Saturday, 27 August 2011

India- in the shadow of the gallows

The events of the past will always impact upon the politics of the present.  However, developments in India over the coming weeks and months will push this truism to the extreme; for it was announced last Friday that on 9th September three men will be hanged for their part in the murder of Prime Minister Rajiv Ghandi twenty years ago.

The fall-out from the executions, should they go ahead, will inevitably be vast- after all this has been an utterly sordid saga from the start. 

Rajiv GhandiThe assassination itself was carried out by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in retaliation against the involvement of Ghandi’s forces in the Sri Lankan Civil War.  The so called Indian Peacekeeping Force (IPKF) had been fighting battles with the LTTE since 1987, marking something of a reversal of India’s previous sympathy for the Tamil struggle, and proving dramatically counterproductive.  IPKF Massacres of Tamil Civilians including twenty-one patients and medical personnel in the Jaffna Teaching Hospital only severed to stoke violence and tensions.

Withdrawal was finally forced under strong opposition from the Sri Lankan government (which resented Indian involvement from the start) and the Indian population (many of whom supported the Tamil people in their bid for independence).  Yet the LTTE were determined to have revenge and prevent Ghandi’s proposed attempt to resumed intervention should he be re-elected.  Their suicide bombing took his life along with fourteen others.

In the aftermath twenty six people were tried under the authoritarian Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA) for involvement in orchestrating the atrocity.  Secret trials, coerced confessions and legal irregularities tainted the process which, in 1999, resulted in highly politicised death sentences being handed to the entire group (despite the fact that several were found to have only played minor parts).

On appeal to the Supreme Court nineteen were released- highlighting the weakness of the original convictions; three of the death sentences were commuted to life imprisonment and four were upheld – one of which was then commuted at a later stage.  Now, after decades of solitary confinement and cancelled execution dates, these men are less than two weeks away from being hanged.

It is unclear what this can possibly achieve for India apart from some kind of perverse belated revenge for a handful of people.  Yet the damages that it can inflict are stark and numerous.

For one thing it will mark India’s first execution since 2004 – a sorry step backwards for a state that was well on the way towards reaching a decade without resorting to judicial murder.  It will also compound the corrupt and fallible nature of its justice system, something which has long been used a tool of politicians and is once again being used to take the lives of citizens. 

At a time of mass street protests against official corruption, putting people to death on the basis of a twenty-year process that was flawed at every stage is hardly a confidence building measure.  Protests by law students have already taken place against the sentences – and were quickly broken up by police, a sorry situation for the ‘world’s largest democracy.’  

The executions will also mark another bitter blow to relations between the Indian political class and the Tamil people.  Whilst Ghandi’s assassination all those years ago was barbaric and utterly unacceptable, many had genuine grievances surrounding the action of his forces against their countrymen.  Yet, in the intervening period very little has been done to rebuild lost trust – a matter underscored by the Sri Lanka War Crimessilence and even tacit endorsement of the Indian government as Mahinda Rajapaksa orchestrated War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity against Tamil civilians in his 2008/2009 push to destroy the LTTE – an in the aftermath.

Many Tamils in India will now rightly question why the authorities are making little if any noise about the on-going torture and arbitrary arrests across the water in Tamil Eelam, yet are determined to kill three imprisoned Tamils for their part in a crime two decades ago.

Of course there is no time limit on justice – but just is not what these executions represent.  Rather, they represent an unsound and politically driven sentence that will set-back India’s democratic and judicial progress whilst striking at chances of reconciliation with one of Asia’s most maligned communities.  While a reassessment of the men’s cases and a fresh engagement with the Tamil people could move India forward, the gallows can only bring more suffering. 

