Peace

Peace in Asia: Who benefits from military escalation in Pakistan, India

by Caesar D’Mello
Pax Christi Asia-Pacific Network

On the very day that Indian fighter jets were reportedly pounding the Islamist Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM) base in the state of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, just one hundred kilometres from Rawalpindi, Pakistan’s capital, a group of us was visiting Gandhi Smriti in Delhi where Mahatma Gandhi, acclaimed the Father of India, was killed. A series of sculpted slippers reconstructs his brief last walk that was suddenly ended by an assassin on 30 January,1948. Gandhi, an ardent advocate of nonviolence, was broken when he saw his dream of a united and peaceful India, for which he had laboured most of his life, abandoned when the British partitioned Greater India in August 1947 into the two nations of India and Pakistan, as we know them today.

Gandhi paid the ultimate price for his active commitment to unity between Hindus and Muslims that was virulently opposed by some. That antagonism still underlies India-Pakistan relations, the aereal bombing of 26 February, 2019 being its latest expression. The hostility of the last seven decades is rooted in the decision by Hari Singh, the Maharaja, to cede Kashmir, a state with a Muslim majority, to India.

Much suffering and death have ensued ever since. There have been umpteen skirmishes, and major wars in 1948, 1965, 1971, 1999 and 2004. There has also been  recurring terrorist action led by various Pakistan-based militant groups to ‘liberate’ Kashmir from India, the most brazen being the incursion in Mumbai in November 2008 when after three days of mayhem 166 Indians lay dead with many more injured.

The bombing of the training base was triggered by a militant act on 14 February, 2019 for which JeM claimed responsibility. It appears its motivation was to be a springboard for another chapter in the conflict between India and Pakistan. An Indian military convoy was targeted in a suicide bombing in Pulwama in Indian-occupied Kashmir that took the lives of 42 Indian soldiers. India’s claims of destroying the JeM site and killing many cadres was disputed by Pakistan which, in a tit for tat response, bombed what it claims were ‘non-civilian targets’ in India. So the stalemate remains.

Who benefits? What learning has arisen from the hostilities?

Thankfully, tensions have now subsided up to a point. Nevertheless, it is incumbent on the nations’ leaders, and others of goodwill, to reflect on the recent events. What has been learned, especially if the status quo ante remains mostly unchanged, poised to blow up another day?  Sadly, historic conflicts are not unique. Kashmir is one that  keeps festering. While it is wise to study the root causes of any conflict, leaving the two combatants trapped in a downward spiral of mutual hatred and periodic reciprocal violence is not. To enjoy the fruits of lasting peace, Pax Christi Asia-Pacific believes that rather than persist on the path of instinctively responding in kind, it is an urgent responsibility of all concerned to find a sustainable way out of the endless impasse.

Many dimensions of the recent eruption were most unhelpful. Those living in areas bordering the Line of Control in divided Kashmir suffered greatly. The fearful sight of noisy air force jets hovering above notwithstanding, lives were disrupted. The majority, being farmers, were deeply anguished over losing homes, crops and livelihoods. Relocating to safer places meant spending limited resources on rents and other costs. The wider community, too, was tense, as evidenced by the appeal by Sunila Ruth, a Christian member of Pakistan’s National Assembly, to Pope Francis to support ‘dialogue and negotiation’ to help end the conflict. Christians and many others took part in public vigils declaring, ‘War is not the answer’.

The Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, articulated what appeared to be a face-saving way out for both countries when he asked, “With the weapons you have and the weapons we have, can we really afford a miscalculation”?  Acknowledging ‘the hurt that has been caused due to the Pulwama attack’, he said, “we should sit and settle this with talks”. A captured Indian pilot was returned to the Indian authorities.  Had there been reciprocity from the Indian side, the situation would have been diffused earlier, while spurring a dialogue focused on security, Kashmir, and meaningful ways to counter and frustrate  militant groups. Instead, the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi maintained an aggressive stance, having earlier promised ‘a jaw-breaking response’. This fueled a nationalistic public mood in sections of the country believing their war as ‘just’, and demanding ‘a swift and appropriate reply’.

At the height of the conflict war hysteria was at its peak in both countries. Pakistan’s public and social media were awash with anti-India belligerent messages. Combative  sections of the Indian media endorsed actions such as removing the pictures of Pakistani cricketers from view, Indian cricketers using caps with military fatigue designs, airlines issuing boarding passes displaying the Indian flag, and so on. One can wonder if such an environment was exploited for the national elections.

A high level of military preparedness over the years, and the sort of expenditure involved in the latest military engagement entail allocating increasing proportions of precious resources to military arsenals and sophisticated conventional and nuclear weaponry. The known defence expenditure by India is in the order of $60 billion a year! While military needs are met, the basic needs of vast sections of both countries’ populations are not. As Archbishop Sebastian Shaw of Lahore said, “Escalating defence budget should instead be diverted to develop people”.

Peace is too precious and basic a human right to be reduced to a zero sum game run on mutually retaliatory actions. History has shown the role of asymmetrical approaches in achieving peace when magnanimity or a greater give and take become a circuit breaker. Every chance should be seized, even if in the past any attempts were thwarted, including by non-state actors who should be brought to heel. Realising long lasting peace by negotiations is preferable to living in a constant cycle of violence and the shadow of a nuclear threat. It is crucial that ways forward discussed are realistic and based on justice, and serious attempts made by both sides to tone down the war rhetoric. The relatively new government of Pakistan and the Indian government that emerges from the elections provide a new opportunity ‘to give peace a chance’, in the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi who denounced ‘politics without principle’. Pax Christi Asia-Pacific is convinced that “diplomacy and other peaceable ways…will serve…not only the peoples of India and Pakistan but also…of Asia-Pacific and beyond”.

