Monday, 27 June 2011

China’s Kachin crime

Kachin ProtestAs Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao toured the UK over the last three days, he was expectedly greeted by numerous loud and passionate protests against his government’s occupation of Tibet and East Turkestan, arrest of democracy activists and murder of Falun Gong practitioners.  However, the usual crowd of demonstrators were also joined by a small new group: supporting the Kachin people of Northern Burma. 

The Kachin have long been persecuted by Burma’s military junta, in all its various forms, and the new faux-civilian setup is no exception.  Before last years rigged election, Senior General Than Shwe and his cronies attempted to incorporate all ethnic rebel groups on ceasefire into a junta-led border guard force.  This was predictably refuted by the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) – which exists to defend its people from the looting, rape and ethnic cleansing that minority groups face in Burma.  In response the junta’s troops broke their fourteen year ceasefire with the KIA, launching a brutal and bloody onslaught in early June. Since then the crimes against humanity for which the junta is infamous, has been relentless.  Gang rape is a weapon, civilians are targets and entire villages are levelled in a vicious attempt to exterminate the brave rebels. 

With between ten and fifty thousand fighters the KIA is a force to be reckoned with; and whilst defensive it poses a genuine threat to the junta’s control in Northern Burma, especially should links with other ethnic rebel groups continue to strengthen.  However, it also faces an enormous challenge – hence the Kachin presence outside the venues where Mr. Wen courted the British political elite: for once again the Chinese government is actively supporting the BurmKachin Independence Armyese junta’s violence,  with potentially disastrous consequences for the Kachin people.

The logic behind this is both economic and political.  Firstly China has vast investments just across the Burmese border- where the KIA rebels operate.  Hydro-dams and mines provide significant supplies of energy, resources and jobs that could be at risk if the Kachin people succeed in forcing the junta from their land.  Perhaps even more threatening for Mr. Wen’s government however is the prospect of resistance, freedom and self-determination flourishing next door.  Revolutions have a habit of spreading and the Chinese authorities are already paranoid of domestic unrest inspired by the Arab Spring. A successful uprising much closer to home would be too much to bare.  The flow of Kachin refugees into across the border is also something that the Chinese government are keen to halt – raising the appeal of a quick resolution to the conflict – even if it involves a bloody crackdown.

This is why Chinese weapons are passed to the junta, why Burma’s biggest neighbour remains silent despite mounting international criticism of the violence and –most ominously- why the disastrous prospect of Burmese troops being allowed to use Chinese soil to launch a Northern attack appears a growing possibility.  If the latter comes to pass, the effects would be catastrophic- the KIA would face an almost unbeatable assault from two fronts, one of Burma’s largest rebel groups could fall, the Kachin people could be left to face the junta’s programme of ethnic cleansing and other minority groups would inevitably follow.

Whilst the UK government’s response to protests during Mr. Wen’s visit was predictably weak in light of the £1.4 billion trade agreements –David Cameron did raise issue of human rights, generating a prickly, angry response from his counterpart.  However, no specific issue got an airing- not least the Chinese-government-supported onslaught against the Kachin people.  It is imperative that governments and members of the public throughout the international community not only condemn China’s role in the situation, but offer full support to the KIA in their selfless endeavour to defend civilians in the face of unimaginable tyranny.  A cession of hostilities against ethnic groups and the initiation of tri-partite dialogue involving them, the junta and the official democracy movement is the only way forward.  Not Wen Jiabao– nor anyone else, should be allowed to sabotage that. 

Kachin flag


Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Ai Weiwei’s release–the challenge for activists


Ai Weiwei ReleasedThe release of Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei, after more than two months in detention on trumped up charges of tax evasion, has been welcomed around the world.  The most high profile victim of the CCP’s latest crackdown is now home–under tight restrictions and unable to talk to the media- but finally out of China’s infamous jail system.

Speculation is abound regarding the timing of the release; with some analysts suggesting that it was deliberately staged to coincide with the upcoming US-China diplomatic meeting in Hawaii and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s European tour –both beginning this Saturday.  Its easy to see how this conclusion is drawn, after all Ai Weiwei has received phenomenal support and attention from governments and citizens worldwide; his case would surely have featured in closed door discussions, and on placards outside, over the coming days. 

