Pessimism growing in Pakistan

December 20, 2008

Pakistanis are becoming increasingly pessimistic about prospects for their country and for themselves. According to an opinion poll conducted by the International Republican Institute (IRI), a US-based group that promotes democracy, about 88 per cent Pakistanis feel their country is headed in the wrong direction, 59 per cent say the next year will be worse than the current year and 67 per cent believe democracy has made no difference to their wellbeing.

Read the Dawn report here, and click here for the the full IRI survey:



Death of a salesman and other elite ironies

December 6, 2008

Tarun J Tejpal in Tehelka:

What the Indian elite is discovering today on the debris of fancy eateries is an acidic truth large numbers of ordinary Indians are forced to swallow every day. Children who die of malnutrition, farmers who commit suicide, dalits who are raped and massacred, tribals who are turfed out of centuryold habitats, peasants whose lands are taken over for car factories, minorities who are bludgeoned into paranoia – these, and many others, know that something is grossly wrong. The system does not work, the system is cruel, the system is unjust, the system exists to only serve those who run it. Crucially, what we, the elite, need to understand is that most of us are complicit in the system. In fact, chances are the more we have – of privilege and money – the more invested we are in the shoring up of an unfair state.

IT IS time each one of us understood that at the heart of every society is its politics. If the politics is third-rate, the condition of the society will be no better. For too many decades now, the elite of India has washed its hands off the country’s politics. Entire generations have grown up viewing it as a distasteful activity. In an astonishing perversion, the finest imaginative act of the last thousand years on the subcontinent, the creation and flowering of the idea of modern India through mass politics, has for the last 40 years been rendered infra dig, déclassé, uncool. Let us blame our parents, and let our children blame us, for not bequeathing onwards the sheer beauty of a collective vision, collective will, and collective action. In a word, politics: which, at its best, created the wonder of a liberal and democratic idea, and at its worst threatens to tear it down.


Lessons in Gross National Happiness

November 24, 2008

A chat with Bhutan’s first elected prime minister. Emily Parker in the Wall Street Journal:

thinleyJigmi Y. Thinley, Bhutan’s first democratically elected prime minister, describes his five-year term as “a period within which we will have to prove to the people that democracy itself is worthwhile.” That sounds like a lot of pressure. But when I meet Mr. Thinley at the Bhutan Mission in New York City, he seems quite calm. “I’m not losing sleep,” he admits. Mr. Thinley, born in 1950, is wearing a Western suit. He studied in the U.S., and his English is so articulate that it borders on poetic.

Bhutan’s road to democracy was paved by the fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who decided that the country’s destiny should not be left to accidents of birth. Bhutan is now a constitutional monarchy, and its fifth king was coronated this month.

Many Bhutanese were initially squeamish about democracy. But the election, comprising of two parties with fairly similar agendas, was remarkably peaceful.


Democracy for Maldives

November 2, 2008

For many Westerners, the Maldives represents the peak of aspirational tourism but lurking behind the paradisiacal façade is a grim story of poverty and exploitation. From New Statesman:

The statistics do jar. A number of tiny, uninhabited islands are auctioned every year, fetching around £30m each. A survey conducted by the Tourism Employees Association of the Maldives (TEAM) showed that basic workers’ pay was between $80-$120 per month, although even the very lowest end resorts had an annual income of $3-4million. Fishing stocks are hugely depleted and fresh fruit and vegetables bypass local residents, going directly to tourist islands. The UN recently found that over 30 per cent of Maldivian children under the age of five suffer from malnutrition.

Barnett notes the lack of international awareness. “Gayoom’s regime was so repressive that it is very hard to get information out…”


Previously in AW: Ex-prisoner defeats ‘dictator’ president of Maldives

His Majesty the Druk Gyalpo

October 31, 2008

Bhutan will crown its fifth king, the 27-year-old Oxford-educated King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, on November 6. Jigme Khesar became king late in 2006 after his father, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, abdicated. The coronation was delayed because astrologers said 2007 was not an auspicious time for the young king to be crowned. King Jigme Singye Wangchuck established a parliamentary democracy in the Himalayan Kingdom with the monarch as head of state.

