Syria: Russia’s master stroke a game changer

By Ameen Izzadeen
Russian President Vladimir Putin has well and truly checkmated the United States and its Middle Eastern allies who triggered the Syrian crisis in February 2011.
Russia by launching airstrikes on Wednesday against what it described as terrorist targets in Syria sent a non-nonsense message to the US and its allies: If you mess around in my backyard, which includes Ukraine, I will mess around in areas that you regard as your domain. The war in Ukraine is one of the key factors that pushed Putin on Wednesday to execute his master putsch or his Tai Otoshi body slam, to use a term from his favourite sport Judo.
Syria was relatively a peaceful country till February 2011, despite the one-party sham democracy. Following their success in overthrowing the Muammar Gaddafi regime in Libya, the over-ambitious Middle Eastern powers such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and Israel turned their focus on a regime change in Syria with the ultimate objective being weakening Iran. This was because the Bashar al-Assad regime was a key link in the Shiite Crescent which extends from Iran via Iraq and Syria to Lebanon’s southern region dominated by the pro-Iranian militia group Hezbollah, which has vowed to give a fitting response to Israel if Iran’s nuclear facilities are attacked. If Assad, who is from Syria’s minority Alawite community, is ousted, Shite-Muslim Iran will lose its regional clout, the Sunni-Muslim states thought.
There is another important reason why the oil and gas exporting countries in the region want Assad out: He had rejected a Saudi-Qatar proposal for a pipeline that would take oil and gas to Europe via Syria and Turkey. The project had a geostrategic significance vis-à-vis the Ukrainian conflict: Punishing Russia. If the Middle Eastern oil and gas through this pipeline glut the European market, Russia, which is the main supplier of oil and gas to Europe would lose its market share and could even be plunged into an economic crisis of regime-change proportions. So protecting the Assad regime is vital for Russia to survive economically. This probably explains why Putin decided to intervene militarily in Syria, though he cited national security factors such as the return to Russia of hundreds of its citizens now fighting along with ISIS and other terror groups in Syria.
Wednesday’s developments came at lightning speed. No sooner had the Russian parliament given the nod than the Russian aircraft were in action giving little time for the US to respond. The last time, the Russians gave a shock of this nature to the Americans was, probably, when they took the lead in the space race by sending Uri Gagarin to space in 1961.
The shock apart, the US was not unaware of the Russian buildup in recent weeks and months in Syria, but felt little reason to panic. Russia has a small naval port at Tartus in Syria – not far from a US military base in Turkey. The naval port is used by small Russian vessels carrying light weapons to Syria. Recently the Russians expanded the base to accommodate larger warships and built an airbase at Latakia, just north of Tartus.
Yet, many analysts thought that Russia would not dare to get militarily involved in the Middle East while it was being hit by crippling western economic sanctions for its intervention in Ukraine.
But when the unexpected happened, the US had no option other than welcoming, albeit cautiously, the Russian air strikes. Perhaps, for the first time since World War II, the US and the Russians are supposed to be fighting a common enemy – this time, ISIS.
But by yesterday, the US began to grumble, saying the Russians were not attacking ISIS; instead, they were killing civilians and providing air cover to the Syrian military to fight the so-called moderate rebels. But the ground reality is that the moderate rebels exist no more. If they do, they only act as a cover to facilitate arms and money transfers to ISIS or as a spent force.
The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is now facing a military force which means real business. The US and its allies have launched more than 7,100 air attacks on ISIS targets since September last year with little success. This raises the question whether the US is serious about eliminating ISIS. After all, it took less than a month for the US forces to defeat Saddam Hussein’s million-strong Army and bring Iraq under US control in 2003.
The entry of Russia with its SU-25 ground attack aircraft, SU-30 M multi-role fighters and Mi-24 and Mi-8 helicopters at a time when Assad’s forces have faced a series of setbacks once again underscores the urgent need for a solution to the Syrian crisis which has rendered half of Syria’s 24 million population refugees — 4 million people have left the country while 8 million have been internally displaced.
It is heartening to note that President Obama, despite his country’s complicity – or connivance — in the Syrian disaster, said this week that he was ready to work with Iran and Russia to find a solution to the crisis. Analysts who heard him say this probably had to rub their eyes in disbelief. Aren’t they on the opposite sides in the Syrian conflict? Russia and Iran want a solution with Assad remaining in power, but the Americans say there is no role for Assad. Can there be a compromise?
The Saudis are smarting over Obama’s statement and the thaw in US-Iran ties. Saudi Arabia yesterday demanded that Russia stop its airstrikes in Syria, saying the strikes had caused civilian casualties. Saudi Arabia crying about Syrian casualties is the height of irony. It was only a few days ago that they stood accused of killing 131 civilians during a bombing raid on a wedding party in Yemen; Can Saudi Arabia talk about civilian deaths when it is one of the countries which triggered the Syrian conflict that has seen more than 250,000 Syrian deaths so far?
