NAM and sham: Whither Non-alignment?

By Ameen Izzadeen
The message from Venezuela’s Margarita Island is that the Non-aligned Movement is all but dead. The 120-member organisation appeared like a bed-ridden elderly person thinking of beating Usain Bolt in a 100-metre sprint. Like the proverbial rats deserting the sinking ship, over the years many heads of state or government skipped the summit.
When the 17th summit was held in Venezuela last week, only ten heads of state attended it. Among them were Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, Cuban President Raul Castro, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
The poor show by world leaders raises the question whether there will be a non-aligned summit again? By not having the country represented at the head of state level or by its foreign minister at the Venezuela summit, Sri Lanka, one of the pioneers of the movement that was once the voice and strength of newly independent countries, signalled that it had all but withdrawn from the movement. Throwing protocol to the pigs, Sri Lanka dispatched a minister who holds the portfolio of skills development and vocational training. This was nothing to be surprised at. Sri Lanka was, perhaps, one of the first countries to realise that hanging on to NAM principles was a liability in the post-cold war era. In 2003, the then Ranil Wickremesinghe government betrayed NAM unity and supported the US position at the Cancun trade talks.
In neighbouring India, which recently signed a defence agreement with the US, enabling the two countries to use each other’s ports, officials did not even bother to provide a credible reason for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to skip the summit. Even the United Nations Secretary General did not consider attending the summit worthwhile.
A waste of time and energy, many NAM heads of state might have thought. And they were not wrong. NAM summits in recent years were largely a foreign policy trophy for the host nation – not for the participating nations, unless they felt that their attendance at the summit would help them promote their foreign or domestic policy goals.
During last week’s summit, the host nation’s president took great pains to portray the parley as a diplomatic success. President Nicholas Maduro called it a meeting that would “be remembered for centuries.” One wonders whether his remarks were prophetic because this could be the last NAM summit. With the Non-Aligned Movement having long outlived its usefulness, solidarity among the developing countries is nowhere to be seen. Be it at the United Nations or any international forum on crucial issues such as climate change, world trade or development goals, NAM countries act individually and take a stand thinking only about their own self-interest.
There was little NAM spirit when India and Libya voted for a US-backed resolution against Sri Lanka at the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2012.
The Non-Aligned Movement was born in response to a post-World War II international order that saw the then two superpowers engaging in a Cold War to win as many allies as possible, virtually dividing the world into two power blocs. Dismissing this world order, the then newly independent states in Africa, Asia and Latin America and other countries with similar thinking decided not to align with either the United States-led Western bloc or the Soviet Union-led Eastern bloc. Enmity towards none and friendship with all was the motto. They first met in 1955 in the Indonesian city, Bandung. Sri Lanka was one of the six convenors of this conference. The others were Egypt, Indonesia, Burma, India and Pakistan.
Perhaps, the present day US-looking mandarins at New Delhi’s South Block, for obvious reasons, do not want the world to know that the term ‘non-alignment’ was first coined by India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru during one of the preparatory meetings in Colombo in 1954. He envisioned non-alignment as a political ideology based on five principles or Panchaseela – a mantra for coexistence first offered by Chinese Premier Zhou-Enlai as a guide for better Sino-India relations.
The five principles were: (1) mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty; (2) mutual non-aggression; (3) mutual non-interference in domestic affairs; (4) equality and mutual benefit and (5) peaceful co-existence.
The movement held its inaugural meeting in 1961 in the Yugoslav capital of Belgrade, under the stewardship of Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito or “Marshal Tito”.
Since then the NAM had been championing many a noble cause. It was a strong advocate of the Palestinian cause and the independence struggles of Algeria, South Africa, Zimbabwe (Rhodesia), Angola, Mozambique and other nations. It confronted largely the United States. This was because the Soviet Union used solidarity with the NAM cause to its advantage.
The spirit of non-alignment was evident in the foreign policies of almost all the member states during the early years of the movement. But as years went by, NAM countries began to flirt with one superpower or the other to keep their economies going. Countries such as India and Iraq signed friendship treaties with the Soviet Union, while Egypt threw its weight behind the United States after the death of Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1970. With the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, NAM members began to see non-alignment as a liability. Yet some tried their best to make it meaningful in the context of post-cold war realities. But no more.
Their apathy was evident at last week’s NAM summit, which hardly made news in the mainstream international media. The summit turned out to be a platform for President Maduro and his anti-US allies to criticise US foreign policy.
But it may be a little too early to write NAM’s death certificate. President Maduro, besieged by growing calls for his resignation as the US-backed opposition capitalises on the hardships that Venezuela’s people face due to the world oil price plunge, told the summit that the UN should not merely be reformed, but re-founded in a manner that all nations have a more balanced share.
But we believe that even NAM needs to be refounded in keeping with the realities. With China emerging as a counterforce to the United States and Russia reemerging as a rival of the United States, NAM countries needs to join forces to strike a balance and benefit from all big powers.

