Gaza: The cry from the wilderness

By Ameen Izzadeen
Award winning filmmaker Michael Moore of Fahrenheit 911 fame once advised the Palestinians to give up violence and adopt non-violence as a means of protests. He said if the Palestinians resorted to peaceful resistance, he and peace loving people worldwide would join them.
The Palestinians, at least a vast majority of them, have long given up violence. It is only the likes of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad that still believe in the dictum that what has been snatched from them – their land – by violence could only be taken back by violence. Yet, they too, have held their fire in the blind hope that peaceful resistance will bring freedom to the Palestinian people.
Last Friday was once such day when the Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip, regarded as the world’s largest open prison, held a peace march — “the Great March of Return — to the Israeli border with the hope that the world would take notice of their plight, especially the right of the Palestinian refugees worldwide to return to their homeland – a right upheld by UN resolution 194. The marchers’ aim was to pitch tent on the border and stay there until Nakba day –Catastrophe day, which they observe every year on May 14 or 15, when Israel celebrates its national day. This year is significant, because it is 70 years since Israel was set up on the Palestinian land – and 70 years since the Dier Yassin massacre that marked the beginning of the ethnic cleansing of 750,000 Palestinian villagers in the weeks before Israel declared its independence on May 14, 1948.
This year, Nakba Day will be an added catastrophe for the Palestinian people, because on this day, the United States will shift its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, with no regard to the Palestinians’ aspirations of making East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.
Last Friday, the world saw the march and the atrocity of the Israeli troops, too. But world leaders made little noise about the Israeli troops’ firing that led to the death of 18 unarmed Palestinians and caused injuries to about 1,700. Maybe, the number of deaths was not big enough to shake their conscience.
Peaceful resistance does help win freedom struggles. In India, Mahatma Gandhi through his non-violent struggle succeeded in overthrowing the world’s most powerful empire and ending colonial rule. But Israel is not what Britain was in 1947.
Though colonialism was justified on the premise that the so-called ‘savages’ were not fit to govern themselves and therefore they should be governed, Britain by the dawn of the 20th century was being civilized, with liberal political thoughts dominating politics. Perhaps, the Palestinians will have to wait until Israel becomes an ‘enlightened liberal state’ so that it could realise that occupying Palestine, building Jewish settlements in occupied territories, denying equal rights to the Palestinians, adopting apartheid as a means to punish Palestinians, killing peaceful protesters, imprisoning activists, including children, demolishing Palestinian houses and destroying their crops are simply acts that do not go with civilised behaviour.
If Israel had believed that killing unarmed protesters engaging in peaceful resistance was not behavior befitting a civilized state, Rachel Corrie would have been alive today. Remember her?
Rachel, a 23-year-old American peace activist from Olympia, Washington, was crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer on March 16, 2003, while she was engaged in nonviolent action to protect the home of a Palestinian family from demolition. Her biggest mistake was that she believed that Israel was a civilized nation and therefore the soldier driving the bulldozer was civilised enough not to send the monster vehicle over her. The poor girl did not know that there existed a culture of impunity in Israel to deal with Palestinian resistance.
If Israel is civilized enough, it will, at least, acknowledge that it is wrong to strip the Palestinians of their right to freedom.
In a related development that dealt another crushing blow to the Palestinians, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince on Monday, three days after the massacre of the marchers, recognised Israel’s right to a homeland, in what was a notable shift in Saudi policy.
When the Aljazeera Arabic language channel reported on Monday that Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman had in an interview with the US political magazine The Atlantic said that Israelis had right to its land, most Saudis found it difficult to believe what they had heard. In their comments to the news item on Aljazeera’s Arabic website, most of them accused the news channel of misreporting or misquoting the crown prince. Such was their disbelief.
The crown prince’s utterance is yet another indication that Saudi Arabia is in an undue haste to normalise relations with Israel. The following day, Saudi Arabia issued a statement claiming that King Salman, father of the crown prince, had “reaffirmed the kingdom’s steadfast position towards the Palestinian issue and the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people to an independent state with Jerusalem as its capital.”
But what matters is what the Crown Prince utters, because he is the power behind the throne. The king is said to be suffering from Parkinson-related memory loss and he does not know that his wife is a virtual prisoner of his son.
With the United States not on their side, with most Arab nations, including Saudi Arabia, flirting with Israel, and with the rest of the world not coming to their aid, what else can the Palestinians do other than resisting occupation through violent or non-violent means? International law does recognise armed struggle against illegal occupation.
