Reviving the Bandung spirit of 1955

By Ameen Izzadeen
Some 70 world leaders, including China’s President Xi Jinping and Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, gathered in Indonesia yesterday and the day before for a conference to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Afro-Asian solidarity summit in the resort town of Bandung.
Sixty years ago this month, leaders of 29 Afro-Asian states discussed how they could help one another in achieving social and economic well-being for their large and impoverished populations. They displayed determination and dedication, honesty and hard work and astuteness and aspirations to create a world free of colonialism in all its forms. They were so firm in their resolve that they called for the redrafting of the UN Charter and international treaties, pointing out that they were not party to these agreements when they were adopted.
It is said that a country’s foreign policy is an extension of its domestic policy. But during this period the domestic policy appeared an extension of the Afro-Asian-solidarity-centred foreign policy. The Non-Aligned Movement which came into being following the Bandung summit became a third force during the four decades of the cold-war-ridden bipolar world order. To say that the NAM became irrelevant or defunct with the end of the Cold War is a misinterpretation. A more accurate statement would be that many NAM nations became subservient to the United States and, of late, to China, an emerging superpower.
It is disheartening to note that the NAM solidarity that bound the developing nations together in one political unit is buried today the under self-centred and amoral policies of many developing countries, some of whom were once leading lights in the NAM.
Take, for instance, India. It has virtually veered away from non-alignment, although India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was one of the founders of the Afro-Asian solidarity movement and the NAM. The term “non-alignment” was reinvented by him during a speech he made in Colombo in 1954.
Nehru in an address to India’s parliament in 1958 said non-alignment was inherent in the “past thinking of India, inherent in the whole mental outlook of India, inherent in the conditioning of the Indian mind.”
But today, India is seen to be aligned heavily with the United States in the context of an emerging cold war against China. Prime Minister Narendra Modi wrote to Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo saying that due to Budget sessions in parliament and prior travel arrangements he was unable to attend the conference. So much for India’s commitment to the NAM principles!
Then take Egypt. Its then President, Gamal Abdul Nasser, was also one of the co-founders of the NAM. Today Egypt is virtually a stooge of the United States and often seen as working against the Palestinian cause. Yugoslavia was another country that championed the movement with its leader Josip Broz Tito being a revered founding father of NAM. Today, none-of the breakaway countries of the former Yugoslavia is adhering to non-alignment.
Of the 29 countries that attended Bandung 1955, China, is today a budding superpower whose global ambitions have drawn charges that it is pursuing a neo-colonialist agenda, especially in Africa. These allegations smear China’s historic role at Bandung 1955 and cast a cloud over its fresh commitment to revive the Bandung spirit. It is worthwhile to recall how China’s then Prime Minister, Zhou Enlai, undertook the visit to Bandung despite intelligence warning that there would be an attempt to assassinate him. The plane he was to take from Hong Kong crashed following an explosion. Zhou escaped because he changed his travel plan at the last moment and took another plane.
Why criticise others? Sri Lanka’s own post-Cold-War NAM record is equally negative.
Sri Lanka’s post-Cold War foreign policy prior to the new government took office on January 8 was stark testimony to its abandonment of non-alignment. At the Cancun World Trade Organisation conference in 2003, Sri Lanka ditched the NAM camp and supported the United States. Another instance of Sri Lanka distancing itself from a NAM cause was when our envoy left the United Nations General Assembly chamber during a vote on the Palestinian crisis in 2006.
Although the new government of President Maithripala Sirisena has pledged to return to non-alignment, Sri Lanka’s under-participation at this week’s Bandung conference belies the claim. Shouldn’t we have sent at least our foreign minister? After all, Sri Lanka was one of the five countries that organised Bandung 1955 (the others being India, Pakistan, Burma and the host nation Indonesia).
Perhaps, the slip is worse than that of Prime Minister John Kotelawala, whose criticism of the Soviet Union at the 1955 Bandung conference earned him the sobriquet ‘Bandung Booruwa’ or the Bandung Ass from the then opposition leaders.
Kotelawala, in his speech, urged Afro-Asian nations to condemn not only colonialism of the West but also the expansionist policies of the Soviet Union. His comments hit the front pages of US newspapers. Headlines hailed tiny Ceylon for slamming Soviet expansionism.
These anecdotes apart, Bandung 1955 should be remembered for its 10-point declaration which is more relevant today when the world is embroiled in more wars and foreign interventions than it was 60 years ago.
It is heartening to note that 60 years after Bandung 1955, there was an attempt to revive the Bandung spirit. It appears that at least some world leaders take the Bandung principles seriously. Hats off to Indonesia, for hosting this conference!
The declaration among other things called for respect for fundamental human rights, the recognition of the equality of all races and all nations large and small, abstention from interference in the internal affairs of another country, settlement of all international disputes by peaceful means in conformity with the United Nations charter, and avoidance of the use of collective defence arrangements to serve the interests of major powers.
