Sunday, 26 December 2010

There comes a time for intervention

Ivory CoastIf there was ever a clear-cut case for military intervention it is the crisis unfolding in the Ivory Coast right now.

Since loosing the presidential election on 28th incumbent Laurent Gbago has held onto control of the West African nation through force; despatching death squads to murder opponents and troops to surround the hotel where Alassane Ouattara - the rightful winner –is residing. As of today 11 000 refugees have fled across the Liberian border to escape the violence. Thousands more expected to follow them over the coming days. What is presently a political and humanitarian crisis looks set to imminently develop into civil war.

The United Nations Peacekeeping force overseeing the state’s peace process (which was set to cumulate with this election) has been ordered by Ggbago to leave, but has rightly refused. As recognised by Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and most member states – Mr. Ouattara is now the only one who can legitimately call for its withdrawal. Fearing for his peoples’ lives as well as his own- he understandably wants the force to remain. Given the circumstances, upon his request it could legally be bolstered by African Union or extra UN troops, including national forces under the formal command of either organisation.

This would be a morally justifiable act as well. The inevitable comparisons with the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq that will be drawn by some the minute that the word ‘intervention’ is mentioned, immediately fall flat. This would be a mandated mission under the auspices of a regional or international grouping to enforce the result of a democratic election at the request of its victor; not the ill thought out, quasi-unilateral removal of entrenched regimes with no viable alternatives. The age-old mantra of ‘pushing our will on other nations’ is also terminally fallacious when the majority of that nation’s public have formally exercised their democratic rights –under national laws, no less- to elect a leader who requests military assistance from the international community.

This leaves only the ancient and somewhat racist objection so often trotted out by those on the right that ‘we shouldn’t waste our resources and troops’ lives in the business of other states.’ However, such sentiment falters (even when laying aside the its bigoted rejection of international society and universal human rights) given the magnitude of what the situation in the Ivory Coast means for Africa – and consequently the entire world.

In 2007 the will of the Kenyan people was rejected by incumbent president Mwai Kibaki, who lost yet held onto the reigns of power by sending armed troops and thugs with machetes onto the streets. The following year Robert Mugabe, heading for electoral defeat, orchestrated a campaign of murder and intimidation against the Movement for Democratic Change, entrenching his rule once more. In 2011 Africa will see more elections than in any single year since decolonisation. Unless the succession of defeated leaders writing-off election results at the barrel of a gun is brought to an end, the message will go out that the international community will sit idly by should this happen again and consequently -in all likelihood -very little will change. Then, without democracy or good governance, millions of people across the continent will continue to face political violence, poverty, food shortages, water shortages and uncontrollable pandemics.

So to those who’d argue against military intervention sanctioned by Ouattara, on the basis that it is somehow ‘imperialist’ I say this: there is nothing wrong with militarily supporting a democratically elected leader when he asks for assistance in upholding peace and human rights. And for those whose objections would rest upon the misplaced conception that the Ivory Coast’s crisis is the Ivory Coast’s problem I offer this consideration: the political ramifications of Ggbago holding power could condemn a continent to poverty for decades to come…poverty that will require aid from the international community, that will close off trade options for the international community, that will spread diseases which have no respect for borders and that will provide fertile breeding grounds for terrorists seeking to spread their destruction across the globe. And that is everyone’s problem.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

The Activist 2010 Book Review (part 2)

Time for the second part of my 2010 book review…

The Lost Revolution: the Story of the Official IRA and the Workers Party –Brian Hanley and Scot Millar

Lost Rebolution Hanley and Millar's book is another great piece of Irish Political History to appear over the past year and is without a doubt one of the best works I have ever read.

Whilst there is a huge array of literature focussing on the Provisional IRA, very little addresses the socialist grouping from which it splintered back in 1969. This has left the Official IRA one of the least understood players in Irish Politics…until now.

The Lost Revolution gives a gripping account of the organisation and its related political branches- from their position following the Irish Civil War to their involvement as a partisan left-wing force in modern Ireland. It draws on comprehensive research, unprecedented interviews and previously unseen documents to create a story that is as enthralling as it is informative. The authors take the reader on a journey through the movement’s quest to create a communist state in Ireland- including their dealings with Kim Il Sung’s North Korea, almost unbelievable involvement with loyalist paramilitaries and of course their bloody feud with the provos. In depth pictures of individual players blend seamlessly with an objective yet detailed timeline of a force that was crucial for decades in Irish politics and that has left a lasting legacy today.

Whilst the level of analysis is slightly weighted in favour of earlier chapters in the movement’s history this only because there is more to tell about about the exploits of OIRA gunmen on the streets of Belfast compared to the ultimately futile attempts of the Democratic Left in electoral politics year later.

Overall this stands as the authoritative history of Ireland’s socialist/communist forces and unless significant new documents are uncovered or previously silent individuals come forward – looks set to remain so long into the future.

Than Shwe: Unmasking Burma’s Tyrant- Benedict Rogers

Than ShweBurmese ruler Than Shwe is undeniably one of the world’s most brutal dictators – not only in recent time but throughout modern history. Over the last 20 years his attempted genocide of ethnic groups, suppression of democratic movements and criminally negligent trashing of the economy has brought a once prosperous nation to its knees. Prominent activist Benedict Rogers takes on the challenge of analysing his life and ‘leadership’ in this superb work.

Its no easy task. The secretive and patently absurd nature of Burma’s successive juntas mean little information about the Senior General is freely available – one of the reasons why he has escaped the kind of spotlight and critique that the likes of Mugabe, Suharto and Amin have been subjected to. However, Rogers has done an excellent job of unearthing facts and testimonies that chart Than Shwe’s rise from a lowly post office clarke to leader of a murderous regime. Interviews with various diplomats, former political prisoners and those who have encountered Than Shwe allow for a surprisingly in depth picture of him – both personally and professionally.

