Monday, 19 December 2011

What now for North Korea?

Kim Jong IlAfter seventeen years of brutal rule Kim Jong-Il is finally gone
The surreal outpouring of mourning, mirroring that following the death of his father back in 1994, was predictable in light of the incessant propaganda around the man known as “Dear Leader” and the relentless coercion to show respect to him.  Yet the legacy of his reign is one of horror for North Korea’s twenty-three million people: from famine caused by economic mismanagement, to a network of concentration camps, where human experimentation and gas chambers cast grim echoes of the worst abuses in human history.

The question is, what comes now?  The answer, in all likelihood, will be shaped by three key factors…

Is Kim Jong-un a reformer?

For some time it has been clear that Kim Jong-Il’s third son Kim Jong-un was beingKim Jong-Un groomed for leadership, yet very little is known about him. 
Swiss educated, young and facing huge pressures at home (over food shortages) and from abroad (over nuclear weapons), he may be the man to make changes in North Korea and start breaking down the totalitarian system created by his grandfather. 

Such hopes are not entirely unrealistic- after all, who could have imagined that Thein Sein, a long-standing figure in neighbouring Burma’s abhorrent military regime, would lead the country in the dramatic (if very much incomplete) reforms witnessed this year.

Yet, having been picked over his older siblings, and undoubtedly subjected to years of conditioning, the chance of Kim Jong-un carrying on down the same path as his late father is equally likely, if not more so.  Certainly he has not shown any reformist tendencies of yet, but then again, having had little outing on the public stage, neither has he had the chance to.

How deep do the cracks run?
North Korea GeneralsOf course, there is a significant question mark over how much power the new Kim will even have.  Transition periods are never easy for any regime and the fact that North Korea has already undergone one family succession process, by no means guarantees a second.

And, despite the in-built reluctance for anyone to move against the express will of the late leader, some analysts suggest that Kim Jong-un will wield much less control than his father, making him far more answerable to a shadowy network of military generals and Workers Party officials.  His distinct lack of political experience may even leave him acting as little more than a figurehead, with the serious decisions being made elsewhere.

This creates a new level of uncertainty, as whilst the outside world knows very little of Kim Jong-un, we know even less about those sitting behind him.  If his control is limited, the will of maverick generals, potential dissidents, power-hungry officials and rapid ideologues may all come into play.

What will China do?

But the real power may not actually be in North Korea itself.China influence North Korea
For China’s bizarre relationship with its neighbour is far more complex that the apparent ideological bond underpinning the official statement of condolence; in which the Chinese government called on the North Korean people to “unite around the Korean Workers’ Party, and under the leadership of Comrade Kim Jong Un, turn grief into strength and march forward for building a socialist strong country”.

The powers-that-be in Beijing, in fact have far more pressing concerns than such ideological rhetoric: simultaneously seeking to secure regional influence, whilst fearing a North Korean state-collapse and refugee surge; terrified that Pyongyang may ignite a regional war, whilst enjoying the international power and status that comes with being able to (supposedly) hold a nuclear pariah at bay.    

And ultimately, with its geographical proximity, economic ties and political relationship, China remains the one state truly capable of exercising some degree of influence over the new North Korean regime – whichever form its takes; whilst ruthlessly pursuing its own agenda – whatever that transpires to be.

Whilst the future of North Korea will almost certainly be different therefore, it remains unclear exactly what it will look like.  The new leader, the old officials and the Chinese government will all have a huge role to play…with the continued suffering, or the eventual freedom, of millions, as the result.
North Korea propaganda art

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Rifts, rebels and refugees

Much of the cautious optimism that followed Hilary Clinton’s historic visit to Burma, was tainted with unease and confusion over the past fortnight, as Thein Sein’s administration continued to send conflicting signals about its approach to ethnic minority groups.

First, on-going negotiations between the government and Kachin resistance fighters appeared to yield fruit, with the President announcing an unexpected ceasefire of the military offensive that has seen tens of thousands of civilians displaced and war-crimes committed by government troops.  This surprising volte-face gathered momentum as the government publicly acknowledged the suffering of Kachin civilians and allowed a United Nations humanitarian team to deliver relief.

Kachin children in campYet days later, it became clear that the government was channelling fresh troops and supplies into the region, with skirmishes and even aerial bombing raids continuing.  Meanwhile, the Chinese government, which has long been complicit in persecution of the Kachin people, compounded the situation by violating international law and sending thousands of refugees back to squalid and disease-ridden camps on the Burmese side of the border.  