Kinley Dorji at Kuensel on what the coronation means:

It is the end – and the beginning – of history. On the morning of November 1, the third day of the ninth Bhutanese month, His Majesty the King will be empowered as the Druk Gyalpo in a unique and sacred empowerment ceremony, which symbolises his transcendence of the ordinary and the temporal and the personification of divine wisdom.

His Majesty will receive the Dar Na-Nga, a special arrangement of the primary colours that signify the five elements. The ceremony will take place in the Machhen Lhakhang, and the Dar Na-Nga will be symbolically conferred by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, in the presence of the fourth Druk Gyalpo, with the empowerment prayer chanted by His Holiness the Je Khenpo.

The white, yellow, red, green, and blue silk scarves represent the elements – water, earth, fire, wind, and space – the basis of physical existence, that His Majesty personifies, as well as the underlying energies from which the physical world arises.


Ex-prisoner defeats ‘dictator’ president of Maldives

October 30, 2008

Mohamed “Anni” Nasheed, a former Amnesty International prisoner of conscience, defeated President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom in the Maldives’ first democratic presidential election. Gayoom has been the Maldives’ undisputed President for 30 years.

Here’s the Reuters story:

Nasheed’s victory caps a remarkable journey for an activist whose criticism of Gayoom and crusading for democracy saw him charged 27 times and jailed or banished to remote atolls for a total of six years.

“This is a happier day than ever in the history of the Maldives. The Maldives will change, it will have a peaceful government,” said Nasheed, 41, who was just 11 years old when Gayoom took power in 1978. More here, and here

The BBC’s Adam Mynott – who has visited the country many times – has this assessment:

I recorded an interview with Mr Gayoom for the BBC in 2005 when he denied a number of allegations that he had suppressed free speech and thrown political opponents into jail.

International human rights bodies point to a catalogue of opposition figures being incarcerated without trial in the dreaded Maafusi Jail. More:

And click here for the profile of Mohamed Nasheed, the new President-elect of the Maldives.

15 people the next US President should listen to

September 24, 2008

Wired magazine has a “Smart List of 15 Wired people” it says the next president should listen to. These 15 are “the best minds” on climate change, the military, space exploration, democracy, global health, terrorism, China and India. They have “big ideas about how to fix the things that need fixing.” The list includes:

Jagdish Bhagwati: As the world’s preeminent globalization buff, Jagdish Bhagwati doesn’t toe standard party lines. The Columbia University economist, 74, who has advised everyone from the Indian government to the World Trade Organization, is a rare nonpartisan in a field dominated by ideologues. A registered Democrat who is willing to face down the anti-free-trade wing of his own party, Bhagwati is also comfortable arguing against what he sees as the compassion-free laissez-faire attitude exhibited by many of his fellow globalization advocates.

Parag Khanna: In his book The Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order, Khanna, 31, describes a planet dominated by a trio of superpowers: the US, China, and Europe. In this tripolar era, America’s fate depends on tough national choices, not lame historical analogies. If the US wises up – by tightening trade and energy ties to the rest of the hemisphere, pursuing economic innovation at home, and establishing a “diplomatic-industrial complex” – it can grow stronger even as the globe becomes less red, white, and blue.

Ram Shriram: In the face of terrorism, global warming, and economic stagnation, spectrum policy may not seem like a top presidential priority. But it ought to be. Ram Shriram, a venture capitalist who helped fund Google a decade ago, says wireless carriers are hamstringing the mobile industry. He advocates opening the airwaves – and even mounted an (unsuccessful) bid on a chunk of radio spectrum in January. What’s at stake? “The greatest wave of innovation since the PC-platform era.”


Pakistan’s bleakest moment

September 18, 2008

On BBC, Ahmed Rashid takes a look at how Pakistan is facing its bleakest moment, months after getting a new democratic government.

Just when Pakistanis thought they had a new democracy, ushering in a new civilian government, a new president and the end of eight years of military rule, they are faced with the bleakest moment in the country’s history.

Proverbially listed as a failing state, this precariously poised country could now be in a downward spiral towards becoming a failed state.

Internationally isolated and condemned by the world community due to its Afghan policy, Pakistan’s tribal territories have become a free for all firing range for US troops even as the domestic threat from the Pakistani Taleban multiplies.


