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Asia's Failed States
Friday, 08 June 2012 16:41

As Asia sits on top of the world economy, it may be difficult to imagine that this vast unwieldy region is home to more than a handful of the world's "failed states", as estimated by the Fund for Peace and reported by Foreign Policy.

First, what is a failed state?

Although there is no one accepted definition, according to the Fund for Peace a state that is failing has several attributes. One of the most common is the loss of physical control of its territory or a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. Other attributes of state failure include the erosion of legitimate authority to make collective decisions, an inability to provide reasonable public services, and the inability to interact with other states as a full member of the international community. The 12 indicators cover a wide range of state failure risk elements such as extensive corruption and criminal behavior, inability to collect taxes or otherwise draw on citizen support, large-scale involuntary dislocation of the population, sharp economic decline, group-based inequality, institutionalized persecution or discrimination, severe demographic pressures, brain drain, and environmental decay. States can fail at varying rates through explosion, implosion, erosion, or invasion over different time periods.

Before delving into Asia's failed states, let's have a first look at the global picture.  In the 2012 Failed States Index recently released, Somalia ranked most troubled state for 5th straight year, and Finland remains at best position, while Libya, Japan and Syria tumbled.

The annual Failed States Index (FSI) highlights the global political, economic and social pressures experienced by states.  It ranks 177 countries using 12 social, economic, and political indicators of pressure on the state, including such issues as uneven development, state legitimacy, group grievance, and human rights.  A high score indicates high pressure on the state, and therefore a higher risk of instability.

The 2012 FSI ranks Somalia as number one for the fifth consecutive year, citing widespread lawlessness, ineffective government, terrorism, insurgency, crime, and well-publicized pirate attacks against foreign vessels.  Meanwhile, Finland has remained in the best position, with its Scandinavian neighbors Sweden and Denmark rounding out the best three rankings. All three nations benefit from strong social and economic indicators, paired with excellent provision of public services and respect for human rights and the rule of law.

Other notable changes this year include countries affected by the Arab Spring. Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Tunisia all ranked significantly worse than the previous year.  In the wake of the massive earthquake and resultant nuclear crisis, Japan also worsened significantly.  Greece continued to decline as the economic crisis has gripped the country. A loss of confidence in the state, coinciding with the state’s lessened capacity to provide public services, have led to growing social pressures.

With Finland sitting at the poll position of 177th, you have to look a good way down the list to find the best ranked Asian countries.  They are Singapore 157th, South Korea 156th, Japan 151st, Mongolia 129th, Brunei 123rd, Malaysia 110th, Vietnam 96th, Thailand 84th, India 78th, China 86th, Indonesia 63rd and the Philippines 56th.  (Bytheway, the US comes in at 159th.)

While Somalia wins the prize as the world's most failed state, Pakistan is not far behind with its 13th ranking.  Here are some extracts from Foreign Policy's assessments of Asia's most failed states.

(i) Pakistan

The May 2, 2011, killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, along with the ongoing drone war on the Afghanistan border, kept Pakistan in international headlines last year. But the country also faced grave challenges on a number of other fronts, including assassinations, political intrigue, and natural disasters. Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, an outspoken opponent of a controversial blasphemy law, was killed in January 2011. And targeted killings between rival political factions left hundreds dead in Karachi throughout the summer. The civilian government was further marginalized by the military following the bin Laden raid, culminating in the dramatic firing of the country's ambassador to Washington after he reportedly warned of a possible "coup.". And separatist violence continued to flare in the restive Balochistan province. Pakistan is currently locked in tense negotiations with NATO over supply routes into Afghanistan, which have been closed since 24 Pakistani troops were killed in a NATO airstrike in November.

(ii) Myanmar -- 21st

Although it has been under military rule since the 1960s, Myanmar is a rarity on the Failed States Index: a country showing strong, measurable signs of progress. Since his election in March 2011, President Thein Sein has freed hundreds of political prisoners, taken steps to open up the economy and lift restrictions on the press, and allowed a somewhat democratic vote in March that saw the election of longtime opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to parliament. The pace of change under Thein has been rapid, leading the United States to ease economic restrictions against Myanmar and even paving the way late last year for Hillary Clinton to be the first U.S. secretary of state to visit the country in more than half a century. Widespread poverty and a recent rash of sectarian violence, meanwhile, are reminders of serious obstacles that remain.

(ii) North Korea -- 22nd

For all its horrors, North Korea refuses to collapse. It survived the disintegration of its patron, the Soviet Union, in 1991; the death of its founder and dictator for 46 years, Kim Il Sung, in 1994; and the world's worst famine in decades, which led to the starvation of hundreds of thousands of people. The year 2011 saw both the ascension of Kim Jong Un, after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, in late December, as well as renewed questions about life inside the Hermit Kingdom. In the world's most opaque country, information is scarce, but it appears that the North, desperately poor and inhumanly repressive, still has enough inertia to keep muddling through.

(iii) Nepal -- 27th

Sandwiched between India and China, impoverished, mountainous Nepal has long been a proxy battleground for influence among those powers, often cracking down on Tibetan refugees at the behest of its neighbor to the north. Nepal's biggest problem is that it just can't seem to form a government. A 2008 power-sharing agreement appointed Prachanda ("the Fierce One"), the head of the Maoist rebel group, as the country's prime minister, but he resigned a year later when the president sacked his army chief. As recently as May, another attempt at forming a legislature failed; meanwhile, Nepal remains one of the poorest countries in Asia.

