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South Asia

Saudi Prince Mohammed’s religious moderation unlikely to change Asian realities

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman may be seeking to revert his kingdom to an unspecified form of moderate Islam but erasing the impact of 40 years of global funding of ultra-conservative, intolerant strands of the faith is unlikely to be eradicated by decree.

Not only because ultra-conservatism has taken root in numerous Muslim countries and communities, but also because it has given opportunistic politicians a framework to pursue policies that appeal to bigoted and biased sentiments in bids to strengthen their grip on power. Nowhere is that more evident than in Asia, home to several of the Islamic world’s most populous countries.

Examples of the fallout abound among recipients of Saudi largess. They include institutionalized discrimination In Pakistan against Ahmadis, a sect considered heretic by orthodox Muslims, as well as biased policies towards non-Muslims and Shiites in Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Basic freedoms in Bangladesh are being officially and unofficially curtailed in various forms as a result of domestic struggles originally enabled by successful Saudi pressure to amend the country’s constitution in 1975 to recognize Islam as its official religion. The amendment was a condition for Saudi recognition of the young republic and the promise of substantial financial support.

Reports that Prince Mohammed in a dramatic gesture to Shiites, who have been discriminated against for years in the kingdom and demonized by its religious and political leaders as part of Saudi Arabia’s public affairs war with Iran, plans to visit the Shiite religious citadel of Najaf in Iraq is likely to do little to change things on the ground in Muslim majority nations in Asia.

Neither will his meetings with Christian religious luminaries in Egypt and elsewhere even if they demonstrate that Saudi Arabia, the custodian of Islam’s two most holy cities, is, under Prince Mohammed’s guidance, embracing principles of inter-faith dialogue and religious tolerance.

Reporting on a visit to the ultra-conservative Indonesian region of Aceh, Islam scholar Kamaruzzaman Bustamam-Ahmad noted that “supporters for anti-Shi’ah in Aceh are Wahabism, an Islamic political party, a group of young Acehnese who finished their study in the Middle East….They play their role in urban areas. After the Tsunami (in 2004), many of pesantrens (religious seminaries) from Wahabism were built in Aceh. They received funding from ‘outside’ Aceh.”

Bangladeshi journalist Ahmedur Rashid Chowdhury, who fled his country after a failed assassination attempt by religious militants, recently sketched Bangladesh’s migration from a nation founded with aspirations of “economic, political and intellectual emancipation” to one in which the “will of the military and its leadership was key in shaping politics towards selfishness and subornation” and “political parties are willing to go to any length to hold on to power.”

It was a process abetted by Saudi Arabia. Mr. Chowdhury noted that “the healthy trend of democratic and progressive politics was never able to regain a footing in Bangladesh” with freedom of speech and the press as one of its major casualties. Unlike human rights lawyer and writer Ikhtisad Ahmed, Mr. Chowdhury shied away from referring to the role of Saudi Arabia and Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism in his country’s political development.

One strand of ultra-conservatism, Salafism, that Saudi interior minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz wanted to elevate to an official Islamic school of thought shortly before his death in 2012, gained, according to  Mr. Ahmed, currency under the coalition government in the first years of the 21st century formed by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and Jamaat-e-Islami, a controversial group that opposed the country’s independence.

Like in Pakistan, of which Bangladesh was part until, 1971, the military as well as political parties maintained opportunistic ties to militants such as Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen and Harkat-ul-Jihad that were often as opposed to secularism as they were to Saudi-style monarchy.

As a result, Bangladesh, the world’s fourth largest Muslim nation, is at the heart of a struggle between liberalism and ultra-conservatism that questions Saudi Arabia’s legacy and is about reforms that go beyond anything envisioned by Prince Mohammed. It is a battle in which free-thinking, journalists, writers and intellectuals have paid a heavy price.

In the latest incident earlier this month, prominent scholar, award-winning science fiction author and outspoken critic of religious militants, Muhammed Zafar Iqbal was stabbed and seriously injured in a knife attack in the north-eastern town of Sylhet.

Mr. Iqbal was the latest victim of more than 30 machete attacks, shootouts, and bombings in Bangladesh in the past three years, including last year’s assault on the Holy Artisan Bakery in Dhaka in which 22 hostages were killed.

The country’s battle was fuelled by a 2010 Bangladesh Supreme Court decision to roll back the Saudi-inspired amendment of the constitution and restore secularism as its basic tenant as well as the execution of Jamaat-e-Islami leaders for war crimes during the 1971 Pakistani-Indian war that gave birth to Bangladesh.