Like Roger’s previous book – a Land Without Evil (which focussed on the junta’s genocide in the Karen region), Unmasking Burma’s Tyrant does a great job of contextualising its subject matter – effectively conveying the modern history of Burma that is necessary for the reader to fully understand Than Shwe’s rise and rule. The concise yet informative way in which he does this gives the book a unique quality; the broad rich historical background means it can work as an introduction to Burmese politics for those unfamiliar with the subject matter whilst the detailed and unprecedented focus on Than Shwe makes it a must-read for those with an existing interest.

As such – I would recommend this book to anyone keen to establish or expand their knowledge of Burma and would urge everyone to look out for Roger’s new book Burma: Captive Nation which is due out next year. If A Land without Evil and Unmasking Burma’s Tyrant are anything to go on, it will be another outstanding work by the UK's leading Burma commentator.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

A turbulent night in Europe’s last dictatorship

Belarus has many claims to fame, like the Belavezhskaya Pushcha- Europe’s final vast ancient forest; or the Mir Castle Complex- a stunning UNESCO world heritage site. However, it more often than not stands out because of the fact that – almost eleven years after it gained independence from the Soviet Union, Belarus’ 9.5 million people still languish under a dictatorship……the last in Europe.

With this goes a host of other unique yet grossly undesirable titles – like the only European state to retain the death penalty and the lowest ranked European state in Freedom House’s Freedom in the World Report. The ruling regime has also come under frequent criticism from an array of international organisations including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty and Forum 18 as well as numerous foreign governments.

The criticism is well-merited. Dictator Alexander Lukashenko has held power since 1994 through a series of rigged elections interspersed with the imprisonment and torture of opponents, suppression of civil society and politicisation of the security services. From their violent treatments of detainees to their Soviet-style control of the media Lukashenko and his thugs have consistently shown the abhorrent measures they will take to ensure the continuation of authoritarianism in this corner of an otherwise democratic continent.

However, brave Belarusians continue to stand up to the regime and tonight are taking to the streets of Minsk to oppose the results of Lukashenko’s latest sham election; which returned him to power with a ‘70% share of the vote’ after widespread voter intimidation, media manipulation (and if the events of his past elections are anything to go by – mass ballot rigging.)

Reports coming out of the country over the last few hours indicate that even after riot police violently broke up a protest denouncing the outcome, ten of thousands of demonstrators re-grouped with some attempting to storm the government headquarters. The latest news is that they have been pushed back and hundreds have been detained……but despite enduring one of its coldest winters, Belarus is witnessing public political upheaval on a scale not seen since the first few years of Lukashenko’s dictatorship.

The next few days will undoubtedly be crucial ones for the future of this nation that has suffered for so long. For the Belarusian people this may turn out to be an historic turning point. For Lukashenko – he may be about to realise that rigging the election was the easy part…


Saturday, 18 December 2010

Another Empty Chair

Guillermo FarinasLast Wednesday- less than a week after imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiabo was represented by an empty chair at the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony, almost identical scenes unfolded at the presentation of the EU's Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. This time the chair represented Cuban human rights activist Guillermo Farinas who, though now ‘free’ after over eleven years in Fidel and Raul Castro’s dungeons, was denied an exit-visa to leave his own country and receive his award.

It’s little wonder that Cuba’s dictatorship didn’t want to see Dr. Farinas honoured on the world stage; his hunger strike earlier this year –following the death of a fellow activist, provided the impetus for mass international pressure (led by the Catholic Church) that resulted in the release of 52 political prisoners. His previous brave stand against internet censorship had also earned him the prestigious Reporters Without Borders Cyber-Freedom Prize –causing inordinate embarrassment to the regime (particularly as Reporters Without Borders has consistently called for the US Trade Embargo on Cuba to be lifted, undermining any attempts to portray the organisation as an ‘American puppet’ or ‘imperialist apologist’).

However, allowing Dr. Farinas to travel and receive his award would have caused far less damage to the image of Raul Castro and his cronies, than denying him permission to leave ultimately did. Rather than demonstrate themselves to be receptive of criticism, the authorities enforced the perception of Cuba as a giant prison where the population are held against their will and abused should they dissent. No one denies that the Castro dynasty has moved on from the days when homosexuals were sent to concentration camps and political opponents were executed en masse but last week’s events illustrate that there is still a long, long way to go.

We must therefore, continue to rally behind Guillermo Farinas and the many prisoners of conscience still languishing in Cuban jails, so that one day he can proudly travel from his homeland………as a representative of a free Cuba.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

The Activist 2010 Book Review (part 1)

Out of the books I’ve read this year – a few of them were new for 2010. As it draws to a close I thought I’d give my low-down on them.....

Voices from the Grave: Two Men’s War in Ireland – Ed Moloney

This book caused quite a stir when it was released back in March. It is drawn from lengthy interviews with Brendan Hughes and David Ivrine (respectively key players in the Republican and Loyalist movements during the Troubles) which both men agreed could only be published after their deaths. It looked set to include damning testimonies that would be hugely incriminating for several senior Irish politicians today.

In the event, the expected ‘shock revelations’ were merely reinforcements of already widely accepted theories about some of Northern Ireland’s darkest days; however, this does not detract from the truly fascinating experience of reading Hughes’ and Irvines’ accounts in their own words. Their first-hand tales of street battles, political wrangling and paramilitary activities give a unique level of insight into the Troubles that accounts by historians often struggle to achieve.

If there is a downside, it is that Maloney’s own commentary, whilst often useful for setting the context of the two men's stories, sometimes simply paraphrases what they say- leaving an air of repetition. Attempts to draw parallels and links between Hughes and Irvine are also tenuous at best; the two men fought at different times, in different ways and for different reasons so any portrayal of them as two side of the same coin or reflecting a microcosm of the Troubles, is inevitably flawed.

Still – this an excellent addition to literature on Northern Ireland and I’d highly recommend it. Obviously, being based on first hand accounts, the book is not intended to be balanced nor comprehensive, meaning that it may not be suitable for newcomers to the subject; however, anyone with a background understanding of Northern Irish politics will find this a brilliant compliment to their knowledge.

