Thursday, 24 February 2011

Gaddafi’s cronies–from Taylor to Berlusconi

The scale of brutality that Gaddafi is currently unleashing against his own people as they fight for their freedom, has unarguably been the most appalling and disturbing aspect of the 2011 revolutions thus far.  As the tyrant himself launches into rambling hour-long proclamations, his mercenaries and militias slaughter Libyan citizens with impunity.  The suppression of media has made any claim hard to verify but reliable reports of patients being shot in hospitals, deserting soldiers being burnt alive in locked barracks and missiles being fired into crowds illustrate just how low he will sink to cling onto his now faltering rule.

GaddafiHowever, abhorrent though his behaviour has been it was neither unexpected nor unprecedented.  After all, in addition to terrorising Libya itself for over four decades (recent revelations such the discovery of underground prisons where dissidents had been held without daylight for years underscore just how barbaric his rule has been) Gaddafi has long seen fit to export his penchant for violence and suffering across Africa and the wider world.  An interesting article in Time this week focussed on the key role that he played in Charles' Taylors rise to power; resulting in the latter’s reign of terror in Liberia and -via his RUF proxies -in Sierra Leone (Taylor is of course currently in the Hague being tried for War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity).  Before this Gaddafi had brought death and destruction to thousands through reckless attempts to annex parts of Chad and active support for Uganda’s Idi Amin.  Further afield, he spent millions funding and arming an array of violent groups such the Moro Islamic Liberation Front -a Filipino Separatist outfit that favoured kidnappings and beheadings in its quest for an Islamist state in the country’s South.        

More relevant than these ties to various despots, war criminals and terrorists though, is Gaddafi's link with Italian lothario Silvio Berlusconi.  Whilst recent media attention relating to the embattled Prime Minister has focused almost invariably on his alleged fling with an underage prostitute, Berlusconi is concurrently playing a far more destructive and repulsive game in defence of his tyrannical friend.  A long silence after Gaddafi began butchering protestors was followed by a weak statement opposing the violence…clarified by a warning that 300 000 Libyan refugees could flee into Europe should the dictator be toppled

Notwithstanding the utterly nonsensical nature of this prediction (the figure was seemingly plucked from the air with no factual basis) - it is hugely significant.  For beyond a mere play to Italy’s far right, it represents a democratic European leader seeking to water down international support for the protests in the strongest way he can without openly expressing his wish for Gaddafi to remain in power.  By whipping up fears of a mass refugee influx into an economically unstable Europe, Berlusconi implicitly suggests that leaving Gaddafi in place (to murder those trying to escape as he has so effectively done for decades) is the best option.

Why is Silvio so supportive?  The answer lies in the Mediterranean's longest underwater gas pipeline (running from Libya to Italy), Gaddafi’s huge personal investments in the Italian stock market and an un-disguised personal friendship between the two leaders (Gaddafi was always welcomed as a guest of honour in Italy despite the fact that diplomatic protocol does not require it).  Berlusconi undoubtedly recognises that democratic forces in Libya will question whether to keep such strong economic ties with a country that did nothing to help whilst their people were slaughtered by a despotic lunatic.  And unfortunately, unlike Amin, Taylor or the Mono Islamic Liberation Front, he has a degree of influence with the international community (particularly European nations) that can at least make them hesitate before sanctions, no fly zones or active support for the demonstrators are put on the table.

Gaddafi’s most dangerous crony is becoming ever clearer. 


Monday, 21 February 2011

Silence and opportunity in the Red Corridor

When you consider the tremendous volatility of Indian-controlled Kashmir, the communal violence that has broken out between Hindus and Christians in Orissa over previous years, and the explosive political and religious tensions that exist in Punjab; you get some idea of just how seriously India’s government views the country’s Maoist insurgency when they deem it the "greatest internal security challenge".

In many ways this is understandable.  For over forty years the Maoists (known as Naxalites after the village of Naxalbari where their rebellion began) have been fighting to establish Communist rule.  During this time tens of thousands of fighters have passed through their ranks and over six thousand people (a mix of rebels,The_Red_Corridor government troops and civilians) have lost their lives.  Perhaps of even greater significance to the government, is the size of the territory that the Naxalites affect, control or disrupt; their ‘Red Corridor’ of influence covering sizeable parts of no less than eight states and stretching almost the entire length of India.  However, although the severity of the insurgency is clear, the authorities’ response has been far from logical. 

