Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Mali’s chaos deepens

Months on from the outbreak of deadly political turbulence in Mali, the situation in the rebel-held North of the country appears to be worsening.

MNLA fightersAs many predicted, the lose alliance between the secular Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and Al-Qaeda linked Islamist forces, has well and truly broken down, sparking a fresh front of violence.

The MNLA had partaken in an uneasy marriage with Ansar Dine and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), in order to force government troops from Northern Mali in a rebellion the was given fresh impetus by arms and fighters flooding over the Libyan border after the fall of Gadaffi. However, whilst the MNLA’s goal is an independent state of Azawad, the Islamists seek to use territorial gains as a springboard to create an Islamic state based on Sharia law throughout the whole of the country. Scores were killed this week as the two ideologies diverged further and the MUJAO forcefully seized control of the town of Gao from the MNLA.

These clashes came on top of protests from local citizens against the rebel occupation as a whole. After a popular local councillor was killed, youths took to the streets where two were shot dead by rebel gunmen. It remains unclear exactlyAnsar Dine fighters which group opened fire, but the killings have only fuelled resentment. Beyond this there is a particular anger in the areas where Sharia law has already been imposed – reports have emerged of women being forced to wear veils, cigarettes being banned and non-conformers being publicly flogged.

To add an extra layer of uncertainty, a number of local militias some of whom may be acting as proxies for the shaky central government, have joined together in a united front against both the MNLA and the Islamists. Meanwhile the government itself has refused to rule out further use of force by the regular army and talk of a potential ECOWAS/UN intervention continues.

Of course, the latter is driven at least in part by the domestic concerns of other ECOWAS members: refugees flooding into Niger and Burkina Faso are overwhelming the famine-struck states’ limited resources, whilst the Nigerian government is understandably worried by the prospect of Islamist-controlled territory so nearby, as it struggles to battle to Boko Haram insurgency at home. 

This combination of rival rebel groups, proxy militias, restless citizens and strong regional interests creates a toxic political blend, which is unlikely to fade anytime soon.

Mali rebels

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Time for the Sudanese Spring?

One week into massive anti-austerity protests throughout Sudan, things are looking ever less bright for dictator and indicted war criminal Omar al-Bashir.

Sudanese SpringStreet demonstrations were initially sparked by a harsh package of tax-hikes, price rises, job cuts and currency devaluation, as al-Bashir’s National Congress Party (NCP) desperately tried to avert an economic collapse. Sudan was already feeling the grim affects of the global economic downturn before things were exacerbated by the secession of the oil-rich South just under a year ago. Of course, that did not stop the NCP squandering even more of the state’s finance on attacking civilians and opposition forces in South Kordofan, Darfur and the Nuba Mountains, extending the national deficit further still.

However whilst the student-led protest movement, initially focussed on economic demands, recent days have seen calls for the removal of al-Bashir’s dictatorship and open expressions of intent to overthrow it. The students have also been joined by an increasing number of other citizens and, despite a ruthless show of force by the authorities, their determination to remain on the streets is clear.Sudan Khartoum protest

The mistreatment of protestors and detention of journalists have been intended to stamp out the protests but may yet produce precisely the opposite result. The 2010/11 revolution in Tunisia and 2007 demonstrations in Burma have previously illustrated how a harsh crackdown on economic protests can quickly trigger a wider political uprising. For some time activists in Sudan have been working to bring the Arab Spring to their towns and cities – there is increasing speculation that their time may finally be arriving.

This is not to say that al-Bashir and his inner-circle are necessarily on the verge of being deposed, or indeed that they are anywhere near that point. Support for the regime remains, especially in more rural areas, and loyalist thugs already appear to have attacked protestors. But the pressure is clear, the people are angry and the longer demonstrations continue, the harder it will be to put the protest-genie back in the bottle.

As always the NCP may look to its erstwhile ally China for external support, and currently is seeking to sure up its relationship with Iran. Yet al-Bashir’s International Criminal Court indictment has left the tyrant desperately short of other friends or supporters, which leaves him even more vulnerable if his henchmen are unable to contain dissent at home. As he approaches the 23rd anniversary of his genocidal presidency, he my be facing the most serious challenge yet.

