Saturday, 28 January 2012

Syria- Beyond diplomacy

Free Syrian Army“There’s no other option now” – that is the message from the Free Syrian Army, the band of  defecting soldiers and armed civilians at the forefront of what has is now an open military uprising against flailing dictator Bashar al-Assad.

It is hard to fault their logic: as Assad’s forces step up brutal repression it appears ever clearer that the time for diplomacy is past.  Bodies of executed opposition activists, their hands and legs tied, are dumped in the street; children are gunned down as restive neighbourhoods are attacked; and the vice-president of the strictly neutral Syrian Red Crescent this week joined the list of more than 5000 citizens murdered by government troops.

The farcical Arab League monitoring mission, which has done nothing to stem the bloodshed, has now been suspended.  Beset with problems from its head’s ridiculous statement that he saw “nothing frightening”, to the withdrawal of Gulf States, it was only a matter of time before the mission began to fall apart.  Meanwhile attempts to reign in Assad via a United Nations Security Council Resolution are consistently thwarted by the Russian government, which shows no signs of tempering its unwavering support for the tyrant.

In place of these diplomatic efforts, the Free Syrian Army’s military initiatives are Free Syrian Armypaying off, securing ground, in some places just half an hour from the Presidential Palace.  Their ranks are swelling and in many cases they are succeeding in protecting civilians where international political ventures have categorically failed.  For those on the receiving end of the state’s violence, taking up arms themselves has naturally become an attractive and effective course of action.

Still, things are set to get worse with signs of fresh new government offensives, particularly in Homs where the  bombing and shelling is continuing with increasing intensity.  The armed resistance may yet bring Assad down, but not before his forces take many more lives.  In this context there is still a necessity for fresh international efforts, particularly in giving serious consideration to the prospect of buffer zones, in order to protect civilians fleeing the violence.

And, whilst the removal of Assad is clearly the priority, fears remain that the removal of the decade-old family dictatorship could lift the lid on lingering ethnic or religious tensions, and ignite the kind of sectarian conflict experienced in neighbouring Lebanon.  Similarly, recent human rights abuses by Libya’s new administration highlight the ominous potential of brutal reprisals once a dictatorship is gone. 

Almost one year after peaceful protests first broke out, the slide towards all-out armed conflict in Syria is seemingly unstoppable.  Where it will lead remains to be seen.  But it seems certain that the hardest days are yet to come.        

Free Syrian Army Flag

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Death of a dissident

On Thursday 19th January, Cuban dissident Wilmar Villar died following a fifty day hunger-strike.  A relative newcomer to the democratic activist scene, he was serving a four year prison sentence following a rally last November.  Tragically, Wilmar’s death came the day before the launch of a campaign by Amnesty International to raise awareness of his detention.   

Naturally the Cuban government rushed to tarnish his name, with state-controlled media running the line that he was a “common prisoner” locked up for domestic abuse, who had died in spite of medical professionals’ best efforts to save his life. 

Local and international human rights groups disputed this – pointing out that the timing of his detention was intrinsically linked to his political activities and that his wife, the alleged victim in the domestic abuse case, was not even permitted to give evidence at his closed trial.  Pointing to constant mistreatment by the police and prison officials they laid the blame for his death firmly with Raul Castro’s regime.

As Wilmar was buried, the authorities stamped out any chance of unrest- detaining several high profile dissidents to prevent them attending the funeral whilst flooding the area with officers.

The situation is a sad step-backwards, following positive developments in recent years, including a mass political prisoner release in 2010 after the death of Orlando Zapta Tamayo, another hunger-striking dissident.  Whilst Castro and his henchmen had by no means ceased their persecution of opponents, as illustrated by the constant harassment of Sakharov Prize winner Guillermo Farinas amongst others, there were clear moves in the right direction.  With the death of Wilmar Villar and the subsequent crackdown, these now appear at risk of unravelling. 

Ominously this represents the continuation of a trend identified by groups such as Reporters Without Borders towards the end of last year, when the regime began rolling back its recent liberalisation of the media,

The focus now will likely turn to other political detainees including Ivonne Malleza Galano, Ignacio Martinez Montejo and Isabel Haydee Alvarez – who Amnesty International have identified as being held without charge following a peaceful anti-government protest in November.  Their release is essential to ensuring that Cuba does not slip further back into the repression that it was finally beginning to leave behind.    

Wilmar Villar

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Does the Burmese Spring beckon?

For Burmese democracy activists last week was another piece of history that will never be forgotten. 

