The crisis in South Asia

Print edition : September 01, 2001

SOUTH Asia is currently experiencing a crisis owing to the proliferation of small arms. In some cases, the proliferation is linked to insurgencies and sectarian violence. However, the common elements of the crisis include the growth of gun violence linked to organised crime and political movements. Distinctive elements of the crisis can be seen in the challenges faced by Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh.

Pakistan and India have both experienced widespread proliferation, particularly as a result of the diversion of weapons in the Afghan pipeline. The flow of weapons and its human costs can be traced directly from Karachi to Kashmir to the conflicts of northeastern India.

In Sri Lanka, since the end of India's military support for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the 1980s, Tamil rebels have developed a sophisticated international network for the procurement of arms with devastating consequences for the people of Sri Lanka on both sides of the ethnic divide.

Nepal and Bangladesh are not yet experiencing the same scale of the crisis, but current trends - the expanding Maoist insurgency in the former and the growing demand for weapons among armed political, student, criminal and fundamentalist factions in the latter - suggest that these countries may now be following the pattern established by their larger neighbours.

The transboundary challenges of small arms proliferation demand effective regional cooperation, yet in contrast to other regions (the Americas, southern Africa, West Africa and Europe), little progress had been made in South Asia by late 2000. Importantly, the barrier to more effective regional cooperation is not a lack of knowledge.

South Asia Partnership (SAP), a South-led organisation with national offices in the subcontinent, has formed a South Asian Small Arms Network, aimed at sharing information and data on small arms and light weapons.

As one of the 200 participants of the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA), SAP focusses on the issue of small arms and transparency of arms controls to make governments in the region spend less on military matters and more on human development.

The South Asia Partnership International (SAPI), conducted a strategy meeting on June 7 and 8, 2001 at Negombo in Sri Lanka for representatives of the region to the United Nations Conference on small arms, and issued the Colombo Declaration, outlining the expectations of the people in the region. The regional meeting was preceded by national seminars in India (February 2 and 3), Pakistan (March 1), Bangladesh (February 12), Nepal (April 10) and Sri Lanka (February 24) on the subject.

At the national seminars, it was recognised that:

* Most of the small arms in circulation in the region were originally manufactured in Western countries;

* Money laundering and safe havens abroad are the main factors behind the spread of the menace;

* There is a need for the documentation of arms from the production stage all the way to the ownership stage;

* There is a need to distinguish between rights of self-determination and terrorism and also licit and illicit transfer of arms;

* Close monitoring is required so that illicit transfer does not take place under the cover of legal trade, and that captured weapons are not re-cycled;

* Socio-economic development and jobs for the educated unemployed to root out the causes for the spread of small arms and drugs is necessary;

* There is a need to analyse the demand side of small arms proliferation and find ways to control it effectively;

* Abuse of children in the use and proliferation of small arms could be included in the agenda of the United Nations Conference; and

* Gender dimensions need to be taken into consideration.

South Asia, faced in the 1990s with both a conventional arms build-up and the threat of nuclear destruction, also faces the menace of small arms. In terms of immediate impact on societal peace and security, there can be no doubt that the latter is at least as serious a problem. The broad patterns of small arms use in the Indian subcontinent can be characterised as follows:

* violent conflicts (as in Kashmir and the northeastern region of India and Sri Lanka);

* widespread societal violence (Karachi and the Punjab and Frontier regions of Pakistan); and

* rising political violence (Bangladesh and Sri Lanka).

The traditional stereotypes in South Asia have been: India and Pakistan are both suppliers as well as end-users of small arms; Sri Lanka is an end-user; Bangladesh and Nepal are transit routes. However, changes have occurred in these patterns with Nepal and Bangladesh now joining the category of end-users.

South Asia's problems with small arms stem, in the first instance, from the extraordinary numbers of weapons that emerged during the 1970s and 1980s on both the eastern and western flanks. The war in Afghanistan and the weapons delivered to both sides together represent the single most significant source of arms in the subcontinent. They have had a devastating effect on Pakistan and also parts of India. The end of the conflicts in the east, particularly in Cambodia, also made available large numbers of weapons, which have found their way into Sri Lanka and northeastern India.

South Asia is sandwiched between the Golden Triangle and the Golden Crescent, two of the largest drug-producing regions in the world, and there are clear connections between the trafficking in drugs and arms.

THAT the human costs of arms proliferation in South Asia are extraordinary is indisputable. In Karachi alone an estimated 20,000 people died as a result of gun violence between 1992 and 1998, while many tens of thousands have died in the insurgencies in India and Sri Lanka.

Obviously the political dynamics in South Asia, particularly between India and Pakistan, are a major barrier to dealing with issues that require transboundary cooperation.

A factor that is relevant in considering the prospects for regional action is the interesting dichotomy between Pakistan's progressive national de-weaponisation campaign and its hesitation to address the transnational and international dimensions of the problem. Pakistan played an important role at the U.N. Conference in New York in maintaining a very restrictive approach to the discussion of the trade in illicit weapons.

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