However, others challenge the theory that the CCP was simply pre-empting criticism –suggesting that Mr. Wen and his cronies care little what the rest of the world thinks when it comes to human rights.  Evidence of this is abundant, including the recent military crackdown at Kirti monastery in Tibet, a vicious attack on blind human rights activist Chen Guangcheng last week and the escalating suppression of Christian groups.  Then there is the fact that the authorities were confident enough to detain Ai Weiwei in the first place- despite his international profile and support.

It is also important to remember that he is not yet truly free, simply on bail just as many other Chinese activists have found themselves before subsequent rearrest.  And whilst he is the most well known of the dissidents detained since the CCP launched its newest, vehement assault on freedoms in response to mass demonstrations elsewhere in the world, he is simply one of over one hundredChina PrisonThese men and women remain in jail, in labour camps and in torture chambers, away from the eyes of the world and with little hope of liberty.    

So though there may have been an element of face-saving in today’s release, it does not reflect the CCP bowing to international pressure and certainly does not reflect the CCP changing its attitude towards human rights.  Whilst Ai Weiwei’s comparable freedom must by welcomed and celebrated, it should not detract from the bigger picture and the systematic abuse which he himself was detained for highlighting.

Tate Release Ai WeiweiThe challenge for activists now is to engage and build upon the popular support that his case generated.  Many artists, students and other members of the public across the globe were not previously involved in campaigns relating to China or even to human rights, but were motivated to act by this one unjust and high profile imprisonment.  It is imperative that their involvement does not end with a celebration tonight. Those working for Tibet, East Turkestan, Inner Mongolia, religious freedom and Chinese democracy must ensure that the message is loud and clear: Ai Weiwei has been released- but the fight goes on…and we need your support.   

Friday, 17 June 2011

Deportations and double standards

The Channel 4 documentary Sri Lanka's Killing Fields could not have been any more hard hitting - or any more condemning for Mahinda Rajapaksa's government. Whilst the UN Report on the Sri Lankan states' final assault against the LTTE presented an abundance of evidence to suggest that War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity may have been committed, nothing could prepare anyone for watching the raw footage of executions, sexual abuse and indiscriminate slaughter.

Harrowing as it was, the programme showed impartiality, professionalism and expertise. The inconvenient scheduling may have produced lower viewing figures than were hoped for, but nothing could detract from the unprecedented level of exposure that is now being cited as further evidence of international law violations. Predictably, as they have consistently done, the Sri Lankan authorities issued an audacious denial of the footage's authenticity before going on to cite LTTE abuses. This is both fallacious and absurd: their refusal to accept solid evidence of heinous crimes has come unstuck time and time again, whilst LTTE abuses- long recognised by virtually the entire international community, provide absolutely no justification for abuses on the other side - which incidentally appear more vicious, coordinated and widespread.

There is growing pressure for Sri Lanka's leaders- particularly President Rajapaksa and General Fonseka, to face international justice. Structurally and personally their influence over and contact with those who carried out the extrajudicial killings, raped civilians and shelled no-fire zones, are beyond doubt. However, whilst the UK government has joined calls for fresh investigations and hinted at endorsement of War Crimes proceedings, they have shown outrageous double standards by sanctioning the deportation of Tamil civilians to Rajapaksa's Sri Lanaka. Despite pleas from Amnesty International and Human Rights watch, the twenty six failed asylum seekers and 'overstayers' were placed on an overnight flight and touched down in Colombo today where they were met and investigated by security officials from the very regime that carried out the 2009 slaughter.

Like Sweden's recent deportation of a Kazak dissident to the state where people are currently facing torture for the exact same activities he was involved in, the UK's deportation of Tamils to Sri Lanka is both bizarre and unjustifiable. Right now torture by the Sri Lankan authorities is rife and gatherings of Tamil groups are being violently broken up. Evidence of extrajudicial executions is abundant - as recognised by the UK government. And no member of the Sri Lankan authorities has yet been internally charged for the murder of any of the 40 000 Tamils killed in the closing stages of the war. At best, those being returned will enter a state where they are second rate citizens facing institutional persecution. At worst, those amongst them accused of having links to the LTTE will face the same fate as other suspects. A hood? A field? A bullet in the back of the head? Certainly not a fair trial.