Russia’s entry into the Syrian conflict has tilted the balance in favour of Assad. The way forward is a dialogue between the US and Russia and restoration of the status quo ante. The US must not think Assad is a problem. He is part of the solution. In the early days of the crisis, he offered solution after solution. He even brought in constitutional reforms to hold multiparty elections and limit the presidential office to two seven-year terms. But the opposition parties obeying their Gulf masters did not take up the challenge. The result: a tragedy of epic proportions.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka on October 2, 2015)

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The refugee crisis: The good, the bad and the ugly

By Ameen Izzadeen
Today is the 14th anniversary of 9/11, but we won’t talk about the scores of unanswered questions regarding that terror attack. Instead, we are focusing on the Middle East refugee crisis which, incidentally, has its origin in 9/11 and which has brought out the good, the bad and the ugly sides of Europe.
The 9/11 attacks led to the war on terror. The United States and its Nato allies sent troops to Afghanistan and Iraq and brought about regime changes by unleashing brute fire power. Their success encouraged them to meddle in Libya. They removed the Muammar Gaddafi regime. They then targeted Syria, but decided to adopt a different strategy – arming and training various rebel groups. The strategy backfired and a monster called ISIS was created. More than four million of Syria’s 22 million population have now become refugees while another seven million are internally displaced. Sadly a three-year-old Syrian child had to drown in the Mediterranean Sea for the world to stop and take note of the Syrian refugee crisis, which is now more than four years old.
Publishing the picture of the three-year-old Aylan Kurdi’s body on a Turkish beach, world newspapers in their headlines screamed “a picture that changed the world.” If pictures could change the world, if lifeless bodies of little children can change the world, the world would be a better place today. Driven by greed for more power and wealth and warped ideologies, we generally do not care much about other people’s misery. In justifying our crimes against humanity, we describe the destruction which we bring upon our fellow human beings as collateral damage or a price worth paying for.
If we are as compassionate as we claim to be, then how did we explain the continuation of the Vietnam War with all its brutality and barbarism even after we saw the picture of a naked child who was hit by a napalm bomb? Decades later, we sat before our TV sets and enjoyed the fireworks over the skies of Iraq as the United States unleashed its hellfire missiles and bunker buster bombs on that country, showing little or no remorse for civilian deaths. According to, 1,455,590 Iraqis have died in the US war and occupation of Iraq. Stonehearted and desensitised, we failed to stop the war even after we saw the visuals of children dying in Iraq. Instead, we rewarded George W. Bush by reelecting him.
If pictures can change world, how come we did nothing to stop Israel’s wars on Gaza? The world saw Palestinian fathers carrying their children’s corpses dug out from heaps of rubble to give them a decent burial. Some 500 children died and more than 1,500 children were wounded in Israel’s attacks on Gaza last year. Yet the big powers and powerful Arab states which had the ability to stop the war turned the other way, not because they could not see the heart-rending visuals, but because they let it happen to teach the Palestinian resistance group Hamas a lesson. In July this year, the world saw the picture of the burnt body of an 18-month-old Palestinian toddler, but we did little or nothing to protect the Palestinians who were being persecuted. So much for our compassion! Is our human compassion reserved for only natural disasters such as the 2004 tsunami and last year’s Nepal earthquake?
If we are moved by the human misery brought about by wars, we should have responded when the first stream of refugees left Syria or at least when the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in December 2013 described the Syrian refugee crisis as the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II.
So why are we trying to become Good Samaritans now? Turkish journalist Nilufer Demir’s moving photograph of the dead boy on the beach couldn’t have come at a better time. It turned the focus on hundreds of thousands of Middle Eastern refugees, some of whom were embroiled in a standoff with Hungarian officials while others languished in detention centres in the Czech Republic, Greece, and other frontline European states. The world began to see other pictures of thousands of exhausted refugees, including hungry children, behind barbed-wired detention centres.
Europe may be opening its doors to the refugees now, and talking about European values, but days before the deaths of Aylan Kurdi, his five-year-old brother and their mother, it was a different Europe. Hungary ordered police to attack defenceless refugees with batons and tear-gas – and the Czech Republic stamped registration numbers on refugees’ forearms, like during the Nazi days. Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron refused to take any further refugees from the Middle East. European Islamophobes warned their governments that the refugees were terrorists and were on a mission to Islamise the Christian continent. They even challenged Pope Francis who on Sunday said he would give temporary housing in the Vatican to at least two refugee families and asked every one of the more than 1,300 European parish communities, monasteries, and other Catholic institutions to do the same.
A Hungarian bishop said the Pope was wrong. “They are not refugees. This is an invasion. They come here with cries of ‘Allahu Akbar’. They want to take over,” Bishop Laszlo Kiss-Rigo, the spiritual leader of Southern Hungary said.
