Monday, 10 December 2012

Mines of Monywa- what are the limits of Burma’s reform?

Over recent weeks, events around the Letpadaung copper mine near Monywa have sent shockwaves through Burma’s fragile reform process.Burmese police attack mine protest For months local people including Buddhist monks, had been demonstrating against the environmental damage and land seizures associated with the operation- a joint venture between a Chinese company and another owned by the Burmese military. Then, in the early hours of 29 November, riot police swarmed into the protest-camps, setting them on fire and injuring dozens of civilians.

In the ensuing days, a number of those who had escaped hospitalisation were held on charges of illegal demonstration, whilst across the country prominent activists such as U-Gambira were rounded up in an apparent attempt to stem the spread of solidarity protests.

The whole incident reflects the continuing absence of rule of law in Burma; which alongside the military abuses in Kachin state and the state-sponsored sectarian violence in Arakan state, presents a stark reminder that the worldwide embrace of President Thein Sein’s administration may have been somewhat over-enthusiastic.

The President was last month recognised alongside Aung San Suu Kyi as Foreign Policy Magazine’s top political thinker of 2012. And having recently visited Washington at the invitation of Barak Obama, he will return to the US next year to receive the International Crisis Group’s eminent In Pursuit of Peace Award at a lavish ceremony in New York. The ex-general will also be jet-setting to London, as part of a rapidly blossoming friendship that this week saw the first UK trade delegation to arrive in Rangoon for decades.

Monks attacked Monywa BurmaIn the wake of events around Monywa, more people than ever are quite rightly questioning whether this is all a bit lavish for the boss of an administration that protects its environmentally disastrous money-making operations by crushing dissent with fire-bombs, tear gas and waves of arbitrary arrests.

They are right of course, yet at the same time it would be naive to overlook aspects of the saga that demonstrate just how far Burma has come. For whilst images of burnt monks on hospital beds naturally stir up memories of the crackdown against the Saffron Revolution in 2007, the differences between the two situations could not be more significant.

Back then the military regime massacred people on the streets without even a cursory nod to due process; but following the violence of 29 November Thein Sein’s administration set up a commission of inquiry and placed none other than Aung San Aung San Suu Kyi in MonywaSuu Kyi in the Chair. The authorities also heeded her request for a formal apology, undoubtedly in part out of fear that solidarity protests would escalate, but nonetheless illustrating a more conciliatory approach to the propaganda and lies of five years ago. The overall situation is therefore not so much a clear-cut illustration that nothing has changed, but rather a continuation of the complex and messy governance that has characterised the reform process so far.

The cold hard fact remains that Burma is nowhere near democracy and the abuses taking place across the country on a daily basis should be judged against basic human rights norms, not merely in comparison to the more flagrant violations of previous governments. This means that Thein Sein must be held to account for the attacks on protestors and the ethnic pogroms in Burma, not sycophantically lauded as a reformist hero just because he is less tyrannical than his genocidal predecessors.

However, despite the on-going abuses activists should resist the temptation of completely writing-off this administration’s reformist credentials. In just a few short years Aung San Suu Kyi has gone from being a political prisoner held in near total isolation, to chairing an inquiry into the government’s behaviour in front of both Burmese and international media. Developments like that were previously unthinkable and there are undoubtedly many people waiting in the wings of the government who would like to take Burma back there. Balancing scrutiny and encouragement of the more reform-minded elements will be hard, but it is essential.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Burma’s earthquake- a tragedy and a test

Details of the earthquake that struck Burma on Sunday morning are still sketchy. Various initial death tolls are relatively low (between four and twelve) but the true extent of damage is likely to be far worse; at 6.8 magnitude it is larger Burma earthquake November 2012than the quake that devastated Christchurch last year, and Burma’s emergency infrastructure is nowhere near that of New Zealand’s. Ominously the epicentre lies near to Mandaly, a city of over one million people second only in size to Rangoon. Tremors were felt as far away and Bangkok and at least two strong aftershocks have been reported.

As things pan out in the comings hours and days the earthquake may represent the biggest test yet for President Thein Sein’s reformist USDP government. Just over four years ago, when Cyclone Nargis decimated Burma’s Irrawaddy Delta region, the military government in which Thein Sein served, covered up early warnings then flagrantly lied about the scale of the disaster once it hit.