My Friend the Mercenary - James Barbrazon

my friendSix years after the abortive attempt by a group of mercenaries to depose the dictatorial government of Equatorial Guinea, the Forsyth-style drama still sets imaginations racing. Enter war correspondent James Barbrazon with an exciting and frankly impossible-to-put-down account of his friendship with Nick du Toit (one of the coup’s key plotters who spent the subsequent years facing daily torture in the notorious Black Beach Prison).

However, Brabazon’s book is about far more than the ill-fated adventures of du Toit and co – in fact the entire first part is dedicated to his multiple treks through Liberia with his mercenary chum and a group of LURD rebels as they seek to depose Charles Taylor. This is rich not only in action but also in fascinating discussion about Liberian politics, wartime morality and the role of journalists in conflict zones. In fact, this part of the book is so good that by the time Barbarzon’s focus switches to in-depth analysis of the Equatorial Guinea mission (a venture he was not personally involved in and that has already been covered by numerous books such as the Wonga Coup) it ends up feeling a bit of a let-down.

His decision to include this may have stemmed from a belief that it would ‘hook’ potential readers- or it may come from a genuine desire to tell his friend’s story from his point of view. Whatever the reason, Barbrazon would have been better off dedicating the entire book to a longer account of his time in Liberia and the related issues it threw up. Nevertheless, even if its only for the first part – this is a great read combining an alluring mix of adventure, politics and moral dilemmas.

Beware of Small States: Lebanon, Battleground of the Middle East -David Hirst

bewardHirst’s political history of Lebanon has all the right ingredients for this kind of book: he consummately balances analysis with anecdotes, detail with pace and depth with breadth to create an informative, readable and well-rounded work. Given Lebanon’s vivid, turbulent and complex history, this was a brave venture yet the result is a book that genuinely helps to make sense of the country and indeed the wider Middle East today.

I should stress that prior to reading I was only familiar with the basics of Lebanese politics and it may of course be less valuable to those more versed in the various issues; however I feel the level of research apparent throughout would surely be of at least some benefit to all those interested in Lebanon, whatever their level of expertise.

Perhaps inevitably – given Hirst’s well documented and passionate views concerning Middle Eastern politics, Beware of Small States is clearly written from a particular political perspective – with distinct criticism of Israel’s role in Lebanon’s troubles obvious throughout. However, as he never makes any secret of these views there is no hidden agenda and the academic value of the book stands firm even though the reader may disagree with some of his perspectives. He has also obviously taken great pains to ensure a measure of objectivity (most other players also come in for strong criticism at various points) and to back assertions up with fact.

I am keen to compare this to Barry Rubin’s earlier text, which undoubtedly takes a vastly differing stance; however I am confident in concluding Hirst does an excellent job of providing a strong analysis that clearly stands out as one of the contemporary authoritative works on the topic.


Saturday, 11 December 2010

The sun never sets….

Fifty years since it won independence from the United Kingdom, Nigeria continues to languish under a new form of colonial rule; occupied not by far off states, but by ‘Western’ companies.

Of this isn’t news. Numerous large businesses were already setting themselves up for a leading role in independent Nigeria even before the UK withdrew – most prominent amongst them being Royal Dutch Shell, which began establishing a vast network of infrastructure, armed troops and political heavyweights throughout the country back in 1958. Over the following decades Shell’s environmental devastation of the fragile Niger Delta region and suppression of resistance- not least through complicity in the murder of prominent activists such as Ken Saro Wiwa - was well documented.

However, recent Wikileaks revelations have drilled home just how much influence the company continues to exercise in Nigeria, even so long after the military junta (its strongest ally) fell and its brutal behaviour was exposed to the world. Secret correspondence from the US embassy includes testimony of Shell’s highest-ranking executive in the country, boasting that the company had infiltrated every layer the Nigerian government and knows everything that occurs in the various departments. There are strong indications that Shell has been able to manipulate Nigerian law and engineer concessions allowing it to continue its exploitation of Nigeria’s people and environment; a situation only compounded by the country’s rampant corruption and the astronomical political clout that Shell’s multi-billion dollar turnover carries.

Further cables highlight Shell’s fears concerning escalating violence by militant groups fighting against the exploitation of the Delta region; including discussions on what new weaponry they may posses. Yet paradoxically, the evidence of Shell’s influence over the Nigerian government contained in the documents, will only serve to strengthen this fledging resistance movement, generating a level of public anger and support that will prove far more beneficial than any practical addition to its military arsenal. This highlights Shell’s on-going failure to recognise that attacks on its facilities and on the Nigerian government, whilst largely unjustifiable are not generated not by few extremists but by a region that has suffered decades of death,destruction and degradation and both parties' hands.

Of course, it must be noted that Shell is far from alone in its crimes against the Nigerian people. A plethora of other companies including Total and Exxon have long exercised considerable influence over successive Nigerian governments and repeated the kind of abusive practices they’ve respectively demonstrated in other parts of the world such as Burma and Indonesia. However, this weeks revelations firmly confirm the fact that Shell is the runaway leader in the manipulation of this vulnerable state for its own financial gain.

Ironically it is a UK-registered company that- over half a decade since the Union Flag was lowered in Nigeria – continues to dominate and exploit the country through financial force, military prowess and the utilisation of numerous corrupt ‘puppet’ local officials and departments. Unfortunately for those in the Niger Delta – the sun has not yet set on the British Empire.

nigeria shell

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Exploiting the Crescent

Wikileaks is still undoubtedly the word of the week in international politics- with the the vast array of US correspondence published causing diplomatic headaches from Italy to North Korea. Whilst debate ranges over whether the site’s director Julian Assage should be commended or hunted down - most politicians, commentators and members of the public are all broadly agreeing on one thing: some serious issues have been thrown up by the documents.