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G20 summit: Substance was in the sideshows

By Ameen Izzadeen
We cannot be over optimistic that this week’s G 20 summit in one of China’s most prosperous cities would become a catalyst to revitalise the global economy. In the run-up to the Hangzhou summit, the media hype gave one the impression it would find a way to boost global growth, deal with the Brexit shock and the rise of protectionism in world trade. Notwithstanding the call by the summit’s host, China’s President Xi Jinping, to convert the “talk shop” into an “action team”, the end-of-summit communiqué indicated this was yet another summit where they came, they talked and they shammed.
G20 is basically an informal economic group. The G20, like the Non-Aligned Movement, has no secretariat. But NAM has a common approach to third world issues. At least, it had in the past. Formed in 1999, the G20, now comprising 19 countries and the European Union, seeks to maintain international financial stability and economic momentum. But it appears that the Hangzhou summit has made little headway in the direction of a global economic revival, what with the undercurrents of the summit being one of suspicion over China’s global ambitions. There were complaints about China’s steel exports flooding global markets and about China making it difficult for foreign investors to enter its market.
The only benefit that international summits of this nature bring was the bilateral meetings between world leaders who are at loggerheads over various disputes. Thus the G20 summit saw several meetings where crucial world issues were discussed. They ranged from the Syrian war and the Afghan peace process to the South China Sea disputes and the US missile deployment in South Korea. Though there was hardly a major announcement at the end of these meetings on the sidelines of the summit, the fact that world leaders holding opposing views on global issues met and discussed matters appeared to have helped ease tension.
Take the meeting between the United States President Barack Obama, now reduced to a lame duck leader with only four months to serve in office, and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. The picture that captured the formal handshake showed the two leaders seemingly staring at each other. They are poles apart on the crisis in Ukraine, the war in Syria, NATO’s eastward expansion and other crucial world issues. Yet the talks between the two leaders and their foreign ministers at least stirred hopes that a solution to the Syrian crisis was possible.
Similarly, Obama’s meeting with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also helped the two countries to narrow their differences after ties between the two NATO allies plummeted following the July 15 failed coup attempt by a small group of Turkish military officers.
Also significant was Putin’s meeting with China’s President. The meeting between the two strategic allies who hold similar views on many global issues was as sweet as ice cream on the diplomatic cake. Putin, in fact, presented Xi a box of Russian ice cream which is popular among the Chinese. If China wants to be a superpower, then it must have a band of dependable allies in times of need. Russia is one such ally.
Since around 2005, China, soon-to-be the world’s number one economy, has been gradually, quietly and cautiously establishing an international profile befitting a world leader. Yet it had tactfully avoided getting involved in conflicts in the Middle East which the United States regards as part of its domain of influence. But last month, in a significant policy shift, China expressed support for the Bashar al-Assad regime, which Russia is trying to prop up with its military intervention. The announcement came following a visit by a high-level Chinese military delegation to Damascus. The delegation offered military assistance to the Assad regime.
“China and Syria’s militaries have a traditionally friendly relationship, and China’s military is willing to keep strengthening exchanges and cooperation with Syria’s military,” China’s state news agency Xinhua quoted China’s Central Military Commission Director Guan Youfeias as saying in a report filed from Damascus. For obvious reasons, mainstream Western media that have embedded themselves with the war party underreported the significance of the Chinese military delegation’s visit to Syria and its support for Assad during the height of war.
Then take the meeting between Xi and Obama. Apparently, the US media were overdramatising the protocol blunder over the Chinese officials’s failure to offer a rolling staircase for Obama to descend from Air Force 1 and the Chinese officials’ yelling “this-is-our-country” at the US media team at the airport. But the meeting saw the two leaders discussing ways and means of improving cooperation and reducing tensions.
Apart from the usual issues such as terrorism and trade, Xi and Obama discussed maritime risk reduction and cooperation and the Afghanistan peace process — issues which China considers vital for its One-Belt-One-Road initiative. The two leaders also announced their decision to ratify the Paris climate deal, a significant step by the world’s two biggest emitters of greenhouse gases.
The meeting between President Xi and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was also significant because it took place days after India signed a defence pact with the United States. Called LEMOA, or Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement, the pact makes the two countries’ naval, air force and army bases available to each other for servicing and repairs on a case-by-case basis.
But China’s displeasure over this agreement is conspicuous, with the state-funded Global Times newspaper in an editorial in its August 30th issue warning New Delhi that if India hastily joins the US alliance system, it may irritate China, Pakistan and even Russia… and may not make India feel safer, but “will bring strategic troubles to itself and make itself a centre of geopolitical rivalries in Asia.”
But at the bilateral meeting, Xi and Modi agreed to work towards putting India-China ties in the “right direction” and to “respect and accommodate” each other’s concerns.