Al Bashir nervous

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Burma, sectarianism and speculation

The sectarian crisis gripping Burma’s Arakan State is brutal, tragic and poses a MYANMAR-VIOLENCE/serious threat to the entire country’s future.  Yet alongside the horror, a sense of confusions reigns regarding exactly what is unfolding and where the various political actors actually stand.

We know that long-lingering racial tensions were tipped into violence last week when, following the rape and murder of a Arakanese Buddhist woman in Taungup, a mob putting the blame on local Ronhingya Muslims killed ten returning from their Mosque. We know that riots quickly spread, deadly retaliatory attacks broke out along ethnic lines, over a thousand homes were set ablaze and many people fled.

However, the number and identity of those killed remains shrouded in confusion and speculation. Whilst the official death toll stands at just over twenty, other sources put it at hundreds or even higher. Bizarre rumours circulate about the bodies of Muslims being dressed in Buddhist robes to skew media perceptions of the aggressors and victims. And across social networking sites, available inside Burma for the first time, residents and members of both diasporas vociferously defame each other, whilst pushing their own interpretation of events.

Political positions have also become clouded beyond the old discourse of democrats on one side and dictators on the other, that has dominated Burma for so long. Ominously, though perhaps not unexpected given how deep racial and religious division run, even some prominent leaders of the 1988 democratic uprising have taken sides and fuelled tensions by publicly declaring that the Rohingya are not an ethnic people of Burma, but rather Bangladeshi immigrants.

Burma sectarian violence militaryThe government’s role is even murkier still and the subject of considerable speculation. On the one hand this could be pose a significant challenge to the fledging pseudo-civilian administration, after all ethnic pogroms are not constructive for a regime seeking to change its country’s image on the international stage. Additionally the organisation of violent mobs could be a threat, for whilst they are attacking other ethnic groups today what is to stop them turning on the authorities tomorrow?

On the other end of the spectrum, some commentators are arguing that this could seriously work to the government’s advantage. For once they are not the villains of the piece and surreally civilians are making unprecedented calls for more troops on the streets. Meanwhile the Rohingya people, who successive regimes have actively persecuted for so long, are facing their largest threat in recent history. And of course, the supposed dangers of free communication and organisation are being highlighted, obstinately legitimising future attempts to slow down reform.

The biggest advantage for the government however, is the horrendously difficult position that the situation poses for Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD). Unlike the 88 Generation leaders, the NLD has so far stuck to calls for restraint and compassion, yet will come under increasing pressure to make an intervention, particularly during Suu Kyi’s European tour which gets underwaySuu Kyi in Thailand today.

Should the NLD mount a defence of the Rohingya, they risk alienating themselves from the vast numbers across Burma who hold detrimental views of the community, particularly those Arakanese involved or caught up in the violence. It is a sad fact that merely by supporting the Rohingya people’s right to live peacefully in Burma, Suu Kyi and her party will lose the respect of many who currently support them. On the contrary, remaining silent or joining others in the anti-Rohingya camp, will mean comprising the party’s core principles of human rights and tolerance, whilst dealing a serious blow to their international support.

So great is the government’s potential to benefit from the NLD’s catch-22, that several Burma-watchers have gone as far as to suggest the violence has been deliberately orchestrated by Naypyidaw, an assertion supported by rumours of government troops disguised as civilians stoking mob attacks on either side. Of course, even these theories are complicated further by the realistic potential of divisions within the government and military, meaning that even if aspects of the army are behind this, it does not necessarily follow that President Thein Sein and his confidents are.

In amidst the confusion one thing is clear. With an unknown death toll, an unwinnable decision for the NLD, splits in the broader democracy movement and a wholly unknown government involvement that may range from sheer panic to calculated incitement of violence – Burma is undoubtedly facing its most serious challenge since the democratisation process began. 

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Burma’s bumps in the road

At the start of June, shortly after arriving in Bangkok for her first international trip since 1988, Aung San Suu Kyi warned against ‘reckless optimism’ over Burma’s reform process.

Sadly, the intervening days have demonstrated precisely how seriously that warning should be taken. For though the nation’s impressive liberalisation continues onward, the bumps on the road ahead have been starkly highlighted.