Of course, many are trivial or even amusing (think Colonel Gaddafi’s blonde Ukrainian nurse) but others could have serious ramifications. Not least amongst these – though surprisingly under reported- are suggestions that the Iranian Government made use of the formally neutral Iranian Red Crescent Society, during conflicts in various states including Lebanon, Iraq and Bahrain as well as the Balkans. Perhaps the most damning allegation is that members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard used Red Crescent convoys to enter Lebanon –in possession of weapons and ammunition supplies – during the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war. That conflict cost the lives of almost 2000 Lebanese Civilians, over 40 Israeli civilians and over 50 others including foreigners and UN personal; it also left Lebanon in ruins, military losses on both sides and –perhaps most significantly – a bitter political aftermath that has resulted in tensions on the Lebanese boarder and threats of further clashes ever since. As well as potentially indicating a grave violation of the Geneva Contentions, the memos therefore have the additional effect of piling further grievances and antagonism onto an immensely damaging legacy.

Furthermore, the situation looks set to significantly hinder the actual humanitarian activities that Red Crescent societies carry out. Israeli authorities have long presented deliberate hindrances to these – particular those of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society whose ambulances have been delayed, denied access and even fired upon. Whether such actions stem from a genuine paranoia that the Red Crescent provides cover for militants, a malicious programme of oppression using this as an excuse, or a combination of both – is the subject of intense debate. What is clear however, is that regardless of the motive – supposed evidence that Iran used a Red Crescent Society to aid attacks on Israel –will only increase the official Israeli disruption of genuine Red Crescent humanitarian and relief work.

For this reason a prompt, thorough and transparent enquiry by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies –possibly in association with the UN or OIC- would greatly assist the various national societies, in addition to reigning-in some of the growing political tensions. Conclusive proof that the Iranian Red Crescent Society was not used for military action – or a comprehensive response including international prosecutions of those responsible if it transpires that it was – would primarily protect the integrity of Red Crescent Societies and resultantly leave the Israeli authorities with no veneer justification for impairing their work (potentially leaving anyone who does so liable for prosecution themselves).

In a region where humanitarian crises are regularly exacerbated by political manoeuvres – it would be a disaster for prominent, neutral and effective humanitarian organisations to be dragged into the fray (either in practice or in accusations) and further prevented from their vital duties. Immediate action is essential.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Neptune’s Navy sails again

It barely seems like a year since their last expedition but in less than a month Sea Shepherd’s fleet will once again take to the Southern Ocean in their latest anti-whaling venture: Operation No Compromise. It’ll be their sixth year disrupting the Japanese fleet’s whaling activities and based on recent experience it will certainly land a punch against the backwards and barbaric industry.

During the 2009-2010 operation, Sea Shepherd’s three boats, informally dubbed ‘Neptune’s Navy’, managed to halt whaling for three straight weeks- one third of the season. The Japanese government and whalers gave back as good as they got; naval vessels were deployed and one whaling ship – the Nisshin Maru -rammed Sea Shepherd’s fast interceptor boat almost killing its crew. When the interceptor's captain Pete Buthane boarded the Nisshin Maru in protest, he was taken prisoner and transported back to Japan…removing the ship vessel from whaling operations. Overall such harassment and abuse of the activists cost the whalers millions of dollars – exacerbating the financial losses caused by Sea Shepherd’s initial disruption.

This is the reason why the organisation is so effective – and why ultimately it will succeed. Whilst the Japanese government-backed whalers have circumvented and flouted a global ban, ignoring political pressure and legal threats, they cannot infinitely ignore their own monetary losses. Many people (even amongst those who oppose the practice of harpooning whales and dragging them onto the decks of boats before cutting them up whilst still alive) disagree with Sea Shepherd's tactics of blockading whaling vessels, pelting them with smoke grenades or 'stink bombs' and damaging their engines. However, no one can deny that they have turned this potentially lucrative industry into a financial black hole.

For five straight years the Japanese government and whaling industry have had to pour resources into defending the vessels, whilst never once meeting their quotas. When this is combined with the fact that Sea Shepherd’s actions have never injured anybody (despite claims by the whalers that were later proven to be false) –there seems no reason why any right thinking person concerned about protecting some of nature’s most intelligent and endangered creatures shouldn’t support them on their latest mission.

With a re-vamped fleet including a brand new fast interceptor and an eager crew which for the first time includes Japanese members –Neptune’s Navy looks likely to continue its impressive record of each year’s action being more successful than the last. The political moves to end whaling are vital – as are the legal initiatives, particularly Australia’s proposal for a case at the International Court of Justice; however, whilst these proceed- understandably slowly – Sea Shepherd’s excellent working in directly financially wrecking the whaling industry can only be commended.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Haiti and the politics of cholera

No one expected Haiti’s reconstruction after the devastating earthquake in January to be quick or easy. However, the outbreak of cholera currently sweeping through the crowded refugee camps and ruined cities (that as of today has killed 1250 and affected 20 000 more) has struck an unanticipated and utterly crippling blow against on-going relief efforts. Low levels of education and sanitation mean that the disease, though deemed “easily preventable”, is spreading at an alarming pace; whilst the nation’s medical infrastructure –which has not even been rebuilt to its inadequate pre-earthquake standard, is unable to cope.

It’s little wonder therefore, that suggestions the outbreak may have stemmed from Nepalese members of the UN Peacekeeping Force (due to latrine discharges in their camp), have unleashed a torrent of public rage against the blue-helmets. As biological evidence emerged that the strain originated from South Asia, Peackeepers were stoned and violent anti-UN riots spread throughout the country. Return fire killing two of the rioters only stoked anger further.

Yet beyond the understandable fear and resentment, there are other factors at play. UN troops are in Haiti to provide a secure situation in which reconstruction can take place – not to provide it themselves; yet poor conveyance of this fact to the local population has resulted in an inevitable bewilderment and bitterness amongst those who –living in abject poverty and struggling for survival on a daily basis- see the soldiers cruising around in armoured cars whilst apparently doing nothing to help them. This week when the floodgates opened, this built-up tension manifested itself in violence.

Additionally, some factions of the rioters begun to target the offices of candidates involved in Haiti’s upcoming presidential election [see picture right]. Although some of the front runners have called for the poll’s postponement- it is still scheduled to go ahead and from such a volatile situation there is a genuine danger that the kind of political violence which blighted Haiti for decades may emerge once again. Indeed, some commentators have already suggested that the worst of the rioting may have been deliberately orchestrated in a bid to destabilise the vote – a theory strengthened by simultaneous outbreaks of violence at 6am last Monday.