So it was the meetings on the margins of the G20 summit that made the Hangzhou summit a success. Otherwise, summits of this nature are a waste of time. Simply because top world leaders attended a summit does not make a summit great. Greatness is measured largely by the results of the proposals arising from a summit. But so far, no G20 summit has achieved such greatness. Neither are G20 decisions binding. Need we say more?
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror of Sri Lanka)

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The pogrom of children: The picture behind the pictures

By Ameen Izzadeen
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror of August 26, 2016)A chilling picture of a child – identified as Omran Daqneesh from Aleppo in Syria – is making international news and creating much debate in the social media, but it appears that the whole exercise of showing a child to win sympathy or demonise the enemy has a war agenda.
Pictures may tell more than a thousand words, but do they change policy?
If the Omran picture was posted with the aim of stressing the need for meaningful and urgent peace talks, it was then certainly praiseworthy. But if those who posted the picture were killers posing off as members of a British-funded rescue group, and they did so with the intention of providing an excuse for Western nations to intervene in Syria in a robust way as they had done in Libya, then their action is as reprehensible and shameful as the killing of children caught in war zones.
Besides, they are also very much mistaken if they think that pictures can change the policies of the United States. The US is cautious about picture-driven policymaking. It once happened during the 1992-93 Somalia famine and civil war. As the mainstream world media showed live footage of famine-stricken children of Somalia, pressure grew on the Bill Clinton administration to intervene. But once the US troops landed in Somalia, footage of a dead American soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu forced Clinton to withdraw the troops amid growing domestic opposition to the US military involvement.
What happened in Somalia was an example where media coverage led to policy change. This phenomenon is described in foreign policy circles as the CNN effect.
US foreign policy experts such as George Kennan have warned of the adverse repercussion of policy decisions based on news accounts that by their very immediacy are incomplete, have little context and are sometimes wrong.
If pictures can change policy, it could have happened in September last year. The picture of Aylan Kurdi, dead on Turkey’s Mediterranean beach, made hearts melt. Yet the war mongers — call them big powers — showed little or no urgency to end the Syrian war. Perfunctory peace talks, as expected, made little or no headway, but they paved the way for more heads to roll, literally, as the Syrian conflict intensified, with the ISIS and other terror groups, some of whom were backed by the West and its Arab allies, capturing more territory, provoking Russia’s intervention to prop up the Syrian regime.
If pictures of children affected by war could bring peace, wars that erupted since the day photography became part of war journalism, would have ended no sooner they started. Who could forget the Pulitzer Prize winning AP picture of nine-year-old naked Kim Phuc wounded by the Napalm bombs the United States-backed South Vietnamese planes dropped on the village of Trang Bang, on June 8, 1972? The people the world over were moved by the black-and-white picture, but the war continued for three more years with the United States sending in more troops to prop up a puppet government.
Then take Israel’s war on South Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2009. More than a thousand children died in the two wars. Many were the photographs of dead and wounded children that journalists captured and sent out from the two war zones. They were as heartbreaking to watch as the pictures of Aylan and Omran. Yet the big powers were muted in their condemnation, for it was Israel, their beloved, which was doing the right thing – defending itself from groups such as Hezbollah. While the United States and its Western allies gave their tacit approval for Israel’s military action to punish Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, the United Nations stood helpless to stop the massacre of children. Its inaction proved once again that it was only a tool in the hands of powerful nations.
The less we talk about the United Nations’ commitment to protect children caught up in armed conflicts the better it is. That it has an Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary General for Children and Armed Conflict and the annual reports it publishes to name and shame the perpetrators do not absolve the Secretary General or the world body of culpability in the massacre of children. Their culpability comes in the form of their slow response to situations which require urgent action to save children caught in armed conflicts. The Secretary General’s Special Representative, Leila Zerroiugi, talked early this month about a 15-year-old Iraqi boy who was brutally killed by the ISIS. Her speech before the UN Security Council made little sense or only raised more questions on the UN’s efficacy, because the UN was not right there for the little boy or had no mechanism to protect him when ISIS tied his legs to two vehicles moving in opposite directions.
The Office of the Special Representative publishes annual reports and participates in debates in the UN Security Council – a routine. But we need to ask how committed the Special Representative is to the cause of children caught up in armed conflicts, as she made no protest over Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s surrender to the money power of Saudi Arabia, which is being accused of killing children in Yemen. Following Saudi Arabia’s threat to withdraw funding to the world body, Ban removed Saudi Arabia from the report the Special Representative prepared to name and shame countries and organisations that have killed children in armed conflict.
And also not named and shamed were those Western countries killing children in indiscriminate drone attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and other places. In Pakistan alone, according to Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates, some 966 children have died in US drone attacks. So the picture behind the picture is that the high and mighty to can kill children and get away.
Coming back to the picture of little Omran, evidence is now emerging to claim that the picture was a setup. But the mainstream western corporate media which have joined in the greed driven wars in the Middle East, do not talk about such evidence. The Russia Today and Chinese state media, however, not only analysed the picture but also exposed the men behind the picture.
