate to voters that it can deliver, the DUP will have the incentive to reach an agreement with Sinn Fein (Pow).
Climate Crisis: Climate Conference Falls Short
After more than two weeks of intense negotiations at the UN Climate Conference in Madrid (COP 25), nations agreed to watered-down deals to enhance their targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However, environmental organizations and activists were disappointed at the failure to outline concrete action that would be taken by governments before next year’s climate conference in Glasgow (COP 26) [DW].
Helen Mountford, vice president for climate and economics at the “World Resources Institute” summed up the disappointment precisely: “The can-do spirit that birthed the Paris Agreement feels like a distant memory today. Instead of leading the charge for greater ambition, most major emitters have been missing in action.”
UNITED STATES: IMPEACHMENT PROCESS AGAINST TRUMP ON TRACK
In a historic vote, the US House Judiciary Committee approved two articles of impeachment [lay charges] against President Donald Trump: abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. Both votes were 23-17 [Democrats/Republicans], along strictly party lines (TIME, Online December 13).
The vote comes after a marathon and sharply partisan session in which the 41-member Committee debated the two charges of “high crimes and misdemeanors” [US Constitution] against the President, each side evoking the historic stakes of the vote.
After the Committee’s approval of the articles of impeachment, these will now be debated in the full House of Representatives [the Democrats have a clear majority], where all 435 members will examine the evidence discovered in the impeachment enquiry and decide whether or not it warrants impeaching [indicting, prosecuting] the President.
A full House vote is expected this week, before Congress recesses for the Christmas holidays. This is only the fourth time in American history that a President has faced impeachment.
If the House impeaches the President, a Senate trial is expected to commence in January next year and will determine whether or not to convict Trump and remove him from office.
Fareed Zakaria (CNN) sees the impeachment in the larger context of democracy’s global decline. Trump’s offensive is only part of a “wave of attacks on the constitution, institutions, norms and values that have given democracy strength and meaning.”
(The writer can be reached at: [email protected])