The concerns the bishop and others are raising have some validity because scores of European Muslims, most of whom were once migrants, have been involved in terrorist activities in Europe and joined ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), the terror group playing havoc in Iraq, Syria and other parts of the Middle East. But if one looks at the crisis from another point of view, Europe has a moral duty to accept millions of refugees from the Middle East. This is because most European countries should take part of the blame for creating the present Middle Eastern crisis. Countries such as Germany, Britain, France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Denmark and Norway were part of the coalition that bombed Libya and provided weapons and training to anti-Gaddafi rebels, including groups affiliated to al-Qaeda.
In Syria, too, most European nations, Britain included, together with regional countries such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, in their bid to oust President Bashar al-Assad, are helping one rebel group or another. Syria was a stable country until these countries decided to implement the regime change formula there, after it worked in Libya, the refugee crisis notwithstanding.
Thus, Europe’s Middle East meddlers cannot wash their hands of the refugee crisis. While most European countries now adopt a cautious compassionate stance, Germany’s brave welcome to the refugees should be commended, though some economists say the refugees could fill the vacancies in the job markets and give the German economy a fresh gallop.
Then what about the Arab and Islamic countries in the region? Just as Egypt closed its Rafah border to the Palestinians during the Gaza war, most Arab and Islamic countries in the region, with the exception of Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, have closed their doors on Syrian refugees. They have apparently forgotten that Prophet Muhammad himself was a refugee, and providing refuge to a person irrespective of his or her religion is a fundamental tenet of Islam.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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China: Power without responsibility means chaos

By Ameen Izzadeen
This is not simple math like finding the value of x in the equation x+2=10. This is much more complex, with all the calculus symbols such as dy/dx, epsilon and derivative of derivatives appearing in one big equation. It may be even like the game ‘Go’, which the Chinese know how to play.
Well, we are talking about yesterday’s massive show of force by China, the superpower 2.0, at the ceremony to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Asia or Japan’s defeat, for which 14 million Chinese paid with their lives – an underreported casualty figure second only to Russia’s 20 million.
The calculus proportion confusion is because China appears to be mysteriously hawkish and dovish at the same time, engaging in rocket-rattling with the very nations with whom it seeks improved trade relations and closer economic ties. On the one hand it goes with the West in matters such as the Iran nuclear deal and the Ukrainian crisis. But on the other, it defeats and frustrates the West’s efforts to punish countries such as Russia, Syria, Sudan and Zimbabwe over alleged human rights violations or war crimes. In short, China’s economic equation considers even the enemy as a friend. The military equation takes a totally different outlook with a different set of rules, though in both equations, the decisive or the Highest Common factor, to use the math terminology, is China’s national interest.
The Beijing ceremony which showcased the latest weapons in China’s arsenal sent a subtle but tough message to all those who had miscalculated China’s strength and failed to show due respect.
On show were Dongfeng 21D missiles, also known as carrier killers, which are capable of destroying an aircraft carrier warship with one hit. Also paraded were Dongfeng 26 and Intercontinental Ballistic missiles such as Dongfeng 5B and Dongfeng 31A with their range varying from 1,000 km to 4,000 km plus. The United States, take note. Your aircraft carriers and military bases in the Indian and Pacific Oceans are no longer safe. These medium and long range missiles have a low trajectory and therefore are difficult to intercept.
Also on display at the well-choreographed ceremony — with even the usually smoggy skies over Beijing being turned into a clear blue sky — were attack aircraft and state-of-the-art battle tanks – all made in China. Almost 85 percent of these weapons were shown to the public for the first time.
China, which is today the world’s third largest arms seller, was not showing off these weapons only to win new customers. Most of these weapons are strategic assets, the secrets of which China won’t let anyone know and therefore are not on sale. These weapons carry a deterrent value in that they dissuade China’s neighbours from becoming bold or adventurous over territorial disputes. They tell the US that President Barak Obama’s Pivot East military strategy aimed at checking China’s military growth is all but a futile exercise.
But these signals were couched in President Xi Jinping’s message just before the start of the military parade. Perhaps, Xi believes that peace can be brought about by the mere display of China’s military might. He told yesterday’s ceremony at Tiananmen Square that he would cut troop levels by 300,000 or 13 percent of China’s 2.3 million strong military – the world’s number one in terms of troop strength.
“Prejudice and discrimination, hatred and war can only cause disaster and pain. China will always uphold the path of peaceful development,” he said.
The message from Tiananmen Square was directed not so much at the nation as it was at the big powers, especially the United States, Japan, Australia and other states which are not comfortable with China’s economic and military rise in recent years. China has in recent months resorted to assertive diplomacy and military tactics to claim ownership of islands in the South China Sea and East China Sea and in the process soured relations with Japan, the Philippines and many other neighbours.
