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Political and Ethnic Hot Spots in South Asia

Mounting violence is upsetting the delicate political and ethnic balance in this region, as officials scramble to find answers to the unrest

AFGHANISTAN Afghanistan has been locked in a stalemate since the withdrawal of more than 100,000 Soviet troops over a year ago.

In 1979, the Soviet Army invaded Afghanistan to quell a Muslim uprising and bolster the communist regime that took power in a coup the year before.

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Afghan rebels, based in neighboring Pakistan and Iran and supported by the United States and other countries, have failed to take any of the country's cities where the regime of President Najibullah is entrenched.

A floundering Afghan interim government, based in the Pakistani border town of Peshawar, has been torn by factional infighting. Longstanding Afghan rivalries have exploded in open warfare among rival guerrilla groups.

The deadlock between the Soviet Union and the US over discontinuing arms to the two sides seems to be loosening. The Afghan rebels refuse to negotiate with Najib (as the Afghan president is known).

Washington is also easing its hard line against the Kabul regime and discussing future elections in which Najib would be allowed to participate. Moscow would be bound by the outcome.

The end of superpower military aid and involvement is likely to be followed by a splintered civil war in which Afghanistan's traditional tribal chieftains and warlords vie for power, analysts say. That could create new roadblocks to the return of more than 5 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan and Iran.


Ayodhya: A disputed religious site in Uttar Pradesh State has ignited new tensions between India's majority Hindus and its large Muslim minority.

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Hindus revere Ayodhya as the birthplace of the god-king Ram, while Muslims trace the 16th century shrine to Babur, India's first Moghul ruler.

Last fall, hundreds of people were killed in rioting across north India over the religious dispute. Mishandling of the issue by the central government contributed to the downfall of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in November elections.

Hindu fundamentalists, who laid the foundation stone for a new temple at Ayodhya last year, threaten to begin construction on the shrine. They are backed by the right-wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party, a key supporter of the minority government of Prime Minister V.P. Singh.

Kashmir: The disputed Valley of Kashmir has been torn by a Muslim revolt, fueling new tensions between India and Pakistan.

Kashmir, over which the two countries have fought two of their three wars since independence from Britain in 1947, is split between the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir and Pakistani-administered Kashmir. The international border is in dispute.

More than 300 people have died in Indian Kashmir this year. In recent months, tensions have escalated with shrill warnings from both countries and border standoffs between Pakistani demonstrators and the Indian Army.

New Delhi charges Islamabad with interfering in India's internal affairs and aiding the militants. Pakistan denies the charge, but calls for a plebiscite, which is resisted by India.

Kashmir has become a highly charged issue on both sides of the border. Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto is under pressure from political opponents trying to topple her beleaguered government. Indian Prime Minister Singh is being urged by right-wing Hindus to take a tougher stance against Pakistan.

Punjab: Punjab is caught in a spiral of violence by Sikh separatists battling for an independent state called Khalistan or ``land of the pure.''

Since 1983, more than 10,000 people have died in the state.

In 1984, the turmoil lead to the Indian Army attack on the Golden Temple, Sikhdom's holiest shrine located in Amritsar, to flush out extremists barricaded there.

Later that year, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards to avenge the assault. Gandhi's murder triggered a vicious backlash against Sikhs, one of India's most prosperous communities which nursed deep grievances against the government of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

A new peace initiative by Singh, who came to power after Indian general elections last fall, has stalled in continuing violence. In the national poll, extremists groups gained the political upper hand in the state over political moderates but remain split by rivalries and infighting.


Nepal's first independent government in 30 years came to power last month after weeks of pro-democracy protests and violence.

In January, a coalition, including left-wing groups and the moderate Nepali Congress began a campaign to end the near-absolute rule of King Birendra.

Scores of people died in street fighting between demonstrators and security forces. The conflict culminated in an April 6 massacre when thousands of demonstrators tried to march on the palace in Kathmandu.

Soon after, the king ended the 29-year ban on political parties and then allowed an interim coalition government to come to power until elections can be held. However, the new political order has stirred tensions between the ruling coalition and politicians and police loyal to the king and the old panchayat or council system of government.

To intimidate the new government, a banned right-wing vigilante group called the mandales launched a spree of robbings, arson, and violence in Kathmandu. That triggered street battles and rioting in which antimonarchist mobs beat and killed six policemen.

Mob leaders and politicians accused the king of failing to stem the violence and the police and Army of trying to undermine the new government.


Sind: Long-standing ethnic strife in Sind has lead to a political confrontation between the government of Ms. Bhutto and the Mohajir National Movement (MQM), a party of refugees with growing clout.

The mohajirs, who fled from India to Pakistan when the subcontinent was partitioned in 1947, say they face discrimination in government jobs and education.

The prime minister, who a year ago was in alliance with the MQM in Sind and nationally, claims the party and its anti-Bhutto allies are trying to topple the central government.

In early February, urban warfare between gangs sponsored by the two parties broke out in Karachi, Pakistan's industrial and financial center.

The Pakistan Army, which has long suspected Indian instigation in Sind's troubles, intervened and became the arbiter of law and order in the province. That has raised concern of growing political involvement by the Army, which has ruled Pakistan for more than half of its 42-year history.


The March pullout of Indian troops from Sri Lanka ended months of confrontation between the two countries.

The Indian Army arrived on the tiny island nation in the summer of 1987 to police a peace accord aimed at ending ethnic strife between Sri Lanka's Sinhalese majority and its minority Tamils.

But the plan floundered when the Tamil Tigers, the main militant group demanding a separate Tamil homeland in the north and eastern province, refused to surrender its arms under the accord and then bogged down the Indian Army in a costly guerrilla war.

The Indian presence also triggered an uprising by Sinhalese extremists, the left-wing People's Liberation Front, against the Sri Lankan government in Colombo.

About 17,000 have died in Sri Lanka's ethnic strife, including 11,000 in the Tamil insurgency and about 6,000 in Sinhalese violence.

President Ranasinghe Premadasa has achieved a truce with the Tamil Tiger militants by allowing them to take control of the island's northeastern province after the Indian withdrawal.

The leader seems ready to tolerate de facto partition into the Tamil-dominated northeast and the Sinhalese-dominated south as long as the Tigers don't call for an independent Tamil homeland.

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