Red Snappers snatch victory 1-0 in Kathmandu

The Maldives’ national football team’s victory over host nation Nepal in the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Challenge Cup prompted a congralutory call from President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan last night.

Coach Istvan Urbanyi’s side’s 1-0 win over an opponent ranked twenty-one places above them in the FIFA world rankings prompted the President to call the team praising their “courageous performance”.

In response to charges that the team had been fortunate to escape with the win, the Hungarian coach said, “I don’t even want to mention luck”.

“This was a very competitive match between two very good sides and we saw a very good game. Both teams worked hard and the crowd, although they were against us, was fantastic” said Urbanyi.

Mohamed Rashid’s second half goal came against the run of play after intense pressure from the home side. Maldives’ goalkeeper Imran Mohammed produced an impressive double save as well as being spared when Nepal struck the crossbar.

Some shaky defending was compensated for by good counter-attacking play, producing the single goal that proved to be the difference between the sides.

In his phone call, President Waheed urged the players to redouble their efforts in the upcoming match with Palestine, ranked fourteen places above the Maldives, on Wednesday March 12.

The victory over Nepal revives hopes of qualification from Group A after the team’s 3-1 defeat at the hands of Turkmenistan last week. A win against the Palestinians would see the Maldives qualify for the semi-finals, to be played on March 16.

At the semi-final stage, however, the Maldives would likely be faced with India or North Korea, arguably the two strongest teams in the tournament. The North Koreans qualified for the last FIFA World Cup, putting up a particularly impressive display in a narrow defeat against Brazil. They are also the current holders of the AFC Challenge Cup.

The winners of the tournament automatically qualify for the 2015 Asian Cup to be held in Australia.

Some fans of the Red Snappers celebrated the victory via Twitter. “There is no[thing] better [than] to beat your opponent in their home ground”, said one proud supporter. Another described the victory as “stupendous”.


South Asia’s ability to shape its future never stronger: leaders address SAARC

The 17th SAARC Summit was opened this afternoon in Addu City by Prime Minister of Bhutan, Lyonchhen Thinley.

The leaders of Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan and India arrived at the purpose-built Equatorial Convention Centre in motorcades, escorted by police outriders in ceremonial uniform, dozens of bodyguards and an ambulance.

The Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF)’s Rehendi helicopter hovered overhead, while arriving heads of state emerged from their vehicles to be greeted by President of the Maldives Mohamed Nasheed and First Lady Laila Ali. They entered the convention hall to the sound of bodu beru drums and the sight of local girls waving paper garlands.

“South Asia is more powerful and prominent than any other time in its history. The future is ours to shape,” President Mohamed Nasheed said, in his inaugural address as the new Chairman of SAARC.

“Our economies are booming. Our political influence is growing. And our ability to shape the course of world affairs has never been stronger. Our populations are youthful and energetic. Our thinkers, researchers and scientists are globally renowned. Our culture is internationally acclaimed. Our private sector companies are some of the world’s largest and most profitable,” Nasheed said.

Citizens in SAARC countries had similar aspirations, he noted: “They want to live in societies based on the rule of law, in which basic freedoms are protected. They want the chance to succeed in our region’s economic miracle. They want what everyone wants: a decent life to live in dignity.”

Nasheed raised three key areas of focus: trade, transport and economic investment, security against piracy and climate change, and good governance.

However climate change, he said, was the greatest long-term threat affecting the region, “causing havoc, threatening our development and prosperity. But the solution to climate change is not cutting back. Rather, it is investing in the new, clean technologies that not only reduce pollution, but also improve energy security and provide long term economic growth.”

President Nasheed also noted the potential for a human rights mechanism in SAARC, “not to point fingers, or open historic and painful wounds, but because we have a duty to improve the lives of citizens.”

Nasheed welcomed the proposal to set up a SAARC Independent Commission on Gender, commenting that South Asian women “suffer from a wide range of disadvantages and discrimination. Women in our region have some of the world’s lowest rates of property ownership and political representation.”

He finished on an optimistic note: “The fundamentals of our region are strong. We have young, energetic populations. We live in a region of vibrant democracies, with strong civil societies.”

“As our economies race ahead, our political importance increases ever more. Let us not be held back by history or convention. Let us be the leaders our people want us to be. Let us change our region for the better. Let us change the world,” Nasheed said.

Leaders address SAARC

In his address to the SAARC delegates, Prime Minister of Nepal Baburam Bhattarai observed that SAARC nations were situated “in the cradle of human civilisation, with abundant natural and human resources. But despite this, our potential is unfulfilled. We face widespread poverty, unemployment and inequality.”

