Ranil and Rajapaksa: The difference is how they play the power game

By Ameen Izzadeen
The just ended local council elections remind students of politics of an age-old adage: Politics is a continuous and ruthless struggle for power. Those who understand this often grab political power and stay on in power. Even if they lose, they continue their struggle to undermine the government with the intention of overthrowing it as fast as possible.
Politics is not for gentlemen or gentlewomen. Nor is it divine, for moral principles to govern it. It is simply dirty and therefore, one has to be animalistic to survive in politics, which is characterised by eternal vigilance, mutual suspicion, perpetual competitions, cold blooded conflicts, skullduggery, backstabbing, intimidation, assassinations and countermoves.
Man’s pursuit for power only ceases at death, Thomas Hobbes, one of the early proponents of a political power theory, said, echoing what Niccolo Machiavelli said in the medieval era and Kautilya said in ancient India. In Prince, Machiavelli says that with so many people in politics immorally disposed, good men in politics often bring down upon themselves their own destruction. In other words, a ruler who wishes to maintain power should not always be good.
In Sri Lanka’s political laboratory, Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna de facto leader Mahinda Rajapaksa is an example of a politician in pursuit of endless power, while United National Party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe appears as a politician being pulled by his commitment to democratic aspirations on the one hand and the requirements of power politics, on the other. In this confusion, he seems to give more weight to political idealism than to political realism. This explains why Wickremesinghe is often caught by surprise in many an election defeat. If only he had been a political animal in the caliber of his opponent, he could have prevented the dissolution of his government of 2001-2003 and would not have lost the all-important presidential race in 2005.
Premier Wickremesinghe has proved his capability as an abled party leader. But if he can extend similar skills and strategies, with which he protects his party leadership, to the national level politics, he can certainly emerge as a winning candidate.
In 2005, when Wickremesinghe lost the presidential race to Rajapaksa, a disappointed journalistic colleague, who voted for the UNP, said of the UNP leader: “A man who had power and did not know how to protect that power, does not deserve to be returned to power.” There is much wisdom in his quotable quote. Political power is just like beauty. Those who are not beautiful try to become beautiful, while those who are beautiful protect it and enhance it. They become alarmed even when a negligible black spot or a tiny wart appears on the skin. Similarly those who wield power must go to any extent to retain, protect and enhance that power, while those who are not in power must resort to every trick in the book to capture power.
In this game of throne, the one who is more adept at deception prevails.
Politics is also a game of eternal vigilance. In the movie ‘Enter the Dragon’, Bruce Lee advises his young student that even when you bow to your opponent before the contest, do not take your eyes off him. Power politics requires politicians to spy on their opponents and know their next move.
The behind-the-scenes efforts of the Democratic Party in the United States to link President Donald Trump with a porn star and Russia show that even in the so-called full-fledged democracies, politicians make use of every opportunity to undermine their rivals. Compare this with the UNP’s missed opportunities such as the allegation that the Rajapaksa team paid the LTTE millions to win the 2005 elections. Even now the cases pertaining to the killings of Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickremetunga and Sri Lanka rugby player Wasim Thajudeen, the disappearance of cartoonist Pradeep Ekneligoda and the MiG deal could break the spine of the opposition if they could be expedited. The unusually slow progress of these cases gives the impression that Wickremesinghe is protecting his very opponents. This is against real politics rules. On the contrary, his political opponents, if given a half chance, will stab him in the back. This is real politics. Politics is not for crybabies to complain after the defeat that they lost because their opponents resorted to a game of deception.
Not only has the UNP failed to expose the previous regime’s alleged misdeeds, but it has also allowed its opponents to define and defame its leader in whatever way and harmful manner. As a result of this failure on the part of the UNP, the Rajapaksa camp plays victim, with politicians corrupt to the core making statements about corruption, as though they are the paragons of virtue. After all, political charlatans want ordinary people to believe that they have become victims of a witch-hunt.
Power, like beauty, needs to be displayed, too. The ordinary people, who vote politicians into power, usually would like to see power in play. Power is associated with machismo. Britain’s Margaret Thatcher declared war against Argentina. The United States’ former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton bombed Libya. Barack Obama, though portrayed as anti-war, continued the war in Iraq and Afghanistan to send the message to the ordinary Americans that the leader they have elected will not hesitate to use all measures necessary to defend them. This was why Trump dropped the mother of all bombs on Afghanistan. This was why French President Emmanuel Macron this week issued a warning that France would attack Syrian forces if he found proof that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons.
Sri Lanka’s separatist war provided ample opportunity for Rajapaksa to show his machismo. On the contrary, Wickremesinghe came to power in 2001 on the platform of peace and tried to appease the international community rather than his own voter base where any concession to the separatists was seen as treachery.
If he and his party are keen to capture power in 2020, they need to realize that there are votes in rhetoric pregnant with political machismo in defence of the country’s territorial integrity, the Sinhala race and Buddhism. Such machismo also needs to be displayed against politically motivated strikes by state-sector doctors and public servants. Disinclination towards using state power is a sign of weakness that does not win votes. After all, democracy does not mean passivity.