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

How Erdoğan is killing the Kurdish Spring

Somewhat ironically, as recently as this year there was hope in certain quarters that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan represented a progressive force, potentially willing to end decades of state oppression against Turkey’s Kurdish minority.  His ‘Kurdish Opening’, ‘Kurdish Initiative’ (or any of the other names it went by) certainly involved some strong rhetoric; Erdoğan became the first Turkish leader to even recognise the Kurds’ existence, rather than using the previous categorisation of “mountain Turks”, and he pledged to address their grievances through granting freedoms, rather than supressing them using force.  A spattering of Kurdish MPs in his Justice and Development Party (AKP) and a few token gestures including the opening of a state-funded Kurdish language channel seemed to indicate moves in the right direction.  Investment and direct flights to the autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq raised expectations further still. 

But nothing really changed and despite his words Erdoğan’s government took drastic actions that set back any hope of resolution.

In 2009 the leading Kurdish party, the Democratic Society Party (DTP), became theDTP Rally Kurdistan latest political grouping to be shut down over alleged links to the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK)- a rebel force that has waged over two decades of armed struggle in pursuit of Kurdish independence.  Despite protests from the EU, the DTP’s assets were taken by the state and scores of its members were kicked out of parliament then banned from politics. 

Having thus provoked the Kurdish population, Erdoğan underscored his unwillingness to move away from the old cycle attacks and retaliation between the PKK and the Turkish military that has so far claimed some forty-thousand lives.  After eleven Turkish soldiers were killed in 2010, he cast aside all talk of negotiations, vowed to “annihilate” the PKK and launched air strikes against suspected strongholds on both Turkish and Iraqi soil.

Things deteriorated further when elected members the DTP’s successor, the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), were imprisoned for questionable links to the PKK. Erdoğan subsequently hammered home his disdain of Kurdish advocates by cutting off all contact with the BDP and declaring that he had “solved” the entire issue.  As tensions rose over the constant setbacks and a lack of progress towards any realisation of their rights, Kurds threatened a campaign of civil disobedience;  Erdoğan, with clearly no intention of calming matters, stoked the fire by an ill-timed statement that he would have executed imprisoned PKK  leader Abdullah Ocalan if he’d had the chance.

Recent statistics from a Kurdish human rights group now point to a steady increase in human rights abuses by the Turkish authorities, including thousands of detentions, (hundreds of them involving under-eighteens) mainly on charges of PKK support, but in reality stemming from calls for independence and criticism of Erdoğan’s government.

Turkey bombing KurdistanAgainst such a backdrop it is hardly surprising than an escalation in violence by the PKK over recent weeks has been met with brutal and ultimately counterproductive strikes by Turkish forces.  In retaliation for the killing of nine soldiers, Turkey launched airstrikes over the Kurdish region of Iraq killing one hundred suspected PKK militants and, human rights groups report, numerous civilians.  Tragically for those caught up in the midst of the conflict, Turkey’s bombings followed a bout of Iranian shelling – the combination of which has forced many Kurds to flee to refugee camps, abandoning their crops and homes.  In the short term this creates humanitarian issues; in the long run it is likely to drive even more people into the arms of the PKK. 

There will be more bloodshed to come.  Yet owing to the importance of securing Turkish support against Bashar al-Assad’s murderous crackdown in neighbouring Syria, international criticism is unlikely.  Indeed, Erdoğan has already exploited the complex politics of the revolutions in Syria and Libya to deflect attention away from his own abusive rule. 

When uprisings first began to spread throughout the Arab world, there was speculation that the Kurds across the Middle East could follow suite.  That could still happen, but with their largest party in Turkey marginalised, their autonomous region in Iraq facing continued bombing and suppression being stepped up across the region, hopes of freedom currently seem bleak.  Erdoğan could yet be a valuable ally for those seeking to reign in al-Assad and keep the Arab Spring alive…but he is at the forefront of killing the Kurdish Spring before it even truly has a chance to begin. 


Sunday, 21 August 2011

Libya–an intervention vindicated

“The Libyans Started this revolution on Feb 15 when 30 ppl came out demanding Freedom, The Libyans are now ending it #Libya

One tweet standing out amongst the hundreds of thousands scrolling down screens across the globe right Tripoli Celebrationsnow, celebrating what can only be the end of Gaddafi’s forty-two year dictatorship.