NaxalitesWhilst Naxalite actions are indefensibly brutal, as underscored by incidents such as the violent slaughter of seventy-five government troops in a single ambush at Chattissgarah last year; the grievances of their support base are at least partly justified.  Endemic poverty, illiteracy and poor health in Eastern India, combined with a longstanding neglect of indigenous tribes by successive central governments have given the Naxalites and their leader Koteshwar Rao undeniably substantive backing amongst local civilians – the very reason why the insurgency has been able to continue for so long.  Tellingly, the ‘Orissa Gap’ –a sizeable break in the ‘Red Corridor’ where the Naxalites have virtually no influence– comes in the part of the East where the economy is strongest  and the quality of life is highest. 

Yet instead of recognising this situation and tackling the social grievances at the insurgency’s heart, Indian administrations have overwhelmingly chosen to fight fire with fire and flooded the ‘Red Corridor’ with troops, exacerbating the violence.  This ill-fated approach was ratcheted up with the launch of Operation Green Hunt in November 2009- a vast offensive which has so far seen over fifty thousands troops and tens of thousands more police channelled into Eastern regions to take on the Naxalites at a huge financial and human cost.  Human rights abuses by the government forces involved have only increased local support for the insurgency.

Last week however, some tenuous but nonetheless positive signs emerged, suggesting that a new tact may be on the horizon.  After two local government officials were abducted by the Naxalites, government guns fell silent and the authorities opted for negotiation.  Quickly the initial Friday deadline given for the government to meet demands (including the release of Naxalite prisoners in return for the officials’ freedom) was extended and the prospect of further “detailed talks” was floated.  Whilst some will argue that negotiations on the back of kidnapping and coercion mean little, the channels of discussion that have been opened are virtually unprecedented in this conflict and mark a shift from over forty years of counter-productive brute force.  If – and it is a huge “if” – the unofficial ceasefire of the past week can hold and the officials are released unharmed, then trust between the two camps will be immeasurably bolstered and an opportunity for discussions on long-term compromises may arise.

Of course ultimately the future stability of Eastern India will require huge changes including a renunciation of violence by the Naxalites and a commitment to regional development by the government – two factors currently not even close to realisation.  But if negotiations this week are positive, both sides will have the biggest chance in years to, step-by-step, genuinely improve the lives of those they claim to represent: the Indian people.   


Saturday, 19 February 2011

Bahrain, Libya and the mountain to climb

As the winds of change continue to blow unabated through North Africa and the Middle East, major developments are once again coming minute-by-minute. It is virtually impossible to address the events currently unfolding in Bahrain and Libya without any analysis being out-dated as soon as it is written. However, one thing is strikingly clear: success in these democratic revolutions looks like it will be be even harder to achieve than it was in Tunisia and Egypt.

That is not to belittle the enormous accomplishments of those who brought down Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak, nor to ignore their martyrs; few could ever forget police officers opening fire of demonstrators in El Kef or pro-regime thugs launching brutal attacks in Tahrir Square. However, the challenge faced by Bahraini and Libyan demonstrators is even more ferocious. Flagrant attacks on funeral processions by King Khalifa’s troops and the murder of up to one hundred and twenty citizens by Colonel Gaddafi’s, illustrate just how high the mountain to freedom is.

Bahrain2The reasons behind this are numerous; with several differing between Bahrain and Libya. The former’s tiny geographical area (less that 1% the size of the Irish Republic) makes it easier for Khalifa’s regime to control than a large and diverse territory; whilst the army’s huge proportion of foreign soldiers (often Pakistani or Syrian) means there are less qualms about opening fire on civilians- these are not after all, “the troops’ own people”. In Libya Gaddafi’s long-standing practice of bestowing generous patronage on leading political and military figures has given him a wide base of powerful allies; whilst the genuine loyalty that several officials and citizens offer him on ideological grounds further bolsters his position.