However, even as this unfolded Thein Sein’s lead negotiator was announcing to journalists the goal of peace with all of Burma’s ethnic resistance groups within four years.  His comments suggested that the continuing assault against the Kachin may not be indicative of government policy at all, but rather of troops on the ground failing to follow instructions from the centre.  Some speculate that this could be due to communication difficulties and failure of orders to ‘trickle-down’.  Others have raised the more ominous prospect of soldiers deliberately defying the ceasefire – potentially pointing to a rift between reformers at the top and hardliners on the front line.

Mahn Nyein MaungThe lack of clarity was heightened further still on Friday, when Mahn Nyein Maung, a prominent leader of the Karen resistance (incidentally also deported by the Chinese government) was handed a seventeen year jail sentence on the meaningless charge of ‘unlawful association’.  By sending him to join the 1546 political prisoners still languishing in Burma’s notorious jails, the government has demonstrated a continued hostility to the Karen people at the very time it is purporting to be engaging with them.

Overall, the only certainty is that at least some elements of the government want no progress and wish to continue various campaigns of ethnic cleansing that have blighted Burma for more than fifty years.  Whether Thein Sein is included in that group remains to be seen, but either way the plight of ethnic minorities must be a priority for William Hague during his visit next month and for the entire international community in its engagement.

Kachin child protesting

Thursday, 8 December 2011

The DRC in danger

The angry protests of Congolese exiles from Toronto to London over the past few days give just a small hint of the tensions currently building in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – where the results of the state’s turbulent election will be released in the coming hours.

The outcome is already clear: with more than 90% of the votes counted, incumbent president Joseph Kabila, leads his closest rival Etienne Tshisekedi by 48%-34%.  Now, supporters of Tshisekedi and his Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) are crying foul play and threatening huge street protests when the result is formally announced

Congo election abusesThey claim that Kabila orchestrated vote rigging, including the distribution of pre-marked ballot papers, whilst using violence to intimidate members of the opposition.  Such accusations are, at least in part, backed up by various international bodies, including the EU whose observers cited serious irregularities during the voting; the Carter Centre, which highlighted forced voting and destroyed ballot papers; and Human Rights watch, which has attributed the majority of the eighteen election-related deaths confirmed so far to Kabila’s troops – urging him to reign them in and emphasising that “elections don’t give soldiers an excuse to randomly shoot at crowds.”

For his part Tshisekedi is still talking to the UN-backed mediation team and has stopped short of calling for his people to come out onto the streets, stating that he will accept any decision made at the ballot box, whichever way it goes.  However, he is concurrently demanding a full breakdown of turnout and vote distribution from all sixty-three thousand polling stations; something that the government is currently unwilling to provide.  The request itself is perfectly legitimate, but continued obstruction by Kabila’s authorities, or indeed the detail of any data released, may well stoke the anger felt by UDPS supporters.  

With such a severe potential for unrest, some are welcoming the fact that the results have so-far been delayed for forty-eight hours, suggesting that the cooling period may in fact be beneficial and could potentially ease tensions.  However, others have taken the opportunity to flee the DRC into the neighbouring Republic of Congo, before what they fear will be a slide into total chaos and a proliferation of the scenes that played out towards the end of the election campaign, when machete-wielding rivals clashed in the capital.

Both citizens and international observers are well aware that, as demonstrated in Kenya during 2007, elections can spark mass violence in even the most stable of states. For the DRC, which is less than a decade out of a brutal civil war that saw three million killed, and which experienced weeks of street battles and loss of life after its last election, the stakes are even higher.

DRC Congo election violence


Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Goodnight Kimberley

At almost nine years old the Kimberley Process stood as one of the most radical and potentially transformative human rights ventures in recent history; providing a binding international tracking and certification framework, designed to end the trade in conflict diamonds once and for all. 

However, five months ago the process was fundamentally undermined by the horrendous decision, signed-off by its weak Congolese chairman with encouragement from the Chinese government, to certify stones from Zimbabwe's Marange diamond fields

Mugabe MarangeThis announcement prompted representatives of the human rights NGO Global Witness, a founding member of process, to symbolically walk out of its July meeting.  Pointing out that the Marange fields were the site of massacres and mass sexual abuse by Mugabe’s troops, and that certifying the diamonds would allow the tyrant to generate significant funds for his military coffers, they warned that the Kimberley Process risked loosing all credibility and would fail to protect innocent people from the abhorrent consequences of the conflict diamond trade.