The week’s troubles began at Mae La refugee camp where some 40 000 Karen civilians live, having fled ethic cleansing by successive Burmese regimes. Suu Kyi’s visit to the camp was one of the most highly anticipated parts of her Thai trip, but whilst she was cheered by thousands of refugees who had gathered on the streets since the early hours, it quickly descended into something of a shambles.

Suu Kyi Mae LaHeavy handed Thai security detained journalists and forced supporters away from Suu Kyi’s entourage, amidst rumours of assassination plots and pressure from the Burmese government. Many camp residents were already divided over who was taking credit for the day’s organisation, whilst others complained as the schedule broke-down, leaving no time for Suu Kyi to visit the famous Mae Tao clinic and its iconic physician Dr Cynthia. Things then took a farcical turn when it emerged that no stage or microphone had been arranged for Suu Kyi’s speech, leaving the Nobel Prize laureate standing on a chair and literally shouting to the thousands assembled.

Though Suu Kyi summed up the Thai trip as positive overall, the Mae La leg revealed the kind of intrigue, infighting, organisational hazards and image risks that the NLD faces as an engaged player on the political scene.  

Burma Muslim bus attack victimsMoods were dampened further just days later, when news of a horrendous sectarian incident emerged from the Western Burmese town of Taungup. Following the gang-rape and murder of a young girl, allegedly by Burmese Muslims, one hundred citizens set upon a bus returning from the local Mosque. Ten innocent Muslims were beaten to death before the bus was set on fire. Minor rioting followed, as unfounded rumours spread that Muslims had kidnapped and murdered a local politician in a possible revenge attack. Further protests and tensions have followed since, raising tensions and fear of further violence.

Racial and sectarian fault-lines have of course been part of Burmese politics for as long as Burma has existed. Stoked by the government over the years they are prone to turn violent and could well reflect an ugly side of liberalisation. After all, new freedoms to speak, gather, organise and demonstrate are just as beneficial to mobs and racists as they are to democrats and human rights activists.

Whilst this is not a criticism of such freedoms, it is a real issue that needs to be addressed as Burma continues down the rocky path to democracy, not least because the government has used racial conflict as an excuse for crackdowns in the past. Underlying tensions are unlikely to be resolved quickly and tit-for-tat violence is a constant threat.

Ultimately the past week has also brought positive developments; Suu Kyi has been allowed to leave the country and return freely; she has been unprecedentedly  praised in the state-run press; and the government has publicly terminated its ominous nuclear venture. But there have been bumps in the road….and there are likely to be many, many more before Burma finally achieves its freedom.

Taungup attack on Muslims   

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Tiananmen’s ghosts haunt the CCP’s future

The 4 June 1989 massacre- commonly referred to as the ‘Tiananmen Square Massacre’ though the bloodshed took place in the streets of Beijing rather than the square itself- has long haunted the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP),

Try as they might, twenty three years on the powers-that-be have categorically failed to sustain their cover-up of the incident, in which thousands of students and other protesting civilians lost their lives. Indeed, as another anniversary is reached, the ‘next superpower’ has embarrassingly resorted to physically beating those citizens peacefully petitioning for justice over the slaughter.

And as the years roll on, flailing state denials of military brutality waiver further. Following previous exposes including the damning memoirs of former Premier Zhao Ziyang, the CCP was recently humiliated further by a new book in which Chen Xitong, Mayor of Beijing in 1989, expresses regret for the crackdown and brands it an “avoidable tragedy” . Despite their best efforts, the government failed to ban the book in Hong Kong.

Meanwhile, restless activists are seizing the opportunity to launch fresh protests. Via the internet, democracy advocates have called upon citizens to legally but visibly demonstrate, by wearing black in memory of the dead. Pressure is also coming from abroad, including the USA which has called upon the CCP to release those still imprisoned for their part in the initial protests two decades ago.

Of course, none of this will shake China’s dictatorship to its core – not even close. But it aptly demonstrates that the horrors of 4 June 1989 continue to plague the CCP today, damaging its credibility, infuriating Chinese citizens and providing a stark reminder to the world that, despite numerous PR-makeovers, very little has changed at the top of Chinese politics. The ghosts of Tiananmen taint the CCP’s past – and may yet derail it's future.

Tank Man Tiananmen