Karen and Burmese government ceasefire handshakeAs the pace of reform gathered momentum, President Thein Sein’s government signed a landmark ceasefire with the Karen National Union (KNU), Burma’s oldest ethnic resistance group.  This move –and the photos the accompanied the signing ceremony – would have been unimaginable even a year ago.  The Karen have long been targeted by the Burmese government in a campaign of ethnic cleansing, involving Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes; yet the powers-that-be in Naypiydaw are seemingly replacing the massacres, torture, extra-judicial executions and village burnings, with dialogue – by making peace with very group that has so bravely resisted them for decades.

Then, whilst the world extended a cautious welcome, another momentous Min Ko Naing releasedannouncement broke: the release of hundreds of political prisoners including 88 Generation Students Group leader Min Ko Naing, Shan leader Hkun Htoon Oo, blogger Nay Phone Latt, and U Gambira- one of the monks instrumental in the 2007 Saffron Revolution.  Amid cheering crowds many of the dissidents expressed their intention to re-engage in politics now that they are free – with several praising the pace of reforms.

Pledging to “meet action with action”, the US responded by moving to upgrade diplomatic ties.  At the same time, Denmark –which recently assumed presidency of the EU- continued the coordinated international pressure for further liberalisation; with Minister for Development Cooperation Christian Friis Bach, following in the steps of Hilary Clinton and William Hague by making a diplomatic visit.

Still, amidst the optimism, anxiety is rife.  Although the official ceasefire with the KNU and the associated exchange of liaison offices is unprecedented, informal truces have broken down before.  And a despite a ceasefire in Kachin state last year, government attacks continued

Similarly many of those released from prison have tasted freedom before, only to be rearrested.  None of their sentences have been overturned – leaving them in danger of being returned to the cells at any time.  And up to six hundred dissidents are still behind barsFor all the progress of previous months, the government retains the power to undo it in a instant.  

All eyes now will turn to the Spring- specifically 1 April when the National League for Democracy (NLD) will contest all forty-eight seats in the parliamentary by-elections.  Aung San Suu Kyi will be amongst the candidates, quite possibly alongside some of the newly released prisoners, whose successful election to the Pyithu Hluttaw could potentially begin a permanent re-shaping of the political landscape. 

There will be big question marks over whether the government will allow a fair vote, and perhaps more importantly whether any elected NLD members will be allowed to exercise any real influence in a parliament dominated by the military and its proxies.  Yet with the speed of reforms unfolding, and the opportunity of formal political representation for democrats on the horizon, those who have campaigned for decades without change are hoping that the Burmese Spring may be just around the corner. 

Burma will be free

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Then they came for the internet

As for so many dictators around the world, 2011 was a bad year for ageing Belarusian despot Alexander Lukashenko, with the mass streets protests ignited by his rigged re-election in the dying throes of 2010 rumbling on, despite violent retaliation by security forces and the arrests of high profile dissidents

Belarus protest against LukashenkoIn April a bomb attack on a Minsk station, attributed by the authorities to a vague entity called the Belarusian National Liberation Army, was used as the pretext for further crackdowns, with Lukashenko calling on his thugs to “bring in everyone and interrogate them” and to “pay no attention to democracy.” 

However, he categorically failed to rally the Belarusian people and the international community behind him and speculation that his own forces had a hand in the atrocity still lingers.  The fact that the two men accused of the bombing and subsequently sentenced to death were not accorded anything resembling a fair trial did nothing to dispel this theory.

Now, a year into his fourth term as President of Europe’s last dictatorship, Lukashenko is launching a fresh attack on his people’s liberties, by implementing a law that imposes unprecedented new restrictions on their internet access.  WhilstLukashenko Europes last dictator claims that the legislation will effectively amount to a ban on foreign websites have been hotly disputed by those who attest it is merely an economic measure mainly targeting business with online shopping sites hosted outside Belarus, there is clearly a political motive to the move.  

For one thing, the new law will oblige service providers and internet cafes to "record and store...personal data of internet services users and information about the internet services that have been provided."  It also bans websites deemed to be “extremist” and use of the internet for “promulgating [any] acts prohibited by the law”leaving the definitions ambiguous and subject to interpretation by the authorities

Given the laws against demonstrations and the frequent classification of pro-democracy groups as dangerous extremists, it seems almost inevitable that it will be activists and their supporters who are ultimately targeted and punished.

And that Lukashenko should seek to tighten internet access should come as no surprise.  Opposition sites and social media sites were both blocked during protests last year and in December the dissent news site Charter 97 (the founder of which was murdered in 2010) was shut down by a cyber attackIt was only a matter of time before he tried to undercut the online groundswell that helped to facilitate the most challenging year of his rule.

Laptop chained Belarus internet censorship

Monday, 2 January 2012

The state, the mosque and the resistance

The precise details of events in China’s Tongxin County last Friday are still vague, beyond the fact that some one thousand police officers entered a village called Taoshan and after clashing with locals, tore down a newly-refurbished mosque.

