Political promises: Lanka needs annual status reports

By Ameen Izzadeen
When public disenchantment grows over unfulfilled promises, former New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg stands out as a model for all politicians.
Bloomberg was confronted by a civic conscious citizen — Anthony Santa Maria — at a subway station during his 2001 campaign to become New York’s mayor. Santa Maria scoffed at the promises politicians make but the criticism did not make Bloomberg angry. Instead it inspired him to release an annual status report on his 381 campaign promises. When he completed his first term as mayor in 2005, his annual report said 87 per cent of the promises had been fulfilled. His final Campaign Accountability Report released in 2013 at the end of his third term as mayor showed 89 per cent of the 611 combined promises made during the three campaigns had been completed or were being implemented at the time of compiling the report. Bouquets to Bloomberg!
In Sri Lanka, we do keep count of the promises politicians make and we are yet to see politicians of the calibre of Bloomberg. In 2005, when the country was in the midst of a heated campaign for a presidential election, with United People’s Freedom Alliance candidate Mahinda Rjapaksa giving all sorts of promises to everyone, a concerned viewer asked the moderator of a TV show whether there was legislation to take the politicians to court for making lofty promises and breaking them as it amounted to breach of trust. The moderator’s advice was that people should at the next election reject the politicians who broke their promises. But at every election, we are lured by new promises and the cycle of making and breaking promises and electing and rejecting politicians continues.
Going to court over the unfulfilled promises could backfire, if the judge believes the need to ensure the smooth functioning of the government is more important than meting out justice to an aggrieved party over unfulfilled campaign promises. This happened in Ontario, Canada when the Canadian Taxpayers Federation in 2004 took the state administration to court for imposing new taxes in breach of a campaign promise that no new taxes would be imposed.
In a ruling that virtually gave licence to politicians to tell any lies with impunity, the judge said that anyone who expected politicians to be accountable for their campaign promises was naive about the democratic system. If anyone who voted for a politician based on a particular promise later were to go to court alleging a breached contract, “our system of government would be rendered dysfunctional. This would hinder, if not paralyse, the parliamentary system,” judge Paul Rouleau said.
Apparently, the seriousness of moral responsibility of candidates contesting for high office and the need to form legal safeguards against false promises were lost in this judgment. The undeniable truth is that unscrupulous politicians make use of the hope that springs in voters’ breasts at times of election and lure the voters with false promises. Sri Lanka’s elections – and for that matter elections in most democratic countries – are won by false promises. In other words, promises make the difference at elections.
In 1994, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga won the presidential election on a promise that she would abolish the executive presidency within six months. But she went on to contest a second term. In 2005, her successor Mahinda Rajapaksa made a similar promise, but he increased the powers of the executive president at the cost of undermining democracy, and removed the two-term restriction in the Constitution to enable him to contest a third term. He lost the election on January 8, because a majority of the voters believed the promises his main rival Maithripala Sirisena made – promises to bring about good governance, provide relief to the masses, expose corruption and punish the culprits.
But the people who voted for the new president are beginning to feel betrayed because they say the key promises of the 100-day plan are yet to be fulfilled, or are partially fulfilled or fulfilled not in the way that the original promise held out. For instance, the promise was to reduce the price of a litre of petrol to Rs. 70. But the price after reduction is Rs. 117 today. The promise was to add Rs. 5,000 to the public servants’ salary from February, but what they will get is a Rs. 2,000 allowance added to the Rs. 3,000 promised in the 2015 Budget passed by the Mahinda Rajapaksa government. The promise was to arrest the culprits responsible for large-scale corruption, but only a few minnows have been arrested while the progress on the investigations into big cases is slow, giving rise to suspicions that the police are not doing their job or not free to do so. In fairness to the 41-day old government, some say one should not pass judgment before the 100 days are over.
The law in many countries, including vibrant democracies, is silent about holding candidates accountable for promises they make during election campaigns. But it is an undeniable fact that political accountability is an essential characteristic of democracy. To state one policy during the campaign and implement totally a different one when in power is to violate the principle of political accountability and undermine fundamental principles of democratic government.
The root of democracy is morality. From this root rise justice, equality, freedom and good governance. But the biggest paradox is that while democracy is everything moral, politics that nurtures democracy is more often than not immoral. With most politicians throwing away morality and their conscience in pursuit of their self-centred agendas and greed driven goals, the people in a democracy expect elected representatives to act in a manner upholding moral values. When the politicians once in power do not act in a morally correct way after giving promise after promise on every election platform, the people have a responsibility to remind them.