The declaration that was adopted against a backdrop of a deepening cold war, wars of independence, the victory of Communism in China, the adoption of Japan’s peace constitution, the CIA-engineered coup in Iran, the French defeat in Vietnam and the growing crisis in the Middle East, is worth being readopted not only at Bandung 2015 but also at the UN General Assembly sessions this year.
Resurrecting the Bandung 1955 principles could be one small but potent effort at solving the current conflicts and defusing situations that threaten to explode into all-out wars. In this light, the participation of China and Japan at Bandung 2015 was significant. They should make Bandung 2015 an opportunity to solve the territorial disputes between them in the East China Sea. In keeping with the spirit of Bandung 2015, they should also take the leadership to solve other world conflicts such as the Palestinian problem, the Indo-Pakistan dispute, the Syrian crisis and the latest war in Yemen. Then in 40 years’ time when Bandung marks its 100th anniversary, the two countries would be remembered for their peacemaking role.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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For forms of elections let fools contest

How India conducts its elections is a tale of courage and hope – and a lesson for Sri Lanka
Book review
By Ameen Izzadeen
Man is nasty, society is chaotic and politics is nothing but a struggle for power. What turns disorder into order is democracy complete with the rule of law and a bill of rights, although it is said democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.
Democracy is nothing without universal adult franchise or elections. But like all forms of democracy, all forms of elections are fraught with flaws. Hence the never-ending debate over the best form of elections — whether it is the first-past-the-post system or the proportional representation system or a mix of the two in various ratios. For forms of elections let fools contest, whatever is best administered is best.
If this is the criterion, India’s election machinery is amazing and those who administer the elections stand out for their commitment and integrity. India’s elections may not have tourism value like the Taj Mahal, although moves are now underway to promote election tourism. Yet they can easily be described as one of the world’s wonders. How the Elections Commission of India (ECI) conducts elections offers valuable lessons to politicians and political science students, academics and activists, democracy lovers and dictators, lawmakers and lawbreakers, and, above all, to elections commissioners worldwide and their staff.
All systems go
Described by many observers as The Greatest Show on Earth, India’s elections mean all systems go: Even bulls, mules, camels and elephants and trains, buses, tractors and aircraft are brought into service when the world’s largest democracy with a voting population of more than 850 million goes to poll. Also put into service are more than 1.4 million electronic voting machines, 11 million polls staff, nearly 850,000 polling stations countrywide, 2.5 million security personnel, nearly 150,000 observers and 75,000 videographers carrying some 40,000 digital cameras. All this is part of the gigantic effort by the ECI to ensure that the people’s right to elect their government is upheld.
It is indeed a title befitting the subject matter when S.Y. Quraishi, easily one of India’s most remarkable Elections Commissioners, calls his book “An Undocumented Wonder: The Making of the Great Indian Election” – which is the subject of this review.
I have little doubt that readers would thank him for producing a brilliant book in simple yet scholarly language and helping them to marvel at the Himalayan task — the working of India’s elections machinery — and the challenges the ECI and its staff encounter. Theirs is an all-out war to ensure that every voter exercises his or her franchise and that every vote is counted. They plan and war-game moves to defeat attempts by insurgents and Naxalites in troubled regions to disrupt the elections — and also attempts by moneyed, corrupt and power-hungry politicians to distort the will of the people.
Mr. Quraishi’s book, an insider’s account, is a must-read for Sri Lankans especially at a time when the country is set on a good-governance mode and when moves are underway to provide constitutional guarantees to the independence of the Elections Commission through the 19th Amendment. The people of Sri Lanka have witnessed how helpless our elections commissioners have been in carrying out their duties. Often our elections commissioners had or are alleged to have succumbed to pressure from powerful politicians of the party in power. Perhaps the exception is the incumbent Elections Commissioner, Mahinda Deshapriya, who with limited powers and resources withstood political pressure and ensured a relatively fair election that changed the history of this country. The cause for Mr. Deshapriya’s triumph, perhaps, lies in his commitment to ensure that the will of the people was not thwarted by the scheming of dishonest politicians. He emerged like his counterparts in India — the Quraishis and the T.N. Sheshans. Incidentally, Mr. Quraishi, who was India’s Chief Elections Commissioner from 2006 to 2012, was in Sri Lanka during the January 8 election as head of the Asian Elections Authorities on a monitoring mission.
Running through his 448-page book and binding the chapters and ideas together is the good intention with which India’s elections commissioners work as the custodians of democracy and the guardians of the sovereignty of the people. Its chapters deal with the evolution of the good intention – the process of learning from mistakes, the nuts and bolts of electoral operations to money power and the role of the media, and the role of the youth, to name a few topics. Every chapter gives readers a wealth of knowledge not only about elections but many aspects of political life from voter behaviour to political skullduggery, from ancient forms of Indian democracy — the Buddha’s discourse and the tenth century Tamil Nadu democracy — to modern reforms. There are interesting anecdotes and tidbits aplenty. They together with other useful techniques remove reader fatigue associated with books on serious subjects.