Long live democracy until the next dictator

August 23, 2008

What does the future hold for Pakistan? Ayesha Siddiqa, author of Military Inc, spins four different political scenarios which could hold the key to a stable democracy. From Tehelka:

“Ma’am, are you happy with this decision?” was what the makeup woman at the GEO television channel asked me on President Pervez Musharraf’s resignation. The uncertainty in her voice brought home to me the fact that there was no consensus on the future of the country now that the greatest challenge to democracy, as official voices from Islamabad claimed, was gone. She did not even belong to the chattering classes of Islamabad – she was just an ordinary women asking a simple question, answering which in today’s Pakistan is a sobering experience.

Since Musharraf took over in October 1999, he had been claiming that he had turned the country around. In his resignation speech on August 18, he claimed that the economy was in good shape, showing a seven percent GDP growth rate, Pakistan has been declared part of the Next-11 states to show signs of rapid development, and was now taken seriously by international players. His development indicators were the increase in the number of mobile phones, cars and motorcycles. Yet, people were out on the streets distributing sweets and dancing at his departure. Ironically, in 1999 the same people had welcomed the ouster of the Nawaz Sharif regime by Musharraf.

Is something wrong with Pakistanis? Can they not make up their minds about whether they like a military dictatorship or democracy? Are Pakistanis not capable of handling democracy?


After Musharraf, U.S. Struggles to Find New Pakistan Ally Against Taliban

In the New York Times, Jane Perlez analyses the situation in Pakistan:

With Mr. Musharraf out of power, recent visitors to the United States Embassy here say American officials have been at a loss – one used the word “struggling” – to figure out who America should throw its weight behind.

On Friday, the country’s biggest party, the Pakistan Peoples Party, said it was nominating its leader, Asif Ali Zardari, for president, a post he may end up winning in an electoral college vote scheduled for Sept. 6.

That could make Mr. Zardari America’s default ally, though the next president’s full range of powers, and his commitment and ability to fight the Taliban insurgency, as Washington would like, are far from clear.


Charlatans of democracy

August 16, 2008

Triumphalism over a Musharraf impeachment won’t hide the failings of Pakistan’s ruling coalition. Fatima Bhutto in The Guardian:

Fatima Bhutto

Fatima Bhutto

The murky abyss of Pakistani politics has been especially murky over recent months, and true to form it just keeps getting murkier. The one thing that is absolute when dealing with the dregs that run my country is this: nothing is ever as it seems. Nowhere is that more true than in the current scenario involving President Musharraf’s likely impeachment by the ruling coalition.

“It has become imperative to move for impeachment,” barked Benazir Bhutto’s widower, Asif Zardari, at a press conference in Islamabad last week. Sitting beside the new head of the Pakistan People’s party was Nawaz Sharif, twice formerly prime minister of Pakistan. Zardari snarled every time Musharraf’s name came up, seething with political rage and righteousness, while Sharif did his best to keep up with the pace of things. He nodded sombrely and harrumphed every once in a while. The two men are acting for democracy, you see. And impeaching dictators is a good thing for democracies, you know.


Musharraf will be gone in days

The Pakistani president is likely to quit soon. But don’t expect democracy to rush in: the military’s habits die hard. Tariq Ali in The Guardian:

Tariq Ali

Tariq Ali

There is never a dull moment in Pakistan. As the country moved from a moth-eaten dictatorship to a moth-eaten democracy the celebrations were muted. Many citizens wondered whether the change represented a forward movement.

Five months later, the moral climate has deteriorated still further. All the ideals embraced by the hopeful youth and the poor of the country – political morality, legality, civic virtue, food subsidies, freedom and equality of opportunity – once again lie at their feet, broken and scattered. The widower Bhutto and his men are extremely unpopular. The worm-eaten tongues of chameleon politicians and resurrected civil servants are on daily display. Removing Musharraf, who is even more unpopular, might win the politicians badly-needed popular support, but not for long.


The high and the low

July 24, 2008

Two performances in Indian Parliament that everyone is talking about: A stirring speech by a young MP, and a cash-for-votes scandal.

Nepal: the world’s newest republic

June 21, 2008

In The Telegraph, UK, Thomas Bell reports from Kathmandu:

In his last act before leaving his palace last week, Nepal’s former king, Gyanendra, tried something he never attempted during his disastrous experiment with autocratic rule.