In response, ultra-conservatives and militants demanded death for “atheists and apostates” who had demonstrated in favour of the death penalties, stricter anti-blasphemy legislation and a crackdown on alleged un-Islamic cultural practices.

To be sure, Saudi Arabia, a country that is itself in transition, is unlikely to be backing the ultra-conservatives and militants. Yet, their struggle and deep-seated polarization in Bangladesh are offshoots of the kingdom’s past ultra-conservative support and the creation of an environment in which politicians and state organs can opportunistically exploit religious sentiment.

Criticism of the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed’s weak response to the violence, if not inaction, coupled with the battle for the soul of Bangladesh serves as evidence that reversing the fallout of four decades of Saudi promotion of ultra-conservatism as an anti-dote to Iranian revolutionary zeal will take time and often be volatile. The same is true for efforts to counter creeping ultra-conservatism in countries like Indonesia and Malaysia.

In fact, what the struggles in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia suggest is that today’s culprits are not Saudi Arabia, even if it bears a responsibility, but politicians and/or national governments. Said Mr. Chowdhury: The failure to bring culprits to justice in many of the recent attacks in Bangladesh has “been the deliberate goal of the government. It supports their ambition to continue holding on to power by silencing critics and pandering to the religious right.”

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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South Asia

Pakistan’s Increasing Tilt towards China

M Waqas Jan

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In a recent interview with the Washington Post; Prime Minister Imran Khan was asked what kind of relationship he wanted from the US. He responded by pointing out Pakistan’s long and storied relationship with China as an example of a successful and mutually beneficial relationship. He explained how Pakistan’s relationship with China, unlike the US was not one-dimensional and built more on trade, respect and mutual cooperation. In doing so he in effect presented the underlying reasons why China is often termed as Pakistan’s ‘All-Weather’ friend.

In fact, the very notion of China being an ‘All-Weather’ friend is borne in contrast out of the US’s more fair-weather and sporadic approach to Pakistan. This approach has been evident in Pakistan’s long-standing complaints of how after helping the US repel the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan, Pakistan was left to pick up the pieces as the US unilaterally withdrew from the region, leaving behind a devastating humanitarian and political crisis. The last two decades’ war on terror for which Pakistan once again allied with the US is also following a similar blue-print, which the Prime Minister made clear was an example of history repeating itself. In defining his country’s most recent reservations against the US, he made it clear that Pakistan would no longer serve as a hired gun for the US, and desired a more equitable relationship based on mutual respect.

Considering how Pak-US relations have deteriorated over the last few years, the Prime Minister’s remarks come as little surprise to observers who have witnessed this uneasy partnership throughout its peaks and troughs. Yet, what’s striking is the fact that this is perhaps the first time that a Pakistani head of state has directly presented its relations with China as the ideal blue-print for which to measure the long and troubled history of Pak-US relations.

In contrast, the official narrative ascribed to the Pak-China bilateral framework, has stood out amongst diplomatic and policy-making circles due to the broad poetic license that has more recently been attributed to it. The oft-quoted phrase of how Pak-China Friendship is ‘higher than mountains, deeper than the ocean, stronger than steel and sweeter than honey’, has been repeatedly used by officials representing the highest levels of government, from both countries to emphasize the far-reaching significance of their bilateral relations.

This includes their significance both within a more localized context, as well as a broader more regional context as evident in the $62 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The corridor which promises an end to Pakistan’s development woes focuses instead on fostering peace and stability through economic growth and development. This is as opposed to the more security and strategically driven approach of the US, which has seen the region become increasingly violent and militarized. It is based on this difference that CPEC has been widely hailed as a viable solution to the relative instability and insecurity that has for years characterized the South Asian region.

However, over the past few months, Pak-China relations have themselves undergone an uncharacteristic period of friction and uncertainty. Interestingly, one of the major reasons behind this friction has been none other than the newly elected Prime Minister himself. As part of his anti-corruption campaign rhetoric leading up to the elections, he had promised greater over-sight and transparency with regard to Chinese investments under CPEC. This came at a time where growing trade and economic tensions between the US and China, had led to greater scrutiny and broad reservations against China’s rising influence the world over. Calls to re-evaluate China’s investments were echoed across countries such as Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Kenya; with allusions to unsustainable loans and China’s ‘Debt Trap Diplomacy’ doing the rounds amidst key influencers and policy-makers across the globe. Pakistan’s rising debt too was linked to CPEC projects by none other than the US secretary of State, who had ruled out the possibility of US loans being used to bail out Chinese bond-holders in Pakistan.

