• Maldives
    The Maldives Is Moving Toward China. Here’s What to Know.
    Once a close Indian partner, the Maldives is now aligning more with China. Is the island nation becoming a flash point in the China-India relationship? 
  • Climate Change
    Screening and Discussion of PBS Series "Changing Planet: Coral Special"
    The PBS series Changing Planet embarks on its third year of this seven-year project examining the issues facing the planet’s most threatened ecosystems. The “Coral Special” episode takes us to the Maldives for an in-depth look at coral reefs and the urgent efforts to help them survive climate change. In partnership with PBS and Conservation International, join us for a sneak preview of clips from the episode and a panel discussion with climate experts discussing efforts to save some of the most diverse and valuable ecosystems on Earth. 
  • COVID-19
    South Asia Reads: Coronavirus Edition
    Welcome back to South Asia Reads. This week, we've prepared an update on developments in each South Asian country, from Afghanistan to Sri Lanka, regarding the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19).
  • India
    Fresh Upheavals in the South Asian Region
    From the day he assumed office, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made clear his priority on establishing strong ties across the South Asian region. His open invitation to the leaders of all the South Asian countries to attend his inauguration set the tone for a foreign policy focused on building economic ties and regional connectivity, a pragmatic bid to overcome South Asia’s longstanding problem as one of the least economically integrated regions in the world. Initial Indian diplomacy with Bangladesh and Nepal helped deliver gains toward a more consolidated South Asian region, at peace and focused on development and economics. Political change in Sri Lanka ended the divisive Rajapaksa era, one of increased tensions with India, and Colombo’s new government immediately expanded ties—with a strong trade component—with India. The South Asian Area of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit in November 2014 resulted in region-wide agreements on transportation connectivity, an important infrastructure step to enhancing economic ties. More than a year and a half later, however, political upheavals in Nepal, Bangladesh, and Maldives have disrupted progress in these countries. It is worth adding, though is of no particular surprise, that India’s efforts to establish trade and connectivity with Pakistan have not been successful. This is due to Pakistan’s own internal problems, but nonetheless impinges upon the broader regional goal. This post looks at where things stand following recent upheavals in the region. In short, instead of a larger area of growing economic cooperation, the narrative has shifted to serious political and security problems. Nepal: India and Nepal share an open border, allowing completely free trade and movement of citizens. Last fall, it appeared that after a highly successful bilateral visit, and then a successful SAARC summit in Kathmandu, Modi had cemented a positive era for India-Nepal ties. But the past six weeks have led to an ever-deepening crisis in New Delhi’s relations with Kathmandu, linked to Indian unhappiness over the new Nepali constitution, unveiled at the end of September. Nepal’s Madhesis, who live along the India-Nepal border, feel the new constitution does not adequately protect their rights. Madhesi protests along the border have been underway for weeks, and Indian diplomats have been straightforward with their objections to Nepal’s constitution, reportedly pressing for seven amendments. In October fuel trucks from India stopped entering Nepal, which Nepalis are united in calling a deliberate blockade (the Indian external affairs ministry has rejected that claim), the result of which led to fuel shortages and rationing across Nepal. By the end of October, Nepal had turned to China to supply fuel. The Indian government has come under criticism for “losing Nepal.” As of the first week in November, relations between Kathmandu and New Delhi were tense, and an Indian citizen was killed by Nepali police fire. And in an unprecedented move—India generally does not make extensive public criticism of other countries—India critiqued Nepal’s human rights record on November 4 in the UN Human Rights Council universal periodic review of Nepal. Bangladesh: New Delhi’s ties with Dhaka have strengthened over the past year and a half, most especially with the historic completion of the Indo-Bangladesh land boundary agreement. The previous Congress-led government in India had tried to regularize the border, but parliamentary objections from the then-opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (not to mention protest from the state government of West Bengal) thwarted legislation. Thankfully, once in power the BJP government chose to advance this bill. Tens