Other factors are common to both cases. Government restrictions on internet access in Bahrain and Libya are far stronger than they were in Tunisia and Egypt, hindering the ability of the demonstrators to communicate with each other or the outside world in the same manner (in Libya the authorities even went as far as depriving whole areas of electricity). Perhaps even more significantly however; the Obama administration’s bumbling and confused response has once again failed to produce any kind of international support that could genuinely tip the balance in favour of those seeking democratic reform. Whilst rhetoric about the will of the people and calls for restraint have been forthcoming, concerns about US and wider ‘Western’ interests are blocking robust responses, even more blatantly than during the Egyptian uprising. The long process of normalising relations with Gaddafi, Bahrain’s hosting of the US 5th Fleet, speculation of Iranian influence over the Bahraini movement (ignoring the fact that it involves both Sunni and Shiite Bahrainis -the majority of whom have no connection to Iran) and fear that instability will spread to Saudi Arabia (the US and UK’s key Middle Eastern ally) are tragically taking precedent over support for human rights, democracy and justice.

Combined, these facts present a daunting and somewhat bleak picture; however just as they did in Tunisia and Egypt those calling for democracy are defying all odds. Tonight there are scenes of celebration in Pearl Square (already being dubbed “Bahrain’s Tahrir”) after King KhalifaLibya succumbed to the demands of demonstrators and pulled back his troops for the first time since they took control of it in a bloody massacre earlier this week. Meanwhile in Libya, thousands of people are still on the streets in the biggest show of defiance against Gaddafi since he took power forty two years ago. The cracks are starting to show.

These struggles for freedom may be harder than those in Tunisia and Egypt…but the people are rising to the challenge.



Wednesday, 16 February 2011

The hand of Al-Bashir?

south-sudan-flagIn South Sudan the scenes of jubilation that followed a 99% referendum vote to secede from the North, have faded into fear and terror. The turbulent birth that I examined in an article last month is already beginning to unfold and with one hundred and forty eight days to go before formal independence the young state is already facing chaos.  

The first significant post-referendum violence to transpire was the murder of Jimmy Lemi Milla –a minister in the South’s current autonomous government. This was quickly followed by a horrific slaughter in Jonglei, where over two hundred men, woman and children were killed by militia loyal to rebel leader George Athor; with many forced at gunpoint into a fast flowing river.  In addition to its abhorrent death toll the latter of these incidents may be the more ominous for South Sudan’s future as whilst Lemi Milla’s murder appears to be a somewhat personal or isolated incident, reports surrounding the Jonglei massacre suggest that the militia’s arms may have come from the Northern government.

This would suggest a concerted effort by genocidal dictator Omar Al-Bashir and his henchmen to destabilise and undermine the South before its independence day even arrives.  Having allowed the referendum and restrained from the direct military attacks that  many commentators feared, in return for lucrative trade deals and softer political stances from the likes of Cameron and Obama, Al-Bashir may have just called everyone’s bluff and (whilst reaping the benefits of his ‘cooperation’) launched a far more covert campaign of terror.

Why?  The reasons are numerous.  Aside from some kind of perverse revenge against the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement for winning the independence struggle (and ruling out the prospect of sharing oil revenue with the North), Al-Bashir can send out powerful political signals by inciting chaos in South Sudan.  To the people of Darfur this will be a thinly-veiled threat that even if they ever secure autonomy or independence he can still punish them.  To the international community this will be poignant warning that South faces turmoil and thus a lure to his side over still-disputed border demarcation issues, including oil-rich territory of Abyei; which was supposed to hold a referendum of whether to join the North or South in January, but is still the subject of on-going negotiations.  In the choice between whether Abyei should join a state racked with civil conflict or one that is authoritarian but moderately stable, most outsiders- desperate for fuel security- will hedge their bets with the North and could well weigh in on the matter.

There are also regional power issues at play.  Al-Bashir’s Sudan, currently the biggest state in Africa, is about the loose huge swathes of its territory, its population and its resources.  His government will already feel neutered and will be loathe to see a prosperous, independent South Sudan making formal treaties with old enemies such as Uganda, spending its new-found oil wealth on development and exercising political sway with surrounding states and within the African Union.  Violence and pandemonium between now and 9th July can only help to undermine that.