The two million Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip are like prisoners. They cannot leave the territory, even for medical reasons, unless they have Israel’s permission which is rarely given. The Gaza Strip, just 365 square kilometers in area, about half the size of the Colombo district, is surrounded by Israeli troops from the north to the south along its eastern borders. From the north to the south on its west is the Mediterranean Sea which is patrolled by the Israeli navy. The Palestinian fishermen can only fish in the shallow waters. Deep sea fishing is banned. On the Gaza Strip’s south is the Rafah border point which Egypt patrols. Under a bilateral treaty with Israel, the Gazans need clearance from Israel to go to Egypt. For the Pharaohnic Egyptian rulers, a servile treaty with Israel is more important than relieving the suffering of the Palestinians, though international law allows a country to help a suffering people on humanitarian grounds even if it means violating international treaties and customs.
The Gazans get electricity only for four hours a day. Water supplies are also restricted. Due to lack of electricity, sewage and garbage plants do not work. Medicine and food are in short supply. More than half the population depends on UN aid. The territory is virtually not fit for humans to live, according to a UN report. Under such circumstances, what else can the Gazans do but to rise and resist?
To understand their plight, one needs to be a freedom fighter or a freedom lover.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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The rise of Putin and the politics behind the poison

By Ameen Izzadeen
If Britain can prove that Russia was responsible for the poisoning of former Russian spy and British double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the southern British city of Salisbury on March 4, then it has every reason to be furious.
That Britain has so far failed to show the evidence that Russia has demanded does not mean Russia had no role in the attack. However, the angry rhetoric and tough diplomatic measures against Russia – the mass expulsion of Russian diplomats from the United States and Europe — have provided the US and Britain a justification to reinforce Nato’s presence close to Russia.
Standing by Britain, the United States on Monday ordered the expulsion of 60 Russian diplomats. The move was somewhat unexpected because it came only days after President Donald Trump spoke to Russia’s president Vladimir Putin to congratulate him on his “historic” election victory at the March 18 presidential election. Perhaps, by penalising Russia, Trump seeks to send a message to US voters that he is not under obligation to Russia, in view of allegations that Russian helped Trump win the 2016 presidential election — a matter now under investigation by a Special Counsel.
Perhaps, the US expulsion of Russian diplomats reflects the thinking of the new Trump team. Given the fact that the Trump administration is now guided by hawks such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, National Security Advisor and Iraq war architect John Bolton, and Nick Haley, Trump’s hit woman at the United Nations, there is little surprise in the harsh measure against Russia.
Wednesday’s media briefing at the US State Department said it all.
“Russia has long arms, lots of tentacles. It is a beast from the deep sea,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said, adding that Russia remains interested in meddling in other countries’ affairs. Perhaps, the spokeswoman knows nothing about US interference in other countries. In the current context, it is worth recalling the US-backed Ukrainian coup, which exacerbated the tension between Russia and the West, and the infamous “f*** the EU” words uttered by a frustrated Victoria Nuland, the then Assistant Secretary of State for Eurasian Affairs, when the EU nations were reluctant to be on board.
The new US stance contradicts what Trump had been advocating since his election to office in November 2016.
In a number of statements, Trump had called for stronger US relations with Russia. He had described the sanctions the US Congress had imposed on Russia over the annexation of Crimea in 2014 as “very, very heavy” and suggested that they should be lifted. Trump had said “having Russia in a friendly posture as opposed to always fighting them is an asset.”
The Trump policy on Russia has now taken a 180-degree turn. Well unpredictability is a key feature of the Trump administration. With Trump in the White House together with hawks, none can rule out a war on Iran or even a nuclear strike against any country.
When asked whether the US had proof to penalise Russia, the State Department spokeswoman could only say that the US believed what the British Government had said.
Britain’s Theresa May Government has also produced no proof to back up its accusation against Russia though it claims it has shared “unprecedented intelligence with allies”. Joining Britain in solidarity were several European nations. They expelled a few Russian diplomats from their capitals. Britain, on March 14, expelled 23 Russian diplomats – a move that prompted Russia to retaliate by expelling 23 British diplomats.
Whether Russia did or did not poison the double agent and his daughter, assassinations and false flags are part of big power politics. Did not Joseph Stalin kill Leon Trotsky? Did not the US-backed Bolivian Army kill Che Guevera? How many times, did the CIA try to kill Fidel Castro, sometimes by poisoning? How many false flag operations — such as the Gulf of Tonkin incident — has the US staged to justify wars? How many lies – such as Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction – have the US and Britain fabricated to start wars of aggression?
The US and Britain feel that there is an urgent need to contain Russia, which is becoming stronger by the day. The US and Britain are furious that Russia with its intervention in the Syrian conflict has bailed out the Bashar al-Assad regime and dashed the geopolitical hopes of the West and their ally Saudi Arabia, another key player in the anti-Russia axis.
The axis’ strategy appears to be that with the increase in the cold war type tensions, Russia would increase its military budget and this may sooner or later lead to an economic crisis which in turn would lead to the overthrow of the Putin government by a popular uprising. A similar strategy led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Russia is not unaware of the undercurrents of the diplomatic drama. Putin being a veteran in the spy business could smell an oncoming missile even before it is fired.