But his is a book that makes one read, think and act. The book, which tells the reader many things about the first Indian general election in 1951-52, the last general election in 2014 and many polls before and in between, notes that most politicians are thieves but asks: “Can democracy exist without politicians?” This is where the ECI steps in to conduct a free and fair election, the credibility of which rests on four pillars – the independence or the fearlessness of the elections commission (leaving no room for incumbency advantage), transparency, neutrality and professionalism.
Mr. Quraishi’s erudite analysis identifies four major trends in Indian politics – the decline of a dominant pan-national party, the emergence of regional parties in a national role, multi-party coalition politics and the ethnicisation of political culture with each party claiming and surviving on sectarian support. He also notes the increasingly assertive role being played by civil society in strengthening India’s democracy.
Money politics and media
The book deals extensively with the ECI’s battles to deal with the role of money in subverting elections. Targeted are not only power-hungry politicians – but also Corporate India. An electoral democracy cannot function without political finance, which comes with strings attached and quid-pro-quo deals. Money power at elections makes voters a commodity, undermining the essence of democracy. The unscrupulous politician knows how to bypass laws and heap freebies on the voter. While more regulation is called for, civil society action can again play a major role to defeat money power. The chapter on ‘Engaging Youth’, to a great extent, offers a solution to the problem of money in politics. This chapter relates the story of a university student who travelled more than 5,500 kms – 3,200 of this distance on foot — to empower India’s poverty-stricken voters. Abdul Mujeeb Khan asks them what things are like. They tell him life is difficult and the government is not doing enough for them. He then asks how they usually choose who they are going to vote for. Most times, the answer is whichever candidate gives them the largest handout, money, or liquor. Mujeeb Khan then asks: “If you vote for somebody because of the money he pays you, then do you really expect the politician to not make money in return? After all, he has to recoup his investment.”
The chapter on the media makes interesting reading and Mr. Quraishi’s views on regulation of the media during election time are relevant to Sri Lanka since the 19th Amendment provisions on the Elections Commissioner’s powers to appoint a competent authority to govern ‘unruly’ media organisations have created some controversy.
“Whereas much of the mass media in India covered the elections in a non-partisan manner, there were sections that compromised their independence for commercial interests. …. We in the Commission were clear that while there should be no move to curtail the freedom and independence of the media, and that self-regulation is ideally the best form of regulation, effective steps to prevent the misuse of the media by vested interests are indeed required,” he says.
He also sees the media as the eyes and ears of the ECI during elections time and the foot soldiers of the commission have been told to take every report in the media seriously and follow them up with necessary action.
Adding value to the book is the foreword written by Gopalkrishna Gandhi. He says Quraishi, a development thinker, “has not just given us information and knowledge, but confidence and pride.”
When reading this book, a tale of courage and hope, a Sri Lankan reader may ask: “When will we see systems that will make us proud again.”
Book facts
Title: An Undocumented Wonder: The Making of the Great Indian Election
Author: S.Y. Quraishi
Publisher: Rainlight/Rupa, New Delhi
(This book review first appeared in the Sunday Times, Sri Lanka)

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Obama: From Bay of Pigs to peace-prize diplomacy

By Ameen Izzadeen
The United States President Barack Obama is on a diplomatic drive to turn foes into friends. Apart from ending combat operations by US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, he has been mending fences with Iran and Cuba, countries considered to be archenemies of the United States.
Only a few ultra-optimists would have thought a decade ago that a day will dawn when the US Secretary of State will shake hands with his or her Iranian counterpart. Who would have imagined a decade ago that the Presidents of the United States and Iran would have a friendly telephone conversation?
Now President Obama is on a fast track to normalise relations with Cuba. Why shouldn’t he? After all, he is a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, which he won in 2009 even before he had taken any concrete steps to end wars or bring peace.
With just 20 months remaining of his presidency, he apparently wants to end it on a note of peace or on a claim that the world is safer now than it was when he took over in 2009, although the scale of violence in Iraq, Syria and other parts of the Middle East may belie the claim. But one cannot put the blame only on the US for the new crises in the Middle East. Israel, Saudi Arabia and European nations such as France and Britain should also share the blame for the violence in Iraq, Syria, Libya and now Yemen and extrajudicial regime changes in Libya and Egypt. In most of these conflicts, the Obama administration’s role is one of cooperative rather than causative and it got involved in these conflicts at the behest of its allies.
That the Obama administration has managed to play a controlled role in the Middle East conflicts and strike a nuclear deal with Iran while taking measures to normalise relations with Cuba despite pressure from various lobbies, neoconservative critics and hardline Republicans is indeed an achievement. Perhaps, Obama is like the character Nancy in Oliver Twist – a good soul, despite her complicity in the crimes of Fagin and his gang.