As the floods, death and disease spread, they exacerbated the problem further by physically blocking the delivery of relief, expelling aid workers and seizing a largeCyclone Nargis relief blocked by government proportion of any assistance that was able to get through. In a fit of paranoia and callousness the regime refused entry foreign to boats full of food and medical supplies, leaving the international community to seriously consider flying unauthorised military aid drops to the desperate population.

Of the 140 000 who died, many were direct victims of the regime’s actions: a Crime Against Humanity in most eyes. 

The response to Sunday’s earthquake then, is a chance for Thein Sein’s new administration to prove that things have really changed. Accurate information about the impact, dedication of resources towards relief and unhindered access for external agencies are nothing short of essential if the President is to prove that his is a government serious about taking Burma forward.

Two years into the reform process serious doubts continue to linger about its authenticity. Despite significant political prisoner releases, fair by-elections and the easing of censorship, several familiar dictatorial traits remain. The ongoing military attacks against civilians in Kachin State, the 238 political prisoners still behind bars, and the abhorrent sectarian attacks stirred up by the government in Arakan State have led many commentators both inside and outside Burma to question just how much things have really progressed.

The official response to this natural disaster may go some way to providing an answer.

President Thein Sein Burma earthquake

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Yudhoyono- the tyrant who came to tea

Buckingham Palace has played host to some pretty unscrupulous characters over the years including Vladimir Putin, Hu Jintao and even Robert Mugabe. This week the odorous list is extended to include Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who is not only staying as a guest of Her Majesty but is being personally presented with a prestigious British Knighthood.

Prisoners in West PapuaSuch a warm welcome for the tyrant will be a bitter blow to those languishing under his rule, not least the people of occupied West Papua who harboured such high hopes of British support when David Cameron entered Downing Street in 2010. Having previously met with their inspirational independence leader Benny Wenda, many Papuans hoped that Cameron would take a stand against the Indonesian occupation of their country. Instead the Prime Minister remained silent as Yudhoyono’s troops continued to brutally torture their countrymen and open fire on demonstrations with live ammunition.

Whilst Yudhoyono resides and dines in luxury at Buckingham Palace, one of the most prominent figures in the West Papuan struggle Filep Karma,will remain locked in a squalid cell, serving a sentence for nothing more that raising the banned West Papuan flag. Filep has been frequently denied medical treatment and has been recognised around the world as a prisoner of conscience, yet Yudhoyono sees fit to keep him and others incarcerated for daring to peacefully challenge Indonesia’s colonialist whims.

Back in Indonesia itself, hundreds of thousands more suffer under repulsive state discrimination. Ahmadi Muslims and Christians frequently face brutal mob attacks, spurred on by government hate-speech and met with ludicrously weak sentences for Indonesia anti Ahmadi mobthe perpetrators. Recently, in the first case of its kind, a 30 year old citizen named Alex Aan was imprisoned for professing his atheism on facebook. Indonesia-watchers point to such developments as evidence of increasing government hostility against freedom of belief and an on-going erosion of human rights.

This trend appeared lost on David Cameron in April this year, when during a trade visit to Indonesia he somewhat baffling claimed that Yudhoyono’s clique ”neither compromises people's security nor their ability to practise their religion". Unfortunately such sycophancy is likely to be repeated this week when the two leaders meet again, in between royal engagements.  

It is time for the UK and the rest of the international community to get tough on Yudhoyono – tea at the palace and a knighthood is not the way to do it.

Yudhoyono and Cameron

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Mali–intervention beckons

In crisis-hit Northern Mali it almost certain the international military intervention is just around the corner – and for many of its citizens this cannot come soon enough.

It has been some ten months since a counter-productive military coup destabilised the country and allowed a loose alliance of nationalist Tuareg and Islamist rebels to take control of territory equivalent in size to France. Since then the military has handed over to a shaky civilian administration, whilst the rebels’ marriage of convenience has broken down, with the Islamist groups coming out on top.

The consequences for ordinary Northerners have been catastrophic, following theSharia law in Mali imposition of a brutally harsh interpretation of Sharia Law across the region. Those accused of robbery have had their limbs hacked off, couples found having sex outside of wedlock have been stoned to death and other ‘offenders’ are regularly flogged, all publicly before terrified crowds.

Yet things are set to get far worse: already the rebels are making lists of unmarried mothers, raising fears of mass-executions. And all the while they are regularly   destroying beautiful ancient shrines, on the basis that they do not fit with their own warped version of Islam. As for the on-going food crisis, rebel activity is both hampering relief in Mali itself and exacerbating shortages in neighbouring states by driving huge flows of refugees over the borders.

