Thursday, 25 November 2010

Neptune’s Navy sails again

It barely seems like a year since their last expedition but in less than a month Sea Shepherd’s fleet will once again take to the Southern Ocean in their latest anti-whaling venture: Operation No Compromise. It’ll be their sixth year disrupting the Japanese fleet’s whaling activities and based on recent experience it will certainly land a punch against the backwards and barbaric industry.

During the 2009-2010 operation, Sea Shepherd’s three boats, informally dubbed ‘Neptune’s Navy’, managed to halt whaling for three straight weeks- one third of the season. The Japanese government and whalers gave back as good as they got; naval vessels were deployed and one whaling ship – the Nisshin Maru -rammed Sea Shepherd’s fast interceptor boat almost killing its crew. When the interceptor's captain Pete Buthane boarded the Nisshin Maru in protest, he was taken prisoner and transported back to Japan…removing the ship vessel from whaling operations. Overall such harassment and abuse of the activists cost the whalers millions of dollars – exacerbating the financial losses caused by Sea Shepherd’s initial disruption.

This is the reason why the organisation is so effective – and why ultimately it will succeed. Whilst the Japanese government-backed whalers have circumvented and flouted a global ban, ignoring political pressure and legal threats, they cannot infinitely ignore their own monetary losses. Many people (even amongst those who oppose the practice of harpooning whales and dragging them onto the decks of boats before cutting them up whilst still alive) disagree with Sea Shepherd's tactics of blockading whaling vessels, pelting them with smoke grenades or 'stink bombs' and damaging their engines. However, no one can deny that they have turned this potentially lucrative industry into a financial black hole.

For five straight years the Japanese government and whaling industry have had to pour resources into defending the vessels, whilst never once meeting their quotas. When this is combined with the fact that Sea Shepherd’s actions have never injured anybody (despite claims by the whalers that were later proven to be false) –there seems no reason why any right thinking person concerned about protecting some of nature’s most intelligent and endangered creatures shouldn’t support them on their latest mission.

With a re-vamped fleet including a brand new fast interceptor and an eager crew which for the first time includes Japanese members –Neptune’s Navy looks likely to continue its impressive record of each year’s action being more successful than the last. The political moves to end whaling are vital – as are the legal initiatives, particularly Australia’s proposal for a case at the International Court of Justice; however, whilst these proceed- understandably slowly – Sea Shepherd’s excellent working in directly financially wrecking the whaling industry can only be commended.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Haiti and the politics of cholera

No one expected Haiti’s reconstruction after the devastating earthquake in January to be quick or easy. However, the outbreak of cholera currently sweeping through the crowded refugee camps and ruined cities (that as of today has killed 1250 and affected 20 000 more) has struck an unanticipated and utterly crippling blow against on-going relief efforts. Low levels of education and sanitation mean that the disease, though deemed “easily preventable”, is spreading at an alarming pace; whilst the nation’s medical infrastructure –which has not even been rebuilt to its inadequate pre-earthquake standard, is unable to cope.

It’s little wonder therefore, that suggestions the outbreak may have stemmed from Nepalese members of the UN Peacekeeping Force (due to latrine discharges in their camp), have unleashed a torrent of public rage against the blue-helmets. As biological evidence emerged that the strain originated from South Asia, Peackeepers were stoned and violent anti-UN riots spread throughout the country. Return fire killing two of the rioters only stoked anger further.

Yet beyond the understandable fear and resentment, there are other factors at play. UN troops are in Haiti to provide a secure situation in which reconstruction can take place – not to provide it themselves; yet poor conveyance of this fact to the local population has resulted in an inevitable bewilderment and bitterness amongst those who –living in abject poverty and struggling for survival on a daily basis- see the soldiers cruising around in armoured cars whilst apparently doing nothing to help them. This week when the floodgates opened, this built-up tension manifested itself in violence.

Additionally, some factions of the rioters begun to target the offices of candidates involved in Haiti’s upcoming presidential election [see picture right]. Although some of the front runners have called for the poll’s postponement- it is still scheduled to go ahead and from such a volatile situation there is a genuine danger that the kind of political violence which blighted Haiti for decades may emerge once again. Indeed, some commentators have already suggested that the worst of the rioting may have been deliberately orchestrated in a bid to destabilise the vote – a theory strengthened by simultaneous outbreaks of violence at 6am last Monday.