He was not so naïve as not to know that the West made use of an incident similar to the Skripal saga to bolster Nato manoeuvres near Russia in 2007.
This was after the death of FSB (Russia’s spy agency) defector Alexander Litvinenko. He was poisoned by a Russian agent in a London cafe in November 2007. Later he died in a London hospital. The incident triggered a tit-for-tat expulsion of diplomats by Moscow, London and Washington. The following year, the West wooed Georgia to sign a defence pact with Nato. Obviously, this made Russia livid. The same year, Russia sent troops into the then Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in support of the anti-government rebels.
In 2014, the US engineered a coup in Ukraine, replacing a pro-Russian president with a pro-West president. In response, an angry Russia annexed Crimea and provided military assistance to separatist rebels in the eastern regions of Ukraine.
In November, 2016 while world attention was on the US presidential election, Nato sent reinforcements – four battle groups — to Russia’s borders. Britain sent tanks, drones and 800 troops to Estonia as part of this Nato build-up. In anticipation of this buildup, Russia had deployed its nuclear-weapons capable Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad near the Polish border and fortified its defences in the Black Sea region. There is not much love lost between London and Moscow. Putin sees Britain as a hostile nation, because London provides shelter to several high-profile Russian dissidents, who, Putin believes, are plotting to destabilise Russia with help from the West.
In a striking parallel, weeks before the current dispute between Britain and Russia blew up, Putin, in an apparent warning to the West, unveiled Russia’s latest armoury, displaying hypersonic fighter jets and smart missiles that can dodge any anti-missile system and hit a target anywhere in the world.
Putin has now been reelected to power and he knows how to stay on in power for years or decades to come, notwithstanding the constitutional restrictions on the presidential term. This has sent jitters across western capitals. They know Putin’s ambition of making Russia a superpower again will be a threat to the West’s global agenda. The cold war will intensify while world peace will become elusive.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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Facebook: Friend or foe to society?

By Ameen Izzadeen
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)The debate over social media regulation has reached a critical point, with the social media giant Facebook facing its biggest ever crisis in its 14 year history.
In Britain and the United States, investigations are being held to find out whether Facebook did enough to protect its users’ private data. This came after a probe by Britain’s Channel 4 television exposed that a London-based political consultancy firm, Cambridge Analytica, improperly accessed information on 50 million Facebook users to sway public opinion. Among its clients was Donald Trump during the campaign for the United States presidential election in 2016.
With Facebook being boxed into a corner, the case for regulation is gaining momentum, in view of allegations that social media platforms are responsible for communal tensions in Sri Lanka, ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, racism and terrorism in Europe and the distortion of democracy in the United States and elsewhere.
Free speech advocates lambasted the Sri Lankan Government for blocking several social media platforms, including Facebook, WhatsApp and Viber, early this month as part of measures to curtail the spread of anti-Muslim violence. But the Government felt the week-long ban together with the imposition of the State of Emergency was a necessary evil. It appears that the Government seeks to follow the golden mean by not implementing a total ban on social media but acting on the premise — as Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, despite his democracy-promoter credentials, says – that some regulation is required to obviate the negative effects of social media.
In a stricter sense, social media refer to social networking of groups or platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and Instagram to share content in the form of texts, images and videos. In a loose sense, social media can mean any interactive website and even web-based games such as Candy Crush, Pokemon Go and the highly controversial and dangerous Blue Whale challenges.
In a way limited regulation is warranted given the harm social media and internet pose to society at large. Social media breed social ills ranging from pornography and paedophelia to slavery, drug trade, racism and terrorism. With porn just a click away, children are exposed to adult material at the tender age of about 10, leading to the breakdown of society in the long run. A satanic world also exists within the World Wide Web, which was, paradoxically, hailed as the gateway to a knowledge-based society when it first made its presence felt. Good and evil exist side by side.
What is scarier is that you are being watched. Through your smart phones and even your smart television, information about you, your behaviour patterns and the websites you visit are harvested and relayed backed to device producers and marketers. The danger is more, if you are a social media user. Needless to say hackers have a field day. Our privacy has been seriously compromised.
The cyber world is huge. It has been called the largest unregulated and uncontrolled domain in human history. There has been little international effort to adopt global standards on cyberethics. On the contrary, cybersecurity has been discussed extensively by nations as nuclear systems and strategic databases are hacked in uncontrolled cyberwars. Cyberethics receive little attention, even as the digital world scrambles to embrace Artificial Intelligence which will make wars and conflicts more inhumane. The growing demand for techno-species such as sexbots indicates that even relationships are becoming inhumane.