These abuses have played a part in the increasingly urgent international response, which in recent weeks has seen a UN resolution laying the groundwork for intervention and the Economic Community of West African State (ECOWAS) begin to draw up a military strategy.

Islamist militia in MaliBeyond human rights, an even more pressing concern for many states is the continental or even global implications of a new base of power for radical Islamist groups, especially given that vast numbers of foreign Jihadists have flocked to the area bolstering al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the local incarnation of the international network. With al-Shabab on the back-foot in Somalia and moderate successes against Boko Haram in Nigeria, any consolidation of power by the rebels would present a major set-back to the struggle against violent Islamism in Africa, which is seen as a key battleground in the broader global picture. For this reason states across the world are keen to line-up behind the imminent ECOWAS intervention, with France in particular already promising practical logistical support.

However whilst it brings wider support for intervention, the international-jihadist context of the crisis also threatens to make this long and bloody affair. Furthermore, whilst the Tuareg nationalist militias have no love for the Islamists and may even play some role in deposing them, they will be disinclined to allow the Malian state to reassert its authority in the territory they regard as Azawad. On top of all this, friction remains between Mali’s weak government and assertive military, with the possibility of a future coup still lingering. ECOWAS troops may then ultimately find themselves caught between a jihad, a secessionist conflict and a national power struggle.

Right now- for the sake of those suffering under the rebels and for the wider region, ECOWAS intervention seems the only viable option…but it won’t be an easy one.

Mali Islamists

Thursday, 18 October 2012

The Security Council’s African crisis

On 1 January 2013 South Africa will relinquish control of the African seat on the UN Security Council. For human rights activists around the world it’s presence won’t be missed.

UN-SYRIA/Perhaps prior to the collapse of Apartheid, the prospect of an ANC man sitting at the table and influencing international response to conflict and humanitarian situations across the globe, would have been the ultimate dream. The reality however has been both sordid and abusive.

For South Africa has consistently used its position to back oppressors; from blocking condemnation of ethnic cleansing in Burma, to undermining pressure on Bashar al-Assad as he butchers his own people. Closer to home, successive ANC administrations have supported Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe and the indicted War Criminal Omar al-Bashir in Sudan. And when it comes to China and its occupied territories, the decision to deny the Dalai Lama a visa on two separate occasions aptly spelt out the South African government’s unfortunate stance.

It is little wonder therefore that leaders such as Aung San Suu Kyi and Archbishop Desmond Tutu have openly criticised the state’s leaders for facilitating and protecting the kind of tyranny they once suffered themselves. Unfortunately, South Africa’s replacement on the council – Rwanda, is unlikely to improve matters.

Paul Kagame’s RPF regime is widely accorded international sympathy, stemming from its role in halting the 1994 genocide, and Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo has suggested that the slaughter will allow Rwanda to bring a “unique perspective” on conflict to the council However, the RPF’s appalling record on human rights and perhaps more significantly on backing brutal rebel groups in the neighbouring DRC, is already raising serious concerns about how Rwandan influence will be used in practice.

Most pressing is a report leaked just twenty-four hours before Rwanda was electedM23 Rebels supported by Rwanda to the seat, confirming that not only equipment and support but direct orders are being given by Kagame’s officials to Bosco Ntaganda’s notorious M23 Rebels. This group is currently destabilising swathes of the DRC through an orgy of massacres, rapes and child soldier recruitment. Now Human Rights Watch has voiced fears that Rwanda’s new position will simply allow the RPF to prevent any sanctions that it may have faced as a result of.its involvement.

The end of South Africa’s poor showing at the council is no bad thing…but the new set up is unlikely to be any better at all.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Sexuality, deportation and persecution

Back in 2010 David Cameron promised to end the UK’s shameful practice under Labour, of deporting gay asylum seekers to states where they had “well-founded fear of persecution” on the basis of their sexuality. Sadly that did not happen – not in practice anyway; and this week a 28 year-old  Nigerian nursing student by the name of Ola Ayelokun became the latest victim of an asylum system that has dramatically fallen behind domestic LGBT rights legislation.

Despite a huge public outcry and intervention from within the Conservative party, Ola was put on a plane back to Nigeria, where the penalty for homosexual activity is fourteen years imprisonment and the government has been consistently criticised for failing to prevent widespread homophobic attacks. Ola’s summary of the situation was atLGBT rights Nigeria once simple and heart-breaking: “I am very afraid they are going to kill me in Nigeria." 