Showing what they claimed to be evidence, Russia Today television in its lead story on Tuesday identified the men who carried Omran to the ambulance as the very killers of a 12-year-old Palestinian-Syrian boy two months ago. The boy, whom they accused of being an informant, was beheaded and the footage showing his severed head was posted on terrorist websites. But the slaughter of the Palestinian boy by terrorists whom the West fondly calls rebels did not make world headlines.
China Central Television (CCTV) in a news report on the Omran picture said, “Critics have suggested that [the video] is part of a propaganda war, aimed at creating a ‘humanitarian’ excuse for Western countries to become involved in Syria…. The workers did not make rapid rescue efforts and instead quickly set up a camera.”
The CCTV report was subtitled “Posed picture? Exaggeration? The video is suspected of being a fake”.

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From Russia with love: Reel to reality in Turkey

By Ameen Izzadeen
What was seen as impossible only a couple of month ago has happened. The worst of enemies are now best of friends. Turkey’s sudden amour with Russia underscores that in politics there are only permanent interests – no permanent friends or enemies.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Russia on Tuesday, just weeks after a failed military coup, which Erdogan supporters feel had the blessings of the United States, signals a possible shift in alliances with regard to the Syrian crisis and could even have a major impact on world affairs.
No wonder, the visit received huge media coverage in the United States underlining the US anxiety over what Erdogan got from Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. Although Putin said that restoring trade ties with Turkey would take time and work, Erdogan seems to be upbeat over the outcome of the visit. For him, the tagline read “from Russia with love”. Incidentally “From Russia With Love” was the title of a 1963 James Bond film, the plot of which revolved around characters and incidents in Turkey.
From reel to reality, Erdogan’s new Russian affair, coming amid his suspicion that the US wanted him removed through a military coup, has raised questions over whether Turkey is preparing to leave the US-led North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato), whether Turkey will end its antagonism towards Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a Putin ally, and whether there will emerge a new security alliance including, among others, Russia, Turkey and Iran.
Yunus Soner, deputy chairman of the Turkish Patriotic Party describes Erdogan’s détente with Russian President Vladimir Putin as a tectonic movement. “This will affect Turkish-Syrian relations, Turkish-Chinese relations, Turkish-Russian relations and Turkish-Iranian relations. This will change the world.”
But Erdogan’s rapport with Russia began weeks before the failed coup on July 15. On June 27, Erdogan, feeling the pinch of the Russian economic sanctions, apologised for the downing of a Russian warplane in November last year and called for Russia and Turkey to mend a bilateral relationship that had become openly hostile over the incident. Angered by the downing of the warplane on the Syria-Turkey border, Russia stopped imports from Turkey and prevented Russian tourists from visiting that country. Then it published what it called satellite pictures showing Turkish oil tankers lining up on the Syrian border to collect oil sold by the terror group ISIS. In April, Russia’s United Nations Ambassador submitted a list of Turkish companies to the United Nations Security Council, claiming his country had collected evidence that these companies were supplying weapons to ISIS. Turkey on the other hand accused Russia of supporting Kurdish separatists fighting for an independent state for Turkey’s Kurds who comprise 20 percent of the population.
Then came the coup; and the 180 degree turn in Turkey-Russia relations.
Russia could not have asked for more. It would be the happiest if Erdogan’s anger against the United States develops into a situation hostile enough to cause a crack in Nato, the cold-war-era relic which the Americans preserve to perpetuate their military dominance of the globe. This is because Russia is uncomfortable with Nato’s eastward expansion all the way to Russia’s western borders.
It would be naïve to assume that Erdogan and his now “dear friend” Putin avoided taking up Syria in their talks in St. Petersburg, the city Peter the Great built and later the capital of imperial Russia.
Turkey, which together with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, ignited the Syrian civil war under a smokescreen of an Arab Spring uprising against Assad, now probably feels that its national interest will be better served in an alliance with Russia than its alliance with the US. This is because Washington is arming and training Syrian Kurdish groups to fight ISIS. But these groups are great allies of Kurdish separatists which Turkey has been fighting for decades.
Erdogan and Putin vowed to restore what they called the “axis of friendship”. But for this axis to be meaningful, the two countries cannot go in opposite directions on Syria. Russia would like Turkey to take steps to prevent its territory from being used by anti-Assad rebels, while Turkey would want a policy commitment from Russia not to support Kurdish separatism.
If this is the new axis of friendship, then it may signal Turkey’s withdrawal from the coalition that seeks to topple the Assad regime. The fact that Erdogan in his St. Petersburg statement recalled Putin’s condemnation of the coup no sooner it was launched and the Russian leader’s phone call the day after to express support to him was a swipe aimed at the US and its Western allies who, according to Erdogan supporters, had regretted the failure of the coup.
Adding to Erdogan’s ire was Washington’s reluctance to accommodate his request for the extradition of Fethullah Gulen, the Turkish Islamic scholar who lives in self-exile in Pennsylvania. Erdogan insists that Gulen was behind the coup while Erdogan’s supporters say the Sufi recluse is backed by US intelligence. To extradite Gulen, the Americans sought evidence.