Last month, addressing the Munich Security Conference, United Nations Secretary General António Guterres lamented over “the absence of consensus in the international community about how to regulate the so‑called Internet of things.” But his remarks came largely in the context of cybersecurity instead of cyberethics. He said the multiplicity of activities — some by States, some by different actors, and even by amateurs — and the different uses that criminal organisations and terrorist organisations are making of the web create a level of threat that is becoming higher and higher and for which we have not yet found an adequate response.
Last week, UN investigators slammed the social media giant Facebook as a “beast”, for being a carrier of hate speech that led to possible genocide of the Rohingya in Myanmar. When questioned about hate speech posts of Myanmar’s ultra-racist groups such as Ma Ba Tha and 969, Facebook said it suspended and sometimes removed anyone that “consistently shares content promoting hate.”
“If a person consistently shares content promoting hate, we may take a range of actions such as temporarily suspending their ability to post and ultimately, removal of their account.”
But Facebook procedure is slow. Often, the harm is done before hate-speech posts are removed. The so-called community standards Facebook is talking about in its defence are ineffective. This is evident in the rise of the far right in Europe. Facebook is the biggest culprit.
Self-regulation by social media companies does not work, as the events in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and elsewhere show. Democracies and authoritarian states alike block social media.
India regularly imposes internet blackouts whenever there are troubles in Kashmir. Pakistan bans social media during political unrests and when its requests for the removal of religiously sensitive material are ignored. In China, where Facebook remains blocked from 2009, the state decides on the access to social media. Iran, North Korea, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Vietnam are among 18 nations that have blocked or temporarily restricted access to Facebook and other social media platforms to suppress political dissent or control protests.
True, social media enable families and friends to stay in touch. To their credit, social media have played a big role in ending dictatorships, as happened in Egypt.
Governments cannot afford to block websites and social media, because e-commerce is a digital era reality. Also the cyber anarchists are one-step ahead of state authorities and regulations and keep devising various apps to circumvent blocks and bans.
Given the vastness of the social media, regulating them is a terabyte task. Yet, it will do a world of a good if companies such as Facebook and Twitter enhance self-regulation and make it effective. On Wednesday, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg apologised for making mistakes that led to millions of Facebook users having their data exploited by Cambridge Analytica. The same Zuckerberg had earlier dismissed as “pretty crazy idea” reports that claimed fake news on Facebook influenced the US presidential election in favour of Trump. Facebook’s role in alleged Russian interference in the US presidential election is being investigated by Special Investigator Robert Mueller. The controversy has generated congressional moves to bring legislation to control political ads on social media.
Instead of apologies, what is required is the adoption by social media companies of high ethical standards to combat hate-speech, racism, pornography, terrorism and political manipulation that distorts democracy. In this context, an international covenant on cyberethics is indeed in order. We are not advocating an infringement of the freedom of expression. This freedom is, in any case, not absolute. We only underscore that freedom comes with responsibility.

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Rise of Xi and the Asian dream

By Ameen Izzadeen
China’s President Xi Jinping is now a virtual leader for life after the Communist Party on Sunday removed the presidential term limits from the constitution. Xi is undoubtedly the most powerful world leader today.
What does Sunday’s landmark event mean to the people of China and the rest of the world? Though the move is certainly not in tune with democratic principles, to the ordinary Chinese people, who do not have much yearning for western-style democracy, Sunday’s historic change could mean development at double speed.
First, it must be made clear that Xi becoming president for life is, by no means, China endorsing dictatorship. Xi cannot be compared with a dictator like Saddam Hussein, who was a law unto himself. In China, the Communist Party regulates politics and Xi will have to abide by party rules and the constitution.
The ultimate aim of politicians is to grab power. But freedom from fear and hunger is the people’s ultimate expectation from politicians. For the people, it does not matter whether a politician given to democratic ideals or an undemocratic ruler fulfils their expectations. The bottom line is, as poet Alexander Pope said, ‘For forms of government, let fools contest, whatever is administered best is best.’
In rich countries such as Switzerland and Singapore, party politics does not play a significant role in people’s lives. People in these countries do not worry about their next meal. Neither do they live in fear, for they see the supremacy of the rule of law in practice. In China, a country known for the rule of law, what people expect is freedom from poverty. China, through its controlled economic liberalization policies, has enabled hundreds of millions of people to free themselves from the poverty trap over the past ten years. Some 20 percent of China’s 1.4 billion people – that is a staggering 280 million people –are in the US$ 40,000+ a year (more than Rs. 6.2 million a year or Rs. 512,000 a month) income bracket. The only other country which has so many people in the US$ 40,000+ income bracket is the United States.
Experts believe if China’s economy grows at a healthy rate of 5-7 percent, 40 percent of China’s population will enter the US$ 40,000+ income bracket in the next 15 years. The achievement could come much faster if the economy grows at more than 7 percent a year. This is what President Xi is targeting – to make China great again by freeing its people from the poverty trap. There are some 2,200 dollar billionaires in the world – of them 568 are in China. The US comes a close second with 518 billionaires. Xi wants to make more and more Chinese people rich and he has a great vision for it.