The crux of the problem that has led us to this point is not necessarily a dismissive attitude towards LGBT rights on the government’s part; after all, Cameron’s administration is actively trying to build on Labour’s advances in equality legislation and has threatened to cut aid to those countries persecuting their gay citizens. Nor is there any top-level policy failing when it comes to protecting LGBT asylum seekers; they are formally entitled to remain here on the basis of homophobic persecution in their home state. Rather the failing is a procedural one that neither Labour nor the coalition have ever tackled head-on.

In short there are currently no guidelines for courts dealing with these kind of cases, which effectively leaves the outcome resting on the judge’s interpretation of somebody’s sexuality. As a result we are faced with numerous situation’s like Ola’s, where lack of understanding, adherence to stereotypes, or simple prejudice has caused a judge to determine that the asylum seeker is actually not gay at all and can therefore be sent home without danger.

This of course not only leaves the judge in charge of a decision that they may be utterly unqualified to make, but also puts the emphasis of the determination in completely the wrong place as Ola’s lawyer pointed out: "with respect to the…judges here, it is not what they believe to be his sexuality that is important. It is what is believed by those people who persecute and prosecute people in Nigeria for being gay that counts."

The solution it appears, would be relatively straightforward; a number of other European countries have already put in place guidelines for judges in order to prevent travesties such as Ola’s deportation, and LGBT rights groups are now calling on the UK government to do the same. That is not only a sensible course of action, but an essential one if we are to stop any more innocent people being sent home to face persecution – or worse.

Ola Ayelokun

Saturday, 13 October 2012

The devaluation of Nobel Peace Prize?

Two hundred and thirty-one people and organisations were nominated for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, widely heralded as one of the most prestigious honours in global politics.

Svetlana Gannushkina Nobel Peace PrizeAmong them was Svetlana Gannushkina, a veteran Russian human rights activist whose tireless work for displaced people including many thousands of Chechens, has made her an enemy of Vladimir Putin’s autocratic regime.

Across the Belarusian border Ales Belyatsky, laureate of the 2012 Lech Walesa Award, was in the running for his work supporting political prisoners under the Lukashenko dictatorship. Belyatsky is currently serving a four and a half year sentence himself, following a show-trial condemned around the world.

Among the Arab Spring activists nominated was Lina Ben Mhenni, whose blog during the Tunisian revolution was in many situations the only source of information being relayed to the outside world. This of course came at great risk to her own life.

Everyone will have their own view on who the Prize should have gone too. Perhaps Malala Yousafzai, the fourteen year old girl who took a stand against the Pakistani Taliban by demanding education for women and was barbarically shot in the head as a result. Or maybe it should have been awarded en-masse to the young Somali reporters working in one of the world’s most dangerous territories to shine a spotlight on its strife.

Another option for a collective award would have been those involved in Burma’s historic and seismic reform process; including Aung San Suu Kyi, President Thein Sein, and significant foreign players such as Hilary Clinton and William Hague.

Yet the five-person committee responsible for selecting this year’s laureate did not regard any of these as worthy candidates. Rather they selected a regional body better known for its economic crisis than its contribution to world peace: the European Union.

The rationale: that there has not been a major European conflict since the early forerunners of the EU were formed in the wake of World War II, holds some weight. But whether this is actually because of the EU’s existence is very questionable. Furthermore, the body did little to prevent or halt ethnic cleansing in Bosnia andSrebrenica European Union Nobel Peace Prize Kosovo as the East of Europe disintegrated into conflict during the 1990s. Rather it was the UN, NATO and individual states who stepped into the breach as the Brussels bureaucrats floundered helplessly at the side-lines.

Yet such a bizarre and unjustified choice is not without recent precedent. In 2009 Barak Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, his nomination coming after just twelve days in office. Shambolically his award came at the expense of Morgan Tsvangirai, the Zimbabwean Prime Minister who has done more than almost any other to advance human rights and democracy in his country; and Hu Jia, the then political-prisoner who selflessly stood up for rule of law in China.

There is a genuine danger that if such inane choices of laureate continue, the Nobel Peace Prize will be increasingly devalued. Whilst the vast majority of recipients are those who have made a genuine difference, usually at great personal sacrifice, it would be a tragic day when the shabby figures of Obama and the EU characterise the award above the inspirational forms of Suu Kyi and Ramos-Horta. 

Is the Nobel Peace Prize being devalued

Thursday, 6 September 2012

How a murder rocked a region

The abusive nature of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s regime, was dramatically thrust into the international spotlight ahead of the country hosting the Eurovision Song Contest earlier this year.

