May 2022

South Asia’s future in the balance

As the world’s eyes focused on war in Europe last month, two South Asian countries were embroiled in their own domestic turmoil.

Sri Lanka and Pakistan found themselves rocked by crises which should have been rectified through good governance. Instead, due to decades of political rot, disorder shook both nations

Unless addressed head on, this decay will drag down South Asia, which, in terms of development, is already behind its more forward-looking regional neighbours.

The challenge lies in moving away from politics based on war, ethnicity and family, and to end the habit of playing stronger nations, be they America or China, against each other for short term gain.

This disastrous formula has left the economies of Pakistan and Sri Lanka on the brink of collapse, their systems of governance oppressive and unstable, and their citizens far poorer and less safe than they should be. 

It is no coincidence that both countries are frequent bail-out clients of the International Monetary Fund.

In Pakistan, the ouster of Imran Khan is in tune with a political culture that had led to no prime minister ever completing a full five-year term. Khan’s own appointment of four different finance ministers since coming to power in 2018 is indicative of an economy at sea, and the blame does not lie with any single prime ministerial incumbent.

The overt interference of the military continues to jeopardise progress and the military’s record of keeping Pakistan secure is appalling. The most recent border tensions with the local insurgent group Tehrik-e-Taliban, which now has sanctuary in Afghanistan, is evidence of the military’s inability to create meaningful peace.

This nexus between the military, politics and the electorate has also proved dangerous by encouraging a lurch toward ethnic and religious extremism.

The generals are beholden to China, which supplies weapons, together with making investments and loans.  An outside foreign power, therefore, has far too much influence on who governs Pakistan.

Long-running and unnecessary hostility with India stalls expansion of South Asian trade which, if allowed traction, would raise regional living standards and spread wealth more equally.

It is not surprising that the two leading political parties, the Pakistan Muslim League and the Pakistan People’s Party, usually bitter rivals, joined forces to topple Imran Khan. They represent the elite, accustomed to wealth and control. The new prime minister, Shehbaz Sharif, is the brother of a previous one.

Sri Lanka’s trajectory is similar. The ruling Rajapaksa family gained popularity for ending the long-running Tamil war in 2009. Mahinda Rajapaksa was then president. He is now prime minister, and his younger brother Gotabaya is president. Two other brothers, Basil and Chamal, have cabinet posts.

In elections, the Rajapaksas rely on the Sinhala Buddhist vote. For the economy, they have brought in China.

But Beijing is now calling in its debts and, partly because of the Ukraine war, food and fuel prices have substantively increased, leading to street protests of unprecedented character.

The government’s traditional way of dealing with discontent is to turn one community against another, usually claiming Tamils or Muslims are a national threat.

This time, however, Muslims, Tamils, Sinhalese, Christians, Hindus and others have been marching side by side, calling out the Rajapaksa family for mishandling the economy. The protests are equally strong in the Sinhala heartlands, from where the Rajapaksas traditionally gain their base votes.

An inability to buy food, fuel and medicine rides far above the issue of ethnic enmity that political elites have so often fabricated for political gain.

These traits of bad governance in Sri Lanka and Pakistan include corruption, ethnic exploitation, over-emphasis on national security, oppressive government, reliance on China, the elite and family – all with too little priority given to the economy and living standards.

Many of these strains are also present throughout South Asia. It is therefore incumbent on the region as a whole to recognise them and help lift Pakistan and Sri Lanka out of their abysses.

This task will be neither easy nor quick. There is no detailed, prescriptive remedy. In the first instance, it would require a change of regional mindset, an acceptance that these negative characteristics hold back modernisation.

One trial step would be to revive the far too passive and acrimonious South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation as a vehicle for reform.  Through SAARC, the region could identify which elements can be most urgently and efficiently addressed.

Pakistan and Sri Lanka are a warning.  At stake is the future of South Asia and the role it should play on the ever-changing world stage in the decades to come.