He decided to call a press conference – and for dismayed royalists the ensuing scene encapsulated the fall of an ancient institution that had collapsed from within.

Excited journalists climbed on the palace furniture. They posed for pictures in the chair where Gyanendra would sit, flanked by two stuffed tigers. When the ex-king arrived they heckled him with the rudest words in the Nepali language.


The king gone, Nepal must confront a new danger

June 3, 2008

Unless the deadlock over government formation is broken soon, the constitution writing process will be compromised, writes Siddharth Varadarajan in The HIndu:

Nearly a week after the abolition of the monarchy in Nepal, a democratically formed coalition government still eludes the world’s youngest republic. Instead of introspecting over the reasons for their defeat in the elections to the Constituent Assembly, the Nepali Congress and the Unified Marxist-Leninists are behaving like victors. And the Maoists, who came first but still lack a majority, have yet to master the art of compromise without which there can be no coalit ional politics. At stake is not just the question of governance but something much more fundamental. For unless the deadlock over government formation is resolved quickly, the political atmosphere in the country will get so vitiated that enormous and perhaps irreparable harm will be done to the prospects of writing the country’s new constitution.

Nepal’s voters want the Maoists to lead the government and process of constitution writing, but only on the basis of power sharing. That is why they gave the former rebels 220 out of the 575 elected seats in the Constituent Assembly (CA) but withheld the two-thirds majority needed to allow them to run a single-party government under the terms of the interim constitution. Of course, the Maoists have never said they wanted to run the government by themselves. As soon as the election results became known six weeks ago, Chairman Prachanda extended an invitation to the others to join a government under his leadership. The terms of power sharing had been clearly spelt out by both the text of the interim constitution and the spirit of its working over the past 18 months and it was assumed that these arrangements would carry over.


The solitude of a king

April 20, 2008

With the Maoists set to dominate the new Constituent Assembly, Nepal’s king may soon loose his crown. In The Indian Express, Yubaraj Ghimire weighs the royal options:

For almost two years now, King Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev has been in isolation. He has become a ‘punching bag’ of sorts for Nepalese politicians and to some extent, the international community, a symbol for everything that ailed Nepal. And, of course, everybody holds him responsible for his fate. He is hardly spotted in public these days, and when he is, it is without the trapping of royalty. He remains mostly confined to the Narayanhiti Palace. Even this could be for a short while longer, for if the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoists (CPN-M) does what it has pledged to, Nepal will be a republic on the first day that the newly elected Constituent Assembly sits.

The emergence of the Maoists as the single-largest party in the forthcoming Assembly, and the likelihood of a government under its leadership, has sent out the message that time and tide don’t wait for anyone. And in this tsunami of change, Nepal-which lost its status as an officially Hindu nation two years ago-looks set to lose the world’s only Hindu monarch whose forefather began the Shah dynasty 240 years ago.

Nepal is now speculating over the king’s future. Will he seek asylum in India? Will he counter the political tide? Or will he live on in Nepal as an ordinary citizen?


Nepal’s “radical Democrat”

April 17, 2008

Flanked by portraits of Marx, Lenin, Stalin and Mao, Baburam Bhattarai, the chief ideologue of the Nepal’s Maoists, spoke to Nepali Times about sleepless nights, his party’s economic agenda and about whether he’d been offered the prime ministership.

Nepali Times: How does it feel to arrive here after the long journey from a village in Gorkha?
Baburam Bhattarai: There is a deep sense of responsibility, and that comes from the fact that I was born in an ordinary village family, my mother can’t read or write, my father is a farmer. As a child I used to tend livestock and help in the farm, and when I went to high school I had to carry water and cook for myself. From that to be able to go to a good school and be educated, and to have that contrast in one lifetime is fascinating in a way. But now we have been brought to this position where we have to try to resolve issues of national importance, there are enormous aspirations, there is lots to do but we have very little time and resources. It makes us somewhat anxious, thinking about whether we can do it or not. There are sleepless nights, getting up at three in the morning and not being able to go back to sleep.


Nepal’s perilous ascent

April 10, 2008

Manjushree Thapa, the author of “Forget Kathmandu: An Elegy for Democracy,” in The New York Times:

Nepalis will vote today for the first time since a democratic uprising in 2006 that rejected King Gyanendra Shah’s absolute rule and led to a peace deal that ended a 10-year Maoist insurgency. This is not an ordinary election. We will be voting for a 601-member constituent assembly that will draft a new constitution that most likely will abolish the monarchy and will certainly restructure Nepal.