It is hypocritical, dangerous and frankly unforgivable to recognise the abhorrent abuses being committed by a government, then deport perceived opponents of that government back to face them. The UK should be pursuing War Crimes charges against those involved in what could well amount to genocide against the Tamil people -and should be providing compassion and shelter for anyone lucky enough to escape those horrors. A blanket ban on deportations to Sri Lanka, at least until more thorough investigations have been carried out, is the minimum standard that any dignified nation should strive for.

Unfortunately - given the UK's track record of deportations both under the current and previous governments, the double standards are hardly new or surprising. Still, this does nothing to erode the culpability of Cameron's government. Unless urgent changes are made, Rajapaksa and the LTTE will not be the only ones with blood on their hands.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Aid to India - the bigger picture

After months of lobbying and negative press from elements of the political right, the UK government has announced its intention to cut or terminate aid to India. International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell's announcement this week that the Indian part of the UK's programme has been frozen and that he could not see it continuing "for very much longer" drew gloating cheers from those who argue that a nation with a space programme, nuclear weapons and a growing number of millionaires should not receive handouts from the developed world.

Their simplistic celebrations however, overlook the bigger picture - which is far more nuanced that they appear to comprehend. India has a chronic poverty problem -with more impoverished people than the entirety of Sub-Saharan Africa. And the fact that successive governments have failed to adequately address this should not prevent other states seeking to improve the lives of those suffering.

After all international aid is not dependent on the financial sense of governments in those states receiving it. Much of the time it is about direct assistance to those suffering precisely because their own governments are too wasteful, corrupt or selfish to do so. If aid to impoverished Indians is cut on the grounds that the Indian government wastes resources on space flights or nuclear warheads, then most other UK aid programmes must join it on the scrap-heap. After all Mugabe's government wastes money of killing democratic dissidents, Thein Sein's government wastes money on slaughtering members of ethnic minority groups and Mahinda Rajapaksa's government wastes money on war crimes in Tamil Eelam.

The important thing is to ensure that direct aid reaches those in need (whilst of course pursuing political change) rather than write off any potential of helping the most unfortunate people on the basis that a domestic political elite practicing good governance would be able to sort the problems 'in house'.

Beyond this, the language used by those who endorse cutting aid to India reveals a startling amount about their true motives and risks even more dangerous precedent-setting. Increasingly the apparent injustice of giving aid to "rich" India, is mentioned in the same breath as financial cuts and poverty "at home". This implies an "us-and-them" or "charity begins at home" mindset, threatening popular support for the government commitment to continue international aid spending at 0.7% of GDP and to the admirable campaigns to increase this measly figure to 1%. Ultimately India and its wasteful space programme are being used as poster boys for people who would like to see a roll back of the progress made over previous decades and have international aid once again relegated to an afterthought.

Here too they miss the real picture: the importance of international aid for global security, the horror of people starving to death or dying of easily preventable diseases, the pain felt by children who have not drunk water for days or of mothers who inadvertently infect their young with HIV through their breast milk. We are facing huge issues relating to homelessness, debt, child poverty and inadequate housing in the UK -but earmarking 70p of every £100 in the national coffers for the entirety of the developing world is very little indeed: even £1 in every £100 barely seems enough.

India -like many nations- has a wasteful government. And India- like many nations - has millions of people whose living standards are so low, those of us lucky enough to live in the UK could barely imagine them. We need to make sure UK development programmes work - that they aren't hampered by corruption, that they reach those in need, and that they are targeted and efficient enough to make a real difference. But beyond anything else we need to help those in poverty - by enhancing or improving our aid - not by cutting it.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Kyrgyzstan - model or timebomb?

It has been one year since bloody ethnic clashes in the Kyrgyz city of Osh shattered the optimism that followed the revolution deposing authoritarian dictator Kurmanbek Bakiyev. In the uncertain power vacuum, longstanding tensions between Kyrgyz and Uzbek citizens were fuelled by rumour and mistrust, boiling over in turmoil that cost hundreds of lives, caused thousands of injuries and displaced almost half a million.