This is happening in Sri Lanka. Never in Sri Lanka’s post-independence history, have the people been more enthusiastic about and attached to good governance than they are now. Good governance is the topic at every formal or informal political discussion. Evident in these discussions is the growing disenchantment over the slackening commitment to good governance and other election pledges. The Government should work out a mechanism to make politicians accountable for the promises they make. Or at least civic action groups should pursue these promises and publish a status report every year, naming and shaming the politicians who have failed to honour their word.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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Ukraine: Giving peace another chance

By Ameen Izzadeen
After marathon four-nation talks in Belarus’ capital Minsk, the Ukrainian government and rebel forces yesterday signed a roadmap to implement a peace deal. It was indeed a victory for hectic diplomacy undertaken by Germany’s Angela Merkel who was shuttling between Kiev, Moscow and Washington and her French counterpart Francois Hollande. The deal became possible because Germany and France succeeded in winning Russia’s confidence. Earlier Moscow had scoffed at them saying it would not deal with vassal states, referring to their subservience to Washington.
A ceasefire will come into force on Sunday while steps will be taken to remove all heavy weapons from the frontline. Though much more needs to be done, the deal appears to be a win-win for all – for Ukraine, Russia, Ukrainian rebels and Europe – and it came at a time when Washington was planning to aggravate the crisis by sending lethal weapons to Ukraine – weapons that could change the balance at the battlefront in favour of Ukrainian forces.
The move to send hi-tech arms had the bipartisan support with hawkish Senator John McCain strongly advocating it while Obama’s next Defence Secretary Ashton Carter told his confirmation hearing that he was very much inclined to support the arms transfer move.
The deal also came at a time when Ukraine’s economy was falling apart. If Ukraine went ahead and bought the US weapons, it would have only worsened its economic crisis which, according to analysts, requires at least US$ 50 billion to get back on the right track – the kind of money which even the European Union was unable to offer. Yesterday as the deal was signed, the IMF announced a US$ 40 billion loan deal for Ukraine. On the other hand, if Ukraine had got the US weapons, it would have led to an escalation of the crisis – with Russia supplying Ukrainian rebels with equally powerful weapons.
Sending US weapons may serve the United States’ political agenda of taking Nato all the way to the borders of Russia and thereby containing Moscow. But on the other hand, such a move will only exacerbate the Ukrainian crisis, the triggering of which was largely due to the brash moves of the United States and its European allies.
The United States’ failure to recognise Russia’s security concerns in its backyard was a costly diplomatic mistake. Moscow had believed that Washington would reciprocate Russia’s policy of not messing around in areas where the US had genuine security concerns.
Breaking this unwritten understanding, the US together with its European allies decided to expand Nato’s borders to Russia. They plotted a regime change in Ukraine early last year when the then Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych backed out of an economic partnership deal with the European Union at the last minute following instructions from Russia, which promised Ukraine more economic benefits than the EU would offer. An angry US backed Ukraine’s opposition parties, including parties with neo-Nazi credentials, to stage mass protests at Maidan Square in Kiev in support of the EU deal. The US took matters into its own hands and at one point Victoria Nuland, the top US diplomat in charge of the region, used the ‘F’ word to show her frustration at the United States’ EU allies when they differed on who should lead the new government after Yanukovych’s overthrow.
As the US and its European allies hoped, the protesters succeeded in overthrowing the democratically elected Yanukovych. The illegitimate interim government was immediately recognised by the US and the EU. Russia in response annexed Crimea in Ukraine’s southeast following a referendum there and supported pro-Russia separatists in Eastern Ukraine. The end result of the US shotgun diplomacy in Ukraine was a civil war which has so far killed 5,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands.
While Ukraine burned, the US and its Nato allies added more fuel by slapping economic sanctions on Russia. Washington also conspired with Saudi Arabia and brought the world oil prices down in a bid to punish Russia, the world’s number one oil producer. At diplomatic level, Washington tried to get Russia to submit to unrealistic demands such as the handover of Crimea, where Moscow maintains a strategic warm water port and its Black Sea fleet, the withdrawal of support to the rebels in Ukraine’s breakaway eastern regions, the resumption of easy credit facilities to Ukraine to buy Russia’s oil and gas at one fourth the market price. Obviously, Russia kept rejecting these unreasonable and untenable demands and insisted that the only way to end the conflict was to give more autonomy to the two separatist regions in Ukraine’s east. The stalemate at the level of diplomacy escalated the conflict with Ukrainian forces suffering a series of setbacks in recent weeks at the hands of the Russian-backed rebels. It is against this backdrop that Washington planned to prop up the Ukrainian forces by supplying them with sophisticated weapons such as antitank missiles, battlefield radars and reconnaissance drones.