But in today’s military terms, slashing troop levels is by no means a pacifist move. In modern warfare, the size of the Army is not an important factor. What matters is the lethality of the weapons or their ability to make the enemy shudder, sharper intelligence gathering skills, one-upmanship in cyber warfare and smart diplomacy and money power to win and sustain allies. China has most, if not all, of these features that make a superpower. That’s why there were 30 world leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and South Korean President Park Geun-hye at the ceremony. Although most Western leaders shunned the ceremony, probably due to the presence of Putin, they were represented at low level. Shockingly, there was none from Sri Lanka, which only a few months back was seen as one of the closest allies of China. Whether there was an invitation in the first place or whether Sri Lanka declined to participate, like North Korea did, may give an indication as to the status of Beijing’s relations with the new government in Colombo.
Yesterday’s ceremony came at a time when China’s economy was experiencing a slowdown, with stock markets taking a plunge. Thus some analysts say the parade offered President Xi a welcome distraction from the domestic problems.
It also comes at a time when Japan’s nationalist Prime Minister Shinto Abe, worried about China’s military might, is moving to increase the country’s defence budget and bring constitutional amendments to set up a standing army, while Australia pushes for a grand anti-China coalition including India, Japan and the US among others.
It also comes against the backdrop of China’s rising influence in Central Asia, across which China’s modern silk route – a network of highways to Europe — is taking shape, while its blue water navy which is now capable of going even to the Arctic and defending international sea lanes, especially those in the Indian Ocean emerges as the defender of the Maritime Silk Route.
The military message apart, the Western leaders by their absence squandered an opportunity to turn yesterday’s Beijing event into a gathering for peace. A war involving big powers certainly spells doom for the entire planet, with the possibility of nuclear warfare looming large. The best tribute to those 14 million Chinese who died during Japan’s occupation of China and World War II should not come in the form of military parades, but as measures aimed at preventing war. It is still not too late for China to take the leadership and convene an international peace conference to sort out territorial disputes with its neighbours. After all, a superpower should also be a responsible power.
This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka

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Diplomatic victory: Lanka can now close Geneva file

By Ameen Izzadeen
A major correction in Sri Lanka’s foreign policy after January 8 has brought unexpected results. The Geneva process that has shamed and named Sri Lanka as one of the world’s biggest human rights violators could be a thing of the past.
Who could have imagined last September that by this September Sri Lanka could come out of the human rights dock in Geneva? In September last year, the United Nations Human Rights Council heard a damning oral submission by the Human Rights Chief ahead of a probe panel’s report to be submitted in March this year. The panel appointed in June 2014 comprises former Finland President Martti Ahtisaari, New Zealand’s former High Court Judge Silvia Cartwright, and Pakistan’s Asma Jahangir, a well-known human rights crusader. They were to assist and advise investigations into alleged war crimes, especially those said to have taken place during the last stages of Sri Lanka’s separatist war in 2009.
However, there was a positive response to the January 8 change, which once again put Sri Lanka on a path to liberal democracy after a near-decade of what some political analysts call authoritarian democracy under President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights with the consent of the United States-led Western bloc at the Human Rights Council in Geneva decided in March this year to defer the presentation of the report till September.
Now comes the news that the United States, the main sponsor of the 2012 anti-Sri Lanka resolution, will present a new resolution supporting Sri Lanka’s efforts to initiate a domestic probe on alleged war crimes, thus abandoning its call for an international inquiry. Indeed, this is a great foreign policy victory. For the past decade or so, we had hardly any achievement to call it a foreign policy victory. The last time the country, which was once known for its frontline role in international affairs, had a successful foreign policy was when Lakshman Kadirgamar was foreign minister. Making trade and the battle against terrorism his key foreign policy objectives, he helped the country to derive immense benefits. It was during his tenure that the European Union banned the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the United States began the process to ban the LTTE, and the United Nations declared Vesak as an international holiday.
After the January 8 change, the US began to express faith in the Maithripala Sirisena-Ranil Wickremesinghe administration. World leaders, who shunned visiting Sri Lanka during the Rajapaksa regime, are now eager to make a visit. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was here in March. The United States Secretary of State John Kerry was here in May, becoming the highest US official to visit Sri Lanka in four decades. Of course, it is geo-strategy that makes world powers court Sri Lanka’s friendship. But a good foreign policy maker should know how to balance the conflicting national interests of these countries with the national interest of his or her own country. This is called prudence-driven foreign policy. Mr. Kadirgamar showed the way, and now Mangala Samaraweera appears to be following it.