of thousands of citizens are now able to live in regularized territory, not “enclaves” surrounded extraterritorially, and Dhaka and New Delhi have moved ahead on transshipment ties—including a new cross-border trucking agreement for cargo in specific “corridors.” But internal political upheaval and terrorism attacks in Dhaka could slow down this positive progress due to concerns about safety in Bangladesh. Assassinations of secular bloggers back in the spring first made international headlines. At the end of September and early October alarming assassinations of two foreigners took place in quick succession—the first, of an Italian aid worker, and the second, a Japanese farmer working on agriculture in Bangladesh. A bomb tore through a Shi’a procession in Dhaka on October 24. The self-proclaimed Islamic State took responsibility for these killings, but the Bangladeshi government has rejected this idea, and stated instead that the violence must be the work of domestic opposition. Hacking attacks on Bangladeshi publishers last weekend have further added to the climate of concern. To what extent these terrorist attacks will affect commerce is not yet clear, but they cannot be helpful. Bangladesh’s own domestic security challenges now top headline news rather than reports of economic progress. Maldives: An archipelago nation with only around 350,000 citizens, the Maldives economy is a small part of South Asia’s regional economic connectivity agenda. But its strategic location in the Indian Ocean sea lanes makes it a crucial partner. Its government has been mired in domestic political problems for years. After a November 2013 election in which former President Mohamed Nasheed led in the first voting round but narrowly lost in a runoff and graciously conceded, the Maldivian government has jailed him, prosecuted him in a kangaroo court trial, and convicted him on absurd charges of terrorism. The political situation in the Maldives has deteriorated further. The former vice president Ahmed Adeeb now stands accused of trying to assassinate the president, resulting in Adeeb’s arrest and later impeachment on November 5. On November 4 Maldives authorities declared a state of emergency for thirty days. * * * These are all significant setbacks to a focus on broader regional connectivity and a forward-looking trade agenda. How New Delhi handles the security implications and political landmines in its ties with these countries in the coming months will be a test of Modi’s strategic ambitions for South Asia, as well as an illustration of how a rising India will exercise power in the neighborhood. Follow me on Twitter: @AyresAlyssa
  • Human Rights
    Kafka in Paradise: Maldives Court Sentences Former President for Terrorism
    On March 13, a Maldivian court found Mohamed Nasheed, the first democratically elected president of the Maldives, guilty of terrorism and sentenced him to thirteen years in prison. The specific act of which Nasheed was accused? Ordering the arrest of a criminal court judge back in 2012 when Nasheed was still president of the island nation of 400,000 people. The mismatch between accusation and conviction beggars belief. The trial also contained a number of other Kafkaesque deformities. The court denied the defense team access to Nasheed. According to the Maldivian Democracy Network, the court arbitrarily scheduled a hearing within hours of Nasheed’s arrest, preventing the defense team from appearing in court since they were required to register at least two days in advance. Add to that the obvious conflict of interest of two justices providing testimony for the trial in which they sat in judgment. Nasheed’s own lawyers quit during the trial, saying they could not mount a defense in such biased proceedings. Most Americans haven’t heard of Nasheed, elected in 2008 in what was hailed as a democratic transition in the Indian Ocean island nation. But before he resigned in 2012, charging his opponents of conducting a de facto coup, he had earned a reputation as a moderate Muslim reformer focused on human rights, democracy, and climate change. The 2011 film The Island President profiled his advocacy for a climate agreement at the 2009 Copenhagen talks. Nasheed’s sentencing sets back democracy in Maldives, which for thirty years (1978–2008) was ruled by strongman Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. Not everyone in the Maldives is taking the judgment lying down. The Human Rights Commission of the Maldives, a statutory but independent body, expressed concern about denial of Nasheed’s constitutional rights as well as problems with due process in the trial. The commission stated that the court rebuffed their effort to raise these matters during the trial, along with their request to monitor proceedings. Internationally, the governments of India, the United States, the United Kingdom, and the EU made statements about the trial. Maldivian institutions have weak and limited experience