Stopping the riots must now be a priority. Attacks on clinics, medics and body collectors are directly undoing any progress made in the urgent fight against the spread of cholera; whilst a delay in the election will only hold-up the kind of political stability required for real improvements in healthcare, infrastructure and aid spending so that Haiti can respond better to epidemics in the future. Of course this does not mean simply a military response to bolster law and order; a full and public enquiry by the UN as well as serious reforms to the structure their peacekeeping mission are essential if trust is to be restored. This is especially important considering that the troops are likely to be in Haiti for some time yet. Of course, progress on the peacekeeping front should be coupled with urgent education on how to prevent the spread (something that President Préval has already thrown himself into through special TV appearances) and international support in terms of medicine and finance.

The epidemic is expected to peak at the end of next week but the damage to Haiti’s society, political climate and above all its population will go on and on. The reconstruction is about to become longer and harder still.

Monday, 15 November 2010

A heroine walks free

For thousands of activists around the world, the reality is still sinking in: Aung San Suu Kyi is a free woman (at least as free as anyone can ever be in Burma). The moment she left her compound to an enormous, euphoric crowd will live long in the memory of everyone who has ever taken part in the five decade long struggle for Burmese democracy and human rights. It will become a historic milestone for the nation – and for the future of its sixty million people.

Yet amid the joy and celebration many questions are ringing out amongst the commentators, politicians and ordinary people watching these incredible events unfold. And of these the most significant seems to be: why is the dictatorship allowing this? Considering their utter disregard for international law, moral decency or democratic progress – why are the Generals releasing the one person most likely to bring about their downfall? The answer seemingly lies in a series of enormous political miscalculations that could well provide an enormous or even decisive boost for the democracy movement.

Firstly Than Shwe and his cronies were of the misplaced belief that Suu Kyi’s release – a week after their sham election – would give them some credibility on the international stage and even lead to foreign governments accepting the rigged result (an 80% victory for their proxy party- the USDP). They thought that the combination of an election and such a high-profile release would portray them as progressive and democratic, alleviating pressure and earning them legitimacy.

They also believed that after spending fifteen of the past twenty-one years in some form of detention (either under house arrest or locked in the notorious Insein Jail) Suu Kyi would be out of touch and irrelevant in Burmese politics. Given that her detachment and isolation had taken an enormously heavy toll on her party- the NLD- as well as the wider democratic movement, the Generals presumed that she would emerge as a spent force with little influence on the contemporary struggle for freedom, sidelined in the wake of the elections she boycotted and the decision by some democratic candidates to take part.

This links neatly to their final faux par – namely the presumption that, given the NLD-NDF split (with the latter breaking from the former to contest the vote), Suu Kyi’s reappearance could exacerbate divisions within the democracy movement. It was most likely their deepest hope that the handful NDF candidates who actually won seats would resent the new Parliament being dismissed as a façade by someone who played no part in the election.

On every count the dictatorship got it wrong.

Even before they signed the release papers, the script was not panning out as they planned. Worldwide condemnation of the election had combined with defections by formerly pro-junta militia; first in the Karen then the Shan regions. The political landscape that the Generals were letting Suu Kyi re-enter was not nearly as neatly stitched-up as they wanted it. Neither was the world ready to congratulate her captors for ending a sentence that should never have been imposed in the first place; with the usual exceptions (including China and Vietnam), the response of international leaders consisted of praise for Suu Kyi followed by calls for the release of the remaining political prisoners.

Further early signs that the junta had mis-read the scenario came as thousands of people rushed first to Suu Kyi’s lakeside home to await her release and then –in even greater numbers- to the NLD headquarters to hear her speak the following day. Notably many of those cheering and celebrating in the streets were too young to have been involved in the democracy movement during her last brief spell of freedom in 2002-2003. Though hidden from the world for so long she is clearly still regarded by Burmese people up and down the country (and indeed across the globe) as their rightful leader. To anyone watching the celebrating crowds that NLD staff had to physically push apart for her to reach the headquarters, the perception that she could ever have become irrelevant was incomprehensible.

Subsequent speeches- in which Suu Kyi expressed a desire to listen and learn from the movement from which she had been forcibly separated, reinforced her connection with the people. Furthermore it quickly became clear that her years in detention were far from wasted; listening to the BBC World Service for hours each day she had carefully monitored and analysed the situation before emerging ready to lead once again. This should come as no surprise to the Generals; after all, in previous short releases Suu Kyi had been completely up-to-date with developments and more than prepared to re-enter the political fray without hesitation.

Their hopes of her release breeding discourse in democratic ranks will also fall flat. The NLD members who broke off to contest elections as the NDF always remained loyal to Suu Kyi – even though they disagreed with her decision to boycott, whilst their rejection of the final result will only draw both factions closer together once again. In fact, it is highly possible that those NDF candidates who won seats will now seek guidance from Suu Kyi, increasing rather than diminishing her role in Burmese politics.

Additionally, and perhaps more significantly, within her first 48 hours of freedom Suu Kyi has called for ethnic unity- proposing a second Panglong Conference (following the one convened by her father in 1947 with the intention of creating ethnic equality in newly independent Burma). Widely regarded as the only leader able to unite the state’s plethora of ethnic groups, Suu Kyi’s efforts in this area could genuinely herald a new era of united opposition to the dictatorship, especially considering the growing dissatisfaction of those ethnic militias that previously took the junta’s side.

Finally, any rabble-rousing that could provide the Generals with an excuse to detain her once again was cleverly avoided. Calls for a peaceful revolution were combined with offers to negotiate with the junta, amazingly including the USDP (whose predecessor –the USDA tried to kill her in 2003.) Her open-minded stance on sanctions will also catch Than Shwe and co off guard. As the only political player able to convince foreign governments to drop them, Suu Kyi’s decisions are inherently linked to Burma’s economic situation and thus she has enormous power to pull the Generals to the negotiating table.