The Rajapaksa regime, in contrast, made a mess of foreign policy. If it had something called a foreign policy, it was largely China-centric. Little by way of a balancing act or prudence was seen in foreign policy making. The minister in charge was a mere puppet. The Rajapaksa brothers took key foreign policy decisions. Making matters worse, the regime appointed a backbencher as the monitoring MP of the Foreign Ministry. He became more powerful than the minister. Diplomatic postings were given to political lackeys in utter disregard of the widely accepted ratio, according to which 70 percent of the diplomatic posts are to be given to Foreign Service personnel. Some of these political appointees were more keen on promoting their businesses in their host countries than promoting Sri Lanka’s interest. In the United States, for instance, the Sri Lanka mission had to hire public relations firms to do the mission’s work. Hundreds of millions of dollars of public money were paid to these firms.
What has passed is past. The way forward is sustaining the balancing act. Sri Lanka should improve its relations with the West, India, Japan and China without compromising its national interest. Change does not mean taking a US-centric stance instead of the China-centric one. Although we need to be mindful of the chaos the US has created in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan, we can also look at the economic progress countries such as Japan, South Korea and Taiwan have achieved by cooperating with the US and attracting US investments.
The Kerry visit in May and visits by his deputy Nisha Biswal in recent months provide an opportunity to build a sustainable economic partnership with the United States. We now learn that the proposal to present the amended resolution at the UNHRC’s September sessions in support of a domestic inquiry came during the Kerry visit. It remained dormant because of the political uncertainty prior to the August 17 general elections. With Wickeremsinghe’s United National Front for Good Governance winning the elections, Washington decided to present a resolution favourable to Sri Lanka. Reports say the US mission in Geneva notified the council of its resolution just before the deadline.
What Sri Lanka should do is to initiate a credible domestic probe – not to please the West, but to bring about national reconciliation which is imperative for peace, stability and economic progress. This process will help Sri Lanka to close its file in Geneva. The way forward is to combine the concepts of restorative justice and retributive justice in the domestic inquiry. If anyone is found guilty of a serious crime, a decision can be taken to either punish or pardon him.
It was the world powers’ lack of trust in the Rajapaksa regime — and the regime’s own foreign policy blunders — that trapped Sri Lanka in the Geneva process. The new government in its pursuit of improved relations with world powers should take measures to build trust and also realise that the West pursues human rights not for altruistic or moral reasons, but essentially for political or geo-strategic reasons. Then, just as Sri Lanka is reaping benefits in Geneva, it can benefit immensely on political and economic fronts, too. It is encouraging to note that the West is opening up to Sri Lanka. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other Western leaders are inviting Sri Lankan leaders to visit their countries to discuss trade and investments. The talk in political circles is that President Sirisena will visit Washington or that even President Obama may visit Sri Lanka. These developments were unthinkable before the January 8 transformation. These are rewards for good governance. But what we should not forget is our balancing act and prudence in foreign policy making. We should not become a satellite state of one country or another.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka on August 28, 2015)

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For a new Lanka, regulate campaign funding

By Ameen Izzadeen
I won’t vote for him; he is corrupt. I won’t vote for him; he is a racist. Such remarks uttered by young voters indicate that Sri Lanka’s politics is moving towards maturity. But wait a minute. The final results show that many voters had no qualms about casting their preference votes for the thug, the racist, and the corrupt — and, to boot, those who had faced or are facing murder charges.
This mixed bag of results indicates that the country has taken only a small albeit important step towards political maturity. But do not be disheartened. A journey of thousand miles begins with one small step. There will be challenges ahead in the journey towards that Sri Lankan haven where only the relatively honest will be elected to govern the country on the principles of good governance. ‘Relatively,’ because politics and honesty do not mix well to make the energy booster that the country is badly in need of.
We have just seen the end of what can be described as one of Sri Lanka’s cleanest general elections since Independence. Our past elections were tainted by impersonation, stuffing or swapping of ballot boxes, bribes, intimidation, violence, violations of elections laws, abuse of state media and public resources, computer jilmart and even corruption within the Elections Department itself. But the just concluded general elections were relatively free from these wrongdoings. Although the Elections Commissioner won much praise from the United Nations Secretary General, the United States, the European Union and other world powers, much needs to be done to ensure that the will of the people at an election is not distorted.
For this, the system needs to be strengthened – and now is the time to bring about a new political order founded on good governance. Wishful thinking, some may say. But politicians beware! This is the age of social media – a powerful tool at the hands of silent voters of the new generation. They are growing in numbers. In a decade or so, about 80 percent of the voters will be on social media – on Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp and LinkedIn. Mr. or Ms. Politician, you cannot give promises and get away. You are being watched and warned, ridiculed and rewarded, criticised and crowned on social media. An analysis of social media discussions ahead of the elections indicated that a majority of educated youth were for good governance, and that it would not be easy for the United People’s Freedom Alliance to win the elections.
Last week, this column called on civil society groups to keep a tab on the promises that the politicians make and to hold them accountable. On Wednesday, the Ven. Maduluwawe Sobhitha Thera reminded the United National Party, the victor at the August 17 elections, that many people worked tirelessly for the victory and they would be keeping a watch on how the government was run. He urged the UNP leaders not to give posts to people tainted by corruption allegations. Corruption watching is a daunting task for civil society. Corruption is sure to follow a general election just like day follows night.