So the motive is there, but this on it’s own is not enough to suggest that the hand of Al-Bashir is at work.  What strengthens the case is the fact that the indicted war criminal has previous form when it comes to supporting local militia with the aim of destabilising a region.  Most infamously, Al-Bashir funded and armed the murderous Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA); despatching Joseph Kony and his band of child soldiers to South Sudan at various points during the 1983-2005 civil war and more recently to murder and pillage in Darfur.  Indeed, support from Kartoum is widely regarded as one of the key reasons why the LRA has been able to continue reaping terror across central Africa for so long.  It would fit with his modus operandi, therefore to covertly support George Athor’s force. 

Athor himself was once a prominent military player in the SPLM but has been launching attacks since loosing his bid to become a non-partisan governor in the 2010 autonomous elections.  He has long been linked to the North by the Southern government and his recent acquisition of copious landmine and AK-47 supplies only back-up these suspicions.  Undoubtedly the biggest current threat to the new state’s stability, he could well have replaced Kony as the Northern government’s newest deadly puppet.  South Sudan may have one it’s independence, but it is far from free of Al-Bashir’s tyranny.


Friday, 11 February 2011

Cautious optimism for Egypt

He has finally gone. Thirty years of rule characterised by brutal secret police, rigged elections and rampant corruption have come crashing down in eighteen days of demonstrations. President Hosni Mubarak is no more.

Egypt1Tonight the Egyptian people are celebrating like they’ve never known- not just in Cairo, Luxor and Alexandria, but across the world. Reports are coming in of street parties in exile communities from New York, to Paris to London. Euphoria in its purest form has broken out. And so it should – for like the Germans, Polish, East Timorese, South Africans and others did before, the Egyptians are now experiencing the end of a dictatorship that tyrannised them for generations.

The struggle of course, is far from over. Mubarak might be history but democracy is by no means certain. Power is now in the hands of the armed forces – who gave the flailing president his final push. Whether, when and how they will ensure democratic transition are matters of pure speculation. The Generals have promised to lift the state of emergency that denied citizens their political freedoms throughout Mubarak’s rule – but words mean nothing without actions to follow. And historically, armed forces who hold power have been hugely reluctant to hand them over; the precedent is not good. Worries about Islamist groups and the challenge of fostering a democratic system in a state which has only known dictatorship create further negative undercurrents to the jubilation.

But at the same time, there are many reasons to be optimistic. The military top brass may have supported Mubarak, but huge swathes of the rank-and-file soldiers have been quick to side with theEgypt2 protestors. These are genuine patriots who signed up out of love for a country- not a man – and have long harboured a hatred of his favoured secret police force. Should the Generals try to cling to power therefore, they will first face the task of winning over their own men.

Secondly, the widely touted ‘Islamist threat’ that prompted the US to bankroll Mubarak for decades and is sending political tremors through Israel tonight – is by no means as significant as many believe it to be. The Muslim Brotherhood has long been the largest and most organised opposition group, but has nowhere near a majority support base. Furthermore, its’ leaders stated commitment to democracy (which though like the military’s promise cannot be blindly accepted) presents a promising starting point. Scenes of ordinary Muslims defending Coptic churches from attacks over Christmas, Coptic Christians defending Muslim protesters as they prayed in Tahrir Square and an absence of any real radical Islamist element to the demonstrations, all give additional strength the likelihood that Egyptian tolerance and religious pluralism will prevent any transformation to an Islamic Republic.

Beyond this, the sheer diversity of political viewpoints in Egypt is a positive sign for democracy. Despite Mubarak tirelessly imposing measures to destroy civil society- a plethora of loose Muslim, Christian, socialist and intellectual groupings do exist. And though such an eclectic patchwork with no clear popular leader will inevitably lead to widespread dispute, bartering and deal-making, this could provide a far more promising foundation for a democratic system than dominance by a single individual or interest.

More importantly than all of these factors however; we can afford to be optimistic because this has been the people’s revolution. It may have taken the army’s withdrawal of support to finally pull the rug from under Mubarak – but the change came from below: it was the millions who turned out to demonstrate day after day after day who truly brought him down. They were not deterred when Mubarak’s police beat them back. They did not surrender when his thugs attacked. And they did not accept his superficial compromises. Tonight they are calling for democracy – and any general, Islamist or aspiring dictator who wants to take them on will have a huge challenge ahead.


