By Prabasi Nepali
Last Friday, Pakistan’s Supreme Court disqualified Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif from office (as MP, and ipso facto as PM) over undeclared assets. However, unlike the assessment of various (quack) experts, the nuclear-armed South Asian nation did not plunge into political turmoil after a long period of relative stability. Sharif was well-prepared and swiftly resigned, but in a statement his spokesman said there were “serious reservations” about the judicial process after the court ordered a criminal probe into his family over allegations of financial irregularities stemming from the “Panama Papers” leaks of international offshore companies. There has been a whispering campaign in Pakistan that both the Intelligence Services and the Army were goading the Supreme Court to move forward aggressively against Sharif.
Sharif’s ruling Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) party, which won a majority in parliament in 2013 (replacing Asif Ali Zardari’s Pakistan’s People’s Party/PPP in government), also moved quickly and nominated Petroleum Minister Shahid Abbasi as the interim prime minister. However, it has been made clear that this is only a temporary political arrangement. “Dynastic politics” has taken hold in Pakistan as in most other countries of South Asia, and the PML-N has already announced that Nawaz Sharif’s brother, Shahbaz Sharif, currently chief minister in the most important province of Punjab (accounting for than half of the country’s 190 million people), will soon contest a bye-election to the National Assembly. This will enable him to be appointed PM and lead the party until parliamentary elections due next year. Observers expect that Nawaz will be pulling the strings from behind the scenes, if only to prepare the ground for daughter Maryam, who also has political ambitions.
The incoming leader will have to tackle worsening connections with the United States and tattered relations with arch-foe India. Persistent domestic threats from Islamist militants and their cross-border forays into Afghanistan have also frayed ties to that neighbour. The bonds to China are at an all-time high and the economy is benefitting from vast investments. But economists are sounding alarm bells about falling currency reserves and dwindling exports. Nawaz Sharif’s attempts to improve relations with India and thereby bolster mutual trade benefitting both countries enormously has nor borne fruit – because of strong Army opposition and the vexed and perpetual Kashmir problem.
The ouster of Sharif, 67, who has now served as PM on three separate occasions, also raises questions about Pakistan’s fragile democracy. No prime minister has completed a full term in power since independence from British imperial rule in 1947, primarily due to military meddling. Nawaz Sharif’s greatest contribution to cementing democracy in his country has been to establish civilian independence from the military – ‘civilian supremacy’ would be going too far.
The court verdict also marks a major political victory for opposition leader Imran Khan, leader of the Pakistan Tehreeke Insaaf (PTI) party, which ascended as the second largest party by vote and the third by seats in the National Assembly in 2013. Last year, Khan, a former cricket star, threatened mass street protests unless Sharif’s wealth was investigated. He had seized upon the leaking of the Panama Papers, which revealed Sharif’s family had bought luxury London apartments through offshore companies, as a golden opportunity to defame Sharif. He exuded self-confidence and a sense of achievement: “Today is a victory day for Pakistan,” he said, “Today onward, big thieves will be caught.” The irony is that Khan himself is also under Supreme Court investigation on allegations he failed to declare sources of income, a charge he vehemently denies.
Nawaz Sharif has alleged a conspiracy against him. His allies have privately spoken of elements in the judiciary and the military, with whom Sharif had strained relations, of acting against him. The army denies any involvement. In April, the Supreme Court had ruled there was insufficient evidence to remove Sharif from office by a 3—2 verdict. But it ordered a probe by a six-person investigative panel that included two members of the military intelligence agencies. The panel returned its findings in a 254 page report that said Sharif’s family assets do not match their earnings, although the family has major holdings in the country’s industries. This has fueled rumours that Pakistan’s powerful generals had a hidden hand in the probe against Sharif. The military, however, has carefully distanced itself from the proceedings. The Sharif family continues to be upbeat. Daughter Maryam, who also faces a criminal investigation, tweeted photos of top PML-N leadership and said the party remains united. “Today will pave the way for Nawaz Sharif’s resounding victory in 2018. He will be unstoppable. Insha’Allah,” she tweeted.
Venezuela’s Descent into Turmoil
Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro was pushing forward with his controversial vote on Sunday for election to a new ‘Constituent Assembly’ to draft a new constitution. There had been massive domestic political opposition, international condemnation and deadly street protests. In addition, there was a dire shortage of food and medicine, with many trekking daily to neighbouring Colombia for supplies. The economy and the political system was in meltdown, and the law and order situation had collapsed, but Maduro was proceeding ahead regardless.