Addressing a post-coup meeting in Ankara, Erdogan said, “Now I ask, does the West give support to terror or not? Is the West on the side of democracy or on the side of coups and terror? Unfortunately, the West gives support to terror and stands on the side of coups….We have not received the support we were expecting from our friends, neither during nor after the coup attempt.”
Erdoğan also lamented that no Western leader had come to Turkey to express condolences and show solidarity with the Turkish people.
Turkey now says it has sent Washington a file containing “evidence” for the extradition of Gulen, but Washington appears to be unmoved.
Can the United States afford to earn more of Erdogan’s wrath? Turkey hosts a key Nato airbase from where US fighter jets operate mission against ISIS targets. Incidentally, one of the July 15 coup leaders was in charge of this airbase located in the Incirlik area of the Turkish city of Adana. Erdogan supporters therefore claim the US had pre-knowledge of the coup.
However, Erdogan cannot afford to take Turkey out of Nato. Neither can the West achieve its geopolitical goals without the help of Turkey. The relationship is symbiotic. Turkey is the biggest troop contributor to Nato after the United States. The West fears that if Turkey is let go of, it will only pave the way for Russia or China to seize on the opportunity and strengthen strategic relations with Turkey which is a doorway to Asia and Europe.
The European Union feels that it needs Erdogan’s support to stem the refugee flow to Europe, while Turkey’s economy is closely linked to Europe, with the EU being Turkey’s number one trade partner.
Given this dependency on the Europe and the West, Erdogan’s détente with Russia may be aimed at extracting concessions from the United States in the form of the extradition of Gulen or full membership of the EU.
So for the time being, the political outcome of the Erdogan-Putin talks is in a state of uncertainty. One has to wait for what happens next to say with some degree of certainty which way Turkey is headed – towards Nato or Russia.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror of Sri Lanka on August 12, 2016)

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Protestocracy: Mind the rights of the silent majority

By Ameen Izzadeen
It appears that protests have become a part of our lives. Not a day passes without a protest being held in Colombo or elsewhere. Indeed it is a good sign of a vibrant democracy, so long as the state is not turned into a protestocracy or government by protesters for protesters. Sadly, this appears to be the case in Sri Lanka.
To get the maximum visibility for their protests, one of the techniques the protesters resort to is blocking key roads. They have scant regard for the fact that their protests inconvenience tens of thousands of people. Commuters and motorists are struck for hours in traffic jams. Children come home late after school or tuition classes. Young women returning from work get late to go home, while anxious parents keep calling them via mobile phones to ensure that they are safe as they walk through dimly lit streets well after dusk. Those who want to be on time for doctor appointments or job interviews do not make it. Even tourists are inconvenienced. The country simply cannot afford the work hours lost almost every day in protest-related traffic jams. The motive, it appears, is to cause as much public inconvenience to make the people hate the Government.
One can bear with a protest if it is held as a last resort after exhausting all other avenues of finding a solution to a grievance. But the protests we see on a daily basis range from the sublime to the ridiculous, so much so that we wonder whether soon we will see a booming protest industry in Sri Lanka just as it exists in Indonesia, where professional protesters have even business cards. Sri Lanka is not unfamiliar with hired protesters with the going rate being around Rs. 500 in addition to food and liquor.
It is also interesting to note that many an issue over which protesters are shouting themselves hoarse has not arisen due to the fault of the present Government. Most of the issues such as the Malabe private medical college have been part of the baggage this Government inherited. None dared to protest over many of these issues during the Mahinda Rajapaksa government, probably for fear of being white-vanned or due to the then opposition’s aversion to protests.
In striking contrast, the so-called Joint Opposition, in recent weeks and months, has been using regular protest rallies in key cities and towns as a technique to whip up public discontent against the Government over the increase in Value Added Tax and other issues. Yesterday, it launched a pada yatra or a protest march from the outskirts of Kandy to Colombo.
It is universally recognised that people have the right to protest when they feel the government they have elected betrays the trust they have placed in it.
Article 14 of Sri Lanka’s Constitution says every citizen is entitled to the freedom of peaceful assembly. The key word is peaceful assembly – not demonstrations that threaten the peace of society or that cause inconvenience to non-protesting people. If the actions of a handful of people could bring hardships to millions of others, then the State and the law enforcement authorities have to step in to stop it.