Aung San Suu Kyi- and the entire movement for democracy and human rights in Burma – have a long hard path ahead; but her release may prove a turning point in a struggle where not so long ago the outlook was depressingly bleak. The leader is finally free, now for the other 2200 political prisoners….and then Burma itself.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Burma erupts

Just 24 hours after the sham election came to a close, Burma is in a new period of political and humanitarian chaos. As expected the junta’s proxy party- the USDP, is romping home on the back of stolen ballot boxes, violent intimidation and flagrant vote rigging up and down the country - not to mentioned the disenfranchisement of the millions living in areas deemed “too dangerous” (i.e. too opposed to the junta) for polling stations to be set up in.

Bravely, a number of Burma’s citizens have run the gauntlet of resisting the junta, by voting for democratic opposition parties; resulting in a handful of parliamentary seats for the NDF (the faction of the NLD that broke off to contest the elections) and ethnic Inn, Rakhine and Shan groupings. Low voter turnout (some reports suggest just 45%), following NLD-led calls for a boycott, is also indicative of public defiance. Yet in spite of such developments, a USDP victory is well and truly stitched up. The few opposition party victories have been by the junta partly because the strength of local opposition support is just too strong to cover-up but mainly because in such a limited number cases they will make little difference to the parliament’s overall make-up, especially given the 20% of seats reserved for the military. Any result that would provide genuine representation for opposition parties was brazenly prevented; for example whilst the pro-democracy Shan Nationalities Development Party has been formally awarded three of the seats it rightfully won, other constituency where it enjoys almost total support went to the USDP when lines of coerced villages were forcibly marched to the ballot boxes by party officials.

However whilst the election is largely ‘in hand’, real turbulence is unfolding in the Karen region. Here the junta has long pursued a policy of genocide and ethnic cleansing involving mass-rapes, village-burnings and systematic massacres. The small and fully justified Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) – a determined but militarily weak rebel group- has long done what it can to defend its people; however since 1994 the junta has orchestrated a ‘divide-and-conquer’ strategy involving bribery, murder, trickery and exploitation of the KNLA’s Christian/Buddhist mix; to lure some regiments into a breakaway junta-allied Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA). Since its inception the DKBA has been responsible for some of the worst atrocities against its fellow Karen people –utilising guns, mines and artillery provided by the junta.

But the Generals’ attempt to absorb the DKBA into their own military set-up as a Border Guard Force ruled from Naypidaw was a step too far. Yesterday, tensions bubbling away for months erupted and in a amazing volta face a brigade of DKBA troops turned on the junta, seizing control of a polling station and police station. By this afternoon they had taken the militarily strategic Three Pagodas Pass, torched government building and declared allegiance with the democracy movement. The KNLA immediately responded by laying aside sixteen years of conflict and sending troops to join them. The democratic uprising has come at a cost – a counter attack by the junta has already begun and anywhere between 5000-30 000 Karen civilians have fled across the Thai border to escape the escalating conflict.

In the unfolding humanitarian tragedy there are signs that Senior General Than Shwe and his fellow military thugs are losing control - at least to some extent. Their sham election has been rejected by the international community, Burmese citizens are defying their intimidation; and attempts to bolster their own military strength along the Thai border have dissolved into the loss of an ally and the emergence of a fresh ethnic insurgency. It’s certainly not the smooth and quiet transfer from uniforms to suits that they hoped would win them legitimacy in the eyes of the world whilst maintaining a tight grip on power.

No one knows what will happen in Burma over the coming days, let alone weeks and months. Predictions can barely stretch beyond a best-guest in a situation that is changing far quicker than even many experienced Burma watchers anticipated. Yet one thing is for certain- these are historic times. All eyes now will turn to the scheduled release of Aung San Suu Kyi this Saturday. If the junta extends her detention once again, the growing international clamour against them will reach new heights and the last pathetic attempts to portray themselves as democratic reformers will falter. If they release her, under the un-ignorable pressure they find themselves, it will provide the biggest boost possible for a democracy movement that the voter defiance and armed resistance of the past 48 hours has shown to be far from defeated.

Up to the minute news:

The Irrawaddy

Democratic Voice of Burma

Election incidents/developments map


Sunday, 7 November 2010

Burma and the junta's lost election

Yesterday I was invited to speak at a demonstration opposing the Burmese military junta’s sham election. A strong turnout of around 500 showed the strength of feeling against this façade and the final rally outside the junta’s embassy was truly inspirational. At this point one of the other speakers’ messages really stuck out for me: Mark Farmaner, Director of Burma Campaign UK took the microphone and announced that the junta – who have 25% of parliamentary seats reserved and whose proxy parties will likely win most of the remainder –had already lost the election.

Of course he is right. The Generals’ intention in staging this mockery (any process where leading opposition figures are banned, foreign journalists are arrested, ballots are rigged and voters are intimidated is hardly worthy of being deemed an “election”) was to legitimise themselves on the international stage. And in this regard they have categorically failed. With a few exceptions including the junta’s usual backers such as China (and -in a shame shameful surprise- Germany) the international community resoundingly rejected the election’s outcome before voting began.

Rather than fool the world therefore, all that Senior General Than Shwe and his military thugs have done by staging the vote is to draw international attention to Burma once again (coverage including front page newspaper articles and special despatches have raised further awareness about the nation’s plight) whilst galvanising global political and public support for Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD – who were democratically elected to govern in 1990 before the junta annulled that election’s result, imprisoned Suu Kyi and eventually forced the NLD’s disbandment as a formal political party.

The positive worldwide response not only indicates the growing conviction of governments and international organisations –including the United Nations – to stand up to the junta; it also vindicates the NLD’s decision to boycott the poll. The move had caused a significant degree of debate in the democratic movement – with several NLD members breaking away to form the National Democratic Force (NDF) and standing for 163 seats in Rangoon. Like many, I was initially torn between the mainstream NLD’s assertion that contesting the election would give it legitimacy whilst allowing no democratic process; and the NDF’s position that as the poll was going ahead anyway it was important for democratic candidates to be involved.