The ugly media also play a dirty role in this whole dirty game of power politics. Although media freedom is expected to be exercised with responsibility, we saw media groups bashing the politicians whom they love to hate; this is not media freedom. Some journalists under the guise of exercising media freedom or carrying out investigative journalism lie for their masters. These media proved they could portray a good candidate as bad and vice versa. If a media group is taking sides, it has the duty to tell its readers, viewers or listeners that it is partial towards a particular candidate.
Power politics is not a holy affair. It involves manipulations, planning, deception, lies and all sorts of sordid things. In a level political field where everyone lies and resorts to deception, the one who has mastered the art of deception wins. The bottom line is the masses are gullible.
But remember real politics also promotes the judicious use of idealistic goals, provided it can win votes to capture or retain power.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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Whither independence without its spirit?

By Ameen Izzadeen
Freedom: What a great idea it is! As we celebrated this Sunday Sri Lanka’s 70th freedom day, it is relevant to ask how free we are and what freedom meant to us then and today.
Seventy years ago, when the Union Jack was brought down and the magnificent Lion flag was hoisted at Independence Square, the spirit of freedom came alive in the country’s collective psyche. However, between then and now, the spirit of freedom was lost and we remain a bonded nation once again – bonded to ethnic politics, casteism, religious bigotry and, of course, greed that makes us selfish, corrupt and, some of our politicians, corrupt to the core.
Freedom is defined in a spiritual sense also and it is a matter for the ascetics and the spiritually enlightened to elucidate what freedom is about in a spiritual sense. Yet, a modicum of spiritual freedom could have done marvels for this country. It could have freed us from racist politics and spared us of the 30-year agony of a separatist war and many ethnic riots. If only we had defined freedom from a moralistic perspective also, we would not have fallen into the hell hole of corruption that has retarded our progress.
However, in this post-independence gloomy picture, a few bright spots also could be seen. Certainly, Sri Lanka’s activism during the early post-independence days in the global arena was such one bright spot reflective of its quest for international recognition as an independent state. We did work hard to make our presence felt in the international arena to show we were independent in the face of scorn heaped on us by the Soviet Union. In the core of the Soviet scorn was the fact that the Queen of England was still our sovereign and that we had signed a defence pact with Britain. It took some seven years for us to gain membership in the United Nations following a quid-pro-quo deal between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Perhaps the best display of our spirit of independence was seen in our commitment to Afro-Asian solidarity and our support for freedom struggles wherever they existed.
Sri Lanka, together with like-minded states such as India, Indonesia, Egypt, and also China, was part of a global movement that tried to set up a just international order. The newly independent nations were so united that they helped one another in achieving social and economic progress. They displayed determination and dedication, honesty and hard work, to create a world free of colonialism in all its forms. They were so firm in their resolve that they called for the redrafting of the UN Charter and international treaties, pointing out that they were not parties to these agreements when they were adopted.
At the deliberations for a new treaty on the Law of the Sea and talks at the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), the newly independent states had their say and sometimes, their way. For instance, when the Law of the Sea Convention was being deliberated, the United States held the view that any nation should be able to exploit the resources of the international seabed. Sensing that such a proposal would give an unfair advantage to technologically advanced nations, the newly independent nations proposed the setting up of the International Seabed Authority, which will be the custodian of the international seabed and its resources for the benefit of all nations. Sri Lanka led by Shirley Amerasinghe, one of its all-time best diplomats, played a pivotal role in the drafting of the Convention, which has been ratified by all maritime states with the solitary exception of the United States.
At UNCTAD talks, Sri Lanka led by its world renowned economist Gamani Corea, who went on to become the Secretary General of the UNCTAD, succeeded in establishing global mechanisms to ensure fair prices in the world market for the commodities of the newly independent states, though such safeguards were eventually to disappear in view of trade liberalization efforts in accordance with the provisions of the General Agreement on Trade and Tariff (GATT) first and later the World Trade Organisation.
Moreover, little Sri Lanka played a peacemaker role in the conflict in Congo, the Suez war, the Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia and the Sino-India war.
All this was long before the spirit of our independence lost its sheen.
Coinciding with the hyper activism of the newly independent states, was the development of a body of economics theories that condemned the skewed world order which allowed developed nations – or the old colonial states — to continuously exploit the new sates.
Significant among them was the dependence theory expounded by Andre Gunder Frank, a German intellectual who was ostracised by the capitalist world. His was a theory, which alerted the developing nations to the reality that they were still under the yoke of colonialism or neo-colonialism though they had gained independence.
In his book ‘The development of underdevelopment’, Frank rejected the idea that underdevelopment stems from an individual country’s isolation from the larger world and due to the influence of more traditional societies. On the contrary, he said underdevelopment resulted from the unequal distribution of resources and exploitation of the less developed and emerging countries by the more developed countries through the so-called “metropolis-satellite relations” theory or the core-periphery relations theory. At the global level, the periphery constitutes the exploited while the core represents the exploiter. He tried to change the system where the periphery at its own expense enriches the core.