with democratic norms, and the judiciary has long been a focus of calls for reform. The current constitution dates only to 2008, and the judiciary has yet to be reformed despite the creation of a Judicial Services Commission in 2008. In 2013, the United Nations Human Rights Council sent the special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, Gabriela Knaul, on a fact-finding mission to the Maldives. She found a politicized judiciary vulnerable to external influence. She also noted that the “concept of independence of the judiciary” had been “misconstrued” in Maldives to connote a privilege of the individual judge, and not the ability to adjudicate a case fairly and impartially for those under trial. Reading the Knaul report in light of Friday’s conviction is a sobering experience. Although Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen, the half-brother of former president Gayoom, denies any politicization of the ruling, many aspects of these proceedings look preposterous at face value. And on March 15, the High Court tossed out Nasheed’s appeal of his February arrest because Nasheed insisted on a hearing open to the public, which the court denied. For now stability in Maldives is in danger. Protests have been taking place on and off for weeks. Following his sentencing, Nasheed called upon Maldivians to “confront the dictatorial power of this regime” and take to the streets. It’s unclear whether Yameen’s government can survive a full term, as he has already lost one coalition ally, fired (and detained) his former defense minister, and appointed a new one currently accused of terrorism—ironically, in the same matter for which Nasheed was just sentenced. Defending grossly irregular legal processes cannot help Yameen, and undermines any claim that these proceedings are isolated from politics. This 100 percent Sunni Muslim nation, struggling to institutionalize democracy, should not be written off as too small to matter. Nasheed has accused Yameen—to whom he graciously conceded defeat in November 2013, after narrowly losing in a run-off election—of marshaling the judiciary to eliminate Nasheed as a political threat. Nasheed and his Maldivian Democratic Party believe the Yameen government is soft on Islamic extremists. Last fall, Nasheed told the Independent that Maldives had become a recruiting ground for the Islamic State. Pro-Islamic State rallies have taken place in Maldives. With its strategic location and hundreds of isolated, uninhabited islands, a Maldives that falls to or is unable to control radical Islamists would quickly become a regional security threat. Top photo credit: Ides of March: Maldives, Barricades, protests & injusticePhoto by Dying Regime licensed under CC BY 2.0. Follow me on Twitter: @AyresAlyssa
  • India
    Top 10 South Asia Stories of 2013
    In a year of many tumultuous events, these ten developments stood out—in my personal view—as the most consequential stories for India and South Asia. It was a year of many elections, of protests, and of change. Herewith the list, with a few links for further reading: Indian women stand up for change: It was a year of extraordinary attention to women’s rights in India, spurred first by mass outrage at the December 2012 gang-rape of Nirbhaya in Delhi. Parliament passed a new, more comprehensive law on rape with dispatch; fast-track courts fulfilled their name, bringing justice quickly; a new sexual harassment law was implemented; and more than ever before, women stood up for their rights. Nawaz Sharif’s return: Nawaz Sharif, twice prime minister of Pakistan in the 1990s,  successfully defeated the Pakistan People’s Party in the May national elections. This first peaceful transition of power from one elected civilian government to another marked an historic benchmark for a country that has oscillated between civilian and military governments throughout its history. Narendra Modi’s definitive rise: Though his political rise had been chronicled in the press for several years, it was 2013 that witnessed the scale of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s mass appeal across numerous states in India. His formal anointment in September as the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate for the 2014 elections put an end to speculation of intra-party rivalries, and fueled endless polls and speculation about a NaMo versus RaGa showdown in India. Largest accident in garment industry history: The April 24 collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh led to the garment industry’s worst tragedy in history, with more than 1,100 dead and a heartbreaking, more than a week- long rescue operation to search for survivors. [This haunting photograph went viral, symbolizing the heartbreak of this senseless catastrophe.] The collapse led to action from European and U.S. brands and retailers, as well as action from the government of Bangladesh and the Bangladesh garment industry associations, to