It is compelling, and moving, to live through the remaking of one’s nation.

Still, Katmandu has grown hushed and watchful, and anxious, as Election Day has neared. In previous weeks, the political parties staged rallies, canvassed door to door, and filled the streets with scratchy loudspeaker announcements imploring us to vote.

[Nepal is voting in landmark elections today, March 10]


Of monarchs and Maoists

April 9, 2008

Kunda Dixit, editor of the Nepali Times, in The Wall Street Journal:

It’s been over a decade since the Maoists declared war on Nepal’s monarchy, and two years since King Gyanendra abdicated his throne. If all goes well on Thursday, both eras – of Maoists and monarchs – could come to an end, as voters cast their ballots for a 601-member assembly that will draft the country’s new constitution.

This election is critical for Nepal’s future. Since the King abdicated his throne in April 2006, elections had to be postponed twice because political leaders – both Maoists and from the parties – who thought they would lose colluded to have it postponed. The Maoists resigned from the government and rejoined it, and the country seemed to be on the brink of war again. Then, unrest on the plains bordering India threatened an ethnic conflict.

[Photo: King Gyanendra (left) and Prachanda]


In Nepal, hope and (some) fear on the campaign trail

Nepal goes to the polls on Thursday in an election that could bring the Maoists into mainstream democratic politics and spell the end of the monarchy. Simon Denyer of Reuters has the story.

High in the Himalayas, impoverished, ill-governed Nepal is hoping its first elections in nine years will help cement peace after a decade-long civil war, and allow it finally to join its booming big brother, India, in a new era of prosperity.

Two years after mass street protests brought an end to an ill-fated period of royal rule, the vote will also formally restore democracy to Nepal. “It is not going to solve everything overnight, but it is closure for one chapter in our history and the beginning of a new one,” said Kunda Dixit, editor of the Nepali Times.

Yet the challenges ahead are immense, not least because violence and intimidation have seriously marred the campaign and could undermine the voting day itself.


Former US President Jimmy Carter is in Kathmandu as an observer. He tells Kantipur Online’s Prateek Pradhan, Narayan Wagle, Damakant Jayshi and Dinesh Wagle that the election will end conflict and establish a republic.

Former US President Jimmy Carter said that the constituent assembly election in Nepal – on Thursday – would end armed conflict and establish a new republic in the country.

“I see this election as doing two things basically: one is ending an armed conflict, and secondly forming a new republic with an end to the dominating royalty,” Carter said during an exclusive interview with the Post and its sister paper, Kantipur here on Tuesday. “We are very excited about the prospects of this country finding peace and also finding democracy based on republic. It is a very wonderful achievement.”


And on how the Carter Center is observing this historic election click here.

Burma draft constitution bars Suu Kyi

April 1, 2008

Burma’s generals intend to block the Burmese democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, from ever leading her country, according to leaked copies of a new constitution drafted by the country’s military junta.

The 194-page draft constitution, which was circulating yesterday among Burmese and foreign journalists in Rangoon, states that anyone with family connections to foreigners is not eligible to stand as president. But the document, which will be put to a constitutional referendum in May, does not impose the same restriction on ministers or those who run as members of parliament.

Ms Suu Kyi’s two sons by her late husband, the British academic Michael Aris, are British citizens, which would seem to rule her out unequivocally from the highest post.


And at The Irrawaddy:

In Pakistan, U.S. swallows a bitter pill

March 28, 2008

The U.S. deputy secretary of state bore the brunt of a range of complaints that Pakistanis now feel freer to air with the end of military rule. Jane Perlez from Islamabad in The New York Times:

If it was not yet clear to Washington that a new political order prevailed here, the three-day visit this week by America’s chief diplomat dealing with Pakistan should put any doubt to rest.

The visit by Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte turned out to be series of indignities and chilly, almost hostile, receptions as he bore the brunt of the full range of complaints that Pakistanis now feel freer to air with the end of military rule by Washington’s favored ally, President Pervez Musharraf.

