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Regional Outlook : The Killing Ground of Asia : While peace breaks out elsewhere, South Asia has become a war zone. Self-determination is the catalyst for bloodshed--and no end is in sight.

May 08, 1990|MARK FINEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FATTI WALI, Pakistan — From horizon to horizon, the wall slices through wheat fields, rivers, deserts and mountain passes. It severs two nations, separates hundreds of millions of people and towers over this troubled region like a barbed-wire metaphor for mistrust.

The wall spans about 400 miles of the Indo-Pakistani border, punctuated by 3,050 sandbagged machine-gun nests, 2,500 observation towers, thousands of yards of electrified concertina wire and 6,750 thousand-watt, halogen-quartz searchlights that bathe the nighttime landscape in institutional orange.

To the Indians, who spent two years and millions of dollars building this mass of wire and steel, it is a "border security fence."

To the Pakistanis, though, it has come to be known as "the New Berlin Wall."

And to an outside world increasingly concerned about the escalation of political tension, war rhetoric and bloodshed throughout South Asia, the wall is the most dramatic symbol of the hatred in this part of the world, where violence and killing have become inescapable companions of life.

There is a kind of global counterpoint at work here: At a time when peace is breaking out in Europe and Central America, the region encompassing India, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan has become a virtual war zone. Of the area's six principal nations, only Bangladesh has been relatively quiet lately.

At a time when Moscow and Washington are discussing nuclear disarmament, politicians in India and Pakistan--now poised on the brink of what would be the two nations' fourth major war--are urging their leaders to stockpile nuclear arsenals.

And at a time when walls and fences are being replaced by elections and dialogue in much of the world, South Asian nations increasingly are sealing themselves off from their neighbors.

"It is a siege mentality that you are witnessing in this region," said one of India's leading intellectuals, Rajni Kothari, who serves on his government's planning commission. "You have a number of regimes that feel as if things are caving in on them, and so the mentality is, 'Seal it all up, and it'll go away.' "

But it hasn't.

Not a week passes in this region without some kind of violence--terrorist bombings, police killings, dangerous street protests, assassinations, kidnapings, religious clashes, ethnic unrest, attacks on government targets. In the last three weeks alone, armies were called out to keep order in three South Asian nations.

What are the roots of the conflicts that have transformed South Asia into a danger zone? And where may these conflicts lead?

Analysts, generals, political leaders and businessmen almost universally reject the most commonly held outsiders' view--the stereotype that the violence is spawned by the region's serious overcrowding and persistent poverty, which have combined to cheapen the value of life.

"It's a very dangerous view, it's fascist and it's absolutely untrue," said Kothari. "It has condemned an entire culture for an easy way of explanation. 'They're underdeveloped, so naturally they kill each other' is the way you usually hear it.

"In fact, even the ruling elite in these countries uses this same explanation in the very same language."

Rather, Kothari and most other sociopolitical experts blame the violence and war on that same ruling elite--a feudal structure that has kept traditional leaders and landed classes in power throughout each nation's modern history.

"All of this violence is related to an ongoing rejection of the extremely irresponsible, autocratic and venal state elites who have been unable to address themselves to the real needs and problems of the people," said Bharat Wariavwalla, an independent political and defense specialist in New Delhi.

"The seeds of it were planted during the region's colonial experience, when the British empire brought to the subcontinent a paradoxical combination of strong state rule and liberal democracy. What we're seeing now is a struggle between those concepts, as the forces of liberal democracy are resorting to violence in an effort to throw out these strong but corrupt state elites."

Although the analysts conceded that, on the surface, the conflicts appear to be based on sharp religious or ethnic differences, they insisted that most are more deeply grounded in an almost universal desire for increased self-determination.

For example, in India, the largest and most consistently violent of the region's flash points, the three major internal insurgencies in the states of Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab and Assam are all driven by local ethnic majorities battling for autonomy from authorities in New Delhi.

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