Their warning was ignored and this week Global Witness formally and completely pulled out of the process, signalling its effective collapse as a legitimate institution.

Some analysts have responded by highlighting that the official terms of the Kimberley Process only ever applied to stones that fund rebel groups, and were never designed to affect those generating revenue for recognised governments such as Mugabe’s.  Yet it is not hard to understand why human rights groups are aggrieved at the prospect of diamonds being certified as legitimate to trade, when they are filling the ‘war chest’ for a brutal regime, as it abuses civilians and makes preparations to steal another election by force.

Furthermore the political failings of those governments involved in the Kimberely Process go beyond Marange:  in withdrawing, Global Witness pointed out that participants similarly neglected to reign in the administration of Hugo Chávez for Venezuela's constant flouting of the process, as well as the widespread smuggling of diamonds from Côte d'Ivoire under now-deposed dictator Laurent Gbagbo.

Following the horrors of the 1991-2002 civil war in Sierra-Leone, when the Revolutionary United Front murdered, raped and maimed thousands of civilians in their quest to control lucrative diamond mines, it became strikingly clear that robust and coordinated mechanisms were needed to remove the incentive for waging such conflict and the ability to profit from it.  Until this year the Kimberley process stood on the verge of achieving this, but whilst the likes of China and Venezuela worked to water it down, other states including the USA and UK lacked the political will to fight for its survival.  Together they have wrecked a hugely promising initiative…and untold lives.

Conflict Diamond Picture

Saturday, 3 December 2011

The hand of Kagame?

Charles Ingabire killed by KagameSketchy details are still emerging around the murder of Rwandan journalist and dissent Charles Ingabire, who was gunned down in the Ugandan capital Kampala last week.  Even during his funeral on Saturday people were scared to talk openly about what happened, with many refusing to be photographed and using pseudonyms when speaking.

This ambiguity and apprehension revolves around the possible –or as some would argue the likely – role of Rwandan President Paul Kagame; the one-time liberator who now rules Rwanda through tyranny and brutality, in a manner described as worse than Robert Mugabe’s.

The motive for Kagame’s involvement in the murder is clear: as editor of the anti-regime Inyenyeri news website, Ingabire has been a constant thorn in the side of the President and his cronies, leading to threats and harassment, that forced him into Uganda as a political refugee.  Sustaining his online work in exile, he continued to provoke the regime, which will now certainly benefit from his demise.

Of course motive alone is not enough, but Kagame has previous for similar outrageous and callous acts.  Just one year ago Leonard Rugambage, the acting editor of the banned dissident newspaper Umvugizi, was  shot dead outside his Kigalai home, with the distinct appearance of official involvement

More broadly, Kagame’s approach towards critical journalists is underscored by Rwanda’s position as the tenth worst offender in the Press Freedom Index.  Reporters Without Borders, the organisation that compiles the index, has expressed outrage at Ingabire’s murder – highlighting the constant threats and attacks against outspoken Rwandan journalists both at home and in exile.

The exile point is particularly important, as in recent years it has become clear that Kagame is not averse to having his henchmen pursue political opponents abroad.  The government-led campaign against Hotel Rwanda hero Paul Rusesabagina, has involved the repeated ransacking of his home in Brussels; and in May the British police warned a political refugee that his life was at risk from Rwandan agents.

Having acted in Europe with such bloody-mindedness it is hardly beyond the realms of possibility that it was Kagame who sent killers on a short trip North of the border to remove one of his most persistent public critics.  

Paul Kagame

Thursday, 1 December 2011

By you now and always

The letter from President Obama, that Hillary Clinton handed to Aung San Suu Kyi this week, carried a clear and powerful message: “we stand by you now and always.”  And on this occasion, the actions have backed up the words.  

Hillary Clinton in BurmaClinton’s visit to Burma, the first by a US Secretary of State since the military took power in 1962, was a commendable diplomatic success; finding the fine line between legitimising the nominally-civilian government of President Thein Sein on the one hand, and dismissing the genuine signs of liberalisation that it has made on the other.

Whilst calling for the release of political prisoners and an end to hostilities against ethnic minority groups -stating in no uncertain terms that until further progress has been made, sanctions will not be lifted- she simultaneously rewarded the government for its tentative progress. 