Caesar D’Mello is a member of Pax Christi Australia, and a consultant on Global South ‘development’, climate change and peace concerns.

Peace

A commentary on the Panmunjom Declaration

by Caesar D’Mello
Pax Christi Australia

Very few events in the life of the Asia-Pacific region during the last few decades match in significance the hand-in-hand walk of the leaders of North and South Korea over the strip of land at the 38th parallel on 27 April 2018. While a certain level of cynicism is to be expected, and self-interest no doubt played a part, the symbolism of that action is astonishing nevertheless, and its implications potentially far-reaching.

Who could have thought that after a bitterly fought Korean War (1950-1953) between the two Koreas, and one involving China and the US, the world would witness such a moment? To truly appreciate what might have been considered unlikely by most till the day it actually occurred, one only needs to picture the setting in which it took place. After a ferocious war that generated no peace but an uneasy and ever volatile stalemate, the enmity between the two sides remained frozen in institutionalised structures and hostilities designed to perpetuate the red hot anger of a war in which more than 3 million sacrificed their lives in vain. The land on either side of the 4 kilometre-wide strip of land that has come to be known as the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) is a testament to hate: ringed by barbed wire, saturated with land mines, under surveillance by human and all forms of electronic eyes, supported by the Korean forces on either side, with the might of the two superpowers providing additional military muscle. The line over which Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in crossed, metaphorically and physically entering each other’s forbidden territory, was situated right at the heart of this menacing stretch of land least the oriented to good relations. However, their gesture, and the liberating exchange between them, despite the implausibility, demonstrated the capacity of human beings to overcome the most odious of circumstances.

Time will tell how this unprecedented event will play out into prospects and outcomes for peace for the two peoples of Korea and the world at large, but for now it is a moment worth celebrating. Even if re-unification of the Korean nation is a long time coming or does not eventuate eventually, at least for the immediate future the ground has shifted to allow a move from a prism of continually stoked confrontation through which to see each other to one of friendship and optimism for peace. Trivial though it may seem, the decision, for instance, by North Korea to synchronise their clocks with South Korea’s is potent symbolically, and, in its own way, a good portent for the future.

In light of the multiple positives that can be identified in the Panmunjom summit, Pax Christi Asia-Pacific asserts that one cannot just view the developments of a few days ago as if looking at goldfish in a fishbowl without relevance to the context of the wider region. To say that the Asia-Pacific region is awash with conflicts would be an understatement. From Iran and Afghanistan all the way to Papua New Guinea and beyond, governments, defence forces, warring groups, and their advocates are bogged down in hostility and combat. They are now challenged to find inspiration for ways forward applicable to their own situations to tread the path of peace from the actions in Korea of two of the most implacable of adversaries.

It is to be welcomed that just as the two Korean leaders were the centre of attention of the world’s media, Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India and President Xi Jin Ping of China were participating in talks to reduce the tension between their two giant countries that had been exacerbated by skirmishes on the borders between India, China and Bhutan just a few recent months earlier. Pax Christi Asia-Pacific acknowledges this as a commendable step, and hopes that it will lead to many confidence and trust-building deliberations as a precursor to lasting peace.

Another major conflict that has been entrenched in prejudice and intransigence for over seven decades is that between India and Pakistan over Kashmir that has already resulted in three wars with many killed. Its gravity is now further deepened as the two sides are nuclear-armed with the ability to inflict massive devastation on each other’s people, whose welfare and safety should be paramount in decision-making. How long should we wait before we can see a generous, visionary, mutually benefiting resolution on this front?

The Asia-Pacific is teeming with internal conflicts in big and small countries, including Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Bangladesh, Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia, the Philippines, PNG, Fiji, to name a few countries. Forward looking leadership, in the spirit of Panmunjom, is urgently called for in these countries.

Pax Christi Asia Pacific is concerned over the opportunity costs of the focus, energy, and resources dedicated to a war or conflict drained away from more important issues, such as the quality of life. It is indefensible that the vast majority of the poor miss out as a result. The extent of poverty pervading many parts of Asia-Pacific where conflict rages is unjustifiable, and it is morally urgent that widespread inequity be addressed effectively. This has been agreed to at a global level. The world’s governments, including Asian and Pacific governments, by unanimously adopting the UN Sustainable Development Goals – SDG’s (www.globalgoals.org) have accepted that a world wherein a great number of people are unable to even reach or do just reach the first level in Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’, encompassing food, water, shelter, clothing, and safety, is an indictment of the prevailing system that harbours wasteful confrontations. While external and internal security is indeed the duty of governments, they have to balance this transparently and imaginatively with the obligation to look after those who miss out on the wherewithal for survival and a better life.

A Just Peace emphasising mutual respect, healing and reconciliation is far more productive of a dignified living for all rather than the shadow of conflict. However, for this to evolve requires proactive leadership from both disputing sides. While we mark the Panmunjom Summit as a historic landmark in human affairs, the persistent efforts of the President of South Korea, Moon Jae-in, to cultivate an environment for peace should also be noted. The tree of peace that both leaders planted during their Summit speaks volumes in terms of the human ability to fashion a better world. Other leaders in history have shown that this is possible, including an iconic one in recent memory, namely Nelson Mandela, whose 100th birth anniversary falls this year.

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Caesar D’Mello is a member of Pax Christi Australia and has for many years been engaged in concerns of development, peace, and climate change. This commentary is released by the Pax Christi-Asia Pacific network, consisting of sections and affiliated members of Pax Christi International in the Asia-Pacific region. For more information, please contact: paxchristiasiapacific@gmail.com.

* Photo from The Nation, https://www.thenation.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/Moon-Kim-Handshake-rtr-img.jpg