He believes his giga project — the One-Belt-One-Road Initiative also known as the Belt-and-Road Initiative (BRI) – will catapult China into the sphere of prosperity.
It is with this multitrillion-dollar BRI that China is trying to create a new world economic order. Yes, it is inevitable that the new order will be China-centric, though, through regional cooperation, it could be made Asia-centric.
In October last year, President Xi got his name engraved in the Constitution, thus becoming the third leader to do so after Mao Zedong, the founder of the Communist State in 1949, and Deng Xiaoping, who introduced the socialist market economy.
Addressing the October sessions of the People’s Congress, Xi spelt out his ‘Thoughts on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era’. He outlined specific policies on the BRI, the modernisation of society and the armed forces; and target dates for establishing China’s position in the world. He said the policies were aimed at making China a top innovative nation by 2035 and a nation with global influence by 2050. This Sunday, Xi took a giant stride towards making these goals a reality.
Now that Xi has become a life-long feature in world politics, the rest of the world needs to treat him and his pet BRI project with the seriousness they deserve.
There is much at stake for smaller countries which try to balance their China relations with equally strong relations with the United States, Japan and India – countries which view China’s global ambitions with suspicion. Sri Lanka’s foreign ministry should assess the emerging Xi-led world economic order and take measures to benefit from it. A point to keep in mind: China will step up its assertive diplomacy.
Xi’s BRI project is a boon for Asia. Asian powerhouses such as Japan and India should view China as an opportunity rather than a rival. Together they can chart the course for world peace through greater economic relations.
India, especially, need not get dragged into moves to counter China’s growing global influence. In recent months, India together with the US, Japan and Australia – the so-called Quad — has been mulling over the possibilities of launching a counter BRI. India is building Iran’s Chabahar port as a joint venture and a corridor linking the southern Iranian port with Afghanistan’s iron rich Hajigak area. In addition, India has also invested in a road network connecting India with Myanmar and Thailand in moves seen as countering China’s BRI. Now the Quad plans to revive the former US President Barack Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The Donald Trump administration which withdrew from the TPP is now having second thoughts about it. Obama vowed he would not allow China to dictate the terms of the world economy when he launched the TPP as part of his ‘Pivot to Asia’ strategy to contain China.
Officials from the Quad countries have clarified that this plan was not a “rival” but an “alternative” to the BRI. The project is being given an Indo-Pacific characteristic, highlighting India’s pivotal role.
Although China has extended a cautious welcome to the alternative BRI, the countermove by the Quad has the undercurrents of a growing cold war and will add to world tension. Already Russian President Vladimir Putin – who will also, like Xi, remain president for long years to come – has fired warning shots at the West, boasting about Russia’s one-upmanship in smart weapons. Moreover, Britain’s dispute with Russia over the nerve gas attack on a former Russian double agent and his daughter is also threatening world peace.
China and India were the best of friends before the two countries went to war in 1962 over a border dispute. It was India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru who brought Communist China to the world stage. Nehru, who invited China’s Premier Zhou Enlai to the 1955 Afro-Asian conference in Bandung, was a true Asian. Together they worked out the Panchaseela principles for co-existence. Even before India got independence, Nehru dreamt of Asian unity and in March 1947, he convened the Asian Relations Conference in New Delhi.
But sadly, the right wing Narendra Modi Government has abandoned this Asian dream and is seen to be delighted over the fact that the US is relying on it in its power rivalry with China.
But this policy in the long term will not serve India. This is because China under President Xi is likely to prevail. India needs to revive Nehru’s Asian dream. If India needs to check China’s dominance, then it, together with Japan and Australia, should join China’s BRI project as equal partners. Asia’s economic powerhouses together need to shape the world economic and political order. That’s the way forward for Asia.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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Modern nation-state: A blow from Digana

By Ameen Izzadeen
Sri Lanka’s nation-building process, it appears, is a farce and the state-building process a failure. The communal tension in the past ten days, first in Ampara and then in Digana, Kandy, when seen together with the three-decades of separatist war and seven decades of ethnic disharmony between communities, tells us that Sri Lanka is yet to become a modern-nation state.
A nation’s development is assessed not by the number of highrise buildings or flashy cars on the road, but by its people’s collective will to regard humanity as one and rise above differences based on group identities, such as race, religion, caste or ideology. A state reaches the height of civilization when a human being within its boundaries is safe from the actions, words and even thoughts of another human being. Although, even the most liberal states have not reached the idealistically preferred level of civilization, it is progress when states strive for it. On the contrary, it is degeneration, when a state allows or encourages racism, prejudices and communalism.