By raising the potential of full diplomatic relations, announcing that the US will no longer block cooperation between Burma and the International Monetary Fund, and committing to increased development assistance, Clinton effectively empowered the reformist elements of the government and potentially pushed hard-liners further into the political shadows.

Then came the Pièce de résistance: two meetings with Aung San Suu Kyi in Rangoon.  To activists who spent years campaigning for Suu Kyi’s release this was an historic moment: not so long ago her freedom seemed a distant goal, yet now, poised to re-enter electoral politics, she is playing host to the the Secretary of State on Burmese soil.  It is little wonder that the National League for Democracy Leader had been so supportive of the visit, but her joy at the meeting was clearly outstripped by Clinton, who expressed her unbridled admiration for Suu Kyi, and gave assurances of the US government’s full support.

At such a critical time for Burma, these signals are exactly what is needed and can only provide impetus to the improvements already emerging.

Of course, as was inevitable, talk of realpolitik surrounded this admirable support for Burmese democracy.  With China’s influence in the country already shaken by the cancellation, at the behest of local activists, of a Chinese damning project in September, some analysts viewed Clinton’s venture as an attempt by the US to undermine its rival further still.  Yet despite confusing signals from Beijing, with formal support for the visit offset by critical editorials in state-run papers,  there is currently no real evidence to back up  fears that the US is looking to use Burma a geopolitical pawn.

Conflict in Kachin stateA far larger and more concerning undermining factor in the struggle for reform, is the on-going abuse of ethnic minority groups: one area in which no progress has been made, with the situation in may states actively worsening.  This week Karen activist Zoya Phan highlighted that the number of civilians internally displaced by the government’s war crimes has in fact doubled over the last year, whilst the Guardian shone a light on the long-running and barbaric persecution of the Rohingya people, continuing today with little international opposition.

In Kachin state too, despite peace talks between the government and resistance fighters, military assaults and human rights violations take place on a daily basis.

For these reasons, combined with the prospect of real change, international support for the Burmese people now needs to be stronger and louder than ever before.   If this weeks engagement by the USA is anything to go by- we have cause to be optimistic.  Hillary Clinton with Aung San Suu Kyi 

Monday, 28 November 2011

Democracy and crisis

Tragically, many of the anxieties and fears leading up to the Democratic Republic of Congo’s second ever election appear to now be materialising.  Already branded ‘chaos’, today’s poll has been marred by scenes that bring the very concept of Congolese democracy into stark question. 

Congo Election ViolenceSecessionist gunmen in Lubumbashi attacked polling stations and official vehicles, taking lives and destroying electoral material.  Elsewhere a combination of poor weather and chaotic organisation led to polling stations opening late, reportedly prompting would-be-voters to burn down as many as three.  Meanwhile rival groups of supporters have clashed, police have fired tear gas and the day’s death toll, currently standing at four, looks set to rise as others lie injured in hospital.

This mayhem follows a weekend of violence in which leading opposition candidate Etienne Tshisekedi was blocked from attending his final campaign rally by police, as rival groups took part in fatal confrontations in the capital, Kinshasa.  Eventually Tshisekedi was escorted through the streets by supporters wielding guns and machetes, whilst across the city, President Joseph Kabila’s bodyguards are purported to have shot at bystanders.    

Yet despite the disorder and bloodshed, there are also optimistic signs.  In manyCongo election voting parts of the DRC – which covers the same landmass as Western Europe, suffers from chronic infrastructure problems and is plagued by more armed groups that perhaps any other African country- voting has been remarkably peaceful, if not particularly efficient.  Inspirationally, over thirty million voters are heading out with a mix of pride and bravery, hoping to shape the DRC’s future for the better and finally move away from the cycle of dictatorship and conflict that many have know for all of their lives.

This was never going to be an easy or straightforward election – but the mass participation and determination of the vast majority of citizens may still make it an historic one.

Nevertheless, there remains the risk that all of this could be undone by the behaviour of candidates once the result is announced.  After the 2006 election, then opposition leader Jean-Pierre Bemba (now being tried for War Crimes at the International Criminal Court), accused Joseph Kabila of stealing the vote, and dragged the country into weeks of bloody violence.  This time around there is already talk of ballot box stuffing; and no sign that either Tshisekedi or Kabila will give any ground in the case of a questionable or disputed result..