With Draconian measures already in place, Maduro further warned that anyone taking part in protests – which have been the norm in the past four months and have led to 113 deaths — against his ‘Constituent Assembly’ risked up to 10 years in prison. State workers were facing intense pressure from bosses and threats of dismissal to ensure they vote in favour of Maduro’s tendentious new assembly – opposed by almost 70 percent of Venezuelans, who consider it a puppet institution designed to cement an extreme leftist dictatorship. Maduro has now claimed victory, but the sham vote has been condemned overwhelmingly by the internationally community.
North Korea Defies America Again
Within a short span of four weeks, North Korea launched a second ‘Intercontinental Ballistic Missile’ (ICBM), the “Taepodong-2”, this time with an estimated range of 4,000 to 15,000 km. The test demonstrated beyond a shadow of doubt, and contrary to what experts had predicted, that ‘the hermit kingdom’ had been underestimated and was ahead of schedule in its missile and nuclear weapons programmes. The country’s supreme leader, Kim Jong-Un boastfully challenged America’s vainglorious president by saying that the test was “meant to send a grave warning to the US” and demonstrated the North’s ability to launch “at any place and time.”
Michael Elleman, missile defence specialist at the London-based “International Institute of Strategic Studies” said: “North Korea seems to have made a logical step forward, as it tries to perfect the technologies to build and field an operationally-viable ICBM that can threaten the mainland United States.” South Korean defence analyst, Kim Dong-Yub seconded this opinion: “the North may have succeeded in miniaturizing warheads down to 750 kg” and with this payload, the missile’s “range could be 10,000 kilometres. Taking into account the Earth’s rotation, it means it could reach not only the western cities [i.e. Los Angeles and San Francisco] but New York and Washington as well.”
In frustration, Trump denounced the launch as “reckless and dangerous”. For lack of any viable strategy, his Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson played the blame game: “ As the principal economic enablers of North Korea’s nuclear weapon and ballistic missile development programme, China and Russia bear unique and special responsibility for this growing threat to regional and global stability.” In a standard response to the test, Beijing only urged restraint by all sides – it would not undertake anything that would de-stabilize the North Korean totalitarian regime.
Sino-Indian Himalayan Stand-Off: Misconceptions in the Nepali Media
In the article: “Doko-La and Nepal” by Umesh K. Bhattarai (Republica, July 30, 2017), a scholar of strategy and security, there is confusion between “Doko-La” (mountain pass) and “Doklam Plateau”.
* There is no issue of contention in the tri-junction of Sikkim/India – Tibet/China – Bhutan.
* What is in dispute is the “Doklam Plateau” and this is only between Bhutan and China.
* Basically, both China and India are violating International Law and conventions:
* China for constructing a strategic mountain road through disputed (nominally Bhutanese) territory, and
* India for infringing on (undisputed) Chinese territory in the Chumbi Valley/Tibet to
obstruct the said road-building. India has no locus standi to defend Bhutan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, nor can it make a valid case to oppose the said road construction because of its geo-strategic interests – the road would undoubtedly be a grave security threat to the ‘Siliguri Corridor’/’Chicken’s Neck’, the vital connection between the states of Bihar/West Bengal and India’s North-Eastern states.
Maps are vital in such international border disputes. The article does include a broad map of north-eastern South Asia. Unfortunately, this map has two major deficiencies:
* The mighty Brahmaputra River is casually chalked in without following its course back into Tibet. Riverine disputes will be crucial in the future.
* Arunachal Pradesh (the former North-East Frontier Agency/NEFA) is designated as Chinese territory, whereas, in fact, it is de facto Indian administered territory, although disputed by China.
The confrontation can only be defused by both India and China withdrawing to their own previous geographical positions, i.e. to their own (undisputed) territories, and by Bhutan and China entering into bilateral negotiations in an ideally neutral country, for instance Nepal; and without India interfering in any way.
Similarly, the write-up by Jainendra Jeevan: “Doklam Stand-off and Nepal” (The Kathmandu Post, July 30, 2017) leaves mush to be desired. Among others, the writer states: “Doklam is closer to India…than the valleys to the north.” The geographical proximity is a non-issue, nor is it clear which valleys are meant, nor their relevance! He also suggests that we should (officially) keep mum about developments there, and should war break out, we will not be unduly affected as “it will be far away from our borders.” This is indeed a pipe dream, and also ignores the vital fact of the on-going suffering of the ‘Gorkhalis’ in Darjeeling and Sikkim.
Pakistan’s Political Chaos That Wasn’t
By Prabasi Nepali