With Sri Lanka yet to be liberated from dirty communalism, incidents such as those in Ampara and Digana deal a crippling blow to efforts to establish an overarching Sri Lankan identity or “I am a Sri Lankan first” identity.
Defining a nation-state only on the basis of a majority community is archaic, feudal in nature and preposterously inhuman. The modern definition of nation-state is multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and secular. Sri Lanka, since receiving independence in 1948, has not taken serious step towards establishing the modern multi-ethnic nation state. Instead, Sri Lanka’s post-independence leaders have played communal politics — and as a result, the country was plunged into a 30-year separatist war, and, for the past several years, ethnic tension involving Sinhala racist groups and Muslims.
We simply failed to build on the ‘Ceyloneseness’ we wrought at Independence and rise like Singapore, a multi-ethnic nation that has, by practising meritocracy, succeeded in establishing an overarching Singaporean national identity and emerged as an exemplary modern nation-state. Last year, Singapore refused to issue visa to a world famous Muslim preacher, because he had said in a fatwa that it was un-Islamic to greet non-Muslims on their festivals. The government contended that his views promoted religious discord.
While Singapore has discarded ethnic politics, Sri Lankan politicians have adopted racism for short-term petty political gains, while causing long-term damage to the country’s well-being.
Racial prejudice is an acquired attitude. No child born into one community develops prejudices against other communities through instinct. Rather it is the parents, elders, politicians, religious figures, teachers, journalists and now social media bigots who poison innocent minds and make them racists. In other words, it is society at large that makes one a racist. The extent to which a person is racially prejudiced depends on the extent to which the society she or he lives in is unenlightened. If children are brought up in an enlightened environment, especially the home and school environment, they would be less prejudiced. Successive governments’ monumental failure in bringing about an enlightened society through the education system and government policy has nurtured prejudice and racism.
A sociological explanation of prejudice is that it arises from competition over jobs and resources and also from political disagreements. When groups vie with each other over these matters, they often become hostile towards each other. A socio-psychological view of prejudice is that it arises when individuals who experience various kinds of problems become frustrated and tend to blame their troubles on groups that are often disliked in the real world (e.g., racial, ethnic, and religious minorities). These minorities are thus scapegoats for the real sources of the majority’s misfortunes. In Europe, Jews were blamed for the bubonic plague and Germany’s economic recession. ( In Sri Lanka, Muslims are blamed for the low population growth rate of the Sinhalese.
A fair share of the blame should also be placed on the minorities themselves. For ethnic harmony sake, a minority community in a multiethnic society needs to be inclusive, while preserving its cultural and religious identities, without allowing the majority community to develop racial prejudices against it. In this respect, the behaviour of a minute section of the Muslims indeed was provocative, to say the least, when they supported Pakistan while the Sri Lanka cricket team was playing against that country. Such preposterous anti-national behaviour, seen at cricket stadiums and live on television, was condemned by the majority of Muslims, but, given the prejudicial nature of society, the entire Muslim community was stereotyped as anti-national.
Inter-relations between communities need to be built on mutual respect for each other’s culture and aspirations. Racism and prejudice are not peculiar to one community. They cut across all socio-economic barriers. Stereotyping the ‘other’ is part of prejudice. So are efforts to assume a sense of superiority based on caste, race or religion.
In a multiethnic society highly steeped in prejudice, majoritarianism promotes the view that minorities need to be eliminated or expelled. This is happening in Myanmar where the Rohingya minority is being ethnically cleansed.
In a multicultural society that is partially prejudiced, majoritarianism represents the view that minorities can co-exist but whatever rights and privileges they enjoy are at the pleasure of the majority. This is what Narendra Modi’s India is turning out to be. Under his government, India’s Muslims feel they are second class citizens.
In an enlightened multiethnic society, majoritarianism epitomizes a caring older brother willing to share the parental property equally with his younger brothers. Examples are Singapore, where the president is a hijab-wearing Muslim woman, and several Western nations, including the United Kingdom where a Muslim with a migrant background can become London’s mayor and a national cricket team captain.
In Sri Lanka, majoritarianism manifests in all these forms. While the ethnic-cleansing majoritarianism is responsible for the Aluthgama, Gingtota, Ampara and Kandy mob attacks, the caring-brother-type majoritarianism manifested in the statements made by cricketing greats Sanath Jayasuriya, Mahela Jayawardena and Kumar Sangakkara and in the powerful speech made by Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake in parliament this week.
But the responsibility to make Sri Lanka an enlightened society rests not with civil society alone. The Government should have a commitment towards nation-building – the creation of an all-powerful Sri Lankan identity. Paying mere lip service to reconciliation and having ministries and offices for national unity and reconciliation would not help the nation-building process. Politicians should become statesman or stateswomen with vision.