focus on workplace safety and labor rights to strengthen this industry which employs more than 4 million, primarily women. Region wary of troop drawdown in Afghanistan in 2014:  In 2014 the troop drawdown in Afghanistan will likely rank as the region’s top story, but throughout 2013 it remained the big unknown turning point of the future. CFR released a special report in November which recommended close attention to the regional dynamics as essential to Afghan stability. It also recommended relying less on Pakistan, and encouraging greater regional economic integration. Slowing economic growth in India: In 2013 an even sharper slowdown in India’s economic growth led some analysts to ask tougher questions about India’s economic future amidst numerous political economy challenges. A June 2013 report from Standard & Poor’s asked whether India might become the first of the BRICs to lose its investment grade rating. Indian citizens vote for governance (rise of the Aam Aadmi Party): The surprise result of the Delhi state-level election in India was the second-place showing of a barely year-old party, the Aam Aadmi (Ordinary Person) Party, which had campaigned explicitly on an anti-corruption platform. Even more surprising has been the unfolding process through which the AAP has sought to form the Delhi government, as no party gained a simple majority. As AAP seeks to extend its reach nationally, many will be looking to see what effect it might have on the national level. Nepal holds elections after five years, votes against Maoists: On November 19, Nepalis at last were able to vote for a new Constituent Assembly. The previous Assembly’s mandate had expired in May 2012, so Nepalis were without elected representatives for a year and a half. Voters had a firm message for the Maoists (they were not returned to power), and the Nepali Congress won 105 of 240 seats. The Assembly will have to get to work completing a new Constitution—the single most important and divisive task leftover from the previous Assembly. Sri Lanka’s struggle with legacy of conflict: In 2013, a second UN Human Rights Council resolution passed urging Sri Lanka to fulfill the recommendations of its own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission report following the 2009 end of the country’s civil war. While much has been done on reconstruction and return of the displaced, and this year the Northern Provincial Council at last elected its own local government,  substantial international concern about human rights and accountability questions overshadowed the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting hosted in Sri Lanka this year. Maldives votes in half-brother of former autocrat: Following more than a year and a half of extreme political polarization in Maldives, and a very complicated election process with a first round vote, a delayed run-off, an annulment of the September first round and November re-do, and then a final run-off, Maldivians elected the more conservative Abdulla Yameen, half-brother of former president Gayoom, over the internationally known former president Mohamed Nasheed. Mr. Nasheed conceded graciously.
  • China
    Friday Asia Update: Top Five Stories for the Week of November 15, 2013
    Sharone Tobias and Will Piekos look at the top five stories in Asia this week. 1. China announces sweeping reforms. A wide range of reforms were announced following China’s third plenum of the Eighteenth Party Congress, with many commentators surprised by the scope of  President Xi Jinping’s reform campaign. Though they are too expansive to go into detail here, issues that were tackled included: relaxation of the one-child policy, abolishment of the re-education through labor system, state-owned enterprise reform, interest rate and currency regime liberalization, and establishment of an economic reform working group and a new State Security Council. 2. Typhoon kills thousands in the Philippines. The Philippine government’s official web site reported 3,631 confirmed casualties from Typhoon Haiyan on Thursday, though the United Nations has raised the death toll to 4,460. The main casualties were residents of the city of Tacloban in central Philippines, where many complained of a lack of logistics support, manpower, and supplies. There have also been widespread accounts of looting. 3. China increases aid to devastated Philippines. China announced on Thursday that it is increasing its humanitarian assistance to the Philippines to $1.6 million after it was criticized for only offering $100,000—the new amount is still less than that ($2.7 million) donated by Swedish furniture company Ikea. Many believe that the small donation was a political statement related to the two countries’ territorial disputes in the South China Sea. By contrast, the United States is sending $20 million, Japan is providing $10 million in aid, and Indonesia is giving $2 million. The United States and Japan are also sending troops, naval vessels, and aircraft to aid the in the cleanup and assistance efforts. 