This is because protests can be good and bad. If they are people-powered and peaceful, they are good. If they are powered by politicians with ulterior motives and aggressive in nature, then such protests have little space in a democracy. Good or public-spirited protests are made of greatness of purpose and are devoid of political manipulations. Mahatma’s Gandhi’s salt campaign that heralded the great independence movement in 1930 still shines as a good example of a peaceful protest that achieved glorious results. Martin Luther King’s march and his historic “I have a dream” speech in 1963 still inspire oppressed people around the world to have faith in peaceful protests. The American people’s flowers-for-guns campaign in the 1970s to end their country’s atrocious war in Vietnam is another example where peaceful protests can bring policy change. But all peaceful protests do not change policy. Weeks before the then United States President George W. Bush and the then British Prime Minister Tony Blair launched the war on Iraq in March 2003, millions of people in world capitals marched protesting against the impending war. But the two warmongers showed no respect for the voice of the people.
Recent examples of people-powered protests were the Arab Spring protests in Tunisia that ousted dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Tahrir Square protests that ended the 30-year dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak. Though the protesters were largely peaceful, the law enforcement authorities who have little regard for noble concepts such as the people’s fundamental right to peaceful assembly used violence in their efforts to uphold tyranny.
As opposed to protests powered by people for a just cause, there are protests scripted or manipulated by cunning politicians who want to hide their nudity or their sins. We need to be wary of such politicians.
It is no secret that US and Middle East policy makers played a big role in the Libyan protests that led to the death of strongman Muammar Gaddafi. These same policy makers engineered the protests against the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria in 2011 but ended up only creating a civil war and the biggest humanitarian crisis since the end of World War II.
Protest manipulation is not just confined to international politics.
In local politics, protest manipulators are equally deceitful. They know how to manipulate populism or the power of the people to advance their political agendas, especially when economic grievances build up.
Protest manipulation is a deceitful art or even a science. It involves the study of crowd psychology, mob behaviour and media handling. Often crowd manipulators benefit from deaths. This is because protest deaths dominate news bulletins for days and weeks giving undue publicity to bankrupt politicians, while the funerals themselves could be turned into much bigger anti-government protests.
The Government should be aware of the ulterior motives and exercise restraint; but it should also remember that it has a duty by non-protesters, the silent majority, to ensure that they are not inconvenienced.
The people elected this government with the aim of restoring democracy, not to establish a protestocracy. Good governance is too precious a principle to be squandered in anarchy or protests scripted by power-hungry politicians.
Just as the freedom to join peaceful protests is a fundamental right of a citizen, the freedom of mobility is also a fundamental right. Getting stuck for hours in a traffic jam, therefore, could be construed as a violation of a fundamental right of the people. The government should find a middle path solution to the protest mania. On Wednesday, Police, citing public inconvenience, obtained a court order to prevent the pada yatra’s launch from Kandy town. Similar court orders should be obtained to prevent politically motivated protests in the Fort, Town Hall and other key areas in Colombo City, not least during peak hours.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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Anti-coup charade in Turkey: Erdogan cracks the whip

By Ameen Izzadeen
An elderly gentleman was preparing our breakfast in an Ankara hostel. My friend and fellow journalist Latheef Farook and I greeted him as we walked into the kitchen. Leaning against the pantry cupboard, we watched him make a special omelet for us. Then we saw a few ants moving towards some food items he had prepared for us and kept on the pantry table. When someone tried to wipe the table with a piece of cloth, the old man stopped him and read out a Quranic verse, which meant, “Whatever is in the heavens and on earth, glorifies Allah.” Turning towards us, he said: “Let the creature live so that it can continue to sing the praises of its Lord.”
This incident happened six years ago, when we were the guests of the Hizmet movement headed by Fethullah Gulen, the man Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdogan is accusing of launching last Saturday’s failed military coup. At a time when terror groups have hijacked Islam and are turning it into violent satanism, the Gulen movement is an organization that is rediscovering Islam and its spirit which has long gone missing under the influence of various distorted interpretations steeped in political shenanigans. The ISIS, al Qaeda and the Taliban do not represent Islam, but the Gulen movement does. Practitioners of Wahhabism – a type of Islam practised in Saudi Arabia – may claim that theirs is the purest form of Islam. But critics say their statement is only partially true. This is because Wahhabism focuses more on ritualistic purity than on the spiritual essence of Islam. Then there are Thareeqas (paths) and sufi schools of thought. They claim to be spiritualists. But their exegeses are largely distortions.
The Gulen movement, on the other hand, sees the worship of one God as a liberative experience to serve humanity. Its members are encouraged to gain knowledge and impart it to others or use it in the service of humanity. They are encouraged to do business, but told to spend the surplus profit in charity. Today, the Gulen movement, also known as the Hizmet movement – Hizmet means service – runs schools and charities in 170 countries, including Sri Lanka.
The movement has its origins in the struggles of Sa’id Nursi, who stood as a bulwark against Kemalist secularism. With Islam being wiped out from public life in Turkey under the reforms of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the secular visionary who founded modern Turkey from what remained of the Ottoman Empire after World War 1, Nursi, also known as Badi-uz-zaman, tried to show that Islam and democracy were not incompatible and that Islam was in harmony with modern sciences. Nursi declared: “I shall prove and demonstrate to the world that the Quran is an undying, inexhaustible Sun, by updating it to meet modern life requirements!”
