Vol.2 Why Should the World Worry About Poverty?—The Case of South Asia (II)

Consulting Fellow (Until November 30, 2008)

The real faces of strategic risk

That poverty can be a strategic risk is not a commonly accepted argument. But, nearly all internal conflict in South Asian nations can indeed be considered to be rooted in the grassroots conditions and political circumstances of the poor.

The best-known example of this phenomenon in recent years is the Taliban movement in Afghanistan, which traces its ideological roots to a network of Pakistani madrassa (Islamic religious academies). Offering free tuition plus room and board, these academies recruited students from the poor families of rural Pakistan knowing that they represented a highly attractive avenue for their sons' education--indeed, the only one. Those students did receive education, but were also brainwashed by religious extremists with political ambitions to create an orthodox Islamic state in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and to expand such political outcomes beyond these borders to the rest of the world.

Another well-publicized example is Sri Lanka's Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE, commonly known as the Tamil Tigers), an armed movement for an independent Tamil state. Begun in the 1970s, LTTE rapidly became a formidable fighting force waging guerrilla attacks against the Sri Lankan armed forces and political targets. The movement's origin is the socioeconomic repression and rural poverty of the minority Tamil people, including indentured Tamil laborers of tea estates. (These workers, originally from India, had long remained stateless, being neither Indian nor Sri Lankan.) Today, the LTTE's power base includes unemployed urban Tamil youth facing economic and social discrimination. The government has initiated a peace negotiation process with the LTTE, but without meaningful results to date. Since the early 1980s, more than 60,000 lives have been lost in the civil war over a unified Sri Lanka versus a homeland for the minority Tamils.

Less well known are similar movements in India and Nepal, which are linking up across the border. The case of Nepal, in particular, illustrates the danger posed by such movements that are triggered by incessant bad governance and unabated poverty.

The case of India, keeping the Union together... It is not widely known, at least in Japan, that India is a "union" of federated states like U.S., Canada and Australia, where each state possesses significant political and financial autonomy. Equally unknown is the immense diversity of the people of India, ethnically, linguistically and religiously.

India, too, has harbored separatists, seeking sovereignty (or separate states within India as a compromise) for various peoples. Today, the main movements include the following:

  • In northeast India, the major ones are the independence movements of the Nagaland and Assam states. (India's northeast consists of seven states: Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, Meghalaya and Tripura, all of which are among the poorest of Indian states and are affected by separatists in one way or another. To date, only one, the Mizo National Front of the state of Mizoram, has reached a peaceful settlement with India, in 1986.)
  • Elsewhere, especially in the states of Andra Pradesh and Orissa, various Marxist/communist movements are active, representing the cause of the low-caste and the landless poor. Not all of them are separatists, but some have become guerrilla-like rebel groups in recent years.

These and other similar movements are not new, and some have existed ever since India's independence from Britain. But, what is new today is their ability to link up with each other, to enhance their individual causes against their common "enemy," the Union of India. And, they are beginning to link up with others across the Indian border as well:

  • Separatist guerrilla movements of the northeast have become a united front, albeit loose-knit, and have recently begun aggressive association with Nepal's Maoists.
  • The Marxist Party of India has also declared an alliance with Nepal's Maoists.
  • Reportedly, underground Maoists from India and the Maoists of Nepal have now taken up a joint cause to fight for a separate Gorkhaland (Nation of the Gorkha people) in northern Bengal, the poorest and possibly the worst governed state of the Union. (This development is seen as a move by these rebels to expand their base in the strategic area surrounded by Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and the Indian states of Sikkim, Assam and Bihar.)

The risk such movements pose to the Union of India is also not new. The founding fathers of India, i.e., Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, clearly recognized this risk, and fought in vain against the separation of East and West Pakistan (which later separated further into Bangladesh and Pakistan) at independence. They also fought, with some success, not to demarcate the Union's state borders along ethno-linguistic lines. But, this hard-won result in the interest of the Union has eroded over the years, as the number of states rose due mostly to political accommodations with various secessionist movements. To be sure, the risk of disintegration of the Union of India is minute. But, it is minute precisely because it is a risk that has been clearly recognized and consciously managed by successive national leaders of India.