Like Nancy during her last days, Obama is on a redeeming exercise. After more than five decades of declared enmity, his administration is now on a path to normalise ties with Communist Cuba, although most of the US allies have long done so. Since 1992, the United Nations General Assembly has been passing an annual resolution titled “Necessity of Ending the Economic, Commercial and Financial Embargo imposed by the United States of America against Cuba”. As years passed by, the number of countries which voted with the US dwindled. In October last year, when the resolution was taken up for voting, 188 countries in the 193-nation General Assembly, voted for it. The only countries that voted against were the United States and Israel, with three US puppet states in the Pacific island — Palau, the Marshall Islands and Micronesia — abstaining.
The resolution may be non-binding, but it has exposed the moral nakedness of the US. Even its NATO allies are not in favour of the unjust, repressive and punitive sanctions on a country that has many achievements to share with the rest of the world in areas such as health, education and culture.
The steps taken by the Obama administration since December last year indicate that the General Assembly will not see this resolution during this year’s annual sessions. By September there could be embassies operating in each other’s capitals. The steps taken by the Obama administration include the relaxation of travel restrictions, the release of the Cuban Five political prisoners, and of course last week’s handshake and the one-on-one talks in Panama between President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro, brother of the legendary Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
On Tuesday, the White House announced that President Obama would remove Cuba from the list of states, which in the US eyes, are sponsors of terrorism. Cuba was included in the list in 1982 after Washington accused Havana of supporting rebel groups that tried to topple pro-US regimes in Latin America. But Cuba’s foreign policy has undergone much change in tune with political realism after the collapse of the Soviet Union, its chief ally during the Cold War days.
Officially, the delisting of Cuba will take place 45 days after the notification to Congress. The notification was sent on Tuesday with a message from Obama.
In his message to Congress, Obama said the government of Cuba “has not provided any support for international terrorism” over the last six months and Cuba “has provided assurances that it will not support acts of international terrorism in the future.”
Analysts say Obama is determined to use his veto power if the Republican-dominated Congress votes against the move.
But much work needs to be done and much history needs to be forgotten or frozen before the formalisation of the thaw. Part of this history shows an ugly side of the US foreign policy, which it has still not forsaken – supporting regimes regardless of their human rights violations. Washington was propping up Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista with economic and military aid in the late 1950s while people movements led by Fidel Castro and the legendary revolutionist, Che Guevera, were fighting to oust him.
Another part of the history – the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 — brought the world dangerously close to a nuclear holocaust. Also to be forgotten and forgiven are the numerous attempts by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to assassinate Fidel Castro and the CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961, which ended in a disaster for the US. Another page of the history book records the US invasion of Grenada in 1983 because Cuba was building an airport in that country.
Besides erasing these hostilities, the US should close down the Guantanamo Bay naval base and let Cuba take back its territory. It was ceded to the United States under the 1903 Cuban-American Treaty in recognition of the US’s positive role in Cuba’s War of Independence (1895–1898). The return of the Guantanamo Bay territory is one of the demands of Cuba for the normalisation of ties.
With the Republicans slamming the Obama foreign policy as a failed policy, one has to wait and see how the Obama administration’s moves aimed at normalising relations with Cuba are going shape the Democrats’ battle to retain the White House in 2016.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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Protect this historic nuclear deal

By Ameen Izzadeen
Finally a win-win situation for Iran and the P5+1, said reports last Thursday from the Swiss holiday city of Lausanne after a decade of haggling and eight days of painstaking bargaining during the last round of talks which went beyond the March 31 deadline.
Reading the fine print of the four-page document, one wonders why such a deal could not have been reached years ago. The answer is that on the one hand, the United States had not realised the strategic importance of Iran, and, on the other, Israel and Saudi Arabia had resorted to covert moves aimed at scuttling any deal. Many were the occasions when the P5+1 and Iran were close to a deal, but due to reasons now understood to be political, the negotiators came back to square one on the snakes-and-ladders board.
Throughout, Iran, a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, has been saying it has no intention to build nuclear weapons. Even the intelligence outfits of the United States and Israel have said there is no evidence to indicate that Iran is building a bomb. But the West kept on adding pressure on Iran and shifted the goalposts when Iran fulfilled its obligations while Saudi Arabia and Israel called for military action and tougher sanctions which they thought would weaken Teheran’s economy and trigger a regime change when the hungry people become angry. They also believed that economic sanctions would kill Iran’s ambitions to emerge as the most powerful country in the Middle East.
Saudi Arabia and Israel became more alarmed after Iran’s involvement in the 2006 Lebanon war. Iran-made weapons supplied to Hezbollah took Israel by surprise. Israel’s death toll was 122 soldiers and 44 civilians – a high casualty figure in Israel’s reckoning. Israel accepted a ceasefire and withdrew from South Lebanon, prompting Hezbollah to claim a moral victory. Iran was economically strong then owing to the high oil prices. It granted more than one billion US dollars towards the rebuilding of the war-ravaged South Lebanon and became popular on the Arab street.
