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Democracy in South Asia

Author: Jayshree Bajoria
August 18, 2008

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Recent elections in Bhutan, Pakistan, and Nepal signal a move toward greater democracy in South Asia. But the region continues to be torn by conflict and remains vulnerable to military interventions in politics, corruption in government, and terrorism.

Security remains a prominent issue in most countries in the region. Pakistan has often been called the world's most dangerous place (Economist), with numerous homegrown and foreign militant groups ensconced in its tribal areas along the Afghan border. Although February elections were hailed as a triumph of democracy after eight years of military rule, the parties returning to power earned venal reputations during previous stints in power. And since then, serious political differences have divided the main parties in the coalition. Lisa Curtis of the Heritage Foundation believes the political maneuvering in Islamabad is distracting the Pakistani government from dealing with growing militancy in the tribal areas.

India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Bangladesh each have long histories of multiparty electoral democracy; however, a few families have dominated political life in all of them. Boston Globe columnist H. D. S. Greenway writes that political parties in the region "often come to be seen as reflecting the will of one powerful personality whose successors view the party as their personal property."

U.S. policy ensures a focus on Pakistan, but its neighbors share many of its ills. India, as the recent spate of bombings in its major cities have shown, remains prone to terrorist attacks. The Sri Lankan state has been fighting a war with the separatist guerilla group known as the Tamil Tigers for over two decades, resulting in high incidence of civilian casualties and numerous human rights violations. Nepal, too, was engaged in a decade-long civil war with Maoist separatists until peace was reached in 2006. After a historic election in April, the country abolished its monarchy, but Kathmandu remains mired in political infighting. The uncertain fate of the 23,000 guerilla fighters of its People's Liberation Army adds to the fragility of the peace process.

Relations between South Asia's democracies also remain strained. India, the largest country in the region and its longest functioning democracy, has ethnic populations that overlap with most of its neighbors. This has led to disputes over borders, frustrations over illegal immigration, and allegations of fueling terrorism in each other's countries. While India charges the Pakistani army and Islamabad's intelligence services have harbored militants to fuel insurgency in Kashmir, Sri Lanka has suffered from India's support to the Tamil Tigers in the past. More recently, India has also blamed Bangladesh-based terrorists for bomb attacks and continues to fear that Nepal's Maoists are strengthening its own homegrown Naxalites.

Such instability has provided rationalization for the countries in the region to keep large armies, which, in turn, have undermined democracy. Elected governments in both Pakistan and Bangladesh have frequently been usurped by military coups. Widespread political corruption and increased instability often lend legitimacy to military rule as a better alternative in these nations. In Sri Lanka, the government employs the security forces to use strong-arm tactics against separatists. Human Rights Watch says the government security forces are implicated in extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, restriction of media freedoms, and widespread impunity for serious human rights violations. The Indian government has also been targeted by human rights groups for arming militias (BBC), including children, to fight Naxalites in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh. The South Asia Human Rights Index 2008, published by the Asian Center for Human Rights, lists Sri Lanka as the worst violator but underlines that "all countries in the region have very poor records."

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