Faced with a new democratic lineup that is demanding talks, not force, in the fight against terrorism, Mr. Negroponte publicly swallowed a bitter pill at his final news conference on Thursday, acknowledging that there would now be some real differences in strategy between the United States and Pakistan.


Defending dictatorship: Another view on Pakistan

March 25, 2008

S. Abbas Raza in n+1

musharraf.jpgA military dictatorship is a military dictatorship, and a democracy is a democracy. And the latter is always automatically better than the former. It is safer to agree with this statement and to look at every particular complex political situation through the lens of this cliché than to risk having one’s liberal-democratic credentials questioned. But as a friend of mine once remarked, “All arguments for democracy in Pakistan are theoretical. For dictatorships, the greatest argument is the actual experience of Pakistani democracies.” Very similarly, another friend recently commented that “There are of course no theoretical arguments for a dictatorship, only practical ones.” In the case of Pakistan, the last two civilian democratic governments were sham democracies, and while I by no means support everything Pervez Musharraf has done, especially recently, there are various things for which his government deserves praise. Moreover, while George W. Bush may have gotten almost everything else wrong, his Pakistan policy has been basically sound.


[via 3quarksdaily]

What use is democracy to idyllic Bhutan?

March 23, 2008

William Dalrymple in The Telegraph, UK:


There could be no better illustration of the virtues of an enlightened monarchy than Bhutan. Even before your plane touches down amid the steeply tiered rice terraces of the Paro valley, you realise how different this idyllic country is from its Himalayan neighbours.

Instead of the urban concrete sprawl of Kathmandu and Simla – romantic names, but disappointingly shabby realities – you pass over green hillsides dotted with large white Tibetan-style farmhouses made of stone and wood, with intricately carved balconies and verandahs.

Instead of clouds of pollution rising from corrugated iron roofing, there are thin wraiths of cloud hanging above thick conifer slopes. Instead of bare, deforested hills with landslips and erosion, there are great ranges of mountains clad with virgin deodar forests.

[Photo: The timber seats of the new parliament building being built in Bhutan]


Bhutan: First step towards democracy

March 22, 2008

From Associated Press (via IHT):

bhutanking.jpg bhutancrownprince.jpg

Thimphu, Bhutan: The command came from the king, as commands normally do in a nation where royalty has ruled for a century. But when the Precious Ruler of the Dragon People spoke that day, he stunned this deeply isolated corner of the Himalayas: The age of monarchs is ending, he said, and power should be yours.

That was a little over two years ago. Now, on the eve of national elections Monday that will upend a system rooted in feudal monarchism, much of the country remains unconvinced there should even be a vote.

Just ask the candidates. “If you had a referendum, even today, Bhutan would reject democracy. That’s the ground reality,” said Khandu Wangchuk, the burly, gravel-voiced former foreign minister who is running for a seat in the western town of Paro. “But there’s no use wishing democracy away.”

What most people want is what they’ve always had: a powerful king.

[Photo: Bhutan's King and the Crown Prince]


Smile census: Bhutan counts its blessings

In The Wall Street Journal, Peter Wonacott reports from Thimphu:


GNH (Gross National Happiness) is about to face a series of big tests. On Monday, Bhutan will hold its first democratic election. That will install a parliament, pass a new constitution and dilute the powers of a popular monarch. Later this year, Bhutan plans to join the World Trade Organization, even though its industry comprises little more than high-end tourism and hydroelectric power.

As Bhutan enters these uncharted political and economic waters, its leaders want to prove that they can achieve economic growth while maintaining good governance, protecting the environment and preserving an ancient culture. To do that, they’ve decided to start calculating GNH. It means coming up with an actual happiness index that can be tracked over time.

[Photo: The Punakha dzong, one of Bhutan's most beautiful buildings]


A new deal in Pakistan

March 18, 2008

William Dalrymple in the New York Review of Books:

You can see the results of a system dominated by landowners in a town like Khairpur, a short distance from Sukkur in the northern part of Sindh. As you drive along, the turban-clad head of the local feudal lord, Sadruddin Shah, with a curling black mustache, sneers down from billboards placed every fifty yards along the road. Shah, who was standing, as usual, for no less than three different seats, is often held up in the liberal Pakistani press as the epitome of all that is worst about Pakistani electoral feudalism. After all, this is a man who goes electioneering not with leaflets setting out his program, but with five pickup trucks full of his men armed with pump-action shotguns and Kalashnikovs.