Political analysts have said a successful candidate spends as much as Rs. 300 million on his or her campaign. Imagine how much more it would have been, if they had been allowed to put up posters, cutouts and banners. On Wednesday, a foreign election observer noted that some candidates had spent as much as 500,000 euros — or more than Rs. 74 million – on their campaign. From where does the politician get such huge amounts of money? Well only a handful of politicians are capable of self-financing their campaigns. But most politicians may have mortgaged their property to find this amount of money or got it from unscrupulous businesspeople in the form or a loan or donation. Once in office, the politician is preoccupied with the thought of how to earn the money to redeem his or her property or pay back the loan or return the favour in some way to those who donated funds for the campaign. The candidate is forced into corruption. This is a vicious cycle.
To stop this rot, some good governance activists call for transparency in campaign funding or the imposition of a ceiling on campaign expenditure. But others say that since eliminating corruption is unrealistic, some sustainable level of corruption should be tolerated. This is why the proposed 20th Amendment to the Constitution assumes significance. Despite the democratic merits of the preferential voting system, its elimination will, to a great extent, minimise campaign costs – and corruption. Or like in the US, the system should be more transparent and regulated. The whole world knows that President Barak Obama and his Republican Party rival Mitt Romney spent more than US$ 1 billion each on the 2012 presidential race and from where they got that money. But do we know, how much our candidates spent on the 2015 general elections or how they raised that money?
In the US, the need to regulate campaign funds started with George Washington spending about US$195 (a huge sum at that time) in 1757 on food and drinks to win election to Virginia’s legislature. But today, despite laws and regulations aimed at ensuring transparency, campaign funding, which keeps rising with every election, has drawn much public debate with critics insisting that donations from individuals and the private sector can have a corruptive influence on candidates in the form of quid-pro-quo deals.
In keeping with the US example, the 20th Amendment should include provisions to set limits on a candidate’s campaign expenditure or make it mandatory for a candidate to disclose his or her audited campaign finance, clearly stating how much he or she got and from whom. Or else the amendment can work out a method of public financing of the campaigns of recognised political parties.
Or we may even follow the Indian example where a candidate contesting for the state assembly cannot spend more than US$ 32,000 (or SL Rs. 4.3 million) – and not more than US$ 80,000 (or SL Rs. 10.6 million) if he or she is contesting for the national legislature. Although there is no ceiling on the campaign expenditure of Indian political parties, the law requires them to submit accounts to the Elections Commission.
Money is necessary for electoral politics which in turn is part and parcel of democracy. But campaign financing, more often than not, paves the way for corruption. Although corruption stemming from campaign funding cannot be eliminated in full, it can be minimised by enacting laws to make campaign funding more transparent. President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe are talking like statesmen now. Five years down the line, the people will judge whether they are indeed statesmen worthy of being emulated by generations to come. For this, they should strengthen democracy and eliminate corruption. Let it begin by regulating campaign funding.
(This article first appeared in Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka on August 21, 2015)

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Obama: Pacifist or prisoner of the system?

By Ameen Izzadeen
International relations are a dynamic field of study. With the change in perceptions of national interest and national security, today’s enemies can become friends tomorrow. Allies can become avowed enemies. Similarly, today’s superpower can become a spent power in time to come. The US-centric world order of today could become an X-centric world order, with the X here being any country that will one day supersede the United States.
What I want to stress here is that world politics is in a state of flux. So are the foreign polices of nations. Who could have imagined a few years ago that Iran and the United States would hold heart-to-heart talks and the US Secretary of State and the Iranian foreign Minister would sip coffee sitting at the same table? Who would have imagined a few years ago that the leaders of the US and Cuba would shake hands one day and open embassies in each other’s capitals? In 1973, when Cuban leader Fidel Castro was asked when he thought his country would establish diplomatic relations with the United States, he said it could only happen when the Catholic Church had a Latin American Pope and the United States an Afro-American President. It was a prophetic message, though Castro was more than certain that neither of these two would happen. But they happened during his lifetime and contemporarily, too.
It was only months ago that Fidel Castro, the iconic revolutionary leader, described the US-led NATO as a Nazi force. It was only a little more than a year ago, he slammed US President Obama as being “bellicose and hypocritical”.
But on Monday, Cuba and the United States expressed optimism when they opened embassies in each other’s capitals after a gap of five and a half decades, symbolically bringing to an end one remaining vestige of the old Cold War. Cuba’s foreign minister Bruno Rodríguez was in Washington for the flag-raising ceremony at his country’s new Washington embassy. He was hosted by his US counterpart, John Kerry — the first formal meeting between the foreign ministers of the two countries since 1958.