Prime Minister Imran Khan has since gone to great lengths to dispel such sentiments, as was evident in his official visit to Beijing last month. In all his statements, he has been careful in acknowledging the benefits of China’s strategic partnership with Pakistan, and has lauded China’s tremendous achievements in eradicating poverty; something that he wants to emulate as part of his own government’s policies. His recent statements in the above-mentioned interview too, are based in part on these same reasons.

Taken together, the PM’s statements thus present a clear and very public declaration that the Pakistani government is quite willingly choosing to side with China in the ongoing US-China economic rivalry. Unlike before where Pakistan had to carefully balance its strategic relationships between China and the US, China’s grand overtures and the US’s more inward focus on ‘America First’ have accelerated Pakistan’s gradual tilt towards China. With the US-China rivalry currently seeming far from any sort of resolution, Pakistan’s need to pick a side in favor of the other represents a clear indication of which side the government believes its long-terms interests lie with.

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South Asia

Sirimavo of Sri Lanka: Refocusing on World’s first Women Prime Minister

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Authors: Srimal Fernando and Pooja Singh*

In 1970s, there was a time when Sirimavo Bandaranaike caught the global attention and her premiership was one of the most momentous times in Sri Lanka’s political history. On 21 July, 1960, she became the first ever woman Prime Minister of Sri Lanka (formally known as Ceylon) and the world. Even today nearly half a century later, Sirimavo’s name is remembered among the thousands of Sri Lankans and among the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) supporters. Thus the Sri Lankan voters expectations about Sirimavo rose within no time after the unfortunate assassination of her husband S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike in 1959.

In the summer of 1970, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) , the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) and also the Communist Party (CP) was sweeping electorates in a general election by winning 115 seats out of 151. In essence, Sirimavo’s administration presented far-reaching constitutional and socio-economic reforms that were suitable for a small island nation.  In fact Mrs. Bandaranaike handled the transfer of island nation becoming a republic under a new constitution tactfully. In this context, Dr. N.M. Perera, Felix Dias Bandaranaike, Philip Gunawardena was some of the primary shapers of her administration. At that time, unlike her predecessors, the former premier showed great interest in developing cement, paper, steel and chemical industries. Despite promising signs under her leadership, uneven inequalities from 1948 to 1970 and economic stagnation created tensions within rural masses. Surprisingly, a coup in 1971 by the southern insurgents headed by Rohana Wijeweera, the leader of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) shattered the hopes of Bandaranaike government for a short time. Although coup was unsuccessful because of Sri Lanka’s military support to premier’s rule.

It is noteworthy to mention Sirimavo era solidified Sri Lanka’s foreign policy in the coming decades, which set the stage for the island to increase bilateral ties with India and China. In fact, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was a trustworthy friend of Mrs. Bandaranaike. This period also saw the closest bilateral relations between the neighbouring countries. Especially, Mrs. Bandaranaike was a giant among Non-Alignment leaders. In the summer of 1976 at the fifth Non Aligned Movement (NAM) summit held at the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall(BMICH) in Colombo, Mrs. Bandaranaike stated, “The non-aligned countries should fight against injustice, intolerance, inequality, old concept of empire and intervention.”

On the domestic political scenario, the opposition leader J.R. Jayewardene and his deputy Ranasinghe Premadasa had been outspoken critics of Sirimavo Bandaranaike policies. When she lost 1977 general elections, it was extremely a difficult situation for Mrs. Bandaranaike and for the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) coalition partners who had developed a remarkable sense for socialist political culture within the multicultural society in  Sri Lanka. Seven years later Mrs. Bandaranaike had lost her civic rights, the party hierarchy nominated veteran SLFP stalwart Hector Kobbekaduwa for the forthcoming referendum. The Referendum results did not reflect the true situation. Then while the    atmosphere began to change in the island country after the eruption of ethnic conflict and signing of the Indo-Lanka accord. This scenario caused strong anti-United National Party (UNP) regime change feeling.  In a closely fought presidential election in 1988, the SLFP leader Mrs. Bandaranaike lost to UNP presidential candidate Mr. Premadasa. There were no immediate solutions to the crisis in Sri Lanka under Premadasa’s presidency.  Hence  in  the South, due to the JVP uprising and the Tamil tiger (LTTE) attacks in Northern and Eastern provinces, conditions inside the Island nation was going from bad to worse.