On the long road to freedom, finally

March 2, 2008

In Tehelka William Dalrymple writes of the role of Pakistan’s emerging middle class in shaping a democratic future


Two events in the last three months have radically changed the course of Indo-Pak relations, and have the potential to radically alter the future direction of South Asian history.

The first of these events took place on November 24, 2007. On this day, a suicide bomber detonated himself beside a bus at the entrance of Camp Hamza, the ISI’s Islamabad headquarters. Around twenty people died in what is the first known attack by an Islamist cell against the Pakistan intelligence services. Many of the dead were ISI staffers. This event, coming as it did after three assassination attempts on General Musharraf, several other bomb attacks on army barracks, and the murder of many captured army personnel in Waziristan, is credited with persuading even the most pro-Islamist elements in the Pakistan army, and the agencies, that the jehadi Frankenstein’s monster they have created now has to be dispatched with a stake in its heart, and as soon possible.


Bhutan: Small wonder

March 2, 2008

As the people of Bhutan prepare to go to the polls this month in the tiny Himalayan kingdom’s first general election, Patrick French discovers their remarkable achievements and asks how the success of a royal dynasty may have blunted the desire for democracy. In The Telegraph, UK:


Bhutan is the most beautiful country in the world. You fly in over the Himalayas, the plane cruising at the height of the mountain peaks, and watch the snow glistening in the sheer, sharp sunlight. A white blueness envelops the sky and, before you know it, the little Druk Air plane is dropping into a golden river valley and slaloming its way to Paro, the only airport in Bhutan.

You pass all the mountains: Cho Oyu, Mount Everest, Makalu, each peak spiking in a web of frosted snow and giving way to a further peak, the blank whiteness of the summit becoming a filigree of ice trails as your eyes descend to the lower ridges and see stepped fields and trees, the last great undestroyed Himalayan forests, and bump now on air pockets as the plane turns into the next valley and makes its way towards earth. The other passengers, Americans and Germans with padded ski jackets and virtuous hairstyles, are so busy crowding over to the left of the plane to snap photographs that I fear we will list to port.

[Photo: Would-be voters during another dummy run in December.]


Training reporters to cover elections

Andrea Bernstein, political director of New York Public Radio WNYC, was selected to train 20 Bhutanese reporters as the country prepares for its first-ever elections. The invitation came from Bhutan’s daily newspaper, Kuensel. Bernstein spent a week in Bhutan. Read her blog:

…Today, we began the training (because of the time difference, we were actually going head to head with the Oscars). We were overwhelmed by the response – twenty journalists were supposed to show up, forty three came. One drove “two-days journey” – she actually did in 15 hours by driving through until 3 am over the national highway, the road that hairpins through the Himalayas. Some of the journalists were brand new, but all took their craft amazingly seriously. We were a bit worried that we’d have to draw them out, needlessly so, it turned out. This was a group keenly aware of the history that is taking place in Bhutan, and in the important role they’ll have in shaping it.


In Burma, assassination of a rebel leader

February 19, 2008

In the Wall Street Journal, Aung Zaw, editor of Irrawaddy magazine, a publication based in Thailand that covers Burma, on the murder of Karen National Union leader Mahn Sha.

On Valentine’s Day, two gunmen walked up to a wooden house in this border town and assassinated one of Burma’s most prominent ethnic minority leaders. The killing inflicts a serious blow to Burma’s flagging pro-democracy movement.

Mahn Sha was the leader of the Karen National Union, an armed rebel group fighting for autonomy from Burma’s ruling military junta. He joined the KNU in 1966 after finishing his studies in history at Rangoon University. Over the next few decades, he rose steadily through the ranks, finally serving as General Saw Bo Mya’s personal secretary. At the KNU’s 12th Party Congress in 2000, he was elected secretary-general, the third highest-ranking position in the KNU.


Burma: Are sanctions the answer?

February 9, 2008

Stanley A. Weiss, Founding Chairman of Business Executives for National Security, a nonpartisan organization based in Washington, in International Herald Tribune.

