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Prices Rose and Protests Convulsed South Asia in 2022

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Prices Rose and Protests Convulsed South Asia in 2022

Depleting foreign exchange reserves forced several countries, including Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, to turn to the IMF.

Prices Rose and Protests Convulsed South Asia in 2022

Protesters sit in the living room of the prime minister’s residence the day after storming it in Colombo, Sri Lanka, July 10, 2022.

Credit: AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena

2022 was a tumultuous year for South Asia. Unprecedented protests and prolonged political and economic crises convulsed the region. Several countries witnessed leadership changes and there was even an attempt on the life of a former prime minister.

Under the impact of the COVID-19 lockdowns and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, South Asian countries struggled to cope with the fallout of depleting foreign exchange reserves. Bhutan’s reserves dipped from $1.27 billion in October 2021 to $819.30 billion in May 2022, prompting the government to adopt measures to curb imports, which pre-empted the eruption of a full-blown crisis.

Bangladesh, whose economy was doing well till recently, however, saw things go downhill rapidly in 2022. Declining foreign exchange reserves forced the government to turn to the IMF, and inflation and rising prices prompted protests that provided opposition parties with a strong plank to mobilize the masses against the Awami League government.

Sri Lanka was by far the worst hit by multiple crises in 2022. A severe foreign exchange crisis brought on by decades of economic mismanagement, mounting debt incurred on vanity projects, pandemic-related lockdowns and the Russian invasion of Ukraine forced the island-nation to declare sovereign debt default for the first time ever in April 2022 and bankruptcy soon after. Unable to pay for imports, the country ran out of food, fuel, fertilizer and medicine, causing enormous hardship to the people. This triggered unprecedented protests and calls for the exit of the Rajapaksa family from power.

What started as an economic crisis quickly snowballed into a political crisis, culminating in the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and other members of the Rajapaksa clan. While rising tourist arrivals – there was a 42 percent increase in arrivals in November over the previous month – and a slowing down of the year-on-year National Consumer Price Index by the year-end suggested that the situation had improved somewhat, the crisis is nowhere near its end. With China not giving Sri Lanka concrete commitments on debt restructuring, the IMF Board’s approval of a $2.9 billion loan to Colombo seems unlikely to materialize soon. Meanwhile, the Ranil Wickremesinghe government has started implementing the IMF conditions for a bailout, which could trigger fresh protests in 2023.

Pakistan struggled with multiple challenges in 2022. It was hit by devastating floods between July and October, affecting an estimated 33 million people. The political and economic crisis in the country crippled its capacity to rehabilitate the displaced.

Prime Minister Imran Khan dominated the news coming out of Pakistan in 2022. His ouster in a no-confidence vote in parliament in April, paved the way for a coalition government under Shehbaz Sharif to take charge but the leadership change did not bring Pakistan respite from instability. Rather unrest and uncertainty intensified with Khan and his supporters taking to the streets to press their demand for general elections to be advanced and an attempt being made on Khan’s life. There were concerns too that the military, which was the target of Khan’s tirades—he accused the generals of colluding with the U.S. to oust him from power—was running out of patience with the former prime minister’s disruptive politics. Most worrying for Pakistan, was the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)’s withdrawal from the ceasefire to resume violent attacks across the country. The Afghan Taliban’s reluctance to rein in the TTP, which is operating out of sanctuaries in Afghanistan, worsened Pakistan’s troubled ties and Kabul.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban regime intensified its repression of the Afghan people, especially women and girls, prompting Amnesty International to describe its violent suppression of women’s rights as “death in slow motion.” It was repeatedly evident during the year that hardliners were dominant in the regime and that the present regime was no less brutal and misogynist than the one that ruled Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001. Not surprisingly, recognition from the international community remained elusive in 2022 as well.

India’s state institutions continued to ignore Hindutva hate speech and violence in 2022. However, unlike in the past when most countries, including Muslim-majority ones, ignored anti-Muslim violence in India, in 2022, the Muslim world erupted in angry mass protests and government statements against the derogatory remarks about the Prophet made by a ruling party official on primetime TV.

India continued to slide on various global indices in 2022. Its declining performance on safeguarding democratic rights was slammed abroad. The U.S.-based Freedom House downgraded India from ‘free’ to ‘partly free’ for clamping down on “expressions of dissent by the media, academics, civil society groups, and protesters.” India is no longer an ‘electoral democracy’ but an ‘electoral autocracy,’ the Sweden-based V-Dem Institute said. While “the face of Indian democracy, in the form of elections, looks healthy  the rest of the body is not, The Economist observed, drawing attention to the fact that “the bones, sinews and organs of Indian democracy look alarmingly unwell.”

India overtook the United Kingdom to become the fifth-largest economy in the world in 2022. Meanwhile, vast sections of its population went hungry. According to the 2022 Global Hunger Index which ranked India at 107 out of 121 countries, just two rungs above Afghanistan, the level of hunger in the country is “serious.”

The Maldives, meanwhile, was busy putting out fires generated by the opposition-led ‘India Out’ campaign. While India’s influence in the archipelago remained strong in 2022, whether leaders of the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party, which has built strong ties with New Delhi, can bury the hatchet to defeat the opposition in presidential elections next year remains to be seen. The outcome of that election will determine whether India can retain influence in the strategically located archipelago.

Nepal saw a change in government at the end of the year. Although the ruling Nepali Congress won the most seats, its electoral ally, the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist Center in a politically opportunistic move, jumped ship to head a government supported by friend-turned-foe-turned- friend again, the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist and other parties. Shifts in Nepal’s foreign policy can be expected in the new year.

Although 2022 was a difficult year for South Asia, a possible end to the Russia-Ukraine war in 2023 could bring much-needed respite for the people of the region. But implementation of IMF conditions could see South Asian governments cut back on subsidies, providing a fresh lease of life to protests in the new year.