The imminent expiration of Kabila’s constitutionally-mandated presidential term adds a further layer of tension.  If a clear winner has not emerged by the first week of December the DRC will effectively be left with no official president, creating a dangerous political vacuum.

For these reasons it is essential that, after the papers are collected, all sides behave responsibly; allowing genuine scrutiny of the result, whilst drawing a clear line between highlighting discrepancies and encouraging street violence. It is also crucial for the international community to provide whatever active support is needed for the twenty-two-thousand-strong UN peacekeeping force that is gearing up to deal with post-election clashes.  These are no small asks, but without them the DRC may see much more chaos before it ever sees democracy.DRC Congo Election

Monday, 21 November 2011

Executing a people

The brutal execution of indigenous leader Nisio Gomes is the latest tragedy to befall the Guarani people – Brazil’s largest indigenous minority and one of the most abused and maligned groups in the world.

When forty masked gunmen entered Nisio’s camp, shot him in the limbs and head in front of his terrified companions, disabled his son with a rubber bullet, then stole his body, they were continuing a contemptible history of oppression that stretches back over centuries, to when Europeans first arrived on Guarani land.

Over that time, the Guarani way of life has been systematically destroyed.  As their forest homes are continually torn down to make way for sugar-cane plantations, biofuels and, most prominently of all, cattle ranches, the Guarani have been forced into ever more crowded spaces, robbed of their ability to hunt, fish or plant crops, and in many cases left in squalid encampments next to newly constructed highways.Camps de fortune des Guaranis, au bord de la route 

Some have starved to death, whilst many others have been mercilessly exploited by the businesses moving onto their territory- cutting sugar cane for menial pay, or in the cases of numerous women, turning to prostitution.  Alcoholism has became endemic and the suicide rate has grown to catastrophic levels amongst both adults and children.   

Those who turn to crime as a recourse often face racism from the authorities and are forced into a legal system utilising a language that they do not understand.  Hundreds have been left imprisoned without even access to interpreters.

It is little wonder therefore, that many Guaranis have resorted to retomadas or ‘re-takings’ – public acts of civil disobedience in which they peacefully return to the land stolen from them.  However, these have consistently been met with un-restrained violence by those profiting from the ethnic cleansing, especially the cattle ranchers and their hired thugs.  In the late 1990s Guarani leader Marcos Verón, led his landless and malnourished community in a brave attempt to assert their legal rights; and when they were knocked-back by the Brazilian courts, set off to the UK to whip-up international backing.  Returning to Brazil he led a peaceful retomadas in 2003, but was beaten to death and dumped next to a roadside by ranch workers.  He was seventy-five years old.

Last week’s murder of Nisio Gomes was eerily reminiscent of this sickening incident.  Before he died the fifty-nine year old leader is reported to have told his son:

“Don’t leave this place. Take care of this land with courage. This is our land. Nobody will drag you from it. Look after my granddaughters and all the children well. I leave this land in your hands.”

If the world does not heed this message, his execution will ultimately mean the execution of the Guarani people.

Survival International campaigns to protect the Guarani and other tribal people.  Click here to visit their website.


Saturday, 19 November 2011

Legalising bigotry

916621In a fresh attack on Russia’s LGBTI community, Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party last week brought a backwards and authoritarian bill before St. Petersburg's city legislature, imposing a penalty of up to $1600 on anyone found guilty of “public actions aimed at propaganda of sodomy, lesbianism, bisexuality, and transgenderism among minors" in the city.

Human rights groups warn that the bill, which was unanimously passed on its first of three readings, will give the authorities cover for banning any public LGBTI activities, from Pride marches to campaigns against homophobia.  Meanwhile LGBTI travel services are already advising those visiting St. Petersburg to watch out, lest they inadvertently fall foul of the wide-reaching regulations.  Ominously LGBTI people will now face the same penalties as those ‘promoting’ paedophilia – a clear signal of how the United Russia Party view large sections of Russian society.   

Perhaps even more worrying than the content itself however, is the rhetoric that accompanied the new legislation.  The bill’s sponsor stated that St. Petersburg, birthplace of leading Russian LGBTI group Kryl’ya and home to the International Lesbian and Gay Association’s Russian branch, is facing “a wave popularizing sexual perversion.”  He was quickly joined by colleagues outrageously comparing consensual homosexual sex to child abuse.