Its sentiment could not be more fitting.  For desperate as some camps have been to portray this uprising as a ‘Western’ military scheme led by NATO, the US government, the CIA or MI6 (take your pick) – we must never forget how it really began: unarmed, Libyan civilians, inspired by the Arab Spring and angry with the abusive regime of Gaddafi, bravely taking to the streets in defiance.

And desperate as some camps were to stoke fears of a NATO led invasion, a bloody massacre of Gaddafi supporters or years of protracted stalemate, it is clear how the uprising is now reaching its conclusion: with Libyan civilians pouring onto the streets of Tripoli to greet the rebels and a celebratory convoy winding its way through the city meeting little if any resistance.  In short- the Libyan people taking their country back.

It could have all been so different.  Just months ago Gaddafi’s troops were at theGaddafi gates of Benghazi, poised to crush the rebels and in the tyrant’s own words show “no mercy.”  This decade’s Srebrenica moment looked imminent.  Military intervention is never a pleasant prospect and will never be without controversy- but at that time a decision had to be taken; and tonight the tough choice for NATO to support the rebels has been vindicated. 

For we are not adding Libya to the long list of the international community’s failings, after the likes of Rwanda, Bosnia or Burma.  We are not academically pondering what difference military support could have made as thousands suffer Gaddafi’s promised retribution.  We are watching Libyans finish what they started.  The intervention did not ‘hijack’ or ‘exploit’ the people’s struggle – it allowed them to succeed in it.

Of course this comes with a great burden of responsibility.  Those states that provided support to the NTC now have a duty to help it rebuild Libya and to hold the new leaders to account.  Abuses that took place during the uprising must be addressed and investigated– along with allegations of NATO bombs harming civilians.  And crucially, any former members of the regime who are arrested – including members of the Gaddafi family, must be given fair trials in Libya or at the ICC.  They must face the justice that Gaddafi denied so many. 

All of this is still to come, and if governments such as Cameron’s, Obama’s or Sarkozy’s fail in these duties then the grievances of those who opposed the intervention may become valid.  However, tonight as Tripoli celebrates, the many states that helped bring this about can look back on their work since March with pride.  The real heroes of the uprising are those Libyan men and women who have given their lives for their country’s freedom – but the contribution of those nations that stood by them has truly been justified.

Libya Liberated



Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Indonesia- ludicrous sentences and a disgraced government

Yudhoyono MurdererMany racists and bigots will make at least some attempt to mask their prejudices, covering hatred with a facade of tolerance and balance.  But this is not the case when it comes to the regime of Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who seems to flaunt bigotry and persecution with a kind of twisted pride.

Of course it has long been clear that his authorities have relegated certain groups under their control – most prominently Papuans, Ahmadis and Christians – to the status of second class human beings.  Official persecution, formal hate speech and impunity for those carrying out attacks against the maligned communities, have always been part of Yudhoyono’s programme for government.  Yet two legal decisions carried by his corrupt court system over recent weeks have underscored just how little the president or any of his fellow thugs care for Indonesia’s reputation when it comes to such matters.

West Papua TortureAt the start of August, the court case of three soldiers involved in the horrific and brutal torture of civilians in occupied West Papua reached its conclusion.  The crime involved burning, cutting and beating a priest by the name of Kindeman Gere, along with another innocent man, whilst recording the whole incident on mobile phones.  It concluded with the summary execution of Kindeman Gere and the subsequent decapitation of his body.

The soldiers were found guilty of insubordination and handed sentances sentences ranging from six to fifteen months.  

The unbelievable and sickening decision to send such violent murders to prison for less than one-and-a-half years is even more outrageous considering that under Indonesian law Papuans who peacefully fly their own flag are regularly detained and can face life sentences.

Being known as the regime that allows its soldiers to literally get away with murderAhmadyyia murder was not however, anywhere near enough for Yudhoyono, whose judiciary went on to make an equally abhorrent decision regarding another barbaric incident captured on video.  This time the case related to the mob killing of three Ahmadyyia Muslims in February, following years of hatred whipped up and encouraged by the authorities. 

