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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.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.”

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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.

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“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?

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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.

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“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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An echo of India’s separatist violence can be found in Pakistan’s two southern provinces of Sind and Baluchistan. More ethnic strife has exploded in Sri Lanka’s northern Jaffna region, which has been facing a two-front insurgency from ethnic Tamils in the north and impoverished Sinhalese in the south. Leaders of both militant groups argue that they have been shortchanged by the ruling elite in Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo.

Similarly, the unrest in Nepal and Afghanistan, two fiercely independent nations that do not share the subcontinent’s colonial roots, was born of corrupt, autocratic monarchies that flourished for centuries before falling to populist uprisings.

In Afghanistan, King Zahir Shah was overthrown, and a later Soviet-backed takeover spawned the past decade of war by Muslim rebels. The guerrillas, known as moujahedeen, reject both the monarchy and the Communist state and demand to be left alone in tribal-based autonomous regions of a decentralized nation.

Nepal, where many believe the monarch to be a reincarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, was the stage for the most dramatic of this year’s violent struggles for change in South Asia. After eight weeks of brutal government crackdowns on pro-democracy demonstrations in Katmandu, the capital, Nepalese rose up against the autocratic rule of King Birendra. He is now being forced to gradually shed his power as anti-government violence continues.

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Conceding the global context for their celebrated rebellion, leaders of Nepal’s “people power revolution” acknowledged during their two-month protest that it was inspired and aided by last year’s democratic breakthroughs in Eastern Europe.

A thousand miles to the south, prominent Sri Lankan analyst Neelan Tiruchelvam echoed that theme, quoting from Czechoslovak leader Vaclav Havel to explain how war had left all of Sri Lankan society “morally flawed” and in need of a radical overhaul.

And intellectuals in Afghanistan, far to the west, also referred to Eastern Europe to explain why Najibullah, the strongman president, has been forced to cede so much power in the past year.

“In the cases of both Eastern Europe and South Asia, we are seeing the same populist demands for change, but the big difference is they are manifesting themselves in very different ways because the roots of our ruling elites are different,” Indian analyst Wariavwalla said.

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“In Eastern Europe, the repressive regimes were planted there by the Soviets. Once they were removed, they were bankrupt--politically, morally and popularly--and could offer no real resistance.

“In South Asia, these regimes were not planted by anyone but ourselves. They have come as a result of our own democratic failures. They are home-grown dictatorships and autocracies that have developed their own constituencies. So the struggle to unseat them becomes that much more prolonged and violent.”

There is another indigenous component to South Asian political violence. Kothari of the Indian government calls it “the noise factor.”

“When this popular desire for change slams up against an all-powerful ruling class, the only thing that works in these elitist societies is noise,” he said. “Letters to the editor don’t work. Appeals to elected representatives don’t work. They’re all part of the system. Noise works. Bomb blasts work. Killings work.”

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The region’s nations also have been employing the noise factor more broadly and ominously, triggering an unprecedented arms race on the subcontinent.

India was the world’s largest international buyer of weaponry during the last five years--more than $17 billion worth of warplanes, heavy artillery and gunships for what already is the world’s fourth-largest army.

Pakistan has responded by continuing its largely American- and Chinese-supplied buildup of sophisticated weapons, a policy that is absorbing half the national budget.

For self-acknowledged “peaceniks” such as Kothari, the subcontinent’s arms race is being exacerbated by what he called “the armament culture of the First World. . . . It’s supply-side violence.

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“It’s one thing for Mikhail Gorbachev to talk about peace in the world. It’s another to get his ‘arms-niks’ to stop sending us warplanes. It’s one thing for George Bush to say cool down tensions in South Asia, but it’s quite another for him to say no more arms for Pakistan.”

Still, Kothari readily concedes that it is the homespun cult of violence spawned by years of state repression in South Asia that fundamentally is to blame for the spiraling bloodshed.

“And I see Kashmir as a kind of symbol of how we are keeping that psychology of confrontation alive,” he added, referring to the north Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, a traditional flash point that many analysts fear could drive India and Pakistan to war this year.

India’s severe crackdown on Kashmir’s Muslim separatist movement has angered Pakistan, which was created as an Islamic state during the 1947 partition of the subcontinent. And India has refused to rule out an attack on Pakistan, which it accuses of fueling the insurgency by training and arming militants across the border.

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Although most military commanders on both sides oppose war, and most analysts call it “an irrational option,” Indian Prime Minister Vishwanath Pratap Singh and Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto--both of them from ruling-class families and both presiding over weak, minority governments--have ruled out any negotiation on the Kashmir issue.

Experienced observers such as Kothari are now left fearing the worst.

“My own view is things will get worse before they get better on every front in South Asia, until people are shocked out of their complacency,” he said. “And this is mostly because the middle- and ruling-class elites are simply not aware of the fences that are going up throughout our society as a result of their policies.

“Apparently, they’re only aware of the ones they have built with their barbed wire and steel.”

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Blood and Ethnic Pride

1. AFGHANISTAN

Since Soviet invasion in late 1979, U.S.-backed Muslim guerrillas have fought Marxist regime in Kabul. Deaths estimated at more than 1 million and refugees at 5 million. Rebel rocket attacks on major cities continue. Soviet troops now out, but rebels’ “holy war” has all but collapsed in infighting.

2. NEPAL

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Scores of civilians have been shot by security forces this year as remote Himalayan kingdom struggles to move to democracy. After violence last month, King Birendra agreed to elections, but violence between populist and establishment forces continues.

3. SRI LANKA

Once-idyllic island has seen up to 8,000 lives lost in past year amid two-front insurgency. President Ranasinghe Premadasa has largely put down rebellion by leftist People’s Liberation Army in south and central regions. In north, where minority Tamil community has waged secessionist war, Premadasa has struck up political dialogue with Tamil Tiger rebels and negotiated pullout of 50,000 Indian peacekeeping troops.

4. PAKISTAN

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Two provinces torn by secessionist movements, worst in Sind, where Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto called out army in Karachi to combat violence between Sindi majority and Urdu-speaking Mohajirs. In Baluchistan, another anti-federal movement grows, fueled by arms and heroin traffic resulting from Afghan war.

5. INDIA

Armed secessionist movements in three border states lead to almost-daily terror; bombs have killed hundreds this year. In Jammu and Kashmir, Muslim guerrillas have sought autonomy for 40 years. In Punjab, separatist Sikhs have fought for eight years. And in Assam, armed wing of state’s Bodo majority demands independence.

6. INDIA and PAKISTAN

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Hot rhetoric focuses on Kashmir, site of two previous wars, now split along “line of last control.” Region is India’s only Muslim-majority state; New Delhi’s crackdown on Kashmiri insurgents has angered Muslim Pakistan. India has bigger army, but both have medium-range ballistic missiles capable of hitting each other’s cities.


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