Whilst horrific, such bigotry from Russia’s authorities is hardly surprising; for yearsRussia LGBTI  protest the LGBTI community has faced a series of official restraints, numerous arrests and appalling state-supported violence; often stirring memories of the Soviet regime, which punished homosexuality with imprisonment and hard labour.

Scapegoating and stirring up populist hatred has also long been a favourite tactic of Putin’s, frequently aimed at ethnic or religious minorities as well as the LGBTI community, in order to detract attention from economic difficulties or political corruption.  With just weeks to go before Russia’s parliamentary elections, it is hardly surprising that such underhanded behaviour is once again coming to the fore. 

That this is continuing, despite previous rulings by the European Court of Human Rights that the Russian authorities were guilty of discrimination and violations of freedom of assembly against gay citizens, is illustrative of their flagrant disregard of any external pressure when it comes to persecuting their own people.

Still, this should not deter governments and groups around the world from joining organisations such as Amnesty International in calling for the latest draconian bill to be halted and scrapped.  Whether in Uganda, Iran, Russia or anywhere else in the world, bigoted legislation targeting innocent people on the basis of their sexuality must always be vocally –and loudly - opposed.

Russia LGBTI rights

Burma: enter the NLD

Following months of confusion it is becoming ever clearer that the situation in Burma is gradually changing for the better.   

Suu Kyi entering political processAfter effectively barring Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) from partaking in last year’s sham election, the military regime’s pseudo-civilian government has now repealed laws requiring the expulsion of ex-political prisoners, and the recognition of the military-drafted constituion, by parties involved in the political process.  This historic move left the way open for the NLD to declare last Friday that it will field candidates, possibly including Suu Kyi herself, to stand in upcoming by-elections.

The prospect of NLD members finally sitting in Parliament was virtually unforeseeable to democracy activists even just a few months ago.  In all likelihood they will be re-joined by their comrades from the National Democratic Force (NDF) who split away in 2010 to contest the elections, providing a four seat boost to however many candidates they are able to get elected.

The feeling on the ground is changing too.  NLD meetings are held more openly, posters of Aung San Suu Kyi are sold on some streets, and the democracy icon, who spent over a decade locked away from the eyes of the world, is now able to give interviews to the BBC.  This follows the legalisation of trade unions and strikes as well as an easing of restrictions on the internet that has seen Burmese people able to access sites such as Youtube and this blog. 

An announcement from the US government that Hillary Clinton will visit Burma (theTHAILAND/ first Secretary of State to do so for more than fifty years) has raised further hopes, particularly around the prospect of fresh prisoner releases.  Indeed, the Obama administration must be commended for its on-going push for greater reform, which has included direct contact between the President and Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as a tough line on the issues that still need to be addressed.

And there are many of these; not least the continuing Burmese government attacks on Kachin freedom fighters, that have so far displaced some twenty-five thousand people and killed thousands more.  The humanitarian disaster now unfolding in the region is mirrored in the Shan and Karen states where similar brutality by Kachin protestsgovernment forces has left an untold number Burma’s maligned ethnic minority people without food or shelter.  Suu Kyi has pledged to stand by these groups and called for resolution of the conflicts to be a key priority.  Yet by meeting and negotiating with ‘reformist’ President Thein Sein, she risks loosing a degree of credibility amongst those whose families are being butchered by his soldiers.

It is also important for those working for freedom in Burma to remember that political engagement does not equal liberty.  For proof of this, one only needs to look at Zimbabwe, where the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) controls a majority of seats in Parliament, as well as the post of Prime Minister, and yet Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF regime continues to rule the country through violence.  A recent incident in which members of the Burmese government’s Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), beat two NLD activists into unconsciousness with iron bars, was all to reminiscent of the faux-democratic Zimbabwe-style politics.

Experts from organisations such as Burma Campaign UK have also been vocal in stressing the limitations of changes so far.  They point out that despite the easing of restrictions on websites, only 0.3% of Burmese people actually have internet access at all; despite political prisoner releases, hundreds remain detained in appalling conditions; and all the while appalling human rights abuses including rape and sexual abuse by government forces continue unabated.

This leaves activists with a long way to go, despite the justifiable cause for optimism and the new opportunities open to the democracy movement.  NLD involvement in the political process can ultimately only be a good thing, but it is just the beginning of the road.  The obstacles – from state violence against ethnic minorities to the inbuilt bias in the political system towards the government- will need unity, determination and worldwide support to overcome.  Having achieved their goal of securing the 2014 chairmanship of ASEAN, it is also possible that the government will slow down the pace of reform.  The hard work starts here. 