Though Frank’s theory has been debunked by the ultra-liberals and conceited capitalists, who mistakenly think they have won the ideological battle with the socialists, it became a rallying cry for the developing nations to resist the exploitation of their resources by rich nations. Many independent nations from the 1950s to 1970s adopted economic protectionism and launched ambitious drives to make their countries self-sufficient in their bid to achieve economic freedom.
But seventy years on, freedom from servility from an economic point of view still remains elusive. We are more and more dependent on aid and loans from developed countries and international financial agencies. The increasing debt burden and the dependence on more debt to repay debts and undertake development work have made developing nations once again dependent nations. In most cases, what is at stake is a country’s sovereignty itself. Aid- or loan-dependent nations have little freedom to take independent decisions at the United Nations or other international forums.
For a few million dollars, the developing nations are compelled to sacrifice the spirit of independence with which they, from the 1950s to late 1970s, gelled themselves together in Afro-Asian camaraderie and later under the banner of non-alignment. These countries which were once under the yoke of colonialism have diluted their commitment to freedom struggles, especially with regard to the Palestinian crisis.
To be called ourselves independent, we need to achieve freedom from want and freedom from fear. We need to give a moral interpretation to freedom and independence to free ourselves from the clutches of corruption. Unfortunately, Sri Lanka has seen several false dawns: The last one being the end of war in 2009.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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If the US and Turkey clash, gates of hell may open further in Middle East

By Ameen Izzadeen
The tension between the United States and Turkey strangely did not find mention in Donald Trump’s first State of the Union address on Tuesday, though the events on the ground are as worrisome as the North Korean missile-and-nuclear issue.
As emotions run high in Turkey, the question that looms is: Will there be a war between the United States and Turkey?
Both the US and Turkey are founder members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato). The war of words in recent weeks between the US, a world power, and Turkey, a rising regional power, has stoked fears of yet another gate of hell being opened in the Middle Eastern, where virtually every country is either involved in a war or in a state or war preparedness.
Relations between the US and Turkey have been under strain since the United States, some three years ago, allied with Syria’s Kurdish rebels, whom Ankara has branded terrorists. Washington found Kurds as natural allies in its ‘delayed’ fight against the ISIS. The emphasis on the word ‘delayed’ is because the US and its allies such as Saudi Arabia were initially reluctant to take on the ISIS while the terror outfit was making rapid territorial gains in the war against Syrian government troops.
It was only after Russia’s entry into the Syrian civil war in September 2015 that the US launched a serious campaign against the ISIS in Syria and Iraq, in the backdrop of rising world opinion against ISIS. In both countries, the Kurds were US allies.
Turkey, which has been fighting a Kurdish separatist rebellion for the past four decades, was alarmed over the growing military relationship between the US and the Kurds. The Kurds form one fifth of Turkey’s population. The Turkish separatist group, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), maintains close ideological and military links with the Syrian Kurdish group, YPG, which the US has been arming, training and protecting.
For Turkey, the redline came when the US last month set up Kurdish safe zones in Syria, ostensibly as a strategic measure to keep the ISIS on the run. But Turkey, sensing that the US move could be a step towards creating an independent Kurdish state, sent troops to Afrin, a US-protected Kurdish safe zone in Syria’s north.
But it is here that the problem really started between the two Nato allies. Last week, President Trump urged Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to halt the military operation, codenamed Operation Olive Branch. Trump warned against actions that “could risk conflict between Turkish and American forces.”
Further east from Afrin, the United States maintains some 2,000 troops in the Syrian Kurdish enclave of Manbij. Turkey, which has deployed some 13,000 troops in Syria, wants to extend the campaign to Manbij – a move that could provoke US counteraction.
According to a White House statement, Trump phoned Erdogan to tell him that the Turkish operation “risks undercutting our shared goals in Syria”. But such warnings had no bearing on the Turks, who see any attempt at creating an independent Kurdish state anywhere in the region as an existential threat. For Turks, the Kurdish question evokes memories of their War of Independence in 1920.
Turkey’s war of independence had its origins in attempts by the victorious allied forces to set up an independent Kurdish state from the territory of the defeated Ottoman empire. In terms of the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres, a referendum was to be held in the Kurdish region for an independent Kurdish state. The Ottoman emperor concurred, but the Turks opposed it. Military chief Mustafa Kemal Ataturk who had set up a rival government in Ankara declared that, if the Allies wanted to scissor up the Anatolian Peninsula, then they’d have to fight to do it. The war with the Allies went on for two years and ended in victory for Turkey. The Ottoman government was overthrown and the republic was proclaimed.
But since then, the Kurds have remained a minority in Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Iran and Armenia, and they have been dreaming of a separate state. The closest they came to a separate state was when, in September last year, Iraq’s Kurds held a referendum for secession, only to suppress the victory in the face of military threats from Iraq’s central government. The Kurds in Iraq, however, enjoy a good measure of autonomy with their own parliament and president.