Yet this week’s sentence was not for anyone involved in the killings: it was for one of the mob’s victims who managed to Deden Sudjanaescape.  Prompting outcry from governments and rights groups around the world, the court ruled that Deden Sudjana had injured one of the one-thousand-plus extremists who were beating his co-religionists to death and that he had refused the orders of police to leave the scene (most likely in an ill-fated attempt to help the dying men).  As if another layer of lunacy was needed, his sentence is six months imprisonment – equivalent to the maximum sentence handed to the twelve people convicted for their part in the killings (it is worth noting that despite video evidence of the Ahmadyyia men being smashed, kicked and stamped on, none of these twelve convicted mob-members were found guilty of murder and many received just three month sentences.)

With these two verdicts the Yudhoyono regime has set out its stall once and for all: it will not try to hide its bigotry, its racism or its crimes.  Those deemed to be second-class will continue to be persecuted and to be killed.  Those responsible for the persecution and the killings will walk away with nothing more than a ceremonial slap on the wrist.  And those who oppose the status quo will face the force of the authorities.

The disgraced Indonesian state –where victims are locked up and murderers walk free- is as horrific as it is surreal.  It is time for the international community to step up and hold to account those who strip Indonesia’s minorities of their rights…and it is time for the Indonesian people to step up and hold to account the tyrants who have shamed their nation.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Burma–trips, ploys and exploitation

Myanmar PoliticsIt has certainly been an interesting few weeks in Burmese politics with two meetings between Aung San Suu Kyi and government minister Aung Kyi; a government press conference inviting her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) to take part in a “national reconciliation process”; and Suu Kyi’s first political trip outside Rangoon since her latest release from detention, passing off without any sign of obstruction or violence from the authorities.

Things unarguably feel hugely different from the ruling elite’s previous strategy of locking the democracy icon away, refusing her requests for negotiations and even launching a murderous attack against her and NLD supporters during her last brief spell of freedom.  However the military generals, despite hiding behind pseudo-civilian government, have not changed Burma Internally Displace Peopletheir spots: alarming evidence of crimes against humanity and war crimes along with the continued detention of almost two thousand political prisoners underscore the true nature of the regime.  In spite of the negotiations and apparent detente, Suu Kyi has understandably urged caution amongst her supporters.

So what is behind the government’s change in tact if not a change of heart?  One credible theory is a purely cynical attempt to exploit the NLD and its inspirational leader.  Bringing the NLD into the “reconciliation process” will give the government an air of legitimacy, billing it as one powerful player in a fair and pluralistic political set-up, rather than the puppet of the generals, shoe-horned into control through a rigged election and a sham constitution.  Feigning a willingness to negotiate with the opposition could strengthen the government’s bid for the Chair of ASEAN in 2014 and even allow progress towards their ultimate goal of ending international sanctions.  And all of this without giving anything away other than a couple of meetings with a relatively low-level official and allowing Suu Kyi to venture out of Rangoon without attempting to kill her.

Suu Kyi SupportThe second possibility is that the government’s moves are reactive, rather than proactive, reflecting a fear or even desperation amongst the ruling elite.  Growing opposition to government damning projects, mass support for Suu Kyi despite her years locked away from the eyes of the Burmese people, and the ever more likely prospect of an intentional commission being formed to investigate crimes against humanity, will all have shaken the generals and their cronies.  And whilst they have largely succeeded in keeping images of the Arab Spring out of circulation, few of those in power will be able to forget the scenes of control being ripped from the hands of dictators in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria.  With unrest even bubbling in neighbouring Tibet, it is conceivable that the ruling elite are trying to limit the chances of civil unrest in Burma by appearing to accommodate Suu Kyi and the NLD.

These two theories are not mutually exclusive and in reality a combination of both is likely to be in play.  The generals are clearly sensing an opportunity to push their ‘rebrand’ which has so far been received sceptically at best by the international community.  Yet at the same time they are afraid of Suu Kyi and the support that she carries, recognising that their two-decade attempt to isolate her from the political scene has dramatically failed. 