The largest number of world’s poor “live in our region”, Bhattarai said, but the “flow of growth, people and ideas has been hindered and our potential remains unfulfilled.”

Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani congratulated Nasheed on hosting the first SAARC Summit in the southern hemisphere.

In bilateral talks on Thursday morning with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the historically tense relationship between the two nuclear-armed nations lightened after the two leaders took measures to ease trade limitations. Singh even described Gilani as a “man of peace” following the meeting.

In his speech to the assembled delegates, Gilani emphasised that Economic development was linked to the availability of energy at a reasonable price, an and urged investment “in harnessing indigenous energy sources such as solar, wind, biomass and hydro power.”

President of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa, meanwhile prioritised education in his speech, stating that as leaders, “we have a sacred duty to develop our people.”

“In Sri Lanka we believe in social mobility. Education, communications and healthcare must be made available to all,” said Rajapaksa, adding that “ignorance, deceit, and poverty” were “common evils” facing SAARC nations.

“Social equality goes hand-in-hand with economic progress,” he stated, emphasising that this could only be achieved through peace and security.

President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, also highlighted the importance of education in his address.

“Despite the progress we have made, lack of education and unemployment is a vicious cycle that is creating fertile ground for extremism,” he said.

A stable Afghanistan would enable its use as a land bridge between many countries and greatly improve trade links in the region, he said.

While terrorism was the biggest cause of suffering for the Afghan people, he said, the violence was not only limited to Afghanistan, but also affected Pakistan and India.

“We need to overcome the trust deficit that exists and learn to cooperate,” Karzai said.

He noted that Afghanistan was pursuing a strategic long term partnership with the United States, but said he wished to “reassure our neighbours that such a partnership is no threat to the region.”

The theme of education was continued slightly differently by Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, who in her address emphasised the need for SAARC countries to promote cross-border educational cooperation by institutions such as universities. Bangladesh was interested in opening a university in the Maldives, she added.

Like the Maldives, Bangladesh was also very vulnerable to climate change, Sheikh Hasina said.

“Along with the global economic crisis, we are vulnerable to factors beyond our region,” she said. “Increases in fuel and food prices due to climate change jeopardise a sustainable way of life for our people.”

Another priority for Bangladesh was the expansion of the SAARC convention of the prevention and combat of trafficking in women and children.

“We want to ensure our migrant labour is well treated when working in other countries,” Sheikh Hasina said.

Prime Minister of Bhutan, Lyonchhen Thinley, expressed hope for “youth and dynamism” now the chairmanship of SAARC had been passed to President Mohamed Nasheed and the role of Secretary General to Fathimath Dhiyana Saeed, both the first female and youngest person to assume the role in the organisation’s history.

Despite the distance between the Maldives and Bhutan, the two countries had a surprising number of similarities, Thinley said – and not just because they were the two smallest SAARC nations.

“Rising temperature is a threat to our ecology, and while our GDP is improving, we need to diversify our economy,” he said.

As former SAARC Chairman Thinley was among the most vocal about the effectiveness of SAARC, warning against empty rhetoric and noting “that there is a feeling that cooperation should yield more concrete results.”

“There has been a failure to resolve geopolitical realities, and we have allowed ourselves to be guided by the politics of the past. Good intentions have been foiled, or remain only in documents. Progress has stalled, depriving South Asia of the opportunity to flourish as a peaceful region with people free of poverty,” he said.

Intra-region trade was not more than five percent of the total volume, and cultural interaction between countries was limited, he said.

Furthermore, antagonists such as the “mischevious media” confined goodwill to symbolic gestures.

“We have half the world’s poor. We need be bigger and bolder than those who are holding us back,” he said.

“At the same time, mankind is hurtling toward self-annihilation, and the planet’s capacity to provide for a growing population is declining day by day. We extract, sell, consume, waste and pollute, while our financial system is unravelling.

“We need to act before global order is compromised and a frightened world falls into disarray. We cannot allow natural resources to fall to a level where there is a violent struggle for control.”

GDP was adopted as an indicator of social progress 70 years ago, Thinley said, and was an ineffective measure of human happiness. Bhutan had shifted its perspective towards sustainable development and was taking a more holistic approach, he said.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was among the most direct of the leaders, reeling off initiatives India was pursuing.

He announced India’s willingness to facilitate the development of a regional telecommunications infrastructure and promote broadcasting exchanges.

Singh offered India’s scientific and technological base to assist SAARC countries in their development, “and above all our young population who will drive consumption and investment in the years ahead.”

India also proposed establishing a travelling exhibition on the ancient history of South Asia, with pieces drawn from each SAARC member country, hosted in each country’s national museum for three months.

Singh announced the doubling of scholarships offered to post-graduate courses in South Asian University, from 50 to 100, and a further 10 scholarships for doctoral studies in forestry.