At the time of writing the NDF has won just one seat in the new “People’s Parliament”, whilst the junta’s proxy party- the USDP (a military-led revamp of the USDA militia which attacked and murdered Aung San Suu Kyi’s supporters in 2003) has been successful in every other constituency declared thus far. Had the NLD taken part it would have undoubtedly been in a similar situation but international criticism of the process would have been far harder. Of course, activists and governments would have still stood up to the violent intimidation and blatant vote rigging, but the latent legitimisation that would have been bestowed by NLD involvement could easily have undermined the kind of wholesale rejection of the junta’s pre-ordained result that we are currently witnessing.

So what next?

Pressure will now undoubtedly continue to mount for Suu Kyi’s release when her current house-arrest sentence expires next Saturday. And if she is to walk to freedom, the domestic democratic movement -wich would be buoyed by both the international support it is currently experiencing and the return of its leader- could pose its biggest threat to the generals since 2007, when street protests almost brought down the regime. Of course the state of effective martial law that currently exists throughout Burma and the increasing human rights abuses resulting from the heightened state of security make it hard to be optimistic; but the junta has been unsuccessful in its attempt to fool the world and has failed in achieving the raison d’être of its sham election. Than Shwe and his cronies may find that their biggest challenge is still to come.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Western Sahara- a step towards freedom?

Next Tuesday and Wednesday could well become historic days Western Sahara’s half million people. Although there is a chance that the UN-brokered talks due to be held on the country’s future may fail like so many before, there remains hope that they may for once succeed in becoming the first step towards the independence referendum that Western Sahara has been denied since it was occupied by Morocco thirty-five years ago.

Although their plight is often overlooked by the world’s media, the suffering of the Sarahawi people (Western Sahara’s indigenous population) is all too real. In the face of horrendous oppression and human rights abuses by the Moroccan authorities, many have fled their homes over the years and remain stranded in squalid desert refugee camps. The tragedy dates back to 1975 when Morocco amassed troops against what was then called Spanish Sahara, in an attempt to enervate Spain’s colonial power over the region. However, the Moroccan royalty saw fit hold onto the spoils of conflict and themselves became colonists. And despite resistance from the POLISARIO (liberation front) which receives support from neighbouring Algeria, Western Sahara remains under Moroccan control to this day.

Interestingly the situation –which has so often escaped the attention of activists and journalists across the globe – has long been a significant matter for the United Nations. In 1998 it oversaw “settlement proposals” in which Morocco and the POLISARIO agreed on terms for an independence referendum; however subsequent debate over the precise details and Morocco’s reluctance to let go of their colonial possession meant these have not yet been implemented. Since 1991 a civilian UN force has been on the ground to move the process forward, backed by UN military peacekeepers in place to stem the outbursts of violence between the two sides (the UN presence is collectively known as MINURSO – Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara). Successful progress in next week’s talks would be a victory for the UN on two counts – firstly it would mean tangible results that would politically justify its 19 year commitment in the country and secondly it would raise the prospect of –in the foreseeable future- being able to scale back the vast funds and resources dedicated to MINURSO (something that member states are always keen to monitor).

These could therefore be fundamentally important days for the UN as well as the Sarahawi people. Of course – were the referendum to be secured – that would provide an even more significant milestone for both. For the UN it could bring back some of the respect and euphoria that surrounded its successful (if belated) facilitation of East Timor’s return to independence in 2002; and for the Sarahawi people it could mean freedom….at long last.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Standing up to a saviour

Very few have watched Hotel Rwanda and not been moved by its graphic depiction of the 1994 genocide or by the selfless heroism of the protagonist, Paul Rusesabagina. Despite the inevitable ‘Hollywoodisation’, the story was largely accurate and Mr. Rusesabagina can rightly be credited with saving the lives of some 1200 Tutsis and moderate Hutus whilst the international community stood by and watched one of the worst crimes against humanity since the holocaust. It is a strange state of affairs then – that he is now being branded an “enemy of the state” by Rwanda’s post-genocide government; led by the very men who brought the slaughter to an end.

The move has resulted from Mr. Rusesabagina’s criticism of Rwandan President Paul Kagame – criticism that was both brave and justified. Since leading the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) to victory against the genocidal Hutu-led dictatorship in 1994 Kagame has, like so many African leaders before him, turned into exact kind of tyrant he professed to stand against. The media is ruthlessly suppressed, extrajudicial killings of opponents have become commonplace and democratic freedoms have been crushed to an extent that the Economist -without exaggeration- noted to be worse than Zimbabwe. More disturbingly still –a recent UN report highlighted how during the 1990s Kagame’s forces were been involved in systematic massacres of Hutu civilians over the border in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) that may have amounted to genocide. It is becoming clearer by the day that the man once viewed as a liberator and savior from genocide is in fact a genocidal dictator himself.

It is against this background that Mr. Rusesabagina recently described Rwanda as “a big open prison where Kagame is the chief warden.” The comments led to his home being ransacked before he was outrageously denounced in the Rwandan media as a supporter Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) – a Hutu Power group derived from those who perpetrated the 1994 genocide and which continues to stage armed attacks in the DRC. Of course, the accusation that Mr. Rusesabagina is supporting the very group he risked his life and his family to save people from, is utterly nonsensical – but it was also expected. It has long been a tactic of Kagame’s regime to accuse any outspoken opponents of being participants, supporters or revisionists of the genocide.

Unfortunately, because of obvious sensitivities surrounding this, the international community has so far been slow to criticise the man who brought the genocide to an end, so aid and political support (including from form Prime Minister Tony Blair as an advisor to Kagame) continue to poor in. However, the attacks on a humanitarian hero -who is well known to Westerners through Hotel Rwanda and has received such award as the Presidential Freedom Medal – may prove a bridge too far. And if it does bring about change in the way states deal with the RPF authorities it certainly won’t be before time. Kagame saved Rwanda from genocide- but now the world must save Rwanda from him.