Ever since, weakening Iran’s economy became a top priority for Saudi Arabia and Israel. This they achieved by projecting Iran as a terrorist state and promoting economic sanctions. Not stopping at that, Saudi Arabia resorted to other desperate measures as Iran’s influence grew in the Middle East, especially in Iraq and Syria. Its decision to bomb Houthi rebel positions in Yemen was probably one such measure. Another measure it took brought down drastically the world oil prices. Iran which depends on oil exports suffered heavily.
But the US looked at Iran from a different angle. Washington knew that military action against Iran would only lead to a region wide war, sending oil prices soaring and the world’s economy into recession. The Barack Obama administration has apparently realised that a deal with Iran is in the best interest of the United States. Washington believes that the nuclear agreement could avert Iran’s bid to join an informal alliance with China and Russia — an alliance that could deal a blow to the US’s pivot to Asia policy aimed at containing China. Moreover, the US sees that it shares many goals with Iran, especially with regard to Iraq and Afghanistan. The common goals range from defeating ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) and preventing the Taliban from capturing power in Afghanistan to finding solutions to the Syrian crisis, the conflict in Yemen and the unrest in Bahrain, home to the US’ Fifth Fleet.
So, much to the chagrin of Israel and Saudi Arabia, Washington pushed for a win-win deal at the Lausanne talks between Iran and six world powers — the US, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany.
Israel’s hardline Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denounced the agreement claiming that the deal would legitimise Iran’s nuclear programme, bolster Iran’s economy, and increase Iran’s aggression and terror throughout the Middle East and beyond.
But President Obama, for whom Netanyahu is more a problem than an ally, has given hardly any ear to his grievances. Instead, Obama has welcomed the deal describing it as an historic understanding that would make the world safer.
There is still more time for Israel and Saudi Arabia to scuttle the agreement which is to be formally signed only on June 30. If the final agreement is signed, it will indicate a significant shift in US-Iran relations. Though the leaders of the two countries resort to rhetoric for public consumption, there have been many positive signs to indicate that ties between the two countries have been improving since the election of President Hassan Rouhani in Iran in 2013, with telephone calls at president-to-president level and meetings at official level.
The agreement has been shaped in such a way that it can be sold to the sceptics in the United States, especially the Republicans. Giving room for further fine-tuning if the Obama administration faces difficulty in obtaining the support of Congress for the deal, the first paragraph of the agreement says, “Important implementation details are still subject to negotiation, and nothing is agreed upon until everything is agreed upon.”
Polls show that a third of the Republicans support the deal while about 40 per cent say they are undecided. This gives an indication that the deal may find passage in the Republican-controlled Congress despite pressure from Israel. But can it be sold to the hardliners in Iran?
Under the agreement, Iran is required to open the doors of all its nuclear facilities for inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agncy while it will curtail its capacity to enrich uranium and slash its existing stockpile. Iran has agreed to operate only 5,060 of its 19,000 centrifuges for the next ten years. These moves will delay a bomb-making effort by one year, if Iran ever wishes to do so.
In return, the sanctions that have halved Iran’s oil exports and kept Iran out of the international banking system would be suspended but resumed if Iran fails to honour its pledges.
In Teheran, the people came out in their thousands to celebrate the deal with Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif receiving a hero’s welcome at the Mehrabad airport when he returned from Lausanne.
President Rouhani yesterday noted that the deal was a triumph for Iran because the US had now realised that Iran would not surrender to bullying, sanctions and threats while spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said there was “no guarantee” of a final deal with world powers.
Rhetoric apart, the biggest challenge to both Iran and the United States is to protect the hard-fought deal from those planning to sabotage it.

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Saudi-Iran cold war explodes in Yemen

By Ameen Izzadeen
When the Gaza Strip was being pounded and thousands of innocent civilians including hundreds of children were being massacred by Israel last year, the rest of the Arab world was mere onlookers and took little or no effective action, military or otherwise, to protect the Palestinians.
When tens of thousands of civilians were being killed and millions displaced in Syria, with the United Nations General Secretary describing the situation as the worst humanitarian crisis since the end of the Second World War, the Arab countries played politics and aggravated the crisis by backing one armed group or another. There was little courage or a collective Arab response to take on the Syrian regime.
Suddenly Saudi Arabia has mustered courage to flaunt its military might – not against Israel, with whom it shares many Iran-centric goals, or against Bashar-al Assad’s Syria, but against Yemen’s Houthi fighters. The rebels, having ousted President Abdul Rabbo Mansour al-Hadi, were yesterday advancing towards the southern port city of Aden despite eight days of air attacks by Saudi Arabia-led coalition forces comprising more than ten countries. The rebels now control much of the country, which is known for its quality coffee, silk-route fame frankincense, ancient relics, and, of course, Bilqis the Queen of Sheba, whose story is mentioned both in the Bible and the Quran. Yemen is also the home base of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). In recent weeks ISIS has also made its presence felt by setting off bombs in two mosques during Friday prayers. But, mysteriously, Saudis do not attack al-Qaeda or ISIS terrorists in Yemen, though they have occasionally taken part in the now-virtually-unheard-of Western air attacks on ISIS targets in Syria.