(iv) East Timor -- 28th

East Timor celebrated its first decade of independence this past May. Although the new nation's early years were characterized by political infighting and ethnic conflict, things were a bit more stable in 2011, and U.N. peacekeepers, who are planning to pull out of the country at the end of 2012, have already handed over most security responsibilities to local forces. Human rights groups, meanwhile, have criticized East Timor for failing to prosecute perpetrators of human rights abuses during the country's war for independence. Despite impressive economic growth, the country's economy remains almost entirely dependent on oil exports. A general election in July will be a major test of whether this young country can escape the legacy of its violent birth.

(v) Bangladesh -- 29th

Politics in Bangladesh have long been dominated by a bitter rivalry between Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, and the resulting political volatility has manifested itself in many ways in this impoverished, densely populated South Asian country. Last year, clashes erupted between police and protesters after the government scrapped a system in which neutral caretaker governments oversaw general elections. More recently, the army announced it had foiled a coup plot by Islamist military officers against Hasina's government, and deadly protests and general strikes over the disappearance of an opposition leader paralyzed the country. Still, Bangladesh has managed strong, if faltering, economic growth amid the political jousting.

(vi) Sri Lanka -- 29th

Sri Lanka's economy grew at an estimated 8.3 percent clip in 2011, buoyed by a peace dividend, as investors and tourists returned to this island nation after its 26-year civil war finally ended in May 2009. But ethnic tensions between the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamils, supported by India, still rankle. The government of President Mahinda Rajapakse, a Sinhalese, has claimed that it "never targeted innocent civilians," but human rights groups estimate that tens of thousands of civilians were killed in the brutal last few months of fighting.

(vii) Cambodia -- 37th

Last year saw the beginning of the trial of three senior members of the Khmer Rouge, accused of their involvement in the deaths of nearly one-quarter of Cambodia's population under Pol Pot in the late 1970s. The shadow of the Khmer Rouge regime still looms over Cambodia; the country's nearly three-decade-serving prime minister Hun Sen is himself a former Khmer Rouge commander, as are many high-ranking members of his government. Hun's cronyism is one of the reasons Cambodia was ranked one of the 20 countries with the highest perceived level of corruption in 2011.

(viii) Uzbekistan -- 39th

Although the United States recently lifted a seven-year restriction on assistance, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the country last fall, this poor Central Asian state of nearly 30 million people, ruled by the same strongman since its independence from the Soviet Union, remains repressive: A 2011 Human Rights Watch report said the country failed to keep its promise to stop using torture in its criminal justice system. "The West has to wake up to the fact that Uzbekistan is a pariah state with one of the worst human rights records," a statement accompanying the report said. "Being located next to Afghanistan should not give Uzbekistan a pass on its horrendous record of torture and repression."

(ix) Kyrgyzstan -- 41st

Since 2010, Kyrgyzstan has lived under the cloud of violent ethnic clashes that sent hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the southern part of the country. The legacy of that conflict remains, with thousands still stranded away from their homes and requiring government services. The Central Asian nation rang in 2012 shortly after the election of a new president, Almazbek Atambayev  --  previously the country's prime minister -- in a "peaceful and largely democratic" election, no small accomplishment for a country that has been through two coups in less than a decade. Atambayev is charting a more pro-Russia course for the former Soviet republic: In the spring of 2012, when U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta visited Kyrgyzstan, the Atambayev  government made it clear it wants the Manas airport, a major U.S. military transportation base for Afghanistan, turned over to strictly civilian uses when the current U.S. lease expires in 2014.

(x) Tajikistan -- 46th

This poor, authoritarian Central Asian state is rife with government corruption and barely supports its economy through drug-trafficking and labor exported to Russia. In recent years, the rise of radical Islam has led the Tajik government to crack down on observant Muslims, even monitoring Friday services and, last June, banning children under 18 from attending them. Tajikistan has also seen an uptick in violent clashes along its border with war-torn Afghanistan -- tensions that could escalate further following the forthcoming U.S. troop drawdown.

(xi) Solomon Islands -- 47th

The Solomon Islands represent the front lines in the fight to mitigate the impact of climate change. Rising sea levels threaten several key industries for the sprawling Pacific island nation that heavily depends on agriculture and forestry, both of which may suffer from increasing soil salinity. The Solomon Islands have been pummeled by earthquakes in recent years, including at least four major quakes in 2011.The country has also suffered from chronic political instability during the past decade, with six different leaders since 2006. From 1998 to 2003 -- the so-called "tension years" -- the Solomon Islands were wracked by a civil war. And while an Australian led peacekeeping force has managed to keep a lid on the violence, the country's turbulent politics have showed no signs of quieting.

(xii) Laos -- 48th

Laos is the world's smallest communist state by population. (It's slightly bigger than Cuba.) Mostly ignored by the world's media, the country contains in miniature the same muzzling of the press, intolerance of dissidents, and sham elections as its officially communist neighbors of China to the north and Vietnam to the east. Still, the government does allow some leeway: The land devoted to growing opium increased by 38 percent in 2011, according to the United Nations.

So what are the main lessons from this year's failed states index?

Countries can have a false air of stability and security which can be greatly disturbed by sudden events -- complacency is one of the deepest flaws of human nature.  That applies to Greece and other European problems with financial problems, countries affected by the Arab Spring, and Japan which has had enormous difficulty responding transparently and effectively to the March 11 triple crisis of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown.

It goes without saying that all countries have pressures upon them that need to be managed.  And the evidence shows that states manage pressures better when they have open societies with strong state institutions based on the rule of law and democracy.

The case of Myanmar is of course an intriging one.  Undoing decades of misrule is an immense challenge, especially when the ruling dictatorship wants to maintain power.  Even if this country manages to achieve a successful future, we can expect a long road ahead with many ups and downs along the way.


Foreign Policy.  Failed States 2012

Fund for Peace.  Failed States Index 2012.

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