The mob attacks on Muslim properties and mosques rekindle the ugly memories of the 1983 pogrom against the Tamils. Disregarding the pleas of the enlightened segment of society, the then President J.R. Jayewardene deliberately delayed the imposition of an islandwide curfew to teach the Tamils a lesson they would not forget.
That this week’s attacks continued despite a curfew and the declaration of emergency is a serious indictment on the Government’s inaction and a breakdown of law and order. There could even be a political conspiracy behind the race riots, given the undercurrents of the 2020 presidential race. Such ugly incidents — taking place in the 21st century in a country blessed by the world’s four main religions — shows the depth of darkness that we are in. Are we a failed state, incapable of co-existence and nation-building?
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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Syria: The stories the corporate media do not tell

This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka
By Ameen Izzadeen
It is good journalism when the media become the voice of the voiceless, the watchdog and the fifth estate. Often shoddy journalism is referred to as bad journalism. There is another type of journalism – the ugly or dirty journalism, where the media play the role of a hit man, a mercenary promoting someone else’s agenda.
Suddenly ugly journalism is in all force to tell the world that what is happening in Syria’s Ghouta, the land of Eden turned hell, is genocide. The corporate media raising the alarm and arousing public protests worldwide to put pressure on world leaders to act fast to save the trapped civilians of Ghouta, some may say, is perfectly in order. But why now? Why this sudden awakening? Why this selective alarm?
Since the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011, Ghouta, which is less than an hour’s drive from Damascus, has been under the iron rule of the so-called Islamic rebels, whom the corporate media, working for their clients in the White House and lofty palaces in the Arabian Gulf region, are trying to project as moderate rebels opposed to tyrant Bashar al-Assad. The Western media were largely silent when the rebels linked to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS) terrorised the civilians of Ghouta, just as the ISIS did in Iraq’s Mosul and other places. These rebels used Ghouta as a launching pad to shell highly populated Damascus and carry out terrorist attacks. These attacks killed civilians, including children. In April last year, 68 children were among some 130 people killed when a rebel car bomb hit a convoy of civilians leaving Aleppo, following a safe-passage arrangement between the Syrian Government and the rebels. But their deaths drew little condemnation.
Even now the happenings in Ghouta come to us through the prism of the Western media, which rely on material supplied by rebels who are known to be producing fake videos to evoke the international community’s response against the Syrian regime. According to a Russia Today report, photographs taken in Gaza and Mosul were being liberally circulated in the social media as being those from Ghouta. It is alleged that the Syrian forces were using chlorine bombs to kill civilians. Independent investigations show that both the regime and the rebels have used chemical weapons. The Western media are often fed by an organisation called the White Helmets, which is working largely in collaboration with various rebel groups. This organisation, according to news sites, which carry reports that corporate media would not show or publish, is allegedly controlled by Western intelligence outfits to give credibility to western – also rebel – propaganda against the Syrian regime.
We do not deny there is suffering in Ghouta. We insist that the Syrian war should be halted immediately so that the Syrian people can lead a peaceful life as they did before February 2011.
But this suffering is as much due to rebel atrocities as it is to the Syrian government’s attacks. Following last Saturday’s United Nations-backed truce in Ghouta, Russia announced a safe corridor for the trapped civilians to leave the enclave. But reports claim that the rebels were using the civilians as human shields and preventing them from leaving. The LTTE did this in Sri Lanka, the Islamic State in Iraq and now Syrian rebels in Ghouta, where so far some 600 civilians including children have perished in three weeks of clashes between the rebels and the Syrian government troops.
When bombs rained on Mosul, Iraq, some 4,000 civilians, including children, died; hundreds of them were buried alive under rubble when US and Iraqi war planes unleashed their massive fire power on urban population centres. Corporate media carried no disturbing television footage with a warning to viewers. Despite the United Nations raising concerns over civilian safety, the destruction of Mosul was justified on the basis that ISIS needed to be eliminated. There was no pressure on Iraq and the United States to abandon the campaign against ISIS.
Saudi Arabia drew only mild criticism when charity organisations in November last year warned that a million children will die in Yemen due to the Saudi blockade on Yemen’s rebel-held areas.
Ghouta is no different from Mosul or Yemen. The people there should be liberated. Their suffering should end. But the responsibility of ending this suffering is largely on those who started the war. The war was not Assad’s doing. Syria was relatively peaceful before all hell broke loose. Against the backdrop of Arab-spring-led regime changes in the Middle East, Tens of thousands of foreign fighters, helped by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and their Western allies, penetrated Syria to incite a rebellion against Assad.
If people’s power uprisings were responsible for the regime changes in Tunisia and Egypt, it was totally a different scenario in Libya. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE and their Western allies engineered an armed rebellion against Muammar Gaddafi. Foreign mercenaries were airdropped to train and guide anti-Gaddafi rebels mainly in Benghazi, while the Nato carried out air attacks on Libya.