Stopping the riots must now be a priority. Attacks on clinics, medics and body collectors are directly undoing any progress made in the urgent fight against the spread of cholera; whilst a delay in the election will only hold-up the kind of political stability required for real improvements in healthcare, infrastructure and aid spending so that Haiti can respond better to epidemics in the future. Of course this does not mean simply a military response to bolster law and order; a full and public enquiry by the UN as well as serious reforms to the structure their peacekeeping mission are essential if trust is to be restored. This is especially important considering that the troops are likely to be in Haiti for some time yet. Of course, progress on the peacekeeping front should be coupled with urgent education on how to prevent the spread (something that President Préval has already thrown himself into through special TV appearances) and international support in terms of medicine and finance.

The epidemic is expected to peak at the end of next week but the damage to Haiti’s society, political climate and above all its population will go on and on. The reconstruction is about to become longer and harder still.

Monday, 15 November 2010

A heroine walks free

For thousands of activists around the world, the reality is still sinking in: Aung San Suu Kyi is a free woman (at least as free as anyone can ever be in Burma). The moment she left her compound to an enormous, euphoric crowd will live long in the memory of everyone who has ever taken part in the five decade long struggle for Burmese democracy and human rights. It will become a historic milestone for the nation – and for the future of its sixty million people.

Yet amid the joy and celebration many questions are ringing out amongst the commentators, politicians and ordinary people watching these incredible events unfold. And of these the most significant seems to be: why is the dictatorship allowing this? Considering their utter disregard for international law, moral decency or democratic progress – why are the Generals releasing the one person most likely to bring about their downfall? The answer seemingly lies in a series of enormous political miscalculations that could well provide an enormous or even decisive boost for the democracy movement.

Firstly Than Shwe and his cronies were of the misplaced belief that Suu Kyi’s release – a week after their sham election – would give them some credibility on the international stage and even lead to foreign governments accepting the rigged result (an 80% victory for their proxy party- the USDP). They thought that the combination of an election and such a high-profile release would portray them as progressive and democratic, alleviating pressure and earning them legitimacy.

They also believed that after spending fifteen of the past twenty-one years in some form of detention (either under house arrest or locked in the notorious Insein Jail) Suu Kyi would be out of touch and irrelevant in Burmese politics. Given that her detachment and isolation had taken an enormously heavy toll on her party- the NLD- as well as the wider democratic movement, the Generals presumed that she would emerge as a spent force with little influence on the contemporary struggle for freedom, sidelined in the wake of the elections she boycotted and the decision by some democratic candidates to take part.

This links neatly to their final faux par – namely the presumption that, given the NLD-NDF split (with the latter breaking from the former to contest the vote), Suu Kyi’s reappearance could exacerbate divisions within the democracy movement. It was most likely their deepest hope that the handful NDF candidates who actually won seats would resent the new Parliament being dismissed as a façade by someone who played no part in the election.

On every count the dictatorship got it wrong.

Even before they signed the release papers, the script was not panning out as they planned. Worldwide condemnation of the election had combined with defections by formerly pro-junta militia; first in the Karen then the Shan regions. The political landscape that the Generals were letting Suu Kyi re-enter was not nearly as neatly stitched-up as they wanted it. Neither was the world ready to congratulate her captors for ending a sentence that should never have been imposed in the first place; with the usual exceptions (including China and Vietnam), the response of international leaders consisted of praise for Suu Kyi followed by calls for the release of the remaining political prisoners.

Further early signs that the junta had mis-read the scenario came as thousands of people rushed first to Suu Kyi’s lakeside home to await her release and then –in even greater numbers- to the NLD headquarters to hear her speak the following day. Notably many of those cheering and celebrating in the streets were too young to have been involved in the democracy movement during her last brief spell of freedom in 2002-2003. Though hidden from the world for so long she is clearly still regarded by Burmese people up and down the country (and indeed across the globe) as their rightful leader. To anyone watching the celebrating crowds that NLD staff had to physically push apart for her to reach the headquarters, the perception that she could ever have become irrelevant was incomprehensible.

Subsequent speeches- in which Suu Kyi expressed a desire to listen and learn from the movement from which she had been forcibly separated, reinforced her connection with the people. Furthermore it quickly became clear that her years in detention were far from wasted; listening to the BBC World Service for hours each day she had carefully monitored and analysed the situation before emerging ready to lead once again. This should come as no surprise to the Generals; after all, in previous short releases Suu Kyi had been completely up-to-date with developments and more than prepared to re-enter the political fray without hesitation.