At the anniversary of the violence Osh is at peace and progressive community projects are seeking to reconcile citizens, but the legacy of those terrible events remains as strong as ever. Stories of people being set on fire, raped, shot by government troops or beaten to death by mobs have left inter-communal tensions beyond the surface that are fresher and more dangerous than ever before. Critically, reports by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch highlight the new government's utter failure to deliver justice. A grossly disproportionate number of prosecutions against Uzbek citizens and an un-disguisable official emphasis on Kyrgyz victims, despite the fact that the vast majority of those killed or driven from their homes were Uzbek, has left the Uzbek community feeling marginalised and insecure. As presidential elections approach and candidates of all sides seek to emphasise their own nationalism, these fault lines will only heighten - leaving genuine fear in many quarters that violence could break out once more.

It is a grim warning to those nations currently undergoing democratic revolutions and one that is already resonating in Egypt where murderous sectarianism has blighted the young post-Mubarak era. Syria, Libya and Yemen also all face ethnic and religious fault lines which are not, of course, reason for resisting change - as so many dictators claim, but issues that must be addressed by those seeking to transform their nations. The lessons from Osh are to recognise the dangers early, provide robust protection for minorities and bring swift impartial justice to restore the confidence of communities where order breaks down. The new Kyrgyz government's neglect of these necessities led to some of the worst violence that the country has ever seen and may well cause further troubles long into the future.

Nevertheless - there are many positive lessons and optimistic signs from Kyrgyzstan. A constitutional referendum and parliamentary election were both largely free and fair; the result of the latter produced no majority but a three-way coalition agreement. This integration of different ideologies, preventing any one party from imposing a new autocratic hegemony, has given Central Asia its first taste of democracy - which though far from perfect is a previously unimaginable advance in a region dominated by a rogues gallery of murderous strongmen since the collapse of the Soviet Union. For those who doubt that nations touched by the Arab Spring could ever move away from their authoritarian past, Kyrgyzstan gives hope.

If the bitter legacy of Osh is seriously addressed by the parliamentary coalition and the new president, then the potential time-bomb of ethnic tensions could be averted and Kyrgyzstan could become a model of change. That is no mean feat - it will require real justice, an even handed approach to security and strong state support for the inspirational reconciliation projects underway. For those building the new Kyrgyzstan everything is still to play for.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Israel's gift to Assad

Since the Arab Spring reached Syria in March, the security forces of dictator Bashar Al-Assad have killed some 1200 people. Those attending marches, rallies and funerals have been ruthlessly gunned down by snipers, tanks and infantry in a grim throwback to the days of Bashar's father Hafez - who once once slaughtered as many as 80 000 residents in the city of Hama during a single crackdown.

Undeterred by the brutality, brave Syrian citizens are continuing to try and bring about the downfall of the regime, aided somewhat by growing international pressure. Yet in the midst of such internal and external opposition, Benjamin Netanyahu's Israeli administration has stepped in and unwittingly handed Assad a timely political gift. By killing some twenty Syrian and Palestinian protesters who were marking "Naksa Day" (the Day of Defeat) in the occupied Golan heights, Israel has provided the Syrian dictator with an opportunity to detract regional and international attention from his own crackdown whilst potentially endearing himself to Syria's half-million Palestinian population as well as the vast majority of Syrian citizens who sympathise with the Palestinian struggle.

Like many Arab rulers (including the thugs in control of Gaza) Assad has long used the spectre of Israel -especially the occupation of the Golan Heights- to channel internal hostility away from his own violent and corrupt rule. By needlessly gunning down civilians at the time when opposition to Assad is at its highest point for years, the Israeli political and military elite have given credibility and substance to such propaganda. The frankly inane and unacceptable nature of the incident was underscored by the fact that those killed appeared to be civilians posing no threat. Despite Israeli rhetoric about an "angry mob" and a weak US defence based Israeli's right to defend itself video evidence shows unarmed demonstrators who though approaching the border fence are no match for the well-equipped Israeli troops on the other side. Unconfirmed reports suggest that one of those killed was just twelve years old.