Why then are the Saudis pounding Yemen, killing in the process hundreds of innocent civilians?
The Houthis are Zaidi Muslims. Zaidis are Shiites but different from the Shiites of Iran. They are closer to Sunni Islam and make up 40 to 50 per cent of Yemen’s population. But the crisis in Yemen is not a sectarian conflict between the Zaidis and the Sunnis though the Saudis are trying to portray it as such.
The Houthis take their name from Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi who led a rebellion against the government in 2004. But he was killed by Yemeni troops. The movement is now led by Abdul-Malik al-Houthi. The Saudis have little love for the Houthis, with whom they fought an unsuccessful border war in 2009.
Not long ago, the Saudis were the biggest backers of the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a Zaidi Shiite, who ruled North Yemen from 1978 to 1990 and unified Yemen from 1990 till he stepped down in 2012 under a plan worked out by the Gulf Cooperation Countries (GCC) following months of pro-democracy demonstrations – Yemen’s Arab Spring.
Saleh was replaced by Hadi, also a Zaidi, who was Saudi Arabia’s chosen candidate. Hadi was slow in introducing reforms, but quick in carrying out orders from Saudi Arabia and the United States. During North Yemen’s civil war in the mid-1960s, the Saudis backed the Zaidi rulers of Yemen, while Egypt and the then socialist bloc backed the military rebellion. While the civil war was going on in the north, the Sunni-dominated South Yemen was under British rule. The South gained independence in 1967 and subsequently became a socialist state. In 1990, the two countries formed a union and it is said the discovery of oil was a key impetus for unification.
The present crisis arose when the Houthis lost confidence in President Hadi. The Houthi rebels also known as Ansarallah (Supporters of God) captured the capital Sana’a in September last year and forced Hadi to share power with the Houthis and allied tribes. Though Hadi agreed to the deal, he quietly planned a military response to the Houthi rebellion with Saudi and US help. The Houthis’ success was also due to the support extended by Yemen’s military commanded by officers loyal to former President Saleh. The Houthis could have killed or imprisoned Hadi. When the Houthi leaders’ suspicions of Hadi’s intentions increased, they forced him to resign, let him go to Aden and then flee to Saudi Arabia.
According to Yemen watchers, the Houthi rebellion is supported by most Yemenis – the Zaidis and the Sunnis alike. Even Hadi’s own party, the Yemenite General People’s Congress, removed him from leadership. The Houthis formed a transitional government in February after Hadi resigned.
The crisis in Yemen also has a regional dimension, with Iran being accused of supporting the Houthi rebels. Saudi Arabia detests Iran and fears a pro-Iran state on its southern border. Already Iran is in Iraq. Tens of thousands of Iranian military advisers are helping Iraq in the fight against ISIS. Iran is also in Syria, where it is propping up the Assad regime. Iran is also in Lebanon — and in Bahrain, too.
On the other hand, the United States fears that if the Houthis take control of Yemen, Iran may become privy to its secrets and gain access to US communications and weapons systems in Yemen.
Besides, the US and Saudi Arabia also fear that if the Houthis take control of the port city of Aden, they will be in a position to blockade the Red Sea.
But Saudi Arabia’s action will only exacerbate the crisis. Air attacks do not win wars. Invasions succeed on the performance of the ground troops. The Houthis say they are ready for a long-drawn-out war, if and when the Saudi-led coalition forces cross the border.
History shows that, like Afghanistan, Yemen is also a graveyard for invaders. The Ottomans and the British had learnt bitter lessons. Egypt sent 70,000 troops to Yemen during the 1960s’ civil war and historians call this misadventure Egypt’s Vietnam.
Besides, the Saudi-led aggression is a violation of international law and the United Nations Charter. Ousted president Hadi has no locus standi to call for international military support, because he has resigned. Saudi Arabia and its regional and Western allies, however, won’t accept this position. This is the dangerous legacy George W. Bush left behind. He turned the UN rules on the use of force upside down and invaded Iraq. It was a bad precedent.
In August last year, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt launched air attacks on Libya. They drew hardly any criticism for not seeking UN approval for the attack. Similarly, there is little discussion in the mainstream media about the legality or illegality of Saudi Arabia’s military action. Compare this with the avalanche of criticism Russia drew for its involvement in the crisis in Ukraine. What a lopsided world we live in!
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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Lee’s five powerful lessons for Lanka

By Ameen Izzadeen
All that man wants is freedom from fear and hunger. The entire gamut of human rights stems from these two basic freedoms which ensure man’s right to life, property and dignity. In a society where there is freedom from fear and hunger, there is little place for destructive politics.