Their hopes of her release breeding discourse in democratic ranks will also fall flat. The NLD members who broke off to contest elections as the NDF always remained loyal to Suu Kyi – even though they disagreed with her decision to boycott, whilst their rejection of the final result will only draw both factions closer together once again. In fact, it is highly possible that those NDF candidates who won seats will now seek guidance from Suu Kyi, increasing rather than diminishing her role in Burmese politics.

Additionally, and perhaps more significantly, within her first 48 hours of freedom Suu Kyi has called for ethnic unity- proposing a second Panglong Conference (following the one convened by her father in 1947 with the intention of creating ethnic equality in newly independent Burma). Widely regarded as the only leader able to unite the state’s plethora of ethnic groups, Suu Kyi’s efforts in this area could genuinely herald a new era of united opposition to the dictatorship, especially considering the growing dissatisfaction of those ethnic militias that previously took the junta’s side.

Finally, any rabble-rousing that could provide the Generals with an excuse to detain her once again was cleverly avoided. Calls for a peaceful revolution were combined with offers to negotiate with the junta, amazingly including the USDP (whose predecessor –the USDA tried to kill her in 2003.) Her open-minded stance on sanctions will also catch Than Shwe and co off guard. As the only political player able to convince foreign governments to drop them, Suu Kyi’s decisions are inherently linked to Burma’s economic situation and thus she has enormous power to pull the Generals to the negotiating table.

Aung San Suu Kyi- and the entire movement for democracy and human rights in Burma – have a long hard path ahead; but her release may prove a turning point in a struggle where not so long ago the outlook was depressingly bleak. The leader is finally free, now for the other 2200 political prisoners….and then Burma itself.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Burma erupts

Just 24 hours after the sham election came to a close, Burma is in a new period of political and humanitarian chaos. As expected the junta’s proxy party- the USDP, is romping home on the back of stolen ballot boxes, violent intimidation and flagrant vote rigging up and down the country - not to mentioned the disenfranchisement of the millions living in areas deemed “too dangerous” (i.e. too opposed to the junta) for polling stations to be set up in.

Bravely, a number of Burma’s citizens have run the gauntlet of resisting the junta, by voting for democratic opposition parties; resulting in a handful of parliamentary seats for the NDF (the faction of the NLD that broke off to contest the elections) and ethnic Inn, Rakhine and Shan groupings. Low voter turnout (some reports suggest just 45%), following NLD-led calls for a boycott, is also indicative of public defiance. Yet in spite of such developments, a USDP victory is well and truly stitched up. The few opposition party victories have been by the junta partly because the strength of local opposition support is just too strong to cover-up but mainly because in such a limited number cases they will make little difference to the parliament’s overall make-up, especially given the 20% of seats reserved for the military. Any result that would provide genuine representation for opposition parties was brazenly prevented; for example whilst the pro-democracy Shan Nationalities Development Party has been formally awarded three of the seats it rightfully won, other constituency where it enjoys almost total support went to the USDP when lines of coerced villages were forcibly marched to the ballot boxes by party officials.

However whilst the election is largely ‘in hand’, real turbulence is unfolding in the Karen region. Here the junta has long pursued a policy of genocide and ethnic cleansing involving mass-rapes, village-burnings and systematic massacres. The small and fully justified Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) – a determined but militarily weak rebel group- has long done what it can to defend its people; however since 1994 the junta has orchestrated a ‘divide-and-conquer’ strategy involving bribery, murder, trickery and exploitation of the KNLA’s Christian/Buddhist mix; to lure some regiments into a breakaway junta-allied Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA). Since its inception the DKBA has been responsible for some of the worst atrocities against its fellow Karen people –utilising guns, mines and artillery provided by the junta.

But the Generals’ attempt to absorb the DKBA into their own military set-up as a Border Guard Force ruled from Naypidaw was a step too far. Yesterday, tensions bubbling away for months erupted and in a amazing volta face a brigade of DKBA troops turned on the junta, seizing control of a polling station and police station. By this afternoon they had taken the militarily strategic Three Pagodas Pass, torched government building and declared allegiance with the democracy movement. The KNLA immediately responded by laying aside sixteen years of conflict and sending troops to join them. The democratic uprising has come at a cost – a counter attack by the junta has already begun and anywhere between 5000-30 000 Karen civilians have fled across the Thai border to escape the escalating conflict.

