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PEACE BREAKS OUT IN SOUTH ASIA

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KATMANDU, May 1 2003 (IPS) - Suddenly, after years of hostility and mistrust, peace seems to be breaking out all over the South East Asian subcontinent, writes Kunda Dixit, editor and publisher of the Nepali Times newspaper in Kathmandu. In this analysis the author writes that India and Pakistan are, once more, trying to make up, a fragile ceasefire in Sri Lanka has now held for more than a year, and in Nepal the government and Maoist rebels are trying to find a negotiated settlement. The olive branch appears to have come from Indian prime minister Vajpayee\’s effort to go down in history as a man of peace and not someone who oversaw a wasteful nuclear arms race with Pakistan and the rise of Hindu revivalists. When he dramatically announced in parliament last month that he was willing to give peace \’\’a third and last try\’\’, the offer was immediately seized upon by the Pakistani side.

Suddenly, after years of hostility and mistrust, peace seems to be breaking out all over the South Asian subcontinent, home to 1.5 billion people.

India and Pakistan are, once more, trying to make up, a fragile ceasefire in Sri Lanka has now held for more than a year, and in Nepal the government and Maoist rebels are trying to find a negotiated settlement.

What is going on?

Many analysts give the United States credit for the Indo-Pakistan rapprochement, and say this is the direct fallout of the global ‘war on terror’ because Washington does not want its allies to be at each others’ throats. And it is true that senior US diplomats have been doing the Islamabad-New Delhi shuttle. With the Taliban not yet vanquished in Afghanistan, the war in Iraq coming to a messy end, and Al Qaeda alive and kicking around the world, the Americans do not want another war between these two nuclear armed neighbours.

But America gets too much credit. This time, the olive branch appears to have come from the effort of Indian prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee to go down in history as a man of peace and not someone who oversaw a wasteful nuclear arms race with Pakistan and the rise of Hindu revivalists. The poet-statesman has always been a pacifist, as the verses he has penned in the past nuclear war and violence attest. At a deep personal level he must feel uncomfortable with war-mongering.

So when he dramatically announced in parliament last month that he was willing to give peace ”a third and last try”, the offer was immediately taken up by the Pakistani side. Gen Pervez Musharraf is trapped between the devil and the deep blue sea. After he seized power from an elected government in 1999, all hell has broken lose in his neighbourhood with the war in Afghanistan and its aftermath. Al Qaeda and Taliban remnants have taken shelter along the western border regions. The American military has set up bases in Pakistan, and despite serious domestic opposition, Musharraf has hitched his wagons to the American anti-terror caravan.

Obliged to navigate between Islamic parties, which showed a strong performance in elections earlier this year, the supporters of the erstwhile parliamentary parties of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, and the need to address America’s concerns make, Musharraf has been performing a highwire act.

The general knows that his salvation lies in foreign investment and rapid economic development to create jobs to lure the youth away from fundamentalism, as has happened in moderate Muslim countries like Malaysia and the United Arab Emirates. For this, it is essential that there is peace on his eastern flank with India.

To be sure, mistrust between the two leaders runs deep. Vajpayee considers Musharraf the architect of the Kargil offensive in 1998 that wrecked his previous peace foray. He blames the Pakistani military establishment for backing separatists in Kashmir and in audacious terrorist attacks like that on the Indian parliament last year. The current rapprochement is still threatened by militaristic hotheads on both sides, and there are plenty of hardliners in India and Pakistan who do not want peace. But public opinion is turning against this state of perpetual war.

Another direct fallout of the September 11 attacks was the Sri Lankan peace deal to end the Tamil war, which has claimed 70,000 lives in the past 18 years. After the Tamil Tigers were put on terrorist lists in the West, the separatist militants suddenly found that their vital source of diaspora dollars had dried up.

This left them with no option but to start a dialogue. Luckily, Sri Lankan prime minister Ranil Wickremasinghe had just been elected on a peace platform, and he regarded a resolution of the conflict as a cornerstone of his political strategy.

Brokered by Norwegian peace monitors, the ceasefire has largely held. But the process is on hold at the moment as the Tigers wage psy-war to pressure the US to lift the terrorist tag. Nevertheless, most analysts believe that this hurdle can be overcome.

In the Himalayas, Nepal’s seven-year insurgency war is also on hold after a ceasefire went into effect in January. The underground Maoist party has surfaced and even opened an office in Kathmandu, negotiations are into the third round, and across the country long-suffering Nepalis are taking advantage of the lull in fighting. King Gyanendra is credited with restoring peace, but he is regarded with deep suspicion by the parliamentary parties which believe he is taking the country back to the days of absolute monarchy.

But Nepal’s peace process has the blessings of the international community. Delhi doesn’t want Nepal’s revolution to spill over into the Indian states of Bihar, Andhra Pradesh and Orissa, where its own Maoist movements are active. The US and Britain have also contributed military hardware and training for the Royal Nepal Army to battle the insurgency. This is a war that Nepal, which has one of the lowest per capita income levels in Asia, could ill afford.

In all four South Asian countries –India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal– the political leadership has realised that peace is the first pre-requisite for economic progress, which in itself is the guarantee of long-term peace. All four countries deserve the full backing of the international community. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)

 
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