Qureshi to meet Swaraj on sidelines of UNGA

The Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) said on Thursday that foreign ministers from both countries will meet on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, to be held in New York, next week. Pakistan said on Thursday that Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan sent a letter to his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, requesting the resumption of talks on all outstanding issues. (Combo image of AFP file photos)
Updated 20 September 2018
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Qureshi to meet Swaraj on sidelines of UNGA

  • Pakistan and India foreign ministers to hold talks after three years
  • Move follows PM Khan’s letter to Indian PM Modi proposing a “meaningful dialogue”

NEW DELHI, ISLAMABAD: Signaling a thaw in frosty relations between India and Pakistan, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) said on Thursday that foreign ministers from both countries will meet on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, to be held in New York, next week.

The development, considered a major breakthrough in the stalled relations between the two nuclear-armed neighbors, follows a letter written by Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan to his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, requesting the resumption of talks on all outstanding issues.

PM Khan, in the letter dated September 14, had proposed a meeting between Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj and her Pakistani counterpart, Shah Mahmood Qureshi. He said that an informal meeting of the Saarc (South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation), on the sidelines of the UNGA, would be the ideal platform to kickstart the dialogue. 

“We have just agreed to the meeting. The agenda is not finalized,” Raveesh Kumar, MEA spokesperson, said during a press briefing, in New Delhi, on Thursday.

“This should not be confused with the resumption of any dialogue; this is just a meeting on the request of Pakistan. This does not indicate any change in our policy as far as our stand on terrorism and cross border terrorism is concerned,” he added.

Earlier on Thursday, Pakistan’s Special Assistant to Prime Minister, Iftikhar Durrani, told Arab News: “We believe in peace with our neighbors and that's why Prime Minister Imran Khan has urged his Indian counterpart for a dialogue.”

Durrani said that PM Khan acknowledges the fact that “Pakistan remains ready to discuss terrorism” and that the letter was his initiative to restart the negotiation process. He added that the only way forward for the two countries “lies in constructive engagement,” even as both the neighbors had an “undeniably challenging relationship”.

Kashmir-based Indian political analyst, Siddiq Wahid, said he believed “any call for the resumption of talks is very good and should be welcomed.” 

But not before he added a caveat. “I am doubtful if Prime Minister Modi can make any conciliatory gesture towards Pakistan considering the current reality of the domestic politics in India and the mood of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) cadres in the country. It seems that for anything substantial to come out between India and Pakistan one will have to wait till 2019, when general elections get over,” Wahid, a scholar on Central Asia and Tibetan history, said. 

He underlined the fact that “dialogue between India and Pakistan does not influence the situation in Kashmir much”, even though the outcome of the talks “would be directly proportional to the political climate within Jammu and Kashmir”. “The most important thing is to stop the human rights violations in the valley,” he added.

Ayaz Wazir, a senior Pakistani diplomat, concurs.

Terming PM Khan’s letter as a “good initiative”, he said any issue, including Kashmir, can be resolved through negotiations. “Peaceful resolution of the issues should be the top priority of both governments as this will bring prosperity not only to the people of the two countries but to the entire region as well,” he told Arab News.

In the past, analysts from both sides had suggested that with the Indian general elections slotted for 2019, it may be domestically challenging for the Modi government to make any concessions for Pakistan, considering Modi’s BJP derives considerable electoral support from the more conservative elements of the Indian political spectrum.

Zaigham Khan, an Islamabad-based political analyst, said that both countries should take “extraordinary measures” to build a positive public opinion for talks, arguing that a meaningful dialogue was not possible without strengthening the peace constituency on both sides of the border.  “Unfortunately hawks on both sides have always played their role to stall the dialogue process and the leaders of both countries should first devise a strategy to deal with them,” Khan told Arab News.

Adding that talks between Qureshi and Swaraj could pave way for a subsequent meeting between the prime ministers of both countries, PM Khan said in his letter to PM Modi that the summit “will offer an opportunity for you to visit Pakistan and for us to re-start the stalled dialogue process”.  

However, MEA spokesman Kumar reasoned that “the atmosphere in the region is not conducive for the Saarc summit”, dispelling expectations of India’s participation in the same.

It was in December 2015 that India had a substantive engagement with Pakistan when Foreign Minister Swaraj had traveled to Islamabad for the Heart of Asia conference.


Joy as US-seized bells return to Philippine church

Updated 15 December 2018
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Joy as US-seized bells return to Philippine church

  • US troops carted away the bronze objects as trophies in reprisal for a surprise 1901 attack
  • For the people of Balangiga the bells are a symbol of the Philippines’ long struggle for independence

BALANGIGA, Philippines: A sleepy central Philippine town erupted in joy on Saturday as bells looted from its church more than a century ago by vengeful US troops were to be turned over to the community.
Children waving bell-shaped signs and tearful residents in Balangiga gathered to welcome home the three bells that are a deep local source of pride, and which the US flew to Manila this week after decades of urging by the Philippines.
US troops carted away the bronze objects as trophies, after razing the town and killing potentially thousands of Filipinos, in reprisal for a surprise 1901 attack that left 48 of their comrades dead.
For the people of Balangiga the bells are a symbol of the Philippines’ long struggle for independence, and a dark chapter which is the subject of an annual re-enactment and remembrance event locally.
“It’s not just me but the whole town is walking in the clouds because the bells are finally with us,” 81-year-old Nemesio Duran told AFP.
“We are the happiest people on Earth now,” he added, noting he is descended from the boy who rang one of the bells, long said to have signalled the attack on the Americans.
The bells arrived in Balangiga late Friday ahead of an official handover ceremony set for later Saturday, but the town’s streets were already crowded with people and vendors selling T-shirts saying “Balangiga bells finally home.”
The ceremony will be not far from the town plaza that holds a monument with statues of the American soldiers having breakfast as the Filipino revolutionaries raise their machetes at the start of the onslaught.
Manila has been pushing for the bells’ return since at least the 1990s, with backing from Philippine presidents, its influential Catholic Church and supporters in the United States.
But the repatriation was long held back by some American lawmakers and veterans who viewed the bells, two of which were in the US state of Wyoming and the third at a US base in South Korea, as tributes to fallen soldiers.
A confluence of factors earlier this year, that included a key veterans’ group dropping its opposition, culminated in the bells landing in Manila aboard a US military cargo plane on Tuesday for a solemn handover.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, 73, bluntly called on Washington in a 2017 speech: “Give us back those Balangiga bells. They are not yours.”
His arrival in power in mid-2016 was marked by moves to split from Manila’s historical ally and former colonial master the United States. At the same time Duterte signalled an end to the standoff with Beijing over the disputed South China Sea.
Yet for some in Balangiga the bells’ return is also a somber occasion tinged with the pain of the past, which has been passed from generation to generation.
“It’s mixed emotions because the bells also remind me of what happened,” Constancia Elaba, 62, told AFP, adding how she grew up hearing stories of the episode from her father.
“It was painful and you cannot take it away from us. We can never forget that,” she said.