Ahead of Monday’s historic events, the US initiated several confidence building measures, which include easing of restrictions on travel and foreign currency remittances. In May, President Obama removed Cuba from the US list of countries sponsoring terrorism. But the two countries acknowledge that much more needs to be done before they normalise ties. While diehard socialists in Cuba are still wary of the US moves, they welcome any peaceful resolution of the Cold War conflict. In the US, the opposition to the new détente is equally strong, especially from Republicans relying on the votes of rightwing Cuban Americans. But Kerry, who is expected to visit Havana on August 14 to formally raise the American flag over the US embassy there, explained the virtue of engagement.
“This milestone does not signify an end to the many differences that still separate our governments… But it does reflect the reality that the cold war ended long ago and that the interests of both countries are better served by engagement than by estrangement… Nothing is more futile than trying to live in the past,” he said, signalling a significant shift in the foreign policy of the US.
Cuba says future progress would be contingent upon the end of the trade embargo that has for decades suffocated the Cuban economy and the return of Guantánamo Bay, a Cuban territory where the US is running a notorious prison with detainees being denied rights guaranteed under the Geneva Convention on Prisoners of War. But Kerry said President Obama was keen to lift the trade embargo but he was not clear on the demand for Guantanamo Bay. But making concession for the sake of peace in the US is no easy game, however sincere the intentions of Obama are. He has to deal with an increasingly hostile Congress, which is controlled by Republicans opposed to the thaw in relations with Cuba and Iran.
Foreign policy is an extension of a nation’s domestic policy and is determined by a nation’s national interest. In a democracy, foreign policy is not the prerogative of the Executive branch alone. The legislature has a role to play. In addition, the people’s mood also matters. But in a capitalist democracy, apart from the legislature and the public mood, also playing key roles are lobbies and captains of capitalism.
Given this scenario, Obama is facing a daunting task. On the one hand, he appears to tread the path of pacifism without compromising the US national interest or security. On the other, his idealist realism is checked by forces such as the Neoconservatives, the Zionists, the capitalists and political opportunists.
Given these hurdles, Obama’s achievements in the world political arena are praiseworthy. He seriously and genuinely tried to bring peace to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He sent Kerry on mission after mission to the Middle East for talks with leaders of Israel and Palestine and even set a deadline. But, alas, his efforts came a cropper, largely because of the intransigence of Israel’s hawkish Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Crestfallen, Obama then shifted his focus from what he could not achieve to what he thought he could achieve. When he decided to re-double efforts to restore diplomatic ties with Cuba and bring to fruition talks with Iran on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear programme, he had successfully completed a drawdown of US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and avoided being dragged into a war with Syria.
If talks are the means by which Obama tries to make peace with Cuba and Iran, he has adopted pressure tactics to check China’s militaristic ambitions in the South China and East China Seas. With regard to the United States’ dispute with Russia over Ukraine, it is Obama the prisoner of the system who is making the moves, instead of Obama the idealistic-realist. While Obama the idealistic realist may prefer talks with Russia, the system wants him to treat Russia as the number one enemy of the US. Last week, two nominees for the top positions of the US armed forces told the US Senate confirmation hearing that Russia was the main threat — an existential threat — to the US.
Will Obama succeed in his efforts and emerge as a man of peace for the history books? He has time till January to shift his focus from what he could to what he could not. Without succumbing to pressure from the Zionist lobby, let’s hope he will revive the Middle East peace process and help the Palestinians achieve statehood. Let’s also hope, he will take steps to free the Middle East from the clutches of ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) terrorism.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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Historic nuclear deal with Iran: Lanka also can roll out the barrel

By Ameen Izzadeen
By Ameen Izzadeen
It was as clear as floating oil on a glass of water that Sri Lanka was among the countries that were worst affected by the tough economic sanctions imposed by the United States on Iran in December 2011. Although the sanctions were aimed at forcing Iran to abandon any nuclear weaponisation programme, they also hit several developing countries. This is because the US warned that it would cut off from the US financial system foreign firms, state-owned or otherwise, that did business with the Iranian government.
For the oil-import-dependent economy of Sri Lanka, the sanctions dealt multiple blows. Prior to the crippling sanctions, Sri Lanka had been importing crude oil from Iran on concessionary terms. Iran accounted for almost 93 percent of Sri Lanka’s oil needs. Sri Lanka had been importing 39,000 barrels a day. After the sanctions were placed, Sri Lanka’s oil-import bill rose sharply. This rise in the oil import bill added more fuel to the fire as far as the economy was concerned, while the country was trying to recover from a 30-year separatist war.