Since Erdogan’s rise to power in Turkey more than a decade ago, the country has been dreaming the Ottoman dream of becoming a regional power. Erdogan came to Qatar’s rescue last year, when Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies laid an economic siege on the tiny but rich Gulf state.
The war in Syria is so complicated that allies turn enemies and vice versa overnight. Turkey is no friend of Syrian President Bashar al Assad, who is also fighting the Kurds. But Assad has opposed the Turkey’s military adventure in Syria. All are, however, supposedly united in their war against the ISIS. But in Syria, ISIS and al Qaeda take many forms. Some, with the sobriquet ‘moderates’, are allied with the US troops and are armed and funded by one Gulf state or another.
There were no permanent allies or friends in the Syrian conflict. Every nation involved in the conflict tries to achieve its own national interest. Russia, for instance, at one point was supportive of the PKK when Turkish-Russia relations suffered a nosedive after Turkey shot down a Russian war plane in November 2015. But the following year, Turkey became Russia’s ally with President Erdogan accusing the US of having a hand in the failed military coup in August 2016. Since then, Turkey has supported efforts by Russia to find a solution to the Syrian crisis, much to the chagrin of the US. Turkey has also shown interest in China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Relations between the US and Turkey took a further beating when Turkey arrested a US embassy staff member and the US refused to accede to Turkey’s request for the extradition of a popular Turkish scholar and religious leader, whom Ankara has accused of orchestrating the 2016 coup.
However, in this US-Turkey eyeball-to-eyeball game, the US has apparently blinked. But a victory for Turkey is wishful thinking. For the past three years, the Syrian Kurds, with the US military help, have been running a separate state of sorts in areas under their control. But they are deeply frustrated with the US, for it has abandoned the Kurds in the face of the Turkish offensive on Afrin.
The US behaviour raises a question of trust: Help is there as long as it serves the US interest. This is a key lesson in realpolitik.
Well, the ultimate winners in this game will be Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin. They can’t be happier at the prospect of two Nato allies in combat. The ultimate losers, as usual, will be the people. More wars mean, more civilian casualties and displacements.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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The trumpet has sounded, world democracy at stake

By Ameen Izzadeen
Tomorrow Donald Trump, the 45th President of the United States, a country founded on the principles of freedom and equality, will be completing one year in office. Has the world become a better place under his stewardship? The answer is an emphatic ‘no’.
Since time immemorial, the good people have tried to make the world a better place. The slogan ‘Towards a better tomorrow has motivated many philosophers, world leaders and reformists to rise and right the wrong. They faced many a challenge. Many were killed because they dared to question the wrong. In the battle between the good and the bad, the latter seems to have prevailed.
As a result, with each passing day, the world becomes more and more unlivable. With the rise of unbridled capitalism, the deterioration has been fast. This is because most of our leaders today, the trustees of our welfare, are self-centred and avaricious for power and wealth. Bad leaders are least concerned about making a better tomorrow. Good leaders, on the contrary, are concerned about tomorrow. Where does Trump fall into and how will the next generation remember him?
Under Trump, needless to say, justice, freedom, democracy, human values, our environment and our very existence have come under threat. There is a global erosion of democracy and value-based politics while the threat of war is on the rise.
His one year in office has virtually brought the nuclear clock dangerously close to midnight. Next Thursday, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists will host a live international news conference at 1500 GMT (8.30 pm Sri Lanka time) to tell the world how close we are to the doomsday because of Trump. At present the clock is set at three minutes to the hour.
With Hawaii and Tokyo issuing warnings of incoming missiles from North Korea in what was later being trotted out as a mistake or coincidence, some analysts believe that these mistakes were deliberate and aimed at preparing the people for a war with Pyongyang. As Trump is unpredictable and apparently not receptive to saner counsel, his amateurish political adventurism could fast track the nuclear holocaust that will turn this world into a wretched hell, fit only for the living dead.
Mercifully, as Trump marks his first year in office, the tension in the Korean peninsula over North Korea’s missile politics has somewhat eased with talks being held between the two Koreas amid the prospect of the athletes of two Koreas marching behind one flag at next month’s Winter Olympics in the South Korean city of PyeongChang.
Well, Trump, in an apparently unscrupulous move, seized on the opportunity to claim that the de-escalation was largely because of his aggressive stand which saw him proudly claim that the United States’ nuclear button is bigger and more powerful than the North Korean one.
With Trump in office the nuclear clock’s hands can only be advanced, not set back, as he, in addition to nuclear jingoism, has pooh-poohed the dire warnings about climate change. During the campaign for the presidency, Trump said climate change programmes were a “waste of money” and that climate change itself was an “expensive hoax”. Once in power, he wasted no time to pull the United States out of the Paris climate deal which set the ambitious target of limiting global warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. Last month, more than 16,000 scientists from 184 countries published a warning to humanity advising that we need to change our wicked ways to help the planet. To the irrational president who wants to make America great again at a terrible cost to the environment, such warnings make little sense.