This week Aliyev and his cronies are once again facing pressure from around the world after giving a hero’s welcome, a house, a hefty pay-cheque and a promotion to Ramil Safarov returns to AzerbaijanRamil Safarov- the Azerbaijani soldier who returned home from Hungary where he had been in jail since brutally murdering an Armenian eight years ago.

Safarov had been taking part in an English language course in Budapest during 2004, when he entered the room of a sleeping Armenian attendee called Gurgen Margarjan and hacked him to death with an axe. Safarov claimed that the horrific act was revenge for the two countries war over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, which ran from 1988-1994 killing over thirty thousand people and forcing more than a million to flee their homes.

Tensions around Nagorno-Karabakh still run high. Sporadic clashes since the end of the war have frequently stoked fears of a return to full-scale conflict, with soldiers from both sides killed as recently as June this year. Aliyev’s public praise and celebration of Safarov’s actions will only heighten these fears, particularly in light of Armernian President Serzh Sargsyan’s response that “we are not afraid of killers, even if they enjoy the protection of the head of state.” NATO and the EU have been quick to register their concerns about the affect of the incident on what was already a seemingly lifeless peace process.

The Hungarian government, for its part, has also been deeply humiliated. Safarov was handed over on the condition that he would serve the remainder of his twenty-five year sentence in an Azerbaijani jail, yet he has received freedom, substantial rewards and compensation for the eight years that he was incarcerated. Armenia swiftly cut all diplomatic ties to Hungary, whilst opponents of the ruling administration aired claims that it was effectively paid off via the Azerbaijani purchase of Hungarian bonds.

Still, Hungary’s problems will pale into insignificance should the war of words between Armenia and Azerbaijan develop into something more serious…whcih it has every potential to. Ultimately the Aliyev regime’s jingoistic and provocative heralding of a cold-blooded murderer has raised the temperature in one of Europe’s most volatile regions. That, in the long run, could lead to far more bloodshed.


Thursday, 23 August 2012

Too much doubt…again

It has been almost a year since the State of Georgia put Troy Davis to death against the back drop of three words that have scarred the conscience of the USA: Too Much Doubt.

Troy Davis ProtestToo much doubt because Troy’s conviction was based on circumstantial evidence. Too much doubt because of police brutality against witnesses.  Too much doubt over whether Troy was guilty to justify keeping him in jail without a re-trial…let alone taking his life.

But the authorities went ahead and amidst the protests, desperate last minute appeals and thousands of individuals taking to the streets around the world, they strapped him to a table and killed him.

And now, in a matter of months, the whole grotesque spectacle may be played out once again; this time in the state of Missouri. The man facing the long walk to the execution chamber is Reggie Clemons, accused of being an accomplice in the murder of two young women, who were pushed off a disused bridge in 1991. Yet like Troy Davis, enormous questions remain over whether he actually has blood on his hands at all.

For one thing, there is not a shred of physical evidence linking Reggie to the crime. Then there is the horrendous litany of discrepancies on which Reggie’s conviction was based. Proven incitement of the jury, a strong possibility of police brutality, improper dismissal of black jurors and contradictory witness statements, to name just a few aspects of this case, paint a picture of at best a vehemently unsound verdict and at worst a lynching contrived amongst the racial tensions of 1990s Missouri. That is certainly the view of the juror who said that had she known the what she knew now, she would not have voted for the death penalty.

Yet in spite of the well documented failings of the legal system, Reggie has spent almost two decades on death row, coming within days of execution before being granted a temporary reprieve. Now his fate is about to be sealed: on 17 September a Special Master appointed by the Supreme Court of Missouri will spend one week reviewing the case for a final time. The Special Master can free Reggie, commute his sentence to life in prison or uphold the death sentence.

If it is the latter there will be no more chances: a date will be set, an execution chamber will be prepared and a man will be killed. A man over’s whose guilt there is simply too much doubt….again.

Reggie Clemons too much doubt

Sunday, 19 August 2012

China’s protest politics

Political clashes over the uninhabited Senkaku / Diaoyu islands (the name differing whether you sympathise respectively with the Japanese or Chinese territorial claim) are nothing new. This weeks tit-for-tat flag stunts by activists from both sides are just the latest incidents in the ever-complex web of island sovereignty disputes between China, Japan, Russia, Taiwan, the Philippines and Vietnam.Japan flag Senkaku Diaoyu

Historians, geographers and international lawyers can argue the various cases ad infinitum, whilst politicians around the world cautiously watch regional tensions rise. However, the response to the latest Senkaku / Diaoyu  spat also casts an interesting light on domestic Chinese politics, which is equally as important as the foreign-relations dimension.