Thankfully, Germany and France saw the danger in the US move. They indicated their opposition to any major US arms transfer to Ukraine and launched their high-speed shuttle diplomacy to bring about yesterday’s interim deal. Their diplomacy came weeks after the Doomsday Clock was advanced by two minutes to read three minutes to zero hour. The hands of the clock — an early-warning mechanism set up 70 years ago by a group of US scientists to warn world leaders of a global disaster – were last set so precariously close to zero hour some 30 years ago. That was during the height of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. This time around the scientists maintaining the clock were driven to advance the clock by two developments — the world leaders’ failure to effectively deal with the fast approaching climate change catastrophe and the big powers’ irresponsible march towards a nuclear conflict. And nowhere is such a dangerous situation more evident than in Ukraine where nuclear-armed Russia and nuclear-armed Nato are fighting a proxy war.
Certainly US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin are not imbeciles to trigger an all-out nuclear war over the worsening crisis in Ukraine. But what guarantee is there that men of reason won’t start devastating wars?
Yesterday’s deal may not bring the Ukrainian crisis to an end. Previous ceasefire deals signed amid much hope have collapsed. The handshakes and body language of Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko were not one of elation but one that suggests “Okay let’s try this one also.”
If the latest deal is to survive and lead to permanent peace, the US and its European allies should understand Russia’s security concerns and let Ukraine become a non-aligned nation in the context of the emerging cold war between Russia and the West.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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From a casino foreign policy to principled foreign policy

By Ameen Izzadeen
The United States Assistant Secretary of State Nisha Biswal was here this week. President Maithripala Siriesena will visit New Delh on February 15 while Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will make a reciprocal visit in March. Within days of assuming office, Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera undertook visits to New Delhi and Brussels. He will be in Washington in the next few days to meet Secretary of State John Kerry.
High level contacts with the West and the refreshing of Indo-Lanka relations may indicate a paradigm shift in Sri Lanka’s foreign policy – a shift towards, if official claims are to be believed, non-alignment, a long defunct political force. But the visible shift has stoked fears that we are moving towards a US-India-Japan axis from what was perceived to be a China-centric policy of the previous regime, though some may see the change as an attempt to shore up foreign policy sectors that were deliberately downplayed to appease China, Sri Lanka’s biggest donor. But are we hurtling headlong towards the US-India-Japan axis?
Resetting ties with the West and winning back the confidence of Sri Lanka’s giant neighbour, India, are steps in the right direction. Such moves may help Sri Lanka not only to work out a formula to extricate itself from international investigations on alleged war crimes but also to attract job-generating Western investors, many of whom shunned this country over law and order concerns during the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime.
But we should be cautious not to get pulled by the gravitational force of the US-India-Japan axis, which has its own agenda vis-à-vis China’s growing military might.
Although the US-India-Japan axis does not exist in a formal way, moves are underway to formalise a trilateral strategic partnership. It was a key feature during US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel’s visit to New Delhi in August last year. This alliance, which has the support of Japan’s nationalist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, is touted as the most powerful outside the US-led NATO.
During Premier Modi’s visit to Japan in September last year, the two countries decided to “upgrade” and “strengthen” their defence cooperation. China which has territorial disputes with India and Japan is certainly alarmed at these developments. In May last year, China’s Communist Party-run Global Times newspaper warned, “India gets close to Japan at its own peril”.
Also adding to China’s concerns is a parallel development involving the US, India, Japan and Australia. Known as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD), this tie-up, initiated by Japan’s Abe, was seen by many analysts as a response to China’s military threat.
These subtle formations of alliances take place against the backdrop of US President Barack Obama’s Pivot-to-Asia policy aimed at containing China, a looming superpower, which is likely to overtake the US as the world’s top economy within years. In this new Cold War, the foreign policy of every Asian country matters. To counter Beijing’s military muscle, Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, South Korea and other nations that have territorial disputes with China have further strengthened defence relations with the US. While some countries that depend on Chinese economic aid remained neutral, the Rajapaksa regime with its myopic foreign policy that contributed to the worsening of relations with the West leaned towards China not only to solve its economic woes but also to court Beijing’s support to quash Western moves to penalise Sri Lanka for alleged war crimes.
Neglecting the balancing act with which almost all previous Sri Lankan governments have conducted their foreign relations with nations that are hostile towards each other, the Rajapaksa regime behaved like a desperate casino player. It placed all its chips on one suit — the red heart symbolising China, which has invested billions of dollars in Sri Lanka’s infrastructure facilities, including projects that have raised eyebrows in New Delhi and Western capitals because of their strategic value.