Friday, 29 October 2010

Many Causes -One Struggle

Last weekend I led a workshop at the Students for a Free Tibet UK Conference entitled Many Causes – One Struggle. It focussed on how the Tibet movement can –and should – strengthen and deepen its relationships with other groups opposing the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) dictatorship.

The list of potential allies is huge. In addition to Tibet, the CCP occupies East Turkestan and Inner Mongolia –destroying their cultures and subjecting their populations to horrendous human rights abuses. They similarly tyrannise the Chinese population – particularly minority groups such as Falun Gong and campaigners on issues like HIV/AIDS. Elsewhere in South East Asia the CCP props up Burma’s brutal military dictatorship and Kim Jong-Il’s insane regime in North Korea. Looking further afield Robert Mugabe and Omar Al-Bashir rely on Chinese support for their respective rapes of Zimbabwe and Sudan. For the democracy movements in all these countries- opposing the CCP is therefore tantamount.

Broader campaigns such as those for free press and environmental protection have equally valid cases against Hu Jintao and his cronies owing to the environmental devastation wrecked by CCP policies (not least their deliberate sabotaging of global climate change deals) and the constant suppression of journalists in China and the occupied territories.

Given the vastness of opposition to China’s dictatorship it would therefore, be a wasted opportunity not to work together. This is especially vital considering the limited resources of many of the groups involved (in terms of numbers, finance, political contacts and host of other areas) as well as the natural boost that any movement gains from large-scale mutual solidarity and support.

Of course, to an extent this is already happening. Chinese, Uighur and Tibetan Solidarity UK – a coalition formed in the wake of the 2009 East Turkestan uprising, was an unprecedented advance in the UK. Similarly Students for a Free Tibet UK’s membership of the Stop Climate Chaos Coalition represents an important recognition of the links between human rights issues and the environment. Yet there is so much more that can be done; contact between groups is still largely ad-hoc and many campaigns such as the North Korean movement barely feature in even the loosest coalition activities.

The situation is perhaps, a microcosm for the broader picture of activism in the UK: a good start but with much further to go. For example, relationships between environmental and developmental groups – in recognition of the devastating impact of climate change on the world’s poorest people –are well established; whilst groups such as Oxfam and Christian Aid have similarly begun to link up with campaigns opposing injustices like the arms trade and the occupation of Palestine, forming a united front against these root causes of poverty. At the same time, initiatives such as Put People First have brought together diverse arrays of groups in the quest for social justice. And yet a lot of activists still feel reluctant to stray from their “home” campaigns. The developmental-environmental link-ups received criticism from many in both camps (often preferring the respective focuses to be on building wells and saving whales) whilst fledging groups such as the Free West Papua Campaign are receiving relatively little support from more established yet similar movements such as those for Tibet or Sudan.

Ultimately all groups involved in activism, be it for human rights, democracy, the environment or any other of the numerous plethora of issues relating to progressive social change- have a vested interest in seeking common ground so that they can pool resources, share skills and bolster moral. It would be a natural next step for so many time-honoured campaigns and a vital boost to so many new ones. The old mantra of ‘united we stand-divided we fall’ is especially prevalent for activist groups in an age when –as a rule- grassroots support bases have shrunk, financial contributions have declined and reliance on specialist skills has risen.

Many Causes – One Struggle is more than a catchphrase: it’s an essential realisation for the UK’s activist community if we are to raise the challenge not only to the CCP but against those responsible for human rights abuses and environmental destruction the world over.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Brutality in paradise

The bound and naked man looks terrified and confused as the soldiers stamp on his face and chest. As they demand to know where “the weapons” are, they shove a plastic bag over his head and ram a gun in his neck. When he tells them he doesn’t know what they’re talking about they set fire to a stick......and burn his genitals. The camera pans to another younger man, also bound on the ground as soldiers slap him, hold a knife to his face and threaten to cut him.

This is the Indonesian occupation of West Papua in 2010.

The footage is one of the most disturbing things you’ll ever see. It should be shown – to highlight the Indonesian state’s brutality against the West Papuan people – but it should be viewed with discretion. Any right thinking person will be shaken and horrified by the sheer barbarity it contains.

Of course, the Indonesian government is no stranger to dishing out brutality. The occupation of East Timor from 1975-1999 killed over a quarter of million people through orchestrated massacres, enforced starvation and extrajudicial executions. The occupation West Papua – beginning back in 1961 is equally barbaric: the torture is merely the latest in a long line of abhorrent abuses in which Indonesian troops have regularly slaughtered civilians, forced Papuan men to rape Papuan women and destroyed entire villages.

Although initially denying the authenticity of the film –which was captured as a sick trophy on one of the soldiers’ phones – the Indonesian government, in response to international outcry, has now admitted that it is real (bizarrely branding it “unprofessional” rather than repulsive, inhumane or any number of far more fitting adjectives). Unsurprisingly though, nothing has been done to address to the torture- which is effectively official Indonesian government policy in West Papua.

The soldiers suspected that the men they were brutalising were members of the small armed resistance movement. This consists of a few Papuans who – with full justification – take up primitive arms (often no more than bows and arrows) against the mighty and genocidal Indonesian army, in an unwinnable attempt to protect their homes and countrymen. The men’s ultimate fate remains unknown, though like so many innocent Papuans before them – activists fear they may have been shot, beheaded or buried alive following their ordeal.

In this tropical paradise – the ultimate acts of inhumanity and brutality are reigning.

Unfortunately –just like the international community turned its back on East Timor for so long, so too are governments around the world leaving the people of West Papua to their unimaginable fate. The UK continues to recognise Indonesia’s so called “territorial integrity”, the US continues to fund and train Indonesian security forces and Australia –despite a sympathetic public- has carefully avoided condemning the occupation. Direct appeals –including those from political prisoners to David Cameron have so far fallen on death ears.

Yet the global movement for West Papua is growing, awareness is spreading and incidents such as the tortures last week are receiving an unprecedented level of attention. In light of this harrowing and graphic footage, Indonesia’s second genocide of the 21st Century may become much harder to ignore.