The world under Trump is not a better place is also the ruling of Freedom House — an independent watchdog dedicated to the expansion of freedom and democracy around the world. In its latest report titled “Democracy in crisis”, Freedom House says, “Political rights and civil liberties around the world deteriorated to their lowest point in more than a decade in 2017, extending a period characterised by emboldened autocrats, beleaguered democracies, and the United States’ withdrawal from its leadership role in the global struggle for human freedom.”
Under Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama, autocrats the world over, especially in the developing world, feared the United States’ response with regard to human rights violations. Despite criticisms over the war on Libya and extrajudicial killings, the Obama administration attempted to arrest the democracy decay that began with President George W. Bush’s war-on-terror policies, under which human rights concerns had been ignored to give priority to whatever anti-terror measures.
Today, democracy worldwide has been battered and weakened. In Europe and elsewhere, electoral victories of rightwing populist leaders who are anti-immigrant and anti-minorities are attributed to the Trump legacy marked by comments such as ‘shithole’ countries. In Trump’s speeches overseas, rarely does he mention the words democracy and human rights. On the contrary, he “expressed admiration and even personal friendship for some of the world’s most loathsome strongmen and dictators” (Freedom House 2018 report).
The Trump legacy provided fertiliser to the growth of “charismatic strongman politics”, according to a survey published by the World Economic Forum ahead of next week’s annual sessions in Davos. Trump will address the sessions on the last day.
With the US not pushing the human rights agenda as it had been in the past, Myanmar could carry out the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya minorities, the Philippines’ President could carry out his extrajudicial killing of alleged drug peddlers and Israeli soldiers could beat and arrest Palestinian children. Saudi Arabia could ignore international appeals to lift the naval blockade on Yemen where millions of people are dying of starvation and disease — without food and medicine. In all these cases, the culture of impunity is preposterous.
Justice is an essential component of democracy. Trump’s decision to recognise the whole of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel was a blow to global justice and a contempt of international law and moral principles.
Though he is presiding over the most buoyant economic conditions of any recent US president in his first year, his popularity is plummeting. To prop up his popularity, he apparently feels he needs to placate the rightwing vote base, to whom international democracy erosion is a non-issue.
Since Trump is not speaking against oppression, 2018 will not be a year of democracy, freedom and global justice. The United States’ withdrawal from the global democracy struggle takes place at a time when China and Russia – countries which give an autocratic interpretation to democracy — are emerging as alternative power centres. Whatever criticism of the US foreign policy in the past, democracy campaigners have looked to the US for support. Where can they turn to when democracy is under threat? The bigger question is: Wither democracy, freedom, human rights and liberal values in a China-led future world order?
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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Protests in Iran: The need for reforms and unity

By Ameen Izzadeen
It is no secret that the United States, still smarting over a series of setbacks the 1979 Iranian revolution has delivered, has a state-funded programme to destabilize Iran. It is also no secret that the United States, Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and other pro-US Arab nations are part of this covert programme.
However, so far, the Iranian government has somehow weathered the threats. When the popular revolution led by the Shiite clergy ousted the pro-American regime of the Shah in 1979, many in the West believed the change was only a passing cloud. But the Islamic republic has been surviving for 38 years, despite in the 1980s a devastating nine-year war against Iraq which was backed by the West and the Arab Gulf states, sabotage by terrorist groups such as Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEQ) and Jundallah, tough economic sanctions, cyber warfare, assassinations of its nuclear scientists, and intermittent uprising, the latest of which was only last week.
That Iran has seen during its post-revolution existence only two large-scale public protests, which lost steam no sooner they hit the streets, vouches for the relative stability of the country’s political system. Yet, Iran’s leaders cannot afford to dismiss last week’s protests, which began in Iran’s second largest city, Mashhad, on December 28, as part of a western conspiracy, though they could very well be. The protests were widespread, though, crowd wise, they were smaller, compared to the 2009 post-election protests in the capital, Teheran. They even spread to the religious city of Qom, a stronghold of the revolution. The protests are a reminder that Iran’s problems require sweeping socioeconomic and political reforms to meet the aspirations of Iran’s youth, who have not lived through the repressive rule of the Shah or seen the sacrifices their parents made for the revolution. The social media savvy generation clamors for well-paying jobs, high standard of life, and more political and economic freedom. Iran has been adopting reforms and relaxing some strict rules regarding social behavior such as the Islamic dress code, but the discontent appears to grow much faster than the speed at which reforms are introduced.
The protests were also a public outcry against the prolonged sluggishness of the economy which had not picked up much, despite some sanctions being lifted following Iran’s 2015 nuclear agreement with six world powers.
Yet Iran is not a basket case. Despite 38 years of economic sanctions in one form or another, the country has emerged as a regional power, strong enough to prop up the Syrian regime, help neighbouring Iraq to defeat the ISIS terrorists, fiancne the Hezbollah militias in Lebanon, develop nuclear technology, make its own medium range missiles, anti-tank missiles, drones, aircraft and motor vehicles and take strides in heavy industry.