Although the sanctions regime had a clause that allowed some countries to import a limited amount of crude oil from Iran, Sri Lanka could not make full use of this facility. This was because international insurance companies avoided dealing with Iran, for fear of being punished by the United States. Even Sri Lanka’s banking sector refused to open letters of credit for the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation, the country’s chief importer of oil. Iran, meanwhile, offered Sri Lanka a loan facility, in the hope that it could persuade Sri Lanka to buy Iran’s oil. But Sri Lanka could not find tankers to go to Iran, because no shipping company wanted to be blacklisted by the US.
Sri Lanka’s case was made worse because its only refinery at Sapugaskanda – a half-a-century-old national asset — had been fine-tuned to refine the type of crude found largely in Iran. Earlier, Teheran had promised US$ one billion in aid to upgrade the Sapugaskanda refinery. But with the sanctions tightening the grip on Iran, the aid was deferred indefinitely. When the sanctions began to hit Iran, Sri Lanka’s oil supplies ran thin, bringing the Sapugaskanda plant to a virtual halt. A desperate Sri Lanka bought crude from Oman, Saudi Arabia, Singapore and Vietnam at much higher prices. But this caused more problems. The Sapugaskanda plant suffered regular breakdowns because it could not cope with the high sulphur content of non-Iranian crude.
Citing the desperate situation it had found itself in as a result of the sanctions on Iran, the then Sri Lankan government appealed to the US. But Washington, with which the then government had locked horns over war crimes allegations, refused to budge, prompting President Mahinda Rajapaksa to describe the December 2011 sanctions on Iran as sanctions on Sri Lanka. However, over the years, helped by the falling oil prices and adjustments to the refinery, Sri Lanka managed to overcome the crisis to some extent.
Against this backdrop, the news on Tuesday that Iran and the world powers have reached a historic deal that will end the crippling sanctions on the Islamic Republic, has made Sri Lanka jubilant. With Iranian oil glutting the market, oil prices are expected to take a further plunge or continue at the current low level for a longer period. Indeed, this heralds glad tidings for Sri Lanka, whose oil import bill constitutes 25 percent of its total import bill. The lifting of sanctions will also help Sri Lanka’s exports to Iran, especially tea. Iran had been a key market for Sri Lanka’s tea. Even after the sanctions were imposed, Sri Lanka was able to export 30 million kilos a year to Iran. Now that Iran is coming out of the sanctions and getting back all its money – around US$ 100 billion – frozen in the West, the demand from Iran for Sri Lanka’s exports, especially tea, will rise.
But the government cannot count oil tankers, dreaming of the coming windfall. Instead it should learn lessons from the sanctions episode. One key lesson is that the policy of depending on one country for all or much of its oil imports can lead to economy-crippling consequences.
Even now, there is little guarantee that the deal reached on Tuesday will stand the test of time, given the acrimonious Middle Eastern politics. Already, Iran’s foes such as Israel and Saudi Arabia – two of the staunchest US allies — have made no effort to hide their anger or disappointment over the deal. Israel’s hawkish Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the deal as a “stunning historic mistake” while pro-Israeli lawmakers in the US have also vowed to defeat it. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, fears an Iran freed from sanctions will have enough wealth to sustain the Syrian regime, the pro-Iranian Hezbollah militia in Lebanon and Yemen’s Houthi forces.
For US President Barack Obama, the Vienna deal on Tuesday was indeed a signal achievement that will find him a place in the history books. When he leaves the White House in January 2017, he can look at his Nobel peace medal and feel that, after all, he deserves it because he has made peace with an enemy which had labelled the United States as the Great Satan and held 52 US diplomats hostage for 444 days at the Teheran embassy. It was also a victory for US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. It is said that Kerry had spent more time with Zarif than with any other world figure.
Although public opinion in the US is divided over the deal, in Iran the mood was joyful, with President Hassan Rouhani saying it was an answer to the prayers of the people of Iran during Ramadan. Many analysts believe that this may be a key turnaround in relations between the two countries which find themselves on the same side as far as many global issues are concerned. They include Iraq, Afghanistan and, of course, the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and al-Qaeda. Saudi officials have voiced fears that increasing contacts between Iran and the US could lead to Iran replacing Saudi Arabia as America’s main ally in the region. In the coming days, US Defence Secretary Ash Carter will travel to Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region to convince or console them that the deal does not mean that that they are being ditched in favour of Iran.
Amidst this tough opposition from staunch US allies, a huge question mark hangs over Tuesday’s nuclear deal, according to which Iran will drastically reduce its enriched uranium stockpile and centrifuges and allow international inspection of its nuclear facilities in return for the lifting of economic sanctions. The deal is fraught with clauses that warn Iran that the sanctions could be re-imposed in case of violations. Now the interpretation of a violation of a treaty clause of this nature has more to do with politics than with the law.
Therefore, the Sri Lankan government should work out a comprehensive strategy to avert a similar crisis in the future. The strategy should involve investing in a second refinery. Instead of building a second international airport for ghost flights at Mattala, the then government should have spent that money on a second refinery.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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