Wednesday, October 21, 2009

South Asia: Economic powerhouse or global sinkhole?

Each week the US based project Foreign Policy in Focus (FPIF) delivers to my in-box a newsletter World Beat which includes articles and pieces from some of the 700 scholars, activists and associates who support the FPIF's mission of making US foreign policy more just and responsible. The newsletter is always full of information and links to key articles.

This week's edition focuses on South Asia, a region of immense significance to Australia.

South Asia is not only the world's most populous region (it includes India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and in many definitions countries like the Phillipines), it is a geo-political hotspot. Much of the region is mired in escalating war and major conflict, and struggling with the growing impact of climate change, political insecurity, rising poverty and inequality and human rights violations that go largely unrecognised by the Western powers.

In the Editorial piece in World Beat John Feffer writes:
In the game of geopolitics, South Asia is the big swing region. It commands the very center of the vast Eurasian heartland, which the founders of geopolitics identified as pivotal to control of the globe..... Policymakers, stakeholders, and the rest of the international community are watching to see which way South Asia will go: economic powerhouse or global sinkhole?

Frankly, it doesn't look so good. Afghanistan is descending into chaos. Taliban attacks have increased recently in Pakistan, including a suicide siege inside military headquarters in Rawalpindi. The Indian government and Maoist insurgents have ratcheted up their longstanding conflict. The Sri Lankan government just brutally eliminated the Tamil Tigers. The rising waters associated with global warming are claiming more and more of Bangladeshi territory. Corruption, authoritarian leaders, ethnic tensions, inter-communal violence, endemic poverty: It's not a pretty picture".
Then there is the Philippines. As Mark Dearns writes if the recent typhoons and floods were not bad enough, the Philippines continues to be afflicted by an ever-widening poverty gap, stumbling efforts at much-needed land reform, and two ongoing conflicts resulting in the death and displacement of thousands of people. Writing about the current situation in the Phiilipines Dearns writes of a country whose legacy of human rights violations is a damming indictment of the government of President Gloria Arroyo, and of a largely silent international communty. Dearns writes that:
Philippine human rights group Karapatan estimates that more than 900 activists, journalists, street children, petty thieves and outspoken clergy have been the victims of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings while the Arroyo regime has been in office, a tally that is rightfully pushing the notion that ...... the Arroyo administration is beginning to best that of Ferdinand Marcos

Many admirable, campaigning Filipino organisations consistently draw attention to the issue, alongside Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, yet little criticism is heard from the West. At the G20 meeting in London, the British Government seized the opportunity to highlight the human rights records of Russia and China; the Philippines was conspicuous by its absence from the UK foreign office's list of offenders. Only last month, Philippine leader Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was treated to a red carpet welcome in London, with a slavering Peter Mandelson re-enforcing the message of growing trade and investment and enhanced political relations between the two countries. No mention was made of the extraordinary human rights situation in the Philippines"
The implications of events in South Asia for Australia are enormous . Already we are seeing thousands of Sri Lankan asylum seekers fleeing the civil war and human rights violations in that country. Many are coming in boats seeking refuge in this country.

Yet the level of ignorance in this country about the circumstances in South Asia are plain to see. The comments of former Minister Philip Ruddock last week that the current situation in Sri Lanka and Afghanistan are not as bad as is made out, are a testament to that ignorance, as is the hysteria and fear generated in newspapers and reflected in ill informed and prejudiced letter writers in daily newspapers about Sri Lankan and Afghani asylum seekers.

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