4. Court order throws off Maldivian elections. A third attempt at presidential elections was derailed by a court order this week, pushing elections back to November 16. The two leading candidates for the Maldivian presidency, Mohamed Nasheed and Abdulla Yameen, will face off in a runoff election. Mr. Nasheed is expected to win, and his supporters believe the courts, which are loyal to Mr. Yameen’s half-brother (who ruled the Maldives for thirty years), are stalling. The opposition was also upset that the sitting president, Mohammed Waheed Hassan, did not leave office when his term expired; instead, he plans to wait until the runoff election. 5. Caroline Kennedy takes up post in Tokyo. The new U.S. ambassador to Japan arrived in Tokyo on Friday—she is the first woman to serve in the post. Her appointment was widely acclaimed in Japan, as she has the ear of President Obama and comes from a political family familiar to many. Bonus: Batman bin Suparman jailed in Singapore. A young man with the curious name Batman bin Suparman has been jailed on drugs and theft charges in Singapore. Suparman is a not-unheard-of surname in Indonesia; the prefix Su- is often found at the beginning of surnames in Java. Batman, however, is not an Indonesian name at all—it seems the man’s parents simply had an interesting sense of humor. Correction: a previous version of this post stated that China had donated $1.6 billion in aid, while Ikea provided $2.7 billion. The correct amounts are $1.6 million and $2.7 million, respectively.
  • Human Rights
    Maldivian Do-Over
    On Saturday, November 9, Maldivians will return to the polls, again, to vote for president. But instead of being an occasion for celebration of democratic consolidation following a difficult year and a half of political upheaval, Saturday’s presidential election represents an extraordinary and unprecedented do-over: they already held this election once before. On September 7, after months of preparations supported by the international community—diplomatically as well as technically, with experts from India, the International Federation of Electoral Systems, and the UN all working to support the Maldivian Election Commission’s efforts—voters went to the polls, with an excellent turnout of 88 percent, and delivered a process widely applauded as free and fair. Indeed, observers from the Commonwealth, the UN, India, and members of the diplomatic community all witnessed an election they judged as “transparent, fair, and credible.” The outcome was not decisive, as no party polled a majority of the votes, so despite the Maldivian Democratic Party’s (MDP) strong 45 percent showing, its plurality was not enough to win, and all seemed headed for the runoff required under the Maldivian Constitution. Preview of Maldives presidential election on November 9 (Courtesy Reuters) Within days a strange development unfolded: Qasim Ibrahim of the Jumhooree Party, which placed third, filed a case with the Supreme Court alleging “irregularities” in the voter rolls and demanding invalidation of the results. The Supreme Court accepted the case, later decided 4-3 in favor of Ibrahim’s petition, and annulled the September 7 results. But the judicial system itself is not a neutral player in Maldives. Just a few months ago, the UN special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers had noted in her May 2013 report on the Maldivian judiciary concerns about “impartiality of judges,” among others. In her sharp statement on the Maldivian elections, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay singled out the judiciary for “interfering excessively in the democratic process” and “subverting the democratic process and violating the rights of Maldivians to freely elect their representatives.” So extraordinary was this delay and review, in fact, that it prompted another unprecedented series of public statements from the international community (in addition to High Commissioner Pillay’s) expressing concerns and urging that the elections get “back on track”: the UK, Commonwealth, UN, India, EU, and the United States. This is a young democracy which only emerged from three decades of authoritarian, single-party rule in 2008, and which has a long list of weighty governance matters that they have to address urgently: precarious finances, climate and environmental problems, including dwindling tuna stocks (the second-largest source of foreign exchange after tourism), concerns about radical Islam and criminal gangs, religious freedom, and trafficking of persons. Maldives needs to overcome its political malaise and focus on dealing with the issues that threaten the livelihoods and well-being of its people. According to the constitution, a new president must be elected before November 11 to avoid a “constitutional void.” So Saturday’s election has a lot riding on it for the Maldives, on every front.