Following the detention and deportation of Chinese activists who attempted the raise their flag on the islands and the subsequent successful flag-raising by Japanese nationalists, significant anti-Japan protests began to sweep through Eastern Chinese cities. Businesses and goods from Sushi bars to Japanese made police cars were destroyed, whilst demonstrators waved banners and yelled slogans, in some cases calling for a military occupation of the islands.

China anti Japan protestUnlike the vast majority of protests in China these were apparently held with police permission and, despite some officers being pelted with missiles, nobody was arrested. In a further illustration of the contrast with other demonstrations, those attending were able to share their videos and comments online with relatively little censorship.

Such exceptional disregard of the general repression meted out by security forces both on the street and on the web will come as little surprise to seasoned China-watchers. The CCP has long exploited deep-seated anti-Japanese sentiment to periodically bolster its own support whilst allowing citizens a degree of space to publicly vent anger. Fervent nationalism, a ‘common foe’ and limited freedom to protest helps to keep Chinese citizens from turning their anger against the government over issues such as the slowing economy and high profile political scandal currently facing the country.

In the run-up to the leadership-handover later this year, a unified and patriotic citizenship focussing on the supposed “territorial aggression” of their neighbours rather than the shortcomings of their own politicians, could serve the Chinese elite rather well. 

However this is a dangerous game which may yet cause the government some serious problems. Allowing people onto the streets in this manner may act as a political ‘safety-valve’ to let off steam, but it may equally give a taste for dissent. Similarly the skills that people can gain form even the most fleeting of protest movements are easily transferable to other situations.

Ultimately, whilst the CCP has previously been able to roll out anti-Japanese demonstrations then cut them off at an politically-suitable time, it may not always be so easy to put the protest-genie back in the bottle. Thousands of people marching against Japanese territorial claims may encourage China’s leaders….a similar march over land rights, poverty or civil liberties would have a very different effect altogether.

China anti Japan island protest

Thursday, 16 August 2012

South Africa’s nightmare flashback

South Africa mine massacreThese scenes were not meant to blight South Africa ever again: police officers standing, guns raised, with more than a score of dead civilians lying on the ground in front of them.

It was a tragic and shocking peak in a week of violence….and its not over yet.

The immediate trigger was an industrial dispute at a platinum mine about forty miles from Johannesburg, pitting not only workers against bosses but complicated by sour relations between two rival unions. Clashes quickly escalated last weekend, with two security guards and some of the striking miners losing their lives. A heavy police deployment followed, but failed to prevent the gradual slide into chaos; as guns and machetes were drawn, two officers were killed and around three miners shot dead.

That set the scene for Thursdays massacre. It is unclear exactly who fired first, a fact that is likely to take some time to establish, if ever. All that is known for sure is that as anger boiled over between police and miners, shots were exchanged until a volley from the police side, fired directly into the protesting crowd, left somewhere between twelve and eighteen dead.

Tonight as outrage spreads across the country and the world, a tense standoff continues.

No one can be in any doubt that the police were acting under extreme circumstances; this was no peaceful protest and reports from the ground suggest that pistols, grenades and even a gun seized from one of the murdered officers were fired towards police lines. However, unapologetic statements from  the office of Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa that officers ‘did their best’ against ‘barbaric hard-core criminals’ simply appear as an attempt to justify a slaughter that was frankly unacceptable for any supposedly democratic police force to carry out.

The officers involved should be suspended immediately pending a full investigation, with criminal charges swiftly brought where necessary. At the same time, the unions should urgently disarm striking miners on the ground and hand over those involved in earlier killings. Unions played a significant role in winning democratic rights for South Africans, but theSouth Africa platinum mine violence freedom to strike and protest is now being undermined by images of machete wielding thugs murdering their own countrymen.

Beyond this there is an critical need for the government of Jacob Zuma to address some of the underlying nationwide issues that sit behind both the strike and the response. Amnesty International’s 2012 Report underscored the massive inequality and rampant corruption that plagues South Africa, as well as the consistent excesses of force by the law enforcers throughout the country. Unless these are tackled, the militant unions, violent protests and police atrocities that are tonight generating comparisons with the apartheid era, are likely to continue long into the future.