“We have to learn to trust each other and to learn from each other. The security of our countries are closely interlinked,” Singh said. “None of us can prosper in isolation. We cannot afford to allow the many problems we face to stand in the way of our ambitions and dreams.”

The Summit is being observed by Australia, China, the European Union, Iran, Japan, South Korea, Mauritus, Myanmar and the United States, as well as many international institutions.

Eighty percent of Commonwealth in SAARC

Outside the convention centre following the meeting, Commonwealth Secretary General Kamalesh Sharma observed to Minivan News that 80 percent of the population of the Commonwealth live in SAARC countries.

“Five of the eight SAARC countries are in the Commonwealth,” he noted.

While acknowledging that this meant there was “a lot of overlap” between the two organisations, the Commonwealth could offer its experience in developing areas such as the rule of law.

“For me it has been very useful to meet the leaders in person. This year is pioneering – this is the first time the head of the Commonwealth has been invited to SAARC,” Sharma said.

Many of the goals of SAARC countries, expressed by their leaders during their respective addresses, boiled down to “a better deal for their people”.

“One remark that particularly stuck me was that ‘no country is working in isolation’,” Sharma said, adding that in developing as a regional body SAARC could learn from the “bitter lessons learned in Europe.”

“As for speed, you can’t change the facts on the ground. There are competing ideologies, and pace is determined by politics,” he acknowledged.

There was space within SAARC for a human rights mechanism, he said, and while many of its concerns related to trade, once the vehicle existed it could be used to talk about human rights as well.

“If SAARC wanted help with this, we would provide it,” he said.

On Friday the Heads of State will attend a Summit Retreat at the Shangri La resort, while their spouses are entertained in Fuvahmulah, before the Summit resumes in the afternoon.

Statements will be made by SAARC observer nations, and agreements will be signed. President Nasheed will present his concluding address, and the delegates will depart in the evening.


Nepal opts for SAARC 2013

Nepal’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Kaji Shrestha has said that Nepal is considering a proposal to host the 18th annual summit of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC), scheduled for February 2013.

Shrestha has said that it is “Nepal’s turn to host the 18th SAARC summit, so we will probably do it.”

The SAARC Charter stipulates that Nepal will organise the summit by November 2012.

South Asian News Agency reports that Nepal intends to ask the Maldives, which is hosting the upcoming summit in Addu atoll between November 10-12 and will subsequently be made SAARC chair, for a three-month grace period.


Comment: US needs to strengthen ties with South Asia

Last week, the United States and India concluded the fourth strategic dialogue on Asia-Pacific regional affairs, illustrating the importance that Washington places on its relationship with New Delhi. India’s surging economy has deepened interest among US policymakers eager to advance bilateral ties with a large country in the region that shares a democratic identity. Factors contributing to this shift include China’s ascent as an economic and strategic power and the possibility that the US military may favor an offshore strategy in the future.

However, India should not be the sole hope on which US security strategy rests in South Asia. US relations with this new strategic partner are guaranteed to experience bumps, as evidenced by the recent rejection of US firms in the Indian Air Force’s Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) competition. Moreover, India has long maintained a strong non-aligned foreign policy tradition, enforced by policymakers who face continual domestic political pressures not to appear too pro-American. This is not to say that the US-India strategic partnership appears ready to fail. Still, one possible scenario could find relations with India not progressing as quickly as desired, while relations with Pakistan and Afghanistan remain in tatters, leaving minimal US relations with other South Asian states. Even if this scenario does not occur, the United States cannot afford to ignore the need to forge deeper strategic relationships with the smaller countries in the region.

Relations with Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Nepal hold many unexplored possibilities and reasons for expansion.

First, as Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, Robert Blake pointed out in Congressional testimony earlier this year, all these countries are governed by democratically elected leaders. As with the “shared values” discourse supporting greater relations with democratic India, the United States has a similar foundation for fostering ties with these nations.

Second, three of these countries are maritime states. Given the importance of securing Indian Ocean sea lanes, through which 50 percent of the world’s container traffic and 70 percent of the world’s crude and oil products transit, it is in US interests to promote maritime security cooperation among South Asian countries and deepen defense ties with these navies as a form of burden-sharing in the Indian Ocean.

Further, smaller countries provide better test cases for realizing new strategic visions and more permissive environments in which to experiment than do the larger states of India and Pakistan, where constraints are omnipresent and the stakes are much higher. In the Harvard International Review, Doug Lieb has discussed the importance of analyzing international relations in “marginal states” that are often overlooked in a structural realist worldview that privileges the study of large countries. The smaller countries of South Asia could be easy wins for the United States, especially in the face of increasing Chinese dealings there.