Iran has in recent years improved ties with China, Russia, Turkey and Qatar and expressed willingness to join China’s Belt-and-Road Initiative to attract investments aimed at giving the much needed fillip to the economy. But the problem is that the economy which derives much of its revenue from oil and gas production is largely state controlled. The private sector remains largely marginalized. During President Hashemi Rafsanjani’s economic reforms in the early 1990s, the private sector thrived, but the momentum died out, with the conservatives or hardliners taking the upper hand, while reform-minded popular presidents such as Mohamed Khatami and Hassan Rouhani looked on powerless.
Socioeconomic and political factors give only one side of the story. The government’s lenient approach to the protests at the initial stages indicated that it recognized the causes for the public protests. Iran’s spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei also acknowledged legitimate demonstrations against economic conditions. The government began to crack the whip only after it feared that the people could be misled and that the protests could be hijacked by a few subversives backed by foreign governments. With government supporters staging massive counter-demonstrations, the anti-government protests, where for the first time slogans were raised publicly against the spiritual leader, gradually withered away.
It is widely known that the MEQ — listed as a terrorist group by the United States — maintains close relationship with the CIA and Israel’s secret service Mossad. The Israeli intelligence outfit is also the handler of the Sunni Jundallah group in Iran’s Sistan and Baluchestan Province
The US has a long history of meddling in Iran’s internal affairs. Last year, the CIA released documents confirming that it engineered the coup that overthrew Iran’s democratically elected government in 1953. Operation Merlin and Operation Olympic Games were some of the other failed CIA covert programmes aimed at destabilizing Iran after the 1979 revolution.
Undeterred, the axis comprising the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia, among others, continues its efforts to subjugate Iran, which has a long history of resisting foreign invasions. Obsessive Iranophobia has pushed some Arab nations to embrace Israel and even US President Donald Trump’s outrageous plan to hand over the whole of Jerusalem to Israel, with no regard for the Palestinians’ insistence that East Jerusalem is the capital of Palestine.
As the Iranian protests drew wide coverage in the Western media, Trump, a fanatical Iran hater who wants to scrap the Iran nuclear deal, took to Twitter to back anti-government demonstrators. “Big protests in Iran. The people are finally getting wise as to how their money and wealth is being stolen and squandered on terrorism. Looks like they will not take it any longer. The USA is watching very closely for human rights violations!” Trump’s said in his tweet.
In response, Iran’s spiritual leader Ayatollah Khamenei also took to Twitter, slamming Trump as unstable and having “extreme and psychotic episodes.”
The twitter war apart, the US backing for Iran protests exposes the double standards with which the US approaches world politics. Trump did not tweet when food riots erupted across Egypt in March last year. There were no Trump tweets to urge Saudi Arabia to lift the blockade on Yemen, so that humanitarian assistance could reach the starving Yemeni people. There were no tweets in support of protesters who demonstrate for democracy and human rights in Bahrain which hosts the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet. He would definitely not tweet calling on Israel to release 16-year-old Ahed al-Tamimi who has become the symbol of Palestinian resistance.
Iran — with 80 million people in a 1.64 million square kilometre land area – is no pushover. It is capable of countering attacks from the US, Israel or any other hostile power. Its people are united in the face of foreign aggression. This is why the US or Israel has not dared to attack Iran. Its enemies think their best bet is dividing the Iranians by pointing out that the country is spending its hard earned money to prop up Syria and the Hezbollah at the expense of the Iranians: Perhaps, a case of tweeting Trump bearing gifts! The Iranians might do well to keep in mind that the success of the US formula for invasion is the divisions within the target country. This has worked in Iraq and Afghanistan.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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Trump gambles with aid, but Pakistan has the ace

By Ameen Izzadeen
The United States President Donald Trump’s first tweet for 2018 concerning foreign relations should have been on North Korea. Instead, he targeted Pakistan. His tweet was not spontaneous. Trump appeared well briefed by his advisors. Otherwise, he would not have known how much aid Pakistan had received in the past 15 years. What is Trumpish in the tweet is the hallmark provocative tone with a thick coat of imprudence, as was also evident in the subsequent North Korea tweet where he ridiculously boasted about his finger being kept on a bigger and more powerful nuclear button than the North Korean leader has.
“The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the past 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit… They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!” Trump bellowed in his tweets, prompting a chorus of protests from Pakistanis across the political divide.
The tweets were followed by action to stop aid. Brandishing foreign aid as a weapon to punish weaker states, Trump’s United Nations envoy Nikki Haley announced the US was withholding $255 million in aid to Pakistan. Palestine and several other countries were also added to the aid-cut list.
In Islamabad, the government summoned the US ambassador to register its disappointment and convened the National Security Council to discuss the developments. The NSC said in a statement that Trump’s insensitive comments “negated the decades of sacrifices made by the Pakistani nation”.
Pakistan could not be blamed for US failures in Afghanistan, the statement said, adding that accusing allies would not lead to the establishment of peace in Afghanistan.
Pakistan was once the United States’ most allied ally in Asia, for the two countries were bound by four defence agreements during the Cold War. Despite its leadership role in the Afro-Asian Solidarity Movement, Pakistan threw its weight behind the US-led defence bloc within the first decade of independence itself. The two nations first signed the Mutual Defence Assistance Agreement in 1954. This was followed by Pakistan joining the Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO) and the Baghdad Pact, and signing a bilateral defence cooperation agreement.