Thursday, 10 February 2011

Thailand’s greatest shame

Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person; article 5 states that no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment; article 9 protects people from arbitrary arrest, detention or exile; and article 14 enshrines the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.

Thai authorities therefore, in detaining ninety Rohingya asylumrohingya seekers, loading them onto engineless boats and setting them adrift without food and water; have this month violated at least four inalienable human rights. And it’s not the first time; back in 2009 Prime Minister Vejjajiva promised to hold an investigation after international outcry when the army towed almost two hundred malnourished Rohingyas out into open waters. The fact that three years later this sickening practice is still occurring, shows a dark side of his administration – which is either routinely indifferent to the ‘push-backs’ or actively encouraging of them. Whichever way, this still amounts to murder when the Rohingyas die through dehydration, starvation, exposure or drowning, as is so often the case.

It is little wonder that no Thai government has ever signed 1951 UN Convention which would go beyond broad declarations and basic morality by imposing additional clear, binding, legal obligations against such acts.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy in this whole situation is that the Rohingya people are one of the most persecuted in the world. A rohingya1Muslim minority group from Southern Burma, they are subjected to the very worst that the country’s military/pseudo-civilian dictatorship can muster. Decades of sustained human rights abuses have included massacres, rapes and widespread forced labour as well as systematic denial of citizenship, marriage rights, freedom of movement or the ability to worship. It is hardly surprising that so many attempt to flee their land each year- seeking the chance to live in some semblance of peace or freedom, yet this is rarely the case.

Those who settle in Bangladesh live in appalling conditions and are routinely harassed by the local authorities –as graphically illustrated by the destruction of Kutupalong refugee camp two years ago. Meanwhile, as demonstrated by recent events –those who make it to the perceived safety of Thailand are simply detained before being shipped away to almost certain death. Had the Indian army not found these ninety refugees it is unlikely any would have survived. Audaciously the Thai government have thus far refused UN access to other detained Rohingya ‘boat people’.

It is said that you can judge a nation on how it treats the most vulnerable – and it is hard to imagine someone much more vulnerable than a starving Rohingya refugee, having just completed a perilous journey to escape some of the worst persecution known to man. Until the Thai government drastically changes its approach to these people- Thailand does not have much hope.

rohingya 3

Monday, 7 February 2011

Yudhoyono is to blame

This video is one of the most disturbing and sickening things that anyone could ever witness. I do not say that lightly.

Ahmadies 1It shows an incident from from Indonesia this past weekend weekend, in which a mob attacked the home of Ahmadiyya Muslims – a minority sect despised by many extremists. In three minutes of truly abhorrent footage the thugs literally rip apart the Ahmadies’ home, set their car alight and drag them into the street where they beat and stone them to death. They then stand around cheering, taking photos on their phones and stamping on their victims’ bodies.

It is almost impossible to watch but it must be seen…the story must be told…for this is reality facing Ahmadies in Indonesia today.

The saddest thing is that it is all so familiar. In October I wrote almost exactly the same words in an article about another video: of Indonesian soldiers cutting, burning and beating West Papuan tribesmen. Like the West Papuans, Ahmadies live in daily fear of loosing their homes, their possessions and ultimately their lives simply because of their identity and culture. Similarly appalling violence is regularly meted out Indonesia’s Christians –with one of the most horrifying incidents coming six years ago when three girls were beheaded as they walked to school.

What lies behind such barbarity? How can such a naziesque approach to race and religion exist in what is purported to be a modern and democratic state? The answer lies-at least in part- with President Yudhoyono and his government; for though sectarian and racist violence is always formally attributed to mobs, militants and rogue soldiers- it is regularly encouraged, facilitated and inadequately punished by the Indonesian authorities.

For example, the numerous attacks on Christians over recent years have come against the back-drop of state-sponsored harassment including unconstitutional church closures and a ban on home worship. Inconsistent sentencing has also followed inter-communal violence, with those who beheaded the schoolgirls sent to jail but Christians involved in reprisals sent before a firing squad.

October’s torture video was dismissed as a case of troops disobeying orders – ignoring the fact that they were only ever in West Papua asWest Papua 1 part of an occupation illegal under international law. Jail sentences of eight to ten months for those involved only confirmed the governments’ indifference to crimes where the victims are Papuan.