After Nursi’s death, Gulen revived the movement to keep Islam alive in secular Turkey, where under Kemalist reforms, the hijab was banned from public life and Friday sermons became a script-writing affair of the state. The movement survived throughout the repressive regimes that captured power in military coups claiming that democratically elected governments were veering away from the state principle of secularism. Since Turkey was a key member of the NATO alliance during the Cold War, the United States supported the military regimes despite their atrocious human rights records. One of the undemocratic acts of every military regime was to ban political parties, especially those parties inclined towards Islam. But every time a party was banned for suspected Islamic inclinations, it reemerged under a different name. Erdogan’s Justice and Development (AK) Party also evolved in such a manner.
The AK Party’s owes it rise to power in 2002 to the Gulen movement which by then had emerged as a powerful religious movement or cemaat (pronounced jemaat). Gulen and Erdogan were the best of allies. The military which often had its way in politics, thanks to the existence of a Kemalist deep state in the Turkish administration, appeared helpless to defeat the Gulen-Erdogan alliance. But the alliance fell apart in 2013 when Erdogan, who as a poor schoolboy sold lemonade at traffic lights, faced corruption allegations. He and his son were accused of amassing billions of dollars through corrupt deals. In February 2014, the Turks were shocked when Erdogan in leaked recordings of phone conversations was heard instructing his 33-year-old son, Bilal, to dispose of large amounts of hidden funds from their private home. He and his son also allegedly had links with Iranian billionaire Babak Zanjani who was sentenced to death in March by a Teheran court for fraudulently pocketing US$ 2.8 billion of state funds. Bilal was also accused of profiteering from oil deals with ISIS.
During our visit to Turkey in 2010, we noticed the fast return of Islam into Turkish public life. With the wives of Erdogan and the then President Abdullah Gul sporting Hijab, many women began to emulate them. In our conversations with Gulen movement Turks, we asked them whether there would be another military coup, since Erdogan appeared to be violating the state principle of secularism. Their response was: “We will take to the streets, if that happens.”
Turkey saw this happening this week when tens of thousands of people braved military tanks and low-flying aircraft to defeat an attempt by a small group of ill prepared military officers to capture power.
But the coup had all the makings of a mercenary job, though it may not be so. This is because it had the support of only 3,000 soldiers. Besides, the coup plotters made no effort to arrest Erdogan or the Prime Minister or take over the state-run television. Rumours doing the rounds in opposition circles say the soldiers who took part in the coup did not know they were launching a coup. Many thought it was a military exercise. It is also rumoured that the coup soldiers were those who had got their jobs back after their release from jail. They were jailed for their role in a 2013 anti-government conspiracy by a clandestine group called Ergenekon.
And what’s more, it provided Erdogan the opportunity he was waiting for to strengthen his hold on power. Yesterday, he declared a state of emergency for three months. The move, which Erdogan described as a bid to root out the virus behind the coup, came after the police acting under orders from him arrested nearly 10,000 military personnel. So far some 50,000 state sector officials, including top judges and university dons, have lost their jobs, while nearly 600 schools run by the Gulen movement have been closed. The purge has helped Erdogan, who is being accused of acting like an Ottoman sultan, to remove civic-conscious bureaucrats who are not Gulenists.
Gulen has denied any role in the coup and said if the United States wants to extradite him to Turkey, he was ready to face trial.
Erdogan’s post-coup moves have raised international concerns. Even before the coup, Erdogan came under international criticism for his lack of respect for democratic norms such as freedom of expression and the independence of the judiciary. In recent months and years, he has nationlised opposition run media groups, arrested some 20 journalists and removed judges.
Just prior to the botched coup, Erdogan’s popularity was at all-time low, with the country being devastated by regular suicide attacks, a renewed war with Kurdish separatists, the Syrian refugee crisis and a stagnant economy. The coup has helped him to take control of affairs for a while. But how long is the question.
This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka on July 22, 2016

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Peace in South Asia: Listen to the Kashmiri people

Like a volcano that erupts every now and then throwing out lava, Kashmir this week exploded. Instead of lava, blood flowed as more than 30 Kashmiri protesters were killed in four days of protests and clashes with Indian security forces.
The authorities imposed day-long curfews while hospitals struggled to cope with a large number of wounded people, most of whom were suffering eye injuries as the security forces were firing pellets at their faces.
The protests erupted following the death of a popular Kashmiri freedom fighter, Burhan Wani, whom India and the Indian media called a terrorist.
Arguments over who is a terrorist and who is a freedom fighter apart, the disturbances, the deaths or the dreams of the people in this disputed region will not make Kashmir an urgent international issue. However, Kashmir, over which India and Pakistan have fought two major wars and many battles, has been on the United Nations agenda for the past 68 years, albeit dormant. Like the Palestinian issue, the Kashmiri dispute is another example that in world politics, justice has little place. What matters is power. Powerful nations set the global agenda.