Tonight the Netanyahu administration claims that reports of the incident in Syrian state media are "an attempt to divert international attention from the bloodbath" being caused by Assad's crackdown; this is undoubtedly true but misses the point that it was the Israeli army who provided the very chance and the content for such a diversion. Like on so many other occasions, a willingness to resort to uncessary violence has caused Israel to become its own worst enemy.

Dissent against Assad's rule on the streets of Syria will doubtelessly continue and in all likelihood will grow further still. After all - resistance against the dictator and opposition to Israeli state violence are by no means mutually exclusive. However, today's bloodbath will inevbitabley be spun and worked up by the regime in order to take off the heat both internationally and domestically - at least for the coming days. The potential for it to divide or weaken the opposition movement or strengthen Assad to any extent at all - will be harmful to the both Syrian people and ultimatley to Israel as well.

Netenyahu's recent failure to deal with the issue of settlements and refusal to acknowledge the 1967 borders of Israel are dangerous hardline positions that can only serve his region and state badly. Today's killings - a crime in themselves - take this sorry state of affairs further still, by damaging the chances of democratic reform on Israel's border. Those responsible must be held accountable not only for each individual death...but for the wider consequences.

Friday, 3 June 2011

Somalia and a mission on the rocks

The UN-mandated African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia has long seemed inadequate considering the enormous significance of the situation for the region, the continent and the wider international community. In recent years the Somali conflict has risked spilling over into neighbouring states, stoked fears of a new base of operations for Islamist terror groups and given rise to an endemic piracy problem. However, whilst on one level the force deployed there presents an optimistic sign of African nations helping to stabilise others nearby, the real picture is unstable, unpredictable and this weeks events would suggest - unsustainable.

Set up in 2007 to support the transitional government, the peacekeeping force consists almost solely of Ugandan and Burundian troops. The involvement of these states has come at a significant cost- loosing soldiers on the ground and facing retribution at home. Yet it is highly unlikely that such sacrifices are being made in the name of altruism, stability or horror at the human rights abuses committed by the Islamist militias they are taking on. It is far more probable that the real motivation lies in a combination of politicking and gain - one which is currently beginning to unravel in dramatic fashion.

Uganda's contribution has long provided despot Yoweri Museveni with a means of diverting attention away from his own horrific human rights abuses and destabilising role in Central Africa. The likes of the USA and UK are determined to prevent militant Islamists from gaining control of Somali yet are understandably reluctant to become physically embroiled on the basis of public pressure, over-stretched resources and psychological scars from previous US intervention. American bombing raids during 2008 were as far as any 'Western' power was prepared to go - so Museveni's willingness to 'put troops on the ground' was naturally seen in Washington and London as a golden opportunity- not to be jeopardised by condemning his authoritarian rule.

However, in the face of increased public and political opposition to his rule at home, continued losses of troops and open criticism from the international community regarding his government's barbaric treatment of homosexuals - Museveni is faltering. His threat this week to pull Ugandan forces out if the UN-mandate of the transitional government is not extended, undoubtedly comes less from concern for Somalia's stable development and more from a calculated desire to create a feasible exit strategy whilst sending a message to the world about the dangers in discontinuing appeasement of his regime.

And whilst the complex and cynical politics of Museveni begin to play out- all is not well amongst the Burundian part of the force. Troops claim that they have not been paid for some five months, underscoring the greed and corruption of President Pierre Nkurunziza's administration whilst giving credence to long-standing fears that Burundi's involvement was only ever a method for the political elite to cream off money from the UN (as well as arms from donor nations). With no sign of urgent rectification forthcoming, the potential for Burundian troops to withdraw, desert or even mutiny is by no means off the cards.

Ominously as Uganda and Burundi commit roughly 50% of the force each- neither could feasibly continue the mission without the other- meaning that if either of these situations develops into withdrawal, the whole peacekeeping venture will be likely to collapse.

It is widely agreed that productive, well-executed peacekeeping and stabilisation now is infinitely preferable to further breakdown of order, regional warfare or full scale US intervention at a later date- all of which are conceivable possibilities. However, the execution of the mission so far has been carried out by corrupt and authoritarian governments, fulfilling a good mandate for personal gain. That set-up is now starting to show signs of breaking is essential that something much better replaces it.