India has also invested heavily in regional diplomacy to combat separatists over the years. This is most visible in the case of the Kashmir issue with Pakistan, of course, but is not limited to it:

  • Last year, India declared Bhutan a "shining example of SAARC cooperation" (Bhutan mounted a highly efficient and effective military campaign to flush out terrorist camps of the United Liberation Front of Assam and several other groups from its territory. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh thus extended an unusual invitation to the King of Bhutan, who led the military operation personally, as the Chief Guest at the India Republic Day celebration in January this year.)
  • And, India has been pressing Bangladesh and Burma in particular to follow Bhutan's example.
  • Burma has recently initiated a similar flush-out operation.
  • Even Bangladesh, whose present government tends to harbor anti-Indian sentiments, is initiating some crackdowns albeit slowly.

The case of Nepal, a failing state... It has been regarded for some time that Nepal, the poorest country of South Asia and one of the poorest in the world, is at risk of becoming a failed state. But, such a view is now outdated. Nepal is already failing as a sovereign state, and can be viewed as the quintessential example of why the world needs to worry about poverty.

The Nepali Government, no matter who leads it, no longer governs much of the territory. Other than the capital city of Kathmandu and a handful of district headquarters, the government has lost control over the nation to the Maoists, an armed rebel group which, since 1996, has been fighting for the "voiceless majority of Nepal": the poor and the low-caste people, both of whom have essentially been ignored or treated as second-class citizens in their own country. The Maoists' stated objective is a Marxist republic that looks after the rights and the welfare of its supporters.

Even Kathmandu is now essentially under siege and there is a de facto leadership vacuum in the country. Amazingly, those leaders who still have constitutional legitimacy, i.e., the monarchy and elected political leaders, have not really faced up to this fact and appear to remain in a state of denial. Instead, political leaders are busy fighting for power--among themselves, within their own party rank and file, or against the king and the royalists--oblivious to the fact that there is no longer any popular basis for their power. The same is also the case for the elite--the rich, the powerful, and the high-caste, of Nepali society who have not seen the grassroots reality and have not comprehended the plight of their fellow citizens.

Even the monarchy, which has historically enjoyed strong popular support accompanied by religious reverence (Nepali kings are regarded as divine by the Hindu population of the country), appears to be on the verge of losing the people's trust. This is due mainly to a "palace coup" that dismissed an elected government, not just once but twice. As a result, the monarch has become just another "politician" the people cannot trust instead of a leader who can remain above corrupt power politics to guide the nation.

All this, including the leadership vacuum, stands to benefit the Maoists. But, the Maoists themselves are losing the much-needed popular support of the poor after nearly 10 years of bloody struggles without concrete results. And they are no longer united, having been plagued by internal bickering for power. As such, the risk of Nepal imploding, not unlike the case of Afghanistan, is increasing.

A difficult agenda

The poverty of South Asia is a strategic risk, because its roots are in the bad governance of nations' public policy and institutions. If unattended, this risk could potentially threaten the integrity of the region's nation-states, as seen in the case of Nepal.

Managing this risk seriously in South Asia means instituting good governance through reforms of the political process and institutions, as well as socioeconomic policies and institutions. That is easier said than done. Such reforms cannot begin nor yield fruits for the "masses" quickly enough unless a good measure of luck can be had in the emergence of strong political leaders of the right kind.

As such, the truly difficult issue facing the world today is neither the poverty nor the bad governance in South Asia or the rest of the developing world. The real hard issue is whether external interests of any kind--be they political diplomacy, development assistance or international business--can do anything at all. The question that needs answered is whether any external interests can influence, within sovereign developing nations, the emergence of positive political resolve among the citizenry, strong leadership of the right kind, and positive and an inclusive change process with popular support. And, if so, how?

July 29, 2005

July 29, 2005

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