What was the response of the United States to the bloodshed in Kashmir? In deference to the United States’ growing military and strategic alliance with India amid China’s military rise, Washington said that what was happening in Kashmir was an internal matter for India, though a State Department spokesman diplomatically added, “Obviously, we’re concerned about the violence…. We encourage all sides to make efforts towards finding a peaceful resolution.”
As the death toll was rising in Kashmir, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon issued a statement on the situation in South Sudan, reminding UN members about their responsibility to protect the innocent people caught up in a war situation. His office reacted to the Kashmiri situation only after a Pakistani journalist remarked that the Secretary General had brushed aside the Kashmiri issue.
“No one is denying that we are concerned about the situation in Kashmir. The fact that the Secretary General did not raise it as he did not raise many other critical situations around the word does not mean he is brushing anything aside,” Stephane Dujarric, the UN spokesperson said.
Later Ban’s office issued a statement saying: “UN Chief Ban Ki-moon calls on all parties to exercise ‘maximum restraint’ to avoid further violence in Kashmir and hopes that all concerns would be addressed through peaceful means.”
The Secretary General appears to be more concerned about running the administration of the UN – paying salaries, changing bulbs and cleaning toilets – than policies or principles to protect people or children caught up in wars, as his recent surrender to Saudi Arabia indicates when the oil kingdom threatened to withdraw funds to the world body. Bowing under pressure is nothing new to Ban. During the 2010 Kashmir uprising, with the death toll reaching more than 200, Ban, just new to the office, issued a bold statement. India thought it amounted to internationalising the Kashmiri issue. Within 24 hours of issuing the statement, the Secretary General’s office withdrew it under pressure from India.
But there is no gainsaying that the dispute demands international attention. This is because it can trigger a nuclear war between neighbours India and Pakistan. It is the only issue that prevents the takeoff of the South Asian Association for Regional Countries (SAARC) as a viable economic bloc. It also figures prominently in India’s suspicion-ridden relations with China. So, the sooner the Kashmiri dispute is made a high priority international issue and a solution is found, the better it is for India, Pakistan, the region and above all the people of Kashmir, who have suffered enough without peace.
As an initial step towards this search for peace, India and Pakistan should remove the hangovers of the past. What matters are the lives of people — not abstract concepts such as sovereignty. Leaders of the two countries should de-politicise Kashmir and look at it from a humanitarian angle.
Booker prize winning writer Arundhati Roy was bold enough to say, “Kashmir has never been an integral part of India. It is a historical fact. Even the Indian government has accepted this.”
But she remains condemned by the hardliners, who believe justice and peace are subservient to sovereignty and national pride.
Kashmir remains a no-go zone for the world media and the human rights rapporteurs and commissioners. There is hardly any independent inquiry among Indian academia or journalists into what’s going on in Kashmir. Public opinion is largely shaped by government statements.
Now with a Hindutva- backed government at the helm of affairs in New Delhi, sadly emotions are running high with the Kashmiri people’s freedom struggle being demonised as a terrorist problem that requires the shock and awe treatment that George Bush and his war coalition adopted to force Iraq’s meekly surrender. India insists the whole of Kashmir – including the part now under Pakistan – is Indian territory in terms of the accession treaty the maharaja of Kashmir entered into with the Indian government in the wake of the 1947 invasion by Pakistani tribesmen.
India says the Kashmiri crisis is a law and order problem. Whenever Pakistan urges that India respects the UN Security Council resolution that calls for a plebiscite in the Muslim-majority Kashmir to decide on the fate of the state, India cites regular elections it holds in the state as proof to show that the Kashmiris have accepted India’s sovereignty.
But those who oppose India’s control of the state ask how the elections could be free and fair when the state has the dubious reputation of being the world’s most militarised region: some 700,000 Indian troops control 12.5 million Kashmiris. They say people go to vote for fear of being labelled as rebel supporters. They fear the fate that befell 8,000 people who have disappeared in the past two decades. They fear the horror of their women being raped during raids by security forces.
But funerals have become a silent mode of protest in Kashmir and a message to India that the peace it claims to have brought into the region is nothing but the peace of the graveyard. Every time a Kashmiri is killed in the valley, people in their thousands gather for the funeral, making it a powerful political statement.
On July 8, when a Burhan Wani, the 22-year-old young rebel commander who used social media to convey his messages of freedom, was gunned down in a clash with security forces, the people in the valley gathered in unprecedented numbers for his funeral. The Kashmiri people yearning for freedom decided it was time again to rise up and confront the Indian forces. Shouting ‘India, leave Kashmir,’ the youth threw stones at the troops. An angry mob drowned a policeman by pushing his car into a river.
The government blocked the Internet and mobile services, preventing the news from reaching the outside world. The troops armed with the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which effectively gives them immunity from prosecution, fired at will. Let alone pressure, there is hardly any whimper from the western nations. There is no Geneva resolution. For India is not Sri Lanka.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka on July 15, 2016)

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