Lonmin Marikana violence

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

8888–the struggle goes on

8888 Uprising Burma8 August 1988 – the key date in the nationwide democratic uprising that catapulted Aung San Suu Kyi to prominence before being brutally crushed by Burma’s military regime, is commemorated with protests around the world every year.

Inside Burma itself however, such demonstrations have long been muted. Publicly remembering the thousands who gave their lives and liberty in an attempt to free their country was until recently, enough to land you in jail.

This week things could not be more different; with the young pseudo-civilian government of President Thein Sein both allowing and financing rallies held by veterans of the uprising and other democrats. The events, which drew thousands of supporters, have generated a sense of optimism that the government may finally be moving towards ‘national reconciliation’ over the massacres.

In some cases commentators have pointed to reports that Thein Sein, as a young army officer during the uprising, released captured protestors rather than arresting them. They hope that he may show similar compassion in his Presidential capacity over the coming months and years.

However all is not well in Burma, and the government’s accommodation of a few commemoration rallies should not be allowed to disguise the fact that twenty-four years on, the human rights and freedoms that people demonstrated and died for are far from being realised.

Perhaps the most obvious symbols of just how incomplete change has been, are the hundreds of political prisons who remain behind bars, many of them facing torture and gross mistreatment. Tellingly the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners stated in July: “As no significant shift in the Government's policy towards political prisoners is in sight, the past month is once again marked by a contrast between an international rush to commend the limited political reforms underway …and the reality of continued human rights violations.”

Rohingya Refugees in BangladeshMeanwhile tens of thousands of the long-persecuted minority Rohingya population are still suffering in the fall-out of brutal communal violence, which evidence from Human Rights Watch indicates was fuelled by the government itself. Those who evaded the murderous mobs and soldiers by escaping across the border into Bangladesh are now facing a dire humanitarian situation as the Bangladeshi government, in a shocking and open violation of international law, obstructs aid agencies from delivering essential medical and food supplies.

In amidst such circumstances it is clear that whilst 8888 can now be commemorated, the goals set by those on the streets all those years ago are still a long way off. Some change has occurred and more may be imminent but the struggle must – and will – go on. 

Never Forget 8888

Monday, 6 August 2012

Pussy Riot in court- Russia on trial

As the trial of three members of Russian punk band Pussy Riot enters its second week, the humiliation and degradation continues unabated.

Pussy riot trialOn a daily basis the young women are woken up after around three hours of sleep in their cells, then spend the following three in a cramped prison van which takes them to court.  There they are stripped naked and searched, then re-dressed and locked in a plastic cage as brazenly corrupt proceedings unfold. Complaints that Maria Alyokhina,Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevich are being deprived of food have fallen on deaf ears, whilst the judge’s politically charged behaviour has been branded ‘surreal’ by external observers.

The outrageous events, which effectively amount to a grim combination of a show trial and a public torture session, are all the worse considering that the women’s only “crime” was to enter Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral in their trademark coloured dresses and balaclavas, then perform a song criticising Vladimir Putin and his clerical lackey Patriarch Kirill.

The actions hardly amount to the charge of "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred" levelled at Pussy Riot. Their performance did not attack Orthodox Christians nor their beliefs, but rather a dictatorial President and a Patriarch who has consistently exploited his position to garner support for the Putin regime.Pussy riot Christ the Saviour Cathedral

The sight of a political performance in their Church may of course have been uncomfortable to some believers (though many are openly supportive of Pussy Riot); however the band has clearly apologised for any offence caused. Furthermore, the seven year sentence that the women now face is grossly disproportionate to any judicial penalty that should be given solely for insulting a particular faith group.

The painfully obvious truth is that this trial is nothing to do with religion and everything to do with Putin’s cronies seeking to bully, harass and silence some of his most popular critics. The consistently brutal response to an opposition movement which refuses to be silenced, has highlighted Putin’s utterly autocratic nature, something that was never in doubt but is today perhaps more visible than ever.

The young women, undergoing physical and mental torture, facing the majority of a decade in prison for singing a song, are just the latest symbol of Russia’s ongoing slide into deeper authoritarianism. Putin may have won an election, but any credibility that comes from doing so rapidly dissolves upon the arrest of those who criticise the result. He has put his government and his country on trial – and been found guilty.

Pussy riot on trial

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Book review: Burma–a nation at the crossroads

Burma a nation at the crossroadsAfter more the five decades of dictatorship Burma has reached an historic juncture, with a gradual democratisation and liberalisation process giving a glimmer of hope where none previously existed.

