Important lessons South Asia must learn from  recent crisis situations

South Asia

When things deteriorate very rapidly in any country , there is a tendency—and  a temptation– to discuss the situation more in terms of the lead personalities, particularly if these happen to be as colorful as Imran Khan. Yet there is a clear need to go beyond mere personalities and look at some of those problems which appear to be more persistent. This is as true of Pakistan as of some other countries of the South Asian neighborhood including Sri Lanka and Myanmar. This is not to mention the longer-term crisis of Afghanistan which remains serious.

Recent times have been exceptionally difficult times, related partly to the pandemic and partly to the worldwide confusions, uncertainties and serious mistakes relating to pandemic response. The authorities all over South Asia and its neighborhood were caught up in difficult situations not of their making. Most recently, the Ukraine war related factors have added to everyone’s problems to a lesser or greater extent. Hence recent times should have been times of, firstly very cautious decision making and treading very carefully, and secondly, for regimes to reach out to opposition forces to try to create some sort of consensus on policies and policy reform in crucial areas.

Unfortunately, the opposite appears to have happened. The way in which the military in Myanmar subverted the democratic verdict and democratic processes to imprison important leaders and recently elected representatives in early 2021 was shocking beyond words and this disaster has been accentuated further by the junta’s reckless actions since then.

In Sri Lanka the terrible mistake of concentrating too much power in the hands of a family, to an incredible extent, was aggravated further by their shockingly irresponsible use of this power. By the time they felt the need for building bridges and national unity, it was already too late. The close relationship Sri Lanka had built with the new economic superpower China could not prevent  its sudden descent into shortages of most essential commodities and mass protests relating to this.

Pakistan had been moving from one political tension to another and there should have been timely intervention to check things from deteriorating beyond a point, particularly as due to a combination of factors the economic position has also been precarious. But this was not to be and people were reduced to watching quite helplessly while leading personalities and forces continued to clash till the situation got almost out of control. While Imran Khan clearly made serious mistakes, his allegations of undue foreign interference for his removal should not also be dismissed entirely and the evidence presented by him should be examined in an unbiased way.

If the people of Afghanistan had suffered a lot due to the presence of the US forces, they have continued to suffer a lot also after the unseemly exit of the US forces due to a complex of factors. The Taliban could have made a sincere new beginning by showing more respect for human rights generally and for women’s rights in particular, an opportunity it appears to have missed. The distress of people has worsened due to the USA diverting over 3 billion dollars of Afghanistan funds to its domestic use, a case of daylight robbery in which the richest country has deprived the poorest.

Serious mistakes have been made also in other South Asian countries like India, Bangladesh and Nepal, and these countries should also be on guard regarding the deterioration in their democracy as well as in some economic indicators particularly the increasing economic stress faced by those in the lower segments of the economy. The enter South Asian region should be much more careful to maintain inter-faith harmony and almost all the countries have a flawed record.

What is particularly worrying is the rapidity with which the situation deteriorated is substantial parts of South Asia in recent times, which indicates that internal checks and balances have weakened considerably in these countries. The need to maintain robust checks and balances is an important lesson that the entire region can take from the rapid escalations of these crises.

What is common to all these countries in that the gulf between the ruling regime and the opposition parties/forces is often allowed to become too wide, and this leads to reducing opportunities for national unity and for cooperation to avoid disruption. This is clearly the case in all the four countries mentioned above and also in Bangladesh. India used to have a much better record in this respect, but this has been fast declining in recent times.

In democracy regimes come and go but if there are some common goal posts this will help stability and continuity. India has a good constitution in terms of commitment to democracy, secularism, non-discrimination and justice and so this helps to fulfill this role. In some other countries the binding commitment of the constitution to these basics may not be so strong. So it helps also to create common minimum programs based on these precepts. An essential principle should be for the military to confine itself to playing only its legitimate role and not meddle in politics, civil governance and economy. This may be easier stated than achieved in countries like Myanmar and Pakistan, but clearly remains very important.

Concentration of too much power in the hands of a few political leaders and richest billionaires and corporates is a prescription for disaster or disaster waiting to happen. This is something that the biggest South Asian country should also remember.

Economy is very important everywhere. South Asia is a part of the world which is stressed in terms of a lesser resource base relative to population density, a part of world which is also more vulnerable to climate change. Its leaders should realize that people need much more commitment on their part to implement policies of equality, justice, environment protection, social harmony, peace and broad-based economic progress with inclusiveness. The best path to avoiding crisis is to stick to these precepts and policies.

Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Protecting Earth for Children and India’s Quest for Sustainable Farming and Healthy Food.

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