The formula executed with clinical precision succeeded in overthrowing Gaddafi. The fathers of the formula then turned their attention towards Syria, assuming that what worked for them in Libya would work for them in Syria. The war mongers partnered with al Qaeda and ISIS and wanted a regime change in Syria because Assad had resisted their plan to build a pipeline across Syria to send Qatari and Saudi gas via Turkey to Europe, where Russia controlled more than 60 percent of the gas market.
These countries were also apprehensive of the rising power of the so-called Iranian-led Shiite Crescent which included Iran, Iraq, Syria and parts of Lebanon, not to mention the rise of Shiite political forces in Bahrain, Yemen, and the eastern region of Saudi Arabia. By setting up a friendly regime in Syria, the war party thought, they could quash Iran’s regional ambitions.
In addition, Israel also wanted Assad ousted and a regime loyal to the West installed so that the new rulers of Syria could hand over the Golan Heights to Israel. There is oil in Golan Heights. Israeli and US companies have plans to commercially exploit this oil. But Israel is prohibited from selling the Golan oil in the international market because under international law, an occupying nation cannot profit from resources of an occupied area. So they all wanted Assad ousted.
But the direct involvement of Russia, which has a naval base in Syria, in the Syrian conflict since 2015 changed the equation in favour of Assad. In the meantime, regular terror attacks in Europe forced the United States and European nations to declare an all-out war against ISIS.
Assad is a tyrant because the corporate media continue to describe him so. He may be or maybe not. But he has not spurned international peace moves, especially the one now being spearheaded by Russia. At the initial stages of the conflict, Assad was even willing to hold multi-party elections to find a speedy solution to the crisis. But peace talks have so far failed because of the insistence of the rebels and their sponsors that Assad must go. The solution to the crisis can only be found with Assad as a partner.

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France and Sri Lanka: The dangers of cohab politics

By Ameen Izzadeen
Sri Lanka’s political crisis following the February 10 local polls election setback for the ruling coalition has brought to surface the vagaries of political cohabitation peculiar to the presidential cum parliamentary governments or hybrid governments.
Political cohabitation is a form of governmental arrangement between the executive president and a rival party prime minister. The French call this arrangement La cohabitation — and it is in France that cohabitation became a political concept after the Fifth Republican Constitution was adopted. Cohabitation is quite contrast to co-rule or a political system called diarchy where two rulers exercise equal power or play well defined and agreed upon roles. Cohabitation is also different from constitutionally defined power-sharing arrangements as seen in the Northern Ireland power sharing deal where the Protestant first minister and the Catholic Deputy First Minister wield equal powers. In countries such as Iraq and Lebanon, power sharing is exercised on ethnic basis, with the presidency, the premiership and the post of Speaker being distributed among leaders of different ethnic groups.
In the absence of clear constitutional provisions, cohabitation governments are usually associated with political instability. This is because the president and the prime minister are often engaged in a political cold war to undermine each other. Often, cohabitation governments crumble under political manipulations, even if constitutional safeguards exist to check moves by the President or the Prime Minister to weaken each other.
In Sri Lanka, cohabitation became a political reality for the first time in 2001, when the then President Chandrika Kumaratunga dissolved parliament and called for general elections, only to see her rival Ranil Wickremesinghe’s United National Party polling 45.62 percent of the registered votes and winning the elections. Kumaratunga grudgingly swore in Wickremesinghe as prime minister. But the President felt uncomfortable sitting with her rival party leader and ministers at Cabinet meetings which she presided as the head of the Cabinet. Being a leader of a political party and her executive powers pruned by the prime ministerial rule, Kumaratunga planned to dissolve the Government at the very first opportune moment that came her way.
Unlike in France, where the Prime Minister is the head of government and as powerful as the president, in Sri Lanka, the then prime minister was, constitutionally speaking, a virtual Mr. Nothing. The only constitutional mechanism at the disposal of the then Prime Minister Wicrkremesinghe was parliament’s control of finances to cut off funds to the President. But the President had the power to dissolve parliament after parliament completed one year. Yet by getting the Speaker to entertain a petition to impeach the president, the premier could have prevented the president from dissolving parliament. Wickeremsinghe, however, rejected his party seniors’ advice to impeach the president, probably because he was too much of a gentleman politician or he believed if a general election was held, his party could win.
In retrospect it appeared that Kumaratunga had outfoxed Wickremesinghe. She dissolved parliament, disregarding a pledge she gave in writing to the Speaker that she would not dissolve parliament as long as the Prime Minister commanded the confidence of the majority in the house. This was power politics of Machiavellian type.
The constitutional provision with regard to the dissolution of parliament underwent a progressive change with the passage of the 19th Amendment in April 2015. Under this amendment, the President can dissolve parliament only after parliament completes four years and six months of its five year term. The amendment, among other things, also curtails the president’