And this weeks repulsive murders follow a longstanding repression of Ahmadiyya worship combined with an utter failure to deal with media incitement or hate crime. Tellingly, the only police presence visible in the video is a single office who makes a half hearted attempt to dissuade one member of the mob before disappearing as the killing ensues. There is no further sign of the authorities even during the sickening celebrations as the Ahmadies lie dead. Official promises to bring the perpetrators to justice - if previous form is anything to go by – are utterly worthless.

Of course –the ultimate responsibility lies with thoseaHMADIES 2 physically committing the torture, the attacks and the murders; but it is an inescapable fact that under Yudhoyono a environment has been created in which these are practically possible and often viewed as acceptable. Legislation degrading minority groups to the status of second class citizens inevitably gives ammunition to extremists seeking their destruction, whilst the absence of any serious preventative security or judicial consequences leaves the bigots practically free to act.

It is said that evil triumphs when good men do nothing…but Yudhoyono and his government's crimes are far worse than that. Through actively creating and maintaining a climate of hate they are as guilty as those who stoned the Ahmadies, burned the Papuans and decapitated the Christians. If justice is to be served- it must go all the way to the top.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Temple of doom

SoldiersThe Thai and Cambodian soldiers killed in border clashes last weak were the latest victims of the two nations’ decades old dispute over ownership of the Preah Vihear Temple and its surroundings. Unfortunately, with both sides moving more troops toward the site they probably won’t be the last.

The Temple itself was built by Khmer Kings throughout the 11th and 12th centuries; but today’s controversy has its roots in the early 20th when France (Cambodia’s colonial ruler) and Siam (as Thailand was then known) drew out their mutual border. It was agreed that this would follow the watershed line of the Dângrêk mountain range –placing the temple on the Thai side; however the final map produced by the joint border commission in 1907 deviated from this, giving it to Cambodia.

The Siamese/Thai authorities never objected to this (later arguing that as physical access was only really possible from the Thai side, they had de-facto control anyway) but sent troops to occupy the site after France withdrew from Cambodia in 1954. Amid a risingPreah Vihear map likelihood of armed conflict, the new Cambodian authorities brought a case to the International Court of Justice and in 1962 nine of the twelve judges ruled that – in light of numerous factors including Thailand’s longstanding acceptance of the map and thus ‘de-facto agreement’- Preah Vihear was legally Cambodian territory.

This resulted in a reluctant Thai withdrawal, leaving Preah Vihear an integral site in Cambodia’s ensuing civil conflict. It was both the final stronghold of the Republic as Pol Pot’s troops advanced; then the final stronghold of the Khmer Rouge and their tyrannical regime came down half a decade later. One of the site’s darkest moments then came in 1979 when Thai authorities deposited tens of thousands of Cambodian refugees there- shooting some, driving others over the nearby cliff and forcing them onto the minefields below. Conservative estimates put the dead at three thousand with some Cambodian sources suggesting as many as ten thousand. Relationships between the two nations- already fraught, plummeted to a new low.

Preah Vihear fighting 2There was then, already a longstanding animosity by the time that fresh clashes began over the temple’s designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008. Ironically this process began by bringing the neighbours closer together - with a joint communiqué issued in support of the move. However, things quickly soured when the Thai nationalist Yellow Shirt movement, angry that the designation would recognise Cambodia’s sovereignty, brought about Foreign Minister Noppadon Pattama’s resignation and led huge protests to the site. Dramatic government-orchestrated celebrations in Cambodia at the same time did not help tensions and troops were rapidly deployed to both sides of the border, where a succession of skirmishes left at least five soldiers dead. A continually high armed presence on either side has resulted in subsequent clashes each year – brining the death toll to well over twenty, with many more wounded and captured on either side.

All this leaves little hope that the uneasy ceasefire reached after this week’s fighting will hold. And whilst the precedent of previous clashes without recourse to war is a cause for optimism, other exacerbating developments such as the arrest of Thai nationalists by Cambodian authorities and disputes over offshore gas fields cannot be ignored. The biggest issue at play however, is the wave of protests by the Yellow Shirts demanding that the current Thai government is replaced with one who will take a harder line on the issue. Whilst Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva looks secure for the time being, the Yellow Shirts have brought down a government before. Even if they don’t succeed in their ultimate goal therefore, Vejjajiva may be intimidated enough to ratchet up the pressure at Preah Vihear.