In the end, this policy became a case of a casino owner lending the gambler more and more to play again, lose again and borrow again. The gamble made Sri Lanka virtually a satellite state of Beijing — with the Red Army’s submarines docking at Sri Lankan ports, raising serious alarms in New Delhi, Washington as well as in Tokyo, which used to be Sri Lanka’s biggest donor before the Rajapaksa regime placed all its bets on China.
It is reassuring to hear that President Sirisena has pledged to return to a principled foreign policy based on non-alignment. But the challenge is to strike a balance, taking into consideration the conflicting interests of different nations. Yes, we need the West and we need India which hopes that the new government will restore Indo-Lanka relations to the level which former foreign minister Lakshman Kadirgamar had described as ‘irreversible excellence’. But we also need China, which has stood by us in times of crisis and has all the money in the world to assist us, although Beijing, like all donor nations, has an agenda behind the aid it dishes out.
Diplomacy demands that if a state’s relations with one nation are in conflict with its relations with another nation, the state should be prudent enough to adopt a policy that balances its needs and aspirations with the needs and aspirations of the other states concerned.
The new government in its bid to mend fences with the West and win economic concessions and political support should not go all out to endorse every policy of the West in return.
The previous UNP government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe came in for criticism when its trade minister Ravi Karunanayake broke ranks with Non-Aligned countries and supported the US position at the 2003 world trade talks in Cancun, Mexico. Similarly, Managala Samaraweera in his previous stint as foreign minister hurt the feelings of Arab countries, Sri Lanka’s Muslim community and socialist parties, when he advised our envoy to slip out of the UN hall during a crucial vote in November 2006 for a pro-Palestinian resolution which was unanimously backed by the Non-Aligned bloc.
These two past foreign policy decisions stand out as examples where we put profit before principles. The new government should learn to balance profit and principles – realism and idealism — in foreign policy making.
Foreign policy is by definition an extension of the domestic policy. Since the domestic policy of the present government is built, at least ostensibly, on good governance principles, our foreign policy on sensitive global disputes should also be based on morality.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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Saudi’s pro-West Shariah politics

By Ameen Izzadeen
Old men cannot dye their hair and beard black and women cannot appear in public places without Hijab or the veil, say Saudi Imams. But the last seen visuals of King Abdullah who passed away last Friday showed the 90-year-old monarch sporting a thick black beard — and this week, the social media drew a plethora of comments, mostly in jest, when the Saudi royals did not mind the United States’ first lady Michelle Obama appearing without a head scarf and in a dress Saudi imams would condemn as un-Islamic. She even shook hands with the new king, Salman bin Abdulaziz. Islamic law forbids men from touching women, if they are not a mahrem – meaning the woman’s father, brother, son, uncle or a close relative who cannot marry her in terms of Islamic law. But the law bends itself for the royals in the name of diplomacy.
Interpreting Shariah law to prop up the male chauvinistic social order in the kingdom, Saudi Arabia does not allow women to drive. Women can’t go out unless they are accompanied by a male mahrem. But they do not mind when housemaids, including Muslim housemaids, come to the kingdom unaccompanied by a mahrem.
Shariah law, though criticised by liberals, has its merits — because it gives more weight to the rights of the community than to the rights of the individual. It is seen as a body of law that is not in consonance with 21st century thinking largely because those who adopt Shariah enforce it selectively while ignoring its human face. The Salafi or Wahhabi version of Islam practised in Saudi Arabia conveniently forgets the Islamic democratic concepts that were found in the early caliphates.
Shariah has become a convenient political tool to safeguard the royal’s hold on power. Terms such as fitnah and fasad — terms that denote sins — are invoked to justify suppression of dissent.
Giving the king a veneer of religious legitimacy is the title ‘Khadim al-Haramaini Sharifine’ or the servant or custodian of the two sacred mosques in Makkah and Medina. By conveniently confining his role to the service of the holy mosques, the king has apparently shirked his religious duty towards the oppressed people of Palestine.
The late King Abdullah aroused much hope in the Arab world when he was the crown prince. His land-for-peace plan to solve the Palestinian crisis is even today touted as one of the best proposals that could have won the Palestinian people their state and ensured Israel’s security. But when he became the king, he failed to revive the plan or use his influence with the US to find a solution to the issue. As crown prince, he opposed the presence of US troops in his country. But when he became the king, he was seen to be doing the West’s bidding. Among his provocative acts was the conferring of the kingdom’s highest award on President George W Bush, the man who was responsible for the deaths of more than one million Iraqis, Palestinians, Lebanese and people in other Arab and Muslim countries.