In the unfolding humanitarian tragedy there are signs that Senior General Than Shwe and his fellow military thugs are losing control - at least to some extent. Their sham election has been rejected by the international community, Burmese citizens are defying their intimidation; and attempts to bolster their own military strength along the Thai border have dissolved into the loss of an ally and the emergence of a fresh ethnic insurgency. It’s certainly not the smooth and quiet transfer from uniforms to suits that they hoped would win them legitimacy in the eyes of the world whilst maintaining a tight grip on power.

No one knows what will happen in Burma over the coming days, let alone weeks and months. Predictions can barely stretch beyond a best-guest in a situation that is changing far quicker than even many experienced Burma watchers anticipated. Yet one thing is for certain- these are historic times. All eyes now will turn to the scheduled release of Aung San Suu Kyi this Saturday. If the junta extends her detention once again, the growing international clamour against them will reach new heights and the last pathetic attempts to portray themselves as democratic reformers will falter. If they release her, under the un-ignorable pressure they find themselves, it will provide the biggest boost possible for a democracy movement that the voter defiance and armed resistance of the past 48 hours has shown to be far from defeated.

Up to the minute news:

The Irrawaddy

Democratic Voice of Burma

Election incidents/developments map


Sunday, 7 November 2010

Burma and the junta's lost election

Yesterday I was invited to speak at a demonstration opposing the Burmese military junta’s sham election. A strong turnout of around 500 showed the strength of feeling against this façade and the final rally outside the junta’s embassy was truly inspirational. At this point one of the other speakers’ messages really stuck out for me: Mark Farmaner, Director of Burma Campaign UK took the microphone and announced that the junta – who have 25% of parliamentary seats reserved and whose proxy parties will likely win most of the remainder –had already lost the election.

Of course he is right. The Generals’ intention in staging this mockery (any process where leading opposition figures are banned, foreign journalists are arrested, ballots are rigged and voters are intimidated is hardly worthy of being deemed an “election”) was to legitimise themselves on the international stage. And in this regard they have categorically failed. With a few exceptions including the junta’s usual backers such as China (and -in a shame shameful surprise- Germany) the international community resoundingly rejected the election’s outcome before voting began.

Rather than fool the world therefore, all that Senior General Than Shwe and his military thugs have done by staging the vote is to draw international attention to Burma once again (coverage including front page newspaper articles and special despatches have raised further awareness about the nation’s plight) whilst galvanising global political and public support for Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD – who were democratically elected to govern in 1990 before the junta annulled that election’s result, imprisoned Suu Kyi and eventually forced the NLD’s disbandment as a formal political party.

The positive worldwide response not only indicates the growing conviction of governments and international organisations –including the United Nations – to stand up to the junta; it also vindicates the NLD’s decision to boycott the poll. The move had caused a significant degree of debate in the democratic movement – with several NLD members breaking away to form the National Democratic Force (NDF) and standing for 163 seats in Rangoon. Like many, I was initially torn between the mainstream NLD’s assertion that contesting the election would give it legitimacy whilst allowing no democratic process; and the NDF’s position that as the poll was going ahead anyway it was important for democratic candidates to be involved.

At the time of writing the NDF has won just one seat in the new “People’s Parliament”, whilst the junta’s proxy party- the USDP (a military-led revamp of the USDA militia which attacked and murdered Aung San Suu Kyi’s supporters in 2003) has been successful in every other constituency declared thus far. Had the NLD taken part it would have undoubtedly been in a similar situation but international criticism of the process would have been far harder. Of course, activists and governments would have still stood up to the violent intimidation and blatant vote rigging, but the latent legitimisation that would have been bestowed by NLD involvement could easily have undermined the kind of wholesale rejection of the junta’s pre-ordained result that we are currently witnessing.

So what next?

Pressure will now undoubtedly continue to mount for Suu Kyi’s release when her current house-arrest sentence expires next Saturday. And if she is to walk to freedom, the domestic democratic movement -wich would be buoyed by both the international support it is currently experiencing and the return of its leader- could pose its biggest threat to the generals since 2007, when street protests almost brought down the regime. Of course the state of effective martial law that currently exists throughout Burma and the increasing human rights abuses resulting from the heightened state of security make it hard to be optimistic; but the junta has been unsuccessful in its attempt to fool the world and has failed in achieving the raison d’être of its sham election. Than Shwe and his cronies may find that their biggest challenge is still to come.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Western Sahara- a step towards freedom?

Next Tuesday and Wednesday could well become historic days Western Sahara’s half million people. Although there is a chance that the UN-brokered talks due to be held on the country’s future may fail like so many before, there remains hope that they may for once succeed in becoming the first step towards the independence referendum that Western Sahara has been denied since it was occupied by Morocco thirty-five years ago.