Yet, when Pakistan was in crisis during its wars with India, the US conveniently failed to come to its aid, reasoning out that the defence arrangements were aimed at meeting the threat from the Soviet Union, not India. These agreements gradually became defunct. In 1979, Pakistan joined the Non-Aligned Movement. But the very year, military cooperation between Pakistan and the US increased, with the Soviet Union invading Afghanistan. Ten years later, when the Soviets left Afghanistan, the US degraded Pakistan in favour India that had just begun opening up its economy.
US officials’ rant against Pakistan was nothing new. In recent years and months, Senior US officials and military commanders have publicly questioned Pakistan’s commitment to the US-led war on terror. They include former Defence Secretary Robert Gates, the present Defence Secretary James Mattis, and present Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. They complained that Pakistan was not doing enough, but they did not negate Pakistan’s contribution outright, like Trump has done.
How can they? After all, no country that joined the US war on terror had made so much of a sacrifice at so huge a cost to its national security and sovereignty.
Cricket star-turned-political party leader Imran Khan in a series of tweets hit out at Trump, calling him “ignorant and ungrateful”.
“…. Our society became radicalised and polarised as we helped CIA create jihadi groups; then, a decade later, we tried to eliminate them as terrorists on US orders,” said Khan who leads the opposition Tehreek-e-Insaf. He was referring to the US role in nourishing the Afghan Mujahideen and later the Taliban.
When the war on terror was about to be unleashed on Afghanistan in 2001 following the Spetember 11 terror attacks on the United States, Pakistan was warned by US defence bosses that if it did not join the war, it would be bombed back to the Stone Age . Still reluctant to join the war despite the threat, the then military ruler Pervez Musharraf war-gamed to assess Pakistan’s ability to take on the US, in case it refused to join the war. He did not want his country to become another Laos, where the US dropped more than two million tons of ordnance from 1964 to 1973 during the Vietnam War. Besides, at stake were Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and facilities. In addition, a bombed-out Pakistan without its nuclear weapons would only invite India to invade and annex Pakistan-administered Kashmir.
Musharraf joined the US war and allowed the US to launch attacks from Pakistan’s air bases. Pakistan’s sovereignty became a mockery, with the US using Pakistan’s very own bases to kill Pakistani civilians during raids on terrorist hideouts.
In return, what Pakistan got was bloody mayhem. The 33 billion dollars Trump was trumpeting about were not development aid to Pakistan, but the money was largely in military aid directed at meeting the cost of waging America’s war.
The price Pakistan had to pay was heavy. A country that had produced widely respected Islamic scholars and philosophers was devastated by the so-called Islamic terrorism of unknown origin. Foreign investors and tourists avoided the country. As a result its economy suffered. Major international sports events have not been held in Pakistan since a bus carrying Sri Lankan cricketers came under attack in 2009. According to a report prepared by the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, 81,000 Pakistanis had died by the end of 2013 due to the war on terror. Pakistan government statistics say more than 48,000 Pakistani civilians and 26,000 militants died in the war on terror. The number of Pakistani soldiers who have died in America’s war on terror was around 6,000. In contrast, the number of US soldiers killed in the war on terror in the Af-Pak (Afghanistan-Pakistan) region was just 2,300.
Yet, US policy makers continue to blame Pakistan, perhaps, in a bid to cover up their dismal failure in Afghanistan – both militarily and diplomatically — after 16 years military operations. They accuse Pakistan of hunting with the US and running with the terrorists. The charges cover providing safe haven to the Taliban, especially the Haqqani network, Pakistan’s alleged role in providing safe haven to al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in the garrison city of Abottabad and the closing down of supply routes for Nato troops.
The aid cut to Pakistan is not new. In 2015, the Obama administration held back US$ 300 million. However, if Pakistan officially withdraws from the war on terror, it will do much good for the country and its people. Instead, it should enhance defence relations with China, an all-weather friend, which came to Pakistan’s defence in the wake of Trump’s tweet. The US will then realise it cannot survive in Afghanistan without Pakistan’s support, for the military supplies have to come through Pakistan.

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Trump’s populism: Civilisation at stake for 2018

By Ameen Izzadeen
The year that will be ending in two days is remembered for many seismic events of political significance.
The dawn of the year was mired in political uncertainty, with the ratification of the biggest upset in the US political history — the victory of maverick property tycoon Donald Trump over the favourite Hillary Clinton at the November 2016 presidential election, despite allegations of a secret Russian deal and several women accusing him of sexual misconduct.
His predecessor Barack Obama ended his two terms on an optimistic note marked by a historic deal to save the planet from an environmental Armageddon, an accord with Iran to halt that country’s nuclear programme and thereby yet another war in the Middle East, and a brave last-ditched effort to force Israel to withdraw from the occupied Palestinian land. But the White House’s new multibillionaire upended the momentum towards global peace and justice. He is now seen to be dragging the country’s international standing to the gutter levels in defiance of world public opinion. The civilisaiton itself is perhaps at stake for 2018.