Often the kingdom’s foreign policy was seen to be in harmony with that of Israel — and nothing will emphasise this convergence more than their policies on Iran and Egypt. Leaked US embassy cables published on WikiLeaks claimed that the king had urged the US to bomb Iran’s nuclear sites. “Cut off the snake’s head,” the king was quoted in the cables as saying, referring to Iran. As regards Egypt, King Abdullah made no effort to hide his dislike of the Muslim Brotherhood, which won Egypt’s first presidential and parliamentary elections after the 2011 Arab Spring. The king feared that the Brotherhood cancer would gradually spread in the region, converting the Gulf Arab sheikdoms into democracies. The kingdom sponsored a military coup in Egypt and subverted the will of the people. The late king also sent troops to Bahrain to put down a pro-democracy uprising there. When the king passed away last Friday, there were very few tears in the streets of the Arab world.
The kingdom’s special relations with the United States go back to the early days of Saudi Arabia in the 1920s or to the days when the US was wandering in eastern Saudi deserts in search of oil after Britain refused to share Iraq’s oil pie with Washington. In terms of an understanding, the US had pledged to protect the Ibn Saud family, which came to possess a new country called Saudi Arabia — a gift from Britain in return for the Arab tribal leaders’ betrayal of the Ottoman caliph, the ruler of Arabia during World War One.
Ever since, the kingdom has remained a loyal ally of the US. The only aberration was the rule of King Faisal. He was deeply committed to the Palestinian cause and had an ambitious vision for the Arab and Islamic world. He was killed by a royal family member and many believe his death was a Western conspiracy.
Today the kingdom works in tandem with the United States. Its recent decision to glut the oil market was seen as following the West’s directive aimed at further punishing Russia and Iran – oil-importing countries that are already hit by Western economic sanctions.
Saudi Arabia has also been accused of rekindling the age-old Sunni-Shia conflict within Islam and this was seen as another case of doing the West’s bidding.
That Western leaders, including US President Barak Obama, are trooping to Riyadh to meet the new king shows the strategic importance of the kingdom in containing Iran and safeguarding Israel’s and the West’s interests in the region. But there have also been instances of policies going wrong. One such instance is the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). This was largely due to Saudi Arabia’s initial support to Sunni extremists fighting the regime in Syria. In yet another instance of foreign policy bungling, Saudi Arabia is today faced with a major crisis in neighbouring Yemen where Iranian-backed Houthi rebels have virtually taken over the country.
With the new king reportedly suffering from Alzheimer’s, it will be new Crown Prince Muqrin and deputy crown prince Mohammed ibn Nayef who will be running the show. Prince Mohammed was long seen as Washington’s preferred candidate. He has closely worked with the US in counter-terrorist measures in the region.
With the kingdom’s fate firmly affixed to the West, there is little hope for the oppressed people of Palestine and other Arab states.

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Terrorism: What went wrong and the way forward

By Ameen Izzadeen
Why is Islam violent? The question is all over the Internet and there are a plethora of answers from the sublime to the ridiculous, from apologists to hate-mongers, from scholars to scumbags, and from moderates to extremists. The question is being asked anew in the face of the recent violence committed by terrorists in France and atrocities being committed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ISIL), whose latest headline-hitting act of terror is the threat to kill two Japanese hostages if Japan does not pay a US$ 250 million ransom.
The answer to this question is as much philosophical as political. However, politically a more correct question would be: Why are some Muslims violent.
If Islam is a philosophy of violence, why is Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country, peaceful? Take Malaysia, another Muslim majority country. Neither of these countries has been blighted by Islamic extremism. Take India, home to some 150 million Muslims. Except for a few misguided groups, an overwhelming majority of the Indian Muslims are peace-loving citizens. In Turkey, where 95 per cent of the population is Muslim, instead of extremism what one sees is the concept of ‘Tasawwuf’ or an Islam based on purification of the soul. Even in Pakistan, a country devastated by terrorism, the extremists are a small minority.
True, the history of Islam is full of wars. Prophet Muhammad himself led his followers to many battles when hostile tribes and nations tried to attack his fledgling flock in Medina. Although the Quran denounces the shedding of blood, it permits jihad, the literal and spiritual meaning of which is the struggle to purify the soul and to uphold justice, peace and what is morally correct. But jihad as an armed struggle is subject to strict rules which among other things insist that one should be mindful of God-consciousness. However, the latter day Muslim rulers or empire builders distorted Islam and justified their action by giving a warped interpretation to Islam.