Such a delicate situation must be handled with care- as the consequences of armed conflict escalating beyond minor skirmishes will be devastating. Not only will the both armies see more casualties, but huge swathes of people will be displaced; last week alone some eight thousand living near the temple fled their homes. Beyond this, domestic political turmoil would almost certainly ensue on both sides of the border, increasing the human suffering. Meanwhile the already weak Association of South East Asian Nations will become only more impotent as two member states slog it out, most likely drawing in others.

This historic mountain temple is quickly becoming one of Thailand and Cambodia’s biggest challenges…and one of South East Asia’s biggest dangers.


Thursday, 3 February 2011

Tahrir right here

I’ve been trying to work out for a few days how exactly to write about the situation unfolding in Egypt; after all every detail is already covered by intense round-the-clock reports and the situation is literally changing minute by minute. Just weeks ago Mubarak looked unmoveable – days later he looked set to become the second dictator to fall in what has already been termed the ‘Arab Spring’. Yesterday his thugs (many of them non-uniformed police officers) nearly quashed the demonstrations in a brutal onslaught of bricks, bars, knives and petrol bombs. This afternoon they were on the retreat. This minute troop-carriers are moving into Tahrir Square, numerous journalists have been dragged from the streets and rumours are flying around raising speculation of everything from an imminent military coup to an impending massacre. By the time I finish writing, this will already be old news.

And that is the amazing thing.

For blogs, facebook, twitter, news websites and video feeds have transformed media and activism to such an extent that we are now aware of events literally as they unfold. Put the hashtag #Egypt into Twitter and you instantly have access to scores of updates every minute from journalists, protesters and NGOs on the ground in Cairo. Log onto Amnesty International’s blog and you can read detailed first hand reports. Turn to the Al-Jazeera or BBC sites for more analysis, live video and incoming pictures.

Footage of every attack on the pro-democracy demonstrators is beamed around the world in seconds. The names of every journalist lifted by the authorities is re-tweeted thousands of times. The movement of police officers and pro-Mubarak thugs is blogged, e-mailed and texted in and out of the country. The flailing president and his government cannot hide the truth.

That’s not to say they haven’t tried. Journalists have been attacked, twitter blocked and blogs shut down – but for every hole that Egypt’s dictatorship plugs, another load appear. And this flow of information does make a difference: protestors contacting each other, either directly or through third-party sites, are able to organise and act effectively; journalists and activists reporting events to the international community are able to ramp up the pressure on foreign governments; and campaigners based outside Egypt are able to provide valuable updates as well as vocal support to those inside. The internet will also help transmit inspirational coverage of the demonstrations into states such as Syria, Yemen and Libya where further protests are planned in the coming days. And lets not forget- the original planning for the Cairo uprising first took place on facebook.

Of course, terming events in Tunisia and Egypt ‘twitter revolutions’- as some commentators have hastened to do, is both naive and wildly simplistic. The internet is just one of many factors in a complex web including economic situations, regime behaviour and long-term socio-political developments. However it is a crucial factors and its importance should not be overlooked.

For further evidence of this we only need to observe the affect of online activities on some of the world’s most powerful states. The video Collateral Murder –one of the first and most damning files released by Wikileaks is viewable throughout the world at the click of a button; much to the discomfort of the American government and armed forces. More significantly still, despite enormous financial and technical investment in internet censorship – the Chinese government is constantly undermined both internally through dissident blogs (excellent translations which can be found on High Peaks Pure Earth) and internationally through the online circulation of evidence demonstrating its brutality (video footage of the Nangpa La Pass Massacre is just one of many examples). Perhaps one of the most amazing aspects of the online-media and activism era however, is just how easy the international transmission of information and opinion is: within 20 minutes of publishing a piece on Vladimir Putin to this very blog it was being read in Russia.

Ultimately change will come from actions on the streets of Cairo, Beijing and Moscow; but the internet opens a whole new battleground where victory can genuinely assist those on the ground. For anyone with a computer and a router Tahrir is right here.