Obama won the Nobel Peace prize, for his election stirred hopes for world peace. On the contrary, Trump’s election has spelt only chaos to the world, with the twitter-happy maverick president withdrawing the United States from the Paris climate deal, while he is threatening to undo the Iran nuclear agreement and, in an outrageous move, killed the Palestinian peace hopes, by recognizing the whole of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
The world is certainly not a better place but a more dangerous place now. With the liberal democratic principles the US has stood for more than two centuries being thrown to the wind, Trump, whipped up Islamophobia to placate his hardline constituency and issued a travel ban on citizens of six Muslim-majority countries. He is banking on xenophobic populism to keep his hopes alive for reelection though his popularity rating is taking a plunge.
His poor judgment in foreign policy has eroded the United States’ global leadership role. In one of his first foreign policy acts, Trump withdrew the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), one the few mechanisms the Obama administration had in place to check China.
The US apparently has squandered its global leadership role. The world is moving towards multipolarity, as evidenced in the China-centric Belt-and-Road Initiative and Russia’s intervention in Syria.
His response to North Korea’s defiant missile and nuclear tests was at best rhetoric and at worst a policy of hitting A to intimidate B, as seen in the dropping of “Mother of All bombs” on an Afghan village. Often, Trump blamed China for North Korea’s provocation. North Korea in the meantime developed long range missiles capable of reaching any part of the United States. However, the North Korean crisis provided the US an excuse for a military buildup in the Korean peninsula. Obviously, China and Russia saw the US deployment of Thaad missiles in South Korea as a hostile move against them.
Although six of the 11 US carriers are in the Indo-Pacific region, China has almost annexed the nine-dash sea territory in the South China Sea and expanded its burgeoning blue water Navy to cover much of the Indian Ocean, through which 80 percent of China’s oil imports come.
While Trump, besieged by the Robert Mueller special investigation into the Russian role in the 2016 US elections, plays populist politics and wavers in the foreign policy realm, China’s President Xi Jintao etched his name and policy in the Chinese Constitution, raising his position to the stature of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. At the Chinese Communist Party’s 19th Congress in Beijing in October, Xi emerged as the undisputed leader. This week, a report by the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) in London predicted that in 15 years, China would overtake the United States as the world’s strongest economy. But studies by others say it could happen even before that.
When Obama was president, the US navy regularly challenged China’s claim to disputed territories in the South China Sea, often leading to tense situations. Such activities are few and far between after Trump took over. As the US foreign policy making machinery moves in many directions – the Pentagon promoting one policy, the State Department another, the Congress yet another and the White House in yet another — China continues to reach out to the world with its investment diplomacy, which US and India see as a neo-colonialist bid to turn debt-ridden countries into Beijing’s satellite states.
To counter China’s rise, the US, India and Japan have formed an informal defence alliance. But Asia will benefit and its economic growth will be faster, if Asian giants such as China, India and Japan come together in a trade alliance. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership which China promotes could be the first step to eliminate mutual suspicion among Asian nations. Sadly South Asian grouping SAARC could not hold its annual summit for the second year running because of bitter rivalry between India and Pakistan.
Trump’s faltering foreign policy saw Russia playing a bigger role in the Middle East, considered an exclusive domain of the US. Russia’s resolute military campaign against ISIS forced the US also to join the Iraqi government’s military operation against the terror group. As a result, 2017 will be remembered as the year the terror outfit ISIS was defeated and its self-declared caliphate crumbled. But the ISIS is not destroyed completely. It is active in Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya, Egypt’s Sinai and even in the Philippine’s Marawi. Its operatives acting as lone wolves struck terror this year in several European cities such as Barcelona and Manchester.
As hope grows for a solution to the Syrian conflict which has unleashed the worst ever refugee crisis in the post-World War II era, millions of people suffer from starvation and thousands of children die of cholera and other diseases in impoverished Yemen, where a Saudi Arabia-led alliance is fighting Houthi rebels said to be backed by Iran. The Iran factor is also one of the reasons for Saudi Arabia and some of its Arab allies to break ties with Qatar and impose an economic blockade on the tiny but rich Gulf state.
Saudi Arabia itself was shaken by a political earthquake recently when the new crown prince Muhammad bin Salman ordered the arrest of several princes and top businessmen in what was claimed to be an anti-corruption drive. In the absence of a peace overtures to end the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the Middle East will remain a powder keg for 2018 also, especially also in view of Trump’s Jerusalem move.
The biggest story for Europe in 2017 was Brexit or Britain’s exit from the European Union. As the year comes to an end, Britain and the EU have come to a basic agreement with regard to outstanding issues.
For Africa, it was the stepping down of Robert Mugabe after more than three decades in power. After it became clear that Mugabe’s wife was being groomed as the next leader, a benign military coup forced Mugabe to quit and hand over power to ousted vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa.
Overall, 2017 is a year of error, terror, power games and little peace.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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