This leaves the opposition movement in a precarious position; facing the challenge of utilising the generals’ shift from outward thuggery to calculated engagement without playing directly into their hands.  If the NLD plays its cards right, genuine progress may be made on issues such as political prisoners, ethnic minorities and poverty.  If however, it goes in too fast or gives away too much ground, it risks legitimising and entrenching the generals in their latest guise.

It will be a testing time- but the NLD has the advantage of Asia’s strongest and most inspiring political figure at the helm.  If anyone can bring lasting change to Burma, she can.

Myanmar Suu Kyi

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

A product of tyranny

CHINA-XINJIANG/Following a month of violence, the Chinese propaganda machine in occupied East Turkestan has gone into over-drive.  State media has carried hyperactive reports of Islamist terrorists trained in Pakistan, brutally mowing down numerous civilians and hacking bystanders with knives.  Meanwhile it portrays the regional governor’s response as an inspirational Martin-Luther-King-style rallying cry for unity.  Constant references to religious extremism, foreign interference and of course “the battle against separatism” compound the line of Hu Jintao’s government: that ruthless fanatics are trying to forcibly separate an integral part of China, through murdering the innocent population of what they term “Xinjiang”.

The reality could not be more different.  

For though acts of terrorism do appear to have taken place in some form or another (and must of course be condemned), reports from official Chinese outlets must always be treated with extreme scepticism.  After all, China (and the occupied territories of East Turkestan, Tibet and Inner Mongolia) ranks 171st out of 178 states in the press freedom index and is still dominated by the same government mouthpieces that ludicrously proclaimed the 2008 Tibetan Uprising to be a violent, international-orchestrated plot- despite the fact that it was Chinese forces murdering protesters and parading prisoners through the streets whilst the Dalai Lama (the apparent mastermind behind the ‘plot’) called for calm.

Chinese Occupation of East TurkestanPerhaps even more significant than this, is the overwhelming likelihood that any violence which actually did occur, was generated, at least to a large degree, by the Chinese government.  Over six decades the powers-that-be in Beijing have systematically raped East Turkestan and continue to do so.  The 2011 Amnesty International Report highlights overwhelming restrictions on freedom of expression, the failure of authorities to investigate deaths during the 2009 upheaval and harsh prison sentences, often more than a decade, being meted out to Uighurs for writing about the situation in East Turkestan, talking to foreigners, making web postings or sending text messages.  Reports from citizens inside East Turkestan suggest that the recent violence was in fact triggered by land disputes and by Chinese state police cracking down on worship rather than stemming from any extremist cause.

Given the daily repression faced by Uighurs it is distinctly understandable that some may choose to respond violently.  After all, the almost overwhelmingly peaceful nature of the neighbouring Tibetan and Burmese struggles are exceptions to the rule: in occupied and oppressed nations at least a handful of people will generally revert to deplorable though explainable acts. 

Yet far from realising this, Chinese authorities have exacerbated the situation through their own brutal response to outbursts of violence.  Police have already killed suspects and are unlikely to come up against any official enquiry for having done so.  Those blamed for previous attacks have been handed the death penalty through a corrupt and politicised excuse for a judicial process.  And the state rhetoric about an “evil force” continues hot on the heels of future president Xi Jinping’s pledge to “space separatism”.  Such actions and narrative serve only to further radicalise those taking up arms against the occupation and thus perpetuate the cyclical violence.

If the Chinese government genuinely wanted peace in East Turkestan it would respect human rights, provide genuine autonomy, allow freedoms to engage in politics and religion, de-censor the media and ultimately look at a phased withdrawal and transition to an independent state with enshrined rights for the Han minority.  That would not be easy, but it would all be possible.  However Jintao, Jinping and those who serve them do not want peace or justice….it is painfully clear that they want land, they want power and they want control.  And for that reason the violence is going to carry on.  And on. And on.

East Turkestan