US ties are probably the strongest with Bangladesh, a Muslim-majority and democratic nation. Given the country’s vulnerability to nontraditional security threats such as cyclones and earthquakes, the Bangladeshi military would appreciate increased help with weather forecasting technologies and cooperation on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief issues. Before the next environmentally related cataclysm occurs, the United States should further develop security relations with Bangladesh.

The Maldives, like Bangladesh, is a relatively pro-American Muslim democracy. It faces the challenge of countering Somali pirates and Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists from Pakistan seeking harbor on any one of its 26 atolls. The Maldives National Defense Forces would likely not be equipped to handle a potential Mumbai-style attack on its tourism industry and could benefit from US counter-terrorism assistance.

US relations with Sri Lanka have been strained due to charges of human rights violations during its defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009. Yet as Sri Lanka’s economic and diplomatic ties with China grow, the United States must try not to alienate Sri Lanka given its strategic location in the Indian Ocean. In fact, the US Navy could benefit from exchanges with the Sri Lankan military. For example, learning the swarm attack tactics that were employed during the country’s civil war could help the United States prepare for the threat it may face from Iran in the Strait of Hormuz. In addition, the Sri Lankan navy could benefit from US assistance in transitioning its patrols from the north to the south, where roughly 300 ships pass the tip of the island daily.

Regarding Nepal as it draws down its forces and integrates Maoist rebels into the military as part of its peace process, US security cooperation and expertise could be critical in this operation.

Finally, judicial capacity-building would be another low-cost way to advance US ties with all these countries.

By comparison, China has been strengthening its ties to South Asian countries, especially in the form of infrastructure development. Chinese port construction in Chittagong, Bangladesh; Hambantota, Sri Lanka; Gwadar, Pakistan; and Kyaukpyu, Burma have all been cited as prominent examples of a supposed “string of pearls” that China may be seeking to build in an area outside its traditional sphere of influence. Regardless of actual Chinese intentions in South Asia, Indian analysts have voiced concern about being “encircled” by China’s economic, military, and diplomatic inroads with these countries, including Nepal.

In recognition of the growing challenges South Asia presents to the United States, experts are beginning to discuss ways of reorganizing the US government’s bureaucracy to address the region’s new realities. Bruce Riedel and Stephen Cohen have proposed the creation of a “South Asia Command” (SACOM) to overcome the seam issues posed by Pacific Command (PACOM) and Central Command (CENTCOM) separating India and Pakistan in US defense policy. Others have suggested an Indian Ocean Region Command (IORCOM). With such talk and broader discussions about a realignment of US force posture in Asia, now is the time to also examine relations with the smaller countries in South Asia and the prospects for building partner capacities in the region.

As the United States winds down its commitment in Afghanistan, while confronting unbounded uncertainty in its relationship with Pakistan, it can look to the promise of partnership with India only to a certain extent. If disappointments such as the MMRCA rejection happen too often, or if India tests nuclear weapons again and Washington re-imposes sanctions, the United States would be left without strong security partners in the region. For too long, the United States has ignored the potential benefits of fostering relations with the smaller countries in South Asia. Prospects for advancing US security ties with Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Nepal deserve serious examination.

Nilanthi Samaranayake is an analyst in the Strategic Studies division at the Center for Naval Analyses in Alexandria, Virginia.

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected]


President Nasheed meets Deputy Prime Minister of Nepal and Prime Minister of Bhutan

On his way to the 16th South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Summit to be held in Bhutan, President Mohamed Nasheed met with Deputy Prime Minister of Nepal, Bijaya Kumar Gachadar.

The meeting was held at Kathmandu Tribhuvan International Airport, where they discussed bilateral relations between the Maldives and Nepal. They also spoke of strengthening tourism between the two countries.

The president and First Lady Laila Ali arrived in Bhutan yesterday morning, where Prime Minister of Bhutan, Lyoncheon Jigmi Yoezer Thinley, received them at Paro Airport.

Anthems of the Maldives and Bhutan were played at the opening ceremony.

President Nasheed then had a meeting with Prime Minister Thinley at the Maldives House in SAARC Village, where the president will stay during the summit.

President Nasheed congratulated Prime Minister Thinley on Bhutan’s hydro-power project, and said the project would not only benefit Bhutan but the entire SAARC region. He added his interest in helping Bhutan find more investors for the project.

Prime Minister Thinley assured support to President Nasheed on his global efforts to combat climate change. He said Bhutan would work with the Maldives to promote climate change internationally.

He added despite geographic differences, Bhutan and the Maldives are equally vulnerable to climate change, and said the people of Bhutan were already experiencing the effects of climate change.