In fact the biggest scandal in Islamic history is the introduction of sayings falsely attributed to the prophet. Generations of Muslim scholars have been trying to sift the authentic sayings from the fabricated ones, but with limited success, although the dim-witted still hang on to these false hadith as divine truth.
It is to these false hadith or fabricated pieces of history that, ironically, both the detractors of Islam and the Islamic extremists hang on to – the former in their bid to slander the prophet and the latter to justify their barbarism.
Groups such as the ISIL (also known as ISIS and Islamic State), the Taliban, al-Qaeda, Boko Haram in Nigeria and al-Shabaab in Somalia have projected Islam as a religion of terror, hatred and violence – or as a religion that has little place for love and tolerance. The fact that God is love, mercy and full of kindness is lost on the extremists who have hijacked Islam.
The history of the Middle East is replete with many unholy men who perverted Islam and provoked people to commit acts of violence. The fact that the so-called Islamic violence takes place largely in the Middle East – and not in Muslim countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia — and that too after the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s — indicates that there is a correlation between terrorism and the tumultuous politics of the region. More than one million died in the independence struggle of Algeria in the 1950s and early 60s; another million died in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s; nearly 1.5 million have died following the US occupation of Iraq, and another million, half of them children, died as a result of the decade-old US-UN sanctions on that country; hundreds of thousands have been killed in Palestine, Lebanon and Syria and tens of millions rendered homeless because of region-wide conflicts which have become routine.
The people of the Middle East have suffered enough and they know their suffering is largely due to big power involvement in the oil-and-gas-rich region. The United States is known in the region as the biggest troublemaker or the biggest Satan. Preaching peace to a people who have been denied justice and who have been humiliated by invasions and occupation makes little sense.
Referring to Israel’s occupation of Palestine, a Palestinian youth once told me that what had been taken away from them through acts of violence could be won back only through acts of violence.
While such suffering goes on, the irony of all ironies is that some rich and powerful Arab countries are the best of friends of the very big powers which are responsible for the misery of the millions of their fellow Arabs.
As the frustration builds up, the region becomes a breeding ground for terrorists. Often these terrorists take cover behind Islam to justify their atrocities — and fatwas or decrees from Imams declaring terrorism a sin are often ignored. Though most terror groups act independently, they have, at one time or another, been armed or supported by Western and other countries. Many Western countries which are now waging war on Islamic terrorism turned a blind eye when hundreds of their Muslim citizens left for Syria to join terror groups that were trying to topple the anti-West Syrian regime.
Instead of such double dealings, what is required are concerted efforts to isolate extremists and defeat them. As the European Union and the United States are exploring such a course, their efforts will require the shedding of political agendas and looking at terrorism as a question of terrorism — and not on the basis of one’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. Parallel to such efforts, speedy steps should be taken to address grievances of the Palestinians and other people who have been denied justice, while also improving education and the economic prospects of countries regarded as terrorist breeding grounds.
Perhaps, as we said last week, this gigantic task can be given to the United Nations with the creation of a new UN agency that can be named the United Nations programme for the elimination of terrorism (UNPET).
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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Charlie’s angels or devils?

By Ameen Izzadeen
More than a million people marched in Paris on Sunday in what has been described as the biggest gathering to uphold freedom of expression. They walked, shouted slogans and carried placards saying “I am Charlie” in solidarity with the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo (weekly) which lost eight of its journalists last week when terrorists reportedly linked to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula attacked its head office for character assassinating Prophet Muhammad through its cartoons.
But as the cry “I am Charlie” reverberated all over the world, what went largely unnoticed in the Western media is not only the hypocrisy with which media freedom is exercised or promoted but also the endorsement of racism against Europe’s 20 million Muslims.
Free speech is not absolute. It should be exercised within the perimeters of human decency which, among other things, demands that one should not deliberately cause pain of mind to another. Rights are linked to responsibilities and free expression is subjected to laws dealing with tort, defamation, hate speech and security. While the savage attack on the journalists deserves the strongest condemnation, one cannot endorse the abuse of free speech.
Vilifying a prophet who died 1,400 years ago for the crimes of terrorists is not journalism, say Muslims who are hurt by the magazine’s repeated insults of Prophet Muhammad. Yesterday on board the aircraft that took him to Manila, Pope Francis referring to the Charlie Hebdo cartoons said there were limits to freedom of expression when religion was insulted. However, he also pointed out that killing in God’s name was an ‘absurdity’.