In the often black and white, good-versus-evil debate over how to deal with the brutal military regime here, Ma Thanegi lives in a world of gray

To her admirers, the feisty 61-year-old Burmese painter and writer is a voice of reason – a former assistant to opposition leader and Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi who, after being jailed for three years herself, bravely opposed Suu Kyi’s misguided call for Western economic sanctions to pressure the junta into relinquishing power.

To her critics in the democracy movement, Thanegi is a sellout who parrots government propaganda to foreign tourists and journalists. Meeting openly with me at a major hotel suggests that – with her writings on Burmese culture and cuisine, not politics – she has little to fear in the continuing crackdown on dissidents after the fall’s protests led by Buddhist monks.


How about every adult in the world voting in the US election?

February 7, 2008

Vinay Lal, who teaches history at University of California, Los Angeles, in Hindustan Times:

Every four years, the world is taken on a roller-coaster ride as Americans cast their vote for the President of the United States. Though votes are also cast to fill vacancies in the Congress, state governorships, and other state and local offices, the story of the quest for the presidency is an all-consuming affair. This year’s race for the White House has everywhere generated more than the usual excitement, and understandably so. For the first time in American history, the Anglo-Saxon white male’s iron-clad grip over this office seems to have been put into question. Had Hillary Clinton been the sole Democratic frontrunner, she would already have ‘made history’. All but poised to claim victory as the nominee of the Democratic Party, she suddenly found more than a worthy contender in Barack Obama, who is not only young but, from his father’s side, of African descent. In a country where nearly one out of every three African American males will, in his lifetime, have had some experience with the criminal justice system, the political ascendancy of Obama is an unexpected political phenomenon.


Aung San Suu Kyi: Prepare for the worst

January 30, 2008

Aung Hla Tun has a report on the detained Myanmar opposition leader in Reuters


Detained Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is frustrated at a lack of talks on political reform with the ruling military junta since last year’s bloody crackdown on dissent, her party said on Wednesday.

After a rare meeting between the Nobel peace laureate and leaders of her National League for Democracy (NLD), spokesman Nyan Win said Suu Kyi held out little hope that unprecedented international pressure on the generals would bear fruit.

“Let’s hope for the best and prepare for the worst,” he quoted her as saying, adding she worried that Wednesday’s 90-minute meeting, and another immediately afterwards with junta liaison minister Aung Kyi, might give rise to “false hope”.


The waiting game in Myanmar

January 25, 2008

Myanmar’s junta plays to win, says The Economist

In a comic novel by Evelyn Waugh, an exasperated teacher tames his unruly class by setting an essay competition with a cash prize. Entries, he tells his rowdy students, will be judged on one criterion alone: length.

Myanmar has long been run on much the same lines. A convention set up to draft a constitution for a move to democratic rule eventually pronounced last September, 14 years after it first met. Its conclusion surprised no one: an arrangement ensuring the perpetuation of military dominance.


Who’s bombing Burma?

January 22, 2008

The junta blames insurgents and shadowy foreigners for several blasts, but analysts suspect the military itself, writes Brian McCartan in the Asia Sentinel


Burma’s ruling State Peace and Development Council has accused Karen ethnic minority insurgents and a “major group from abroad” for a series of bombings over the past 10 days, raising suspicions that the junta itself is behind the violence in an effort shore up unity in the armed forces or as an excuse for crackdowns against the pro-democracy movement and ethnic resistance groups.


Dragon on the wings of time

January 18, 2008

Keshav Pradhan on Bhutan’s transition from a ‘forbidden’ kingdom to a democratic state in the Times of India


The phone on Thinley Zhapho’s table rings again. For one more time the hefty Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) spokesman, clutching a cellphone to his ear, returns to his room to take the call. “It’s really hectic,” he mutters as he again steps out to resume his conversation with party workers in an adjoining room overlooking the Thimphu river. (DPT roughly means Bhutan Harmony Party).


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In Pakistan, deep distrust and one question: Is democracy possible?

January 14, 2008

Indian Express

Rarely has anyone in public life lost popularity as rapidly as Musharraf, reports Tavleen Singh from Lahore

Will there be an election in Pakistan on February 18? They ask this question in Lahore’s bazaars awash still with fraying posters of Benazir Bhutto and they ask it in Lahore’s drawing rooms where all conversation these days is about politics. There is distrust in the question and a sad sort of resignation.

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