This was the essence of the social contract Singapore’s founder and great statesman Lee Kuan Yew conceived and sustained. In this social contract, the State was honest and expected from its citizens discipline and reciprocal honesty. As Singapore, once a run-down port city, bloomed as a developed nation just three decades after its independence in 1965, John F. Kennedy’s famous quote “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country,” resonated in public life. His critics accused Lee of ruling the country with an iron fist and a virtual one-party democracy, but most of them later agreed that Lee was right. After all, who cares about politics when your next meal is assured, your welfare is taken care of, you are financially stable and your tax money is truly accounted for?
In Sri Lanka, Lee will be largely remembered for his statement that he wanted to make Singapore a Sri Lanka. Decades later, Sri Lanka was trying to become like Singapore with slogans such as making Sri Lanka an NIC — a Newly Industrialised country – by 2000 or turning Sri Lanka into a Miracle of Asia. But apart from the civil war, large-scale or mind-boggling corruption, especially during the previous regime, deprived the country of the opportunity to become another Singapore.
But as the great statesman begins his final journey, Sri Lanka should learn a few lessons from his legacy — his model for success — especially at a time when good governance has become the hot topic.
It was largely good governance that helped Singapore to become the financial giant it is today. Sri Lankan leaders need to stop paying lip service to good governance and look at how Lee’s Singapore practised it.
In Singapore, good governance operates on five principles – meritocracy, ethnic harmony, clean government, the rule of law and social equity.
Singapore was run like a private company with the prime minister being the CEO. The right person got the right job. To achieve the maximum benefit of meritocracy, Lee realised the need for an educated society and worked towards it. In this educated society, people are judged by their performance — not on their family background, caste, class, ethnic group or political ideology. Can this happen in Sri Lanka? Can we dream of a time when appointments will be made not on one’s closeness to the leader but on the basis of one’s ability and qualifications?
Take the second principle: Ethnic harmony. Both Singapore and Sri Lanka have laws that promote religious and racial harmony. But where Singapore succeeds and Sri Lanka totters is in the implementation of the law. During the previous regime we saw how the law was observed in the breach when religious groups advocating racial hatred got state patronage that led to violence in the Aluthgama-Beruwala area. Unlike Sri Lanka where there is constitutional ambiguity over whether the State is secular or not, Singapore is secular but tolerates no attempt to insult a religion or race.
Singapore’s language policy is also worth emulating. Learning a lesson from Sri Lanka, Lee struck the golden mean where English, which is not an official language, became the working language while the official languages — Mandarin, Malay and Tamil — are encouraged in schools to maintain the country’s cultural identity and Asianness.
Lee told the International Herald Tribune in 2007: “We’ve seen Sri Lanka, when they switched from English to Sinhala and disenfranchised the Tamils and so strife ever after. We chose — we didn’t say it was our national language — we said it was our working language, that everybody learns English whatever language medium school you go to. Which means nobody needs interpretation to read English.”
It is interesting to note that Lee’s Singapore saw no issue in adopting the crescent and the stars as the symbols in the national flag, notwithstanding the fact that they gave an Islamic flavour to the flag as seen in the flags of Muslim countries such as Turkey, Tunisia and Malaysia.
Clean government was Lee’s third principle. One of the first acts of Prime Minister Lee soon after independence was to increase the public servants’ salaries by manyfold. Many questioned the move because a new and poor country could barely afford a huge public servant salary bill. But Lee stood by his decision because it helped reduce bribery and corruption in the public service. Lee realised that if the head was corrupt, then down the line, the public servants in particular, and the people in general would be corrupt. Lee proved that the leader’s commitment to cleaning up corruption must be absolute. There were no deals within deals or cover ups on the basis of kinship or friendship. The end result was prosperity to all.
The Rule of Law was Lee’s fourth principle. There was general consensus that the Rule of Law was what provided the necessary impetus for Singapore’s economy to grow rapidly from a per capita income of US$ 500 in the late 1960s to a per capita income of US$ 55,000 today. Foreign investors flocked to Singapore as they did not have to bribe officials and had confidence in the country’s commitment to uphold the rule of law.
The fifth principle is social equity where the state steps in not only to close the gap in income disparity but also to ensure that everyone has access to quality education, health care and public transportation. Singapore will not call itself a welfare state but many a welfare state can learn valuable lessons from this laissez-faire state where the state provides a workfare payment to those whose income is far below the national average.
“If an economy prospers but the median income is low and the disparity of wealth is large, the society will not be cohesive and social harmony will be threatened. The philosophy of inclusive growth is therefore important. We need to build social equity into our growth strategy,” Prof. Tommy Koh, head of the Institute of Policy Studies, Singapore told a 2009 lecture.
For Sri Lankans, especially the new government leaders who talk about good governance, there is certainly a lesson a lesson to be learned from Lee’s Singapore. Instead of importing a central bank governor from Singapore and messing things up, the Government should have imported Lee’s vision. It is never too late.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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ISIS: The mystery behind the monster

By Ameen Izzadeen
“… when you see them pray, you will look to them and think they are better than you; when they fast, you will think that they are better than you; they will recite Qur’an very well but it will never reach their throats, and they will leave the deen (the religion) like the arrow from the bow…”

This was a warning from Prophet Muhammad about a group who were to come at a later time.