 Free Burma


Sunday, 6 November 2011

Nigeria- the Boko Haram crisis

Boko Haram attacks NigeriaThis year’s Eid celebrations in Nigeria were overshadowed by the spate of gun and bombs attacks across the country’s North East last Friday, that left at least one hundred and fifty people dead, many more wounded and several buildings reduced to rubble.

The atrocities were perpetrated by Boko Haram, a radical Islamist organisation deplored by the vast majority of Nigeria’s Muslims, focussed on undermining electoral democracy and anything else that its leaders perceive to stem from ‘Western influence’.  Friday’s attacks were specifically targeted at the Christian community and police, but in the event resulted in the deaths of several Muslim civilians and the destruction of Mosques as well.

Boko Haram United Nations bomb NigeriaOminously, the scale of the carnage is the latest sign of the group’s growing strength: in August it bombed the United Nations Headquarters in Abuja, killing eighteen people, after reportedly making links with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Al-Shabab; militant organisations respectively based in Algeria and Somalia.  US intelligence services are now warning the Nigerian government that Boko Haram intends to target a number of luxury hotels as part of a wider campaign to generate civil conflict across the country.

Notably these events come more than two years after the authorities claimed to have largely defeated Boko Haram, following a crackdown in the summer of 2009 that cumulated in the extra-judicial killing of leader Mohammed Yusaf in police custody.  It is painfully clear today, that not only has the group survived, but it appears more organised, dangerous and ruthless than ever before.

This bodes ill for a country that has a painful history of inter-communal violence, illustrated not least by the tensions and violence that followed the re-election of President Goodluck Jonathan in April.  The divide between the largely Muslim North and largely Christian South has long led to political upheaval, whilst breakouts of inter-communal conflict such as those in the city of Jos have often led to years of cyclical retaliatory attacks.  It is imperative therefore, that the government does not allow Boko Haram to exploit existing issues and nurture its own fundamentalist and barbaric campaign into wider unrest.  

Of course this is no small task, and already many Nigerians are suggesting that Goodluck Jonathan Nigeria Presidenttheir government is failing to sufficiently tackle the problem.  Whilst the President has pledged to hunt down those responsible for the most recent attacks, some quarters of society have questioned whether continued attempts at achieving a military victory over the extremists should be side-lined in favour of addressing the socio-economic problems that provide them with a fertile recruiting ground in the first place.

Others, perhaps understandably given the extent of destruction so far, have called upon the authorities to go in precisely the other direction and employ stricter emergency powers in order to guarantee civilians’ protection.

This leaves a huge task for the President and his men; and one which will inevitably cost lives should they choose the wrong approach.  Right now Nigeria is approaching crisis point, and the cause – Boko Haram, is showing no signal of diminishing.  Ultimately the authorities are likely to require a fine balance of force, social change, external assistance and diplomacy if they are going to make genuine progress in what will inevitably be a long, hard fight.   

Boko Haram militants

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Syria’s unbridled resistance

Bashar al-Assad protestsSome eight months after the Arab Spring reached the streets of Syria, the pressure on beleaguered President Bashar al-Assad is beginning to show.  Whilst remaining defiant and continuing to deploy his troops against protestors, the tyrant may be on the verge of making his first diplomatic concessions- agreeing on Tuesday to an Arab League led deal intended to end the crackdown.  

Actual details of the deal remain sketchy, though appear to revolve around opening dialogue with the protestors, and pulling soldiers- who have so far killed some three thousand people – off the streets.  Of course, a dictator’s word is tenuous at best, but this may be the clearest evidence yet, to support assertions that Assad is otherwise running out of options

Indeed, his consistent reversion to brute force has categorically failed to quell the opposition’s brave and unrelenting street demonstrations. Since March the Syria protestor shotprotestors have faced the most abhorrent abuses, including death squads slaughtering civilians in hospitals and ambulances, yet their resolve remains unbroken.  In fact, if anything they are growing stronger, with defectors from Assad’s army becoming better organised in order to challenge those still loyal to the regime.

Notably Assad’s allies abroad have also begun to desert him.  Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan initially tip-toed around the massacres across the border, seeking to limit the flow of refugees and prevent any emboldening of Kurdish forces, without upsetting his friends in Damascus.  That has all now changed, with his government praising the protestors, preparing sanctions and actively discussing the prospect of setting up a buffer-zone on Syrian soil, to protect those fleeing the violence.