At the same time, the crisis in the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP)  came to surface and the party was divided into several wings.  Thus, the time had come for SLFP party unity for doing away with the seventeen years United National Party (UNP) rule. Mrs. Bandaranaike was convinced that it was time for a new generation of party leadership. She opened the corridors of political power to Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, Mahinda Rajapaksa, and Maithripala Sirisena who later became presidents of Sri Lanka. In late years, Mrs. Bandaranaike was a prime minister for a short time from when her daughter Mrs. Kumaratunga was president. On the Foreign Policy front she reworked strong bilateral ties with India and China and her policies remained important for Non Aligned Movement (NAM) nations and for India  and China ties with Sri Lanka. After more than fifty years of service to the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), to the nation many of the Sri Lankan’s were finding it hard to come to terms with Sirimavo’s sudden death on 10th October, 2000.Late premier Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s pragmatic policies mattered very much for the South Asian island nation, the region and to the world at large.

* Pooja Singh, a scholar of Masters in Diplomacy, Law, Business at Jindal School of International Affairs, India.

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South Asia

Indian Human Rights violation in Kashmir

Adeela Ahmed

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In International conflict management, the models and approaches to solve the deep-rooted issue are vital and applicable but these models became fragile if any one of the belligerent states lacks the intent to solve any tangible solution. India rigid stance of avoiding any Peace Talks on Kashmir issue is the main irritant between rivalries which derails the conflict resolution. It is far important for rivalries to elucidate the dispute to move ahead.  Because it is ultimate truth that all the conflict and crises have an alternate way of tenacity.

In South Asian framework, Indian strategic ambitions are the main stumbling block in the way of Kashmir Resolution. While in the Global framework, major powers like Russia and USA military and then ideological interests compels states not to play any significant role for the resolution of Kashmir conflict.

Kashmiri Freedom Movement started from 1931 and still in 2018 it is constantly being exploited in the hands of Indian aggressive leaders. From 87 years, Indian barbarism is not a top-secret. Indian wanted to sideline and suppress the Kashmir issue in the prism of their national interests but the issue will remain alive with determined efforts of the Kashmiri and Pakistani people, human right activists, political and military leaders. The issue of Jammu and Kashmir must be resolved as per aspirations of Kashmiris.

Pakistanis and Kashmiris across the world chronicled their protest against Indian brutality and illegitimate occupation in Kashmir. Struggle for freedom of Kashmiri people will one day succeed by the grace of Almighty Allah.  Each day is like a black day until the resolution of Jammu and Kashmir with the consent of Kashmiri people.

There are many pragmatic choices for the resolution of Kashmir issue but the real dilemma is that India is not ready to come on Table for Peace talks due to their hegemonic ambitions. Recent Talks at UNGA 73rd session was also negated by Indian. As a rational nuclear state, they should realize that Kashmir is a nuclear flashpoint. Both the nuclear states should talk constructively and negotiations are the only way forward in which mutual national interests must be considered.

In 1948, it was India who went to United Nations and then it was decided unanimously a plebiscite in Kashmir. It is the right of every Kashmiri to decide his destiny indigenously. As there are no law enforcement agencies of international organizations to implement its resolution but the role of P-5 states can facilitate for resolution. Till now no such role is played by them but the importance of UN forum cannot be negated as states like Pakistan can raise their voices at international level against Human Rights violations.

The Indian occupational forces under the cover of Armed Forces Special Protection Act (AFSPA) and other black laws frequently involve in religious cleansing of Muslims. After the martyrdom of Burhan Wani in 2016 Indian forces started using most dangerous weapons of pellet firing shotgun. Where are Human Rights Law against the killing of innocent Kashmiris? The lives of Kashmiris are as important the people killed in 9/11, London attacks, in Mumbai attack or a single Indian soldier. The US fought the war on terror and still engage in most complex war but What about Terror of India in Kashmir. Kashmir needs not to be forgotten at all. US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo asked Pakistan to abandon terrorist attacks into India but from Where Kashmiri demand Freedom. The US needs to let her interest go, at least for once, to settle the Kashmir issue. For Pakistan, it is not just a matter of territorial importance but relates to the lives of Kashmiri people who are suffering at the hands of India’s state terrorism.

Modi government is supporting to have Direct Talks with the Taliban, but when it is about Kashmir, they became silent. There is a dire need for the Indian government to review their mindless Kashmir policy. Kashmiri people must be given the right of plebiscite to decide them their destiny. Pakistan’s foreign policy is on right direction that the tools of diplomacy need to be improved for better results and peace process is the only way forward.

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