Reports that the police used tear gas, knives and batons against those seeking to defend the mosque remain to be confirmed, as do suggestions that some one hundred people have been detained, with others injured or even killed.  Nevertheless, given the steady trickle of information along these lines and the Chinese authorities’ previous record of dealing with such incidents, it is relatively safe to draw the conclusion that notable civilian resistance was met with some degree of state violence.

The wellbeing of those involved, be they in detention, medical facilities or their own residences, is therefore a matter of serious concern and should be pursued urgently by both activists and the international community.  Further to this though, it is important to examine what, if anything, the incident reveals about the Chinese government’s current approach to religious groups and more widely to civil resistance. 

Hui peopleTongxin County is located within the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, which has a large Hui ethnic minority – the majority of whom practice Islam.  However, despite Beijing’s long history of repressing the religion, most notably and violently in occupied East Turkestan, Ningxia Hui has traditionally been relatively free of serious tensions.  A report by the UN High Commission for Human Rights early in the 21st Century suggested that despite restrictions on religious practice, repression was not overtly severe and resistance was mainly limited to verbal protest.

In more recent years however, things began to shift, with China watchers noting increasing state discrimination against the Muslim Hui population.  The wider attack on religious groups in the region also appears to have gathered pace, with the large Christian population facing severe crackdowns as recently as last year.  All this, of course, tallies closely with the Chinese government’s overall stance – which has recently seen surging repression of Buddhism in Tibet, most notably through Chinese Christians arrestedthe occupation of monasteries and ‘patriotic re-education’ of monks; as well as concerted pressure on Chinese house-churches, including the detention of scores of Christmas Day worshippers.

Yet even within this context there appears something particularly provocative and arrogant about last Friday’s incident.  For if local reports are correct, the mosque in question had operated peacefully for almost twenty-five years and was refurbished at some stage during 2011; before being declared illegal on 30th December and its destruction carried out immediately afterwards, by a vast number of readily-armed police.

To carry out such an action, and inevitably ignite resistance in a relatively calm area, suggests both confidence that protest can been contained, as well as a distinct determination to stamp down on organised Islam, most likely driven by the government’s utter paranoia of all things religious.  Yet as has been demonstratedCHINA-XINJIANG/ in East Turkestan- such repression can directly spur mass civil unrest- as well as violent resistance.  If the defiance reportedly shown by the Hui people last Friday is repeated elsewhere in the region, the government crackdown could yet prove a costly mistake.


The terror within

Since South Sudan’s turbulent birth in July last year, the state has been faced with a constant succession of crises, threatening its very stability. 

On-going disputes over its border with the North have seen air and ground attacks by Omar al-Bashir’s troops, causing widespread death and displacement whilst raising the spectre of a new war.  Meanwhile splits within the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) have resulted in serious violence; in one case militia loyal to George Athor, a former Southern General with possible Northern backing, ruthlessly slaughtered hundreds of civilians before he was tracked down and killed.   

However, such challenges may be overshadowed in both human cost and the level of threat to South Sudan’s future by the turmoil now engulfing the Eastern state of Jonglei; where a long-running dispute over cattle rustling is rapidly escalating into the most brutal of civil conflicts.

Since the end of the Sudanese Civil War in 2005, members of the Murle and Lou-Nuer tribes have frequently clashed over thefts of livestock and associated abuses including kidnapping and sexual violence.  Yet huge raids by Murle militias last August set in motion an unprecedentedly rapid upshot of attacks and reprisals, that have so far left over one thousand dead and sixty-three thousand displaced.

South Sudan Loue Nuer Murle ConflictIn recent weeks Lou-Nuer troops have launched a fierce push back into Murle territory, that has seen the town of Lukangol razed to the ground and scores of civilians killed.  Thousands of men, women and children are now hiding in the bush as the militias continue to advance through conurbations toward the town of Pibor; burning houses, killing residents and seizing livestock.  In a particularly ominous development, the local Medicins Sans Frontiers clinic –solely dedicated to providing humanitarian medical aid- has been overrun; its staff remain unaccounted for.

In what could quickly transpire to be a perfect storm, the attacks are gatheringSouth Sudan Loue Nuer Murle Conflict 2 momentum due to the vast amount of accessible weapons and ammunition left over from the civil war.  And though no one is yet referring to ethnic cleansing or genocide, at least one of the Lou-Nuer groups involved in the offensive has pledged to “wipe out the entire Murle tribe.” 

The need to urgently bring the situation under control is clear; however the South Sudanese army remains under-trained and overstretched, whilst the UN Peacekeepers are thinly spread and, as always, restrained by the strict conditions of their mandate.  Their chances of success in halting the violence are far guaranteed – but the consequences of their failure, for South Sudan and its people, are too dire to comprehend.

South Sudan Loue Nuer Murle Conflict 3