In early Islamic history, there was a group called Khwarij who fitted this description. They were zealots, but apparently failed to comprehend the spirit of Islam. Yet, hordes of youths lured by the Khwarij’s fanaticism left their homes to join the group. Ali, Islam’s fourth Caliph, declared war against them fearing their harmful ideology would destroy Islam.
Today this phenomenon is happening once again; thousands, of youths, including girls as young as 16, are leaving their homes to join the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), whose brutality knows no bounds. These youths erroneously believe that ISIS is fighting the cause of Islam and the cause it champions – the establishment of an Islamic caliphate – is worth dying for. Among those who left their homes to join ISIS were three British teenagers – Shamima Begum, Amira Abase and Kadiza Sultana. They made international headlines with the British media describing them as Jihadi brides. This week three British youths were arrested in Turkey while on their way to Syria.
The canker is spreading and stopping this is, first and foremost, the responsibility of the Muslim world. Addressing the European parliament in Strasbourg some ten days ago, Jordan’s King Abdullah said ISIS was a problem within Islam and therefore it was the responsibility of the Muslims to eradicate it.
“We will not allow them to hijack our faith,” the monarch said, pointing out that the terrorists’ acts ran counter to basic Islamic values such as mercy, peace and tolerance.
As the ISIS terror continues, a big question mark looms large over efficacy of the US-led military campaign against the group. Air strikes on ISIS targets in Syria by the United States and its Western and Middle Eastern allies began in September last year. Six months later, ISIS is still a force to be reckoned with. In Iraq, government troops and the Kurdish Peshmerga militia are struggling to flush out the ISIS from key cities and regions, even though they are getting help from the US and neighbouring Iran.
Why is ISIS so formidable? Only a year ago it was an army of less than 25,000 rebels. Today it has a fighting force of some 200,000 and its influence is spreading in the Middle East. On Wednesday, gunmen suspected to be having links with ISIS killed 19 foreign tourists at a museum in Tunisia’s capital Tunis. In Libya this week, the rebel government in Tripoli launched a military campaign against groups that have pledged allegiance to ISIS.
The monster needs to be stopped. But who created the monster? It is the West and its Gulf allies. Their main aim was to oust Syria’s Bashar al-Assad because Syria under Assad was a key link in the Iran-led Shiite alliance in the region and had rejected Saudi-Qatari proposals to build energy pipelines to the Mediterranean across Syria. Assad in a recent interview hinted that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was programmed by the US when he was a prisoner in Iraq.
Al Baghdadi’s military successes began in 2013 with a jail break in Iraq. Hundreds of hardcore militants who escaped from the prison were sent to Syria to fight Assad’s forces. Last year al-Baghdadi’s forces captured large areas of Iraqi territory. The lightning speed with which Iraq’s US-trained forces retreated in the face of the ISIS advance implied some kind of collaboration at a high level in the Iraqi military. The case of ISIS is not black and white. It is one of the cloak and dagger cases, for which the Middle East is notorious — from the Arabian Nights folklore and the saga of Lawrence of Arabia to the creation of al-Qaeda and George W. Bush’s oil-centric tall stories about weapons of mass destruction.
ISIS was directly and indirectly armed and financed by powerful countries both in the West and the Middle East. Recently, Iran’s Fars News Agency carried a shocking story which many Western media outlets chose not to publish or broadcast. The news items claimed that Iraqi troops shot down two British planes carrying weapons to ISIS terrorists.
The news agency quoted Hakem al-Zameli, head of the Iraqi Parliament’s National Security and Defence Committee, as saying that Iraqi parliament had sought explanation from London. He disclosed that Baghdad was receiving daily reports from people and security forces in Anbar Province on numerous flights by US-led coalition planes that airdrop weapons and supplies for ISIS.
The same news story also claimed that Iraqi troops had found US and Israeli made weapons in areas purged of ISIS terrorists, suggesting some Israeli links with the terror group.
In his address to the US Congress on March 3, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu labelled Hamas and Hezbollah as terrorists while he projected ISIS as a lesser enemy than Iran. This together with the lack of support from ISIS for the Palestinian cause, even while Gaza was being pounded by Israel last year, and the ISIS’s ‘coexistence’ with Israeli troops at the ISIS-held territories adjoining the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights points to a possible collaboration with Israel.
In another development, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said this week that a man working for a foreign intelligence group helped the three British girls to travel to Syria via Turkey. The Turkish media later reported that the man worked for the spy agency of Canada, a country that works closely with Israel.
As various intelligence groups and countries destabilise the Middle East by manipulating the ISIS, it appears that the Middle East is being pushed into a deeper abyss. The US says the way-out is the resumption of the Geneva process aimed at a solution to the Syrian crisis. But after hinting last week that it would talk to the Syrian government, Washington now says it will not. The deadlock continues. So does the mayhem in the Middle East.
(The article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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