And whilst Assad recently praised Russia for standing by his side, China –which has longed supported his regime and joined Russia in vetoing even a condemnatory resolution at the UN, has shown signs of movement- urging Assad to “respect and respond to the aspirations and rightful demands of the Syrian people.”

Such developments could ultimately combine to fatally undermine the man who has ruled Syria with an iron fist since the death of his father eleven years ago.  As things stand, calls from the protestors for international military protection are almost certain to remain unanswered, not least because of Assad’s significant potential to sow regional instability, as he demonstrated this week by having four members of the opposition abducted from inside Lebanon and mines laid along the border.  Yet Syria protest Assad face burntif the protestors continue to hold out whilst more troops defect, external pressure grows and ‘soft options’ such as buffer zones are implemented, the kind of military intervention undertaken in Libya may not be needed at all.

It could be recognition of this fact that led Assad to accept the Arab League deal, after all, the images of Gaddafi’s gruesome end must have caused him to, at least briefly, reflect upon the possible consequences if the unbreakable nature of the uprising is sustained.

The Syrian people have demonstrated enormous courage and persistence in bringing a once invincible dictator to the brink.  The international community – from governments to citizens such as those rallying in London last weekend, must now continue to support them…then Syria’s unbridled resistance, may herald a new dawn.

Assad wake up your time is up

Saturday, 29 October 2011

DRC- the ultimate test

Campaigning has officially begun for the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) November 28th election, with eleven presidential candidates and over eighteen thousand parliamentary candidates vying for some thirty-two million votes.

Joseph Kabila 2011 ElectionThe election, dubbed the DRC’s “ultimate test” by the International Crisis Group, will be the state’s second since the formal end of its brutal civil war in 2003.  The first, in 2006, sustained the presidency of Joseph Kabila, who took the reigns of power un-elected when his father, President Laurent-Désiré Kabila, was assassinated five years earlier.  The 2006 election, cited at the time as the most important in on the continent since Mandela won the South African Presidency, was marred by fatal clashes between rival groups of supporters, and claims that Kabila had won through corruption and intimidation.

This time around the stakes are even higher.

For if it passes off relatively smoothly and peacefully, this could be a historic milestone in the DRC’s long, hard road away from its violent past.  On the other hand, ethnic and political violence or disputed results could pull the state further back into crisis, undoing the small, though tangible, steps towards stability made during recent years.

Ominously, the latter course is looking increasingly possible.  A recent survey reveals huge discrepancies in voter registration, favouring Kabila; while human rights groups have expressed their concerns about hate speech from all candidates, exacerbating ethnic tensions.  Many NGOs have called for a UN rapid reactionUN Peacekeepers in DRC force to deal with potential flashpoints, in light of clashes between supporters of Kabila and his main rival, former Prime Minister Étienne Tshisekedi, which have already cost several lives.

With a vast number of militias continuing to operate, particularly in the East of the DRC, on-going abuses by the official army, the unprecedented murder of five aid workers at the beginning of October and Kambila long-suggesting that he would like to see UN peacekeepers leave, the election may potentially provide the spark that reignites wider conflict.

Still, foreign officials have warned against creating a self-fulfilling prophecy; arguing that writing off the election before people even start to vote would be a dangerous move.  They are right of course, but this should not undermine the importance and urgency of the situation. 

The UN peacekeeping force (MONUC) would be wise to head the calls for a rapid reaction force.  They should also channel resources into ensuring that women can safely reach the polling stations; mass rape has become an abhorrent fixture in the DRC’s conflicts, leaving many understandably terrified of casting their votes in such a volatile climate.

There must also be clear political pressure from those states supporting the DRC economically, emphasising the need for presidential candidates in particular to abide be the electoral framework and tell their supporters in no uncertain terms that any violence or intimidation is unacceptable. 

Beyond this the electoral authorities must be supported, by all sides as well as by the international community, in the huge logistical challenges that they face.  Organising an election in a state the size of Western Europe, with some of the worst infrastructure in the world, will inevitably run into problems.  It is critical that these are not allowed not boil over into accusations of foul play.

The people of the DRC have faced some of the worst and most prolonged suffering seen by any state in Africa.  Next month might be a chance to move on.  It will be the ultimate test for politicians domestically and around the world, to prevent it from becoming something even worse. 

Democratic Republic of Congo Election Violence DRC