Misusing media freedom, just as the terrorists are misusing Islam in their mania for murder, Charlie Hebdo has been selectively provoking the Muslims. The magazine has been publishing a series of cartoons to dare the terrorists who had vowed to kill a Danish cartoonist for depicting a terrorist image of Prophet Muhammad, who, Muslims say, is dearer to them than their own lives. Stooping to a lower level, Charlie Hebdo resorted to pornographic portrayal of the prophet, disregarding warnings that it would hurt the feelings of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims. And hurt them it did. But protests by France’s Muslims – who comprise 8-10 per cent of its population – were met with retorts that if they could not adopt Western values, they must shut up or get out. French Muslims say Charlie symbolises their everyday humiliation in the so-called free France.
It was not courage but cowardice when Charlie depicted Prophet Muhammad naked, with obscene words to add spice to its perversion. No depiction of Muhammad is allowed in Islam, because the prophet himself banned it fearing that his followers would take him as an object of worship. Respecting the beliefs of other people is human decency. Charlie dismisses such rules of civility in defence of its right to practice free speech. In a display of boorish obstinacy, it published in its first issue after the January 7 attack another offensive cartoon on its cover depicting the prophet.
In a defiant interview, the cartoonist who drew the image said: “With this cover, we wanted to show that at any given moment, we have the right to do anything, to redo anything, and to use our characters the way we want to. Muhammad has become a character, in spite of himself, a character in the news, because there are people who speak on his behalf…”
As protests across the Muslims world grow, a group of 54 British Muslim leaders urged restraint and asked people to follow Muhammad’s example by preaching words of peace.
“It is common knowledge that absolute freedom of speech does not exist…. Most Muslims will inevitably be hurt, offended and upset by the republication of the cartoons. But our reaction must be a reflection of the teachings of the gentle and merciful character of the Prophet (peace be upon him). Enduring patience, tolerance, gentleness and mercy as was the character of our beloved Prophet (peace and Blessings be upon him) is the best and immediate way to respond.”
French laws criminalise hate speech. But they are invoked to protect largely the Jews. Even a cartoon portrayal of the stereotype Jew with a hooked nose is considered anti-Semitic and a crime. Academics who have disputed the 6 million Holocaust deaths have been sent to jail. When laws are applied selectively, it is not liberal society. After the “I am Charlie” march, scores of people who tried to test their absolute right to freedom of speech have been arrested for expressing anti-Jewish sentiments.
By leading the “I am Charlie” march, French President Francois Hollande and several world leaders gave an endorsement to Charlie Hebdo’s argument that freedom of speech is absolute and it includes the right to blaspheme any religious leader. But the same West pontificated that the right to free speech came with responsibility when WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and US whistleblower Edward Snowden exposed the dirty dealings of big powers and justified their exposure on the basis of the people’s right to information. If free speech was the driving force behind Sunday’s march, why aren’t there such worldwide marches to demand the release of three al-Jazeera journalists jailed in Egypt? Hypocrisy?
Meanwhile, the unity march was seen as a dangerous bid to add fertilizer to racism. The seeds or racism are sprouting in Europe. It was only a week before the French march that tens of thousands of people gathered in the German city of Dresden for a march organised by the Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West (Pegida). It was shocking to see the rise of racism in a country that tries to erase its horrid Nazi past. This week, an Eritrean Muslim immigrant was killed in Dresden. The crime was blamed on the rising racism in the city. Ideologies similar to that of Pegida are spreading across Europe, especially in France, Denmark, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Britain and Norway.
The Charlie Hebdo incident is about terrorism and free speech. That attacks such as this are still taking place 14 years after the war on terror began shows that the world has not decisively dealt with terrorism. Ironically, the policies of the West are blamed for terrorism’s growth.
A new approach is needed with economic and social factors being given top priority in measures dealing with the question of terrorism. The stalled United Nations talks aimed at working out a comprehensive anti-terrorism convention should be revived.
The UN should also work out laws governing freedom of expression. While free speech and the right to information are inalienable, there should be guidelines to exercise this right with responsibility. Otherwise, before long, magazines like Charlie Hebdo will bring about a dangerous and chaotic media culture where every religious leader held in high esteem by their followers will be fair game for insult. This will only lead to more bloodshed.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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After crucial poll, priority for good governance

By Ameen Izzadeen
A crucial election held, a winner declared, what’s next? The way forward is not victory celebrations or taking political revenge. What Sri Lanka badly needs today is a civilised political culture. The task should begin now to take the country towards a political culture where people will have no reason to doubt the integrity of the elections commissioner, the police chief and other state and military officials. The manner in which the Elections Commissioner handled yesterday’s presidential election — his first — without bowing down to political pressure or buckling under work pressure is an indication that a new dawn is emerging over the political landscape of Sri Lanka once again.