Yet things are not so simple as the headlines often suggest: political uncertainty, ethnic tensions and external actors mean that the chances of genuine and lasting progress fluctuate by the day.

Given these constant changes there is a greater need than ever for a thorough and balanced analysis of the underlying issues. Enter Benedict Rogers, one of the UK’s most prominent Burma activists, with his third book: Burma – a nation at the crossroads. In this fundamentally important work Rogers draws upon his years of experience to examine how Burma got to this point, the prospects for further progress and the obstacles that lie in the way.

As any serious commentator must, Rogers extends his focus beyond Aung San San Suu Kyi, the mainstream opposition and the military-dominated government. Delving into Burma’s ethnic minority regions he discusses issues as diverse as the ingrained social prejudices against the predominantly Muslim Rohingya population, the widespread military rape in Kachin State and the crippling poverty blighting the Chin region.

And whilst clear in his support for the democracy movement, he successfully avoids the simplistic ‘good vs evil’ narrative that so often shapes reporting on Burmese politics. A Nation at the Crossroads pulls no punches in describing the barbarity and corruption of the country’s leaders, but refrains from blaming them for all of Burma’s problems, highlighting the failings amongst democrats and others in society, particularly on minority issues.

Perhaps most crucially of all Rogers clearly highlights how recent changes have not occurred in isolation, but are the direct and indirect results of various events and decisions over previous years. It is only by understanding these that activists and others following the situation in Burma can effectively make sense of what is now unfolding.

Through his previous works: A Land Without Evil (focussing on the situation in Karen State) and Unmasking Burma’s Tyrant (a biography of former dictator Than Shwe) Rogers has already made a significant contribution to academic commentary on Burma. A Nation at the Crossroads, may however be his most timely and essential piece yet.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Arakan and the dangers of extremist exploitation

Earlier this week a coalition of organisations from around the world came together to warn that the horrendous communal conflict blighting Burma’s Arakan State is rapidly evolving into a fresh wave of government-led violence against the heavily persecuted Rohingya population.

Violence in Arakan State 2Whilst no one denies that members of both the (generally Buddhist) Rakhine community and the (generally Muslim) Rohingya community have been involved in sectarian killings over previous weeks, it is becoming ever more apparent that the government is using the chaos as an excuse to launch its own military assault against the Rohingya people, who have long been denied citizenship and subjected to some of the worst abuses anywhere in the country.

The present humanitarian crisis, which has left tens of thousands displaced, is being compounded by the Bangladeshi government’s appalling refusal to accommodate Rohingya refugees in clear violation of its international commitments. Meanwhile the political fall out continues to pose what many commentators regard to be the most serious risk to Burma’s reform process so far.

Within this there is a particular danger, should the violence continue, of which all sides should be acutely aware: namely the situation being exploited by foreign-based Islamist extremists as part of their own agenda. Islamist protesters Arakan 2

Despite the severity of the persecution that the Rohingya population has faced throughout the decades, armed resistance has been distinctly limited and external involvement utterly minimal. Yet even a quick scour of the internet shows how various groups are currently trying to turn the present crisis into a quick recruitment drive.

One extremist site carries ‘A call to every young Muslim to save the Muslims of Arakan’ , another ‘Jihadi’ youtube account hosts a video entitled ‘O Muslim of Bangladesh, Arakan is calling you’. Meanwhile the Indian fundamentalist group Darsgah-e-Jihad-O-Shahadat  (roughly translated as ‘Centre for Holy War and Martyrdom’) and the Bangladeshi Islamist group Jamaat-e-Islami have both taken to the streets in protest against the Burmese government. Anecdotal reports suggest Islamist protesters Arakan Bangladeshthat extremist organisations in the UK are making similar attempts to gain support off the back of the unfolding conflict.

This involvement will bring nothing but further hardship for the entire population of Arakan State: it tarnishes perceptions of the predominantly peaceful Rohingya population, playing into the hands of those who seek to demonise them as Islamists and terrorists; it presents an unacceptable sense of threat to the predominantly peaceful Rakhine population, many of whom already fear for their safety; and it injects a violent and volatile element into Burmese politics at a pivotal point in the country’s incremental shift away from dictatorship.

Above all it reduces Arakan’s complex historical social, ethnic, religious and political issues into a crude propaganda tool. Restraint and dialogue will not come quickly or easily but they are the only solution to the current crisis; further violence will only empower the extremists – and that is the worst possible scenario for everyone.