Although their plight is often overlooked by the world’s media, the suffering of the Sarahawi people (Western Sahara’s indigenous population) is all too real. In the face of horrendous oppression and human rights abuses by the Moroccan authorities, many have fled their homes over the years and remain stranded in squalid desert refugee camps. The tragedy dates back to 1975 when Morocco amassed troops against what was then called Spanish Sahara, in an attempt to enervate Spain’s colonial power over the region. However, the Moroccan royalty saw fit hold onto the spoils of conflict and themselves became colonists. And despite resistance from the POLISARIO (liberation front) which receives support from neighbouring Algeria, Western Sahara remains under Moroccan control to this day.

Interestingly the situation –which has so often escaped the attention of activists and journalists across the globe – has long been a significant matter for the United Nations. In 1998 it oversaw “settlement proposals” in which Morocco and the POLISARIO agreed on terms for an independence referendum; however subsequent debate over the precise details and Morocco’s reluctance to let go of their colonial possession meant these have not yet been implemented. Since 1991 a civilian UN force has been on the ground to move the process forward, backed by UN military peacekeepers in place to stem the outbursts of violence between the two sides (the UN presence is collectively known as MINURSO – Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara). Successful progress in next week’s talks would be a victory for the UN on two counts – firstly it would mean tangible results that would politically justify its 19 year commitment in the country and secondly it would raise the prospect of –in the foreseeable future- being able to scale back the vast funds and resources dedicated to MINURSO (something that member states are always keen to monitor).

These could therefore be fundamentally important days for the UN as well as the Sarahawi people. Of course – were the referendum to be secured – that would provide an even more significant milestone for both. For the UN it could bring back some of the respect and euphoria that surrounded its successful (if belated) facilitation of East Timor’s return to independence in 2002; and for the Sarahawi people it could mean freedom….at long last.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Standing up to a saviour

Very few have watched Hotel Rwanda and not been moved by its graphic depiction of the 1994 genocide or by the selfless heroism of the protagonist, Paul Rusesabagina. Despite the inevitable ‘Hollywoodisation’, the story was largely accurate and Mr. Rusesabagina can rightly be credited with saving the lives of some 1200 Tutsis and moderate Hutus whilst the international community stood by and watched one of the worst crimes against humanity since the holocaust. It is a strange state of affairs then – that he is now being branded an “enemy of the state” by Rwanda’s post-genocide government; led by the very men who brought the slaughter to an end.

The move has resulted from Mr. Rusesabagina’s criticism of Rwandan President Paul Kagame – criticism that was both brave and justified. Since leading the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) to victory against the genocidal Hutu-led dictatorship in 1994 Kagame has, like so many African leaders before him, turned into exact kind of tyrant he professed to stand against. The media is ruthlessly suppressed, extrajudicial killings of opponents have become commonplace and democratic freedoms have been crushed to an extent that the Economist -without exaggeration- noted to be worse than Zimbabwe. More disturbingly still –a recent UN report highlighted how during the 1990s Kagame’s forces were been involved in systematic massacres of Hutu civilians over the border in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) that may have amounted to genocide. It is becoming clearer by the day that the man once viewed as a liberator and savior from genocide is in fact a genocidal dictator himself.

It is against this background that Mr. Rusesabagina recently described Rwanda as “a big open prison where Kagame is the chief warden.” The comments led to his home being ransacked before he was outrageously denounced in the Rwandan media as a supporter Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) – a Hutu Power group derived from those who perpetrated the 1994 genocide and which continues to stage armed attacks in the DRC. Of course, the accusation that Mr. Rusesabagina is supporting the very group he risked his life and his family to save people from, is utterly nonsensical – but it was also expected. It has long been a tactic of Kagame’s regime to accuse any outspoken opponents of being participants, supporters or revisionists of the genocide.

Unfortunately, because of obvious sensitivities surrounding this, the international community has so far been slow to criticise the man who brought the genocide to an end, so aid and political support (including from form Prime Minister Tony Blair as an advisor to Kagame) continue to poor in. However, the attacks on a humanitarian hero -who is well known to Westerners through Hotel Rwanda and has received such award as the Presidential Freedom Medal – may prove a bridge too far. And if it does bring about change in the way states deal with the RPF authorities it certainly won’t be before time. Kagame saved Rwanda from genocide- but now the world must save Rwanda from him.