We yearn for a political culture where the will of the people is respected and not distorted; where the vote of the poverty-stricken citizen is not bought for a few hundred rupees and a packet of lunch; where the politicians are held accountable for unfulfilled promises made on election platforms; where racism or communal politics will have no place; where the Rule of Law will prevail; where the police will act impartially; where the public servant will have the courage to say no to the politician; where the judges can have a clear conscience; where citizens will use their right to information to ascertain whether their tax money is properly and efficiently used; where the government deals will be transparent and corruption-free; and where the right person will get the right job.
The wish list can go on but it is not mere wishful thinking of an idealist. The dream of good governance is worth dreaming, for it is good governance that ensures economic stability, which, in turn alleviates poverty and propels growth. Nobel-Prize winning Indian economist Amartya Sen argues that freedom and good governance are essential for economic development.
At Independence 66 years ago, ours was a country which the world stopped and took note of – not because of its value as a strategic location during a world war, but because of its values. The little country which was only known as Lipton’s tea garden during the 19th century colonial era, stood tall after Independence as a shining star among the civlised nations. Within decades of regaining Independence in 1948, Sri Lanka was playing a big role in world affairs – the San Francisco Peace Conference in 1951 — and in peace efforts aimed at solving many world conflicts such as the 1956 Suez war, the Soviet invasion of Hungary and the 1962 war between India and China. Morality-based politics and a foreign policy that displayed zeal to bring about a global order founded on justice and equality saw Sri Lanka playing a key role as a beacon of Non-Alignment in the struggle to free Asia and Africa from the yoke of colonialism and neo-colonialism.
During the last decades of the colonial period, we embraced democratic ideals and notions just as duck took to the water. This was probably why Sri Lankans were accorded universal adult franchise in 1931 just three years after people in Great Britain were granted it and even before India and Britain’s other colonies. The concept of a just society was deep-seated in Buddhism, the religion of the majority of Sri Lankans, and was not alien to the followers of Christianity, Hinduism and Islam either.
Democracy was so entrenched in Sri Lanka’s politics at Independence that a proposal to instal a descendent of Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe, the last king of the Kandyan kingdom, as a figurehead monarch when the colonial rule ended died no sooner than it was mooted.
At Independence, Sri Lanka was a politically mature society with the working class pinning its hopes on socialism while its ruling elite and the middle class pursued a liberal philosophy in politics and economics. The dynamism of this political maturity manifested in the hartal of 1953 and insurrections in 1971 and 1988 when attempts were made to undermine democracy and the welfare state.
But, sadly personal and party gains took precedence over statesmanship, paving the way for communal politics and confining to the dustbin of history the unity with which all Sri Lankans fought for Independence. The situation took a turn for the worse with the introduction of the Republican Constitution of 1978. The Constitution per se is not bad. But don’t they say that a bad constitution can be good in the hands of a good leader and a good constitution can be bad in the hands of a bad leader? The 1978 Constitution had many democratic features despite its many defects. One major defect is the Proportional Representation system and the preferential voting systme with the district as the basic electoral unit. This paved the way for the criminalisation of politics and the politicisation of crime. The politician needs a fortune to campaign throughout a district — a much larger unit than the previous electorate — and much of this money comes from anti-social elements on a quid-pro-quo basis.
Of course, the attempts to end the separatist war, which went on for three decades largely due to Velupillai Prabhakaran’s megalomaniac barbarism, required the citizens to forego some of their key freedoms. It was a reasonable sacrifice in the interest of the national cause. But the sad part of it is that many of these rights the citizens agreed to forego as part of their contribution to achieve peace did not come back to them in full. Worse still, many a law passed after the end of the war took governance towards authoritarianism. As a result there is a big democracy deficiency in the country, so much so that not a single law was passed after the war ended to strengthen democracy.
The freedom regained after the May 2009 war victory cannot be defined as the freedom to move from Devundara to Point Pedro without fear or being stopped at checkpoints. Freedom of movement is just a small part of the freedom we crave for. We are yet to see the fullness of the freedom of expression, the judicial independence and the freedom of public servants and police officers to carry out their duties without fear or favour.
Equally, development should not be confined to infrastructure. Development encompasses a much larger concept. Real development means simultaneous progress in the economic, social, cultural, moral and political life of the State and its people. What is the use of achieving a per capita income of US$ 10,000 if the country is morally bankrupt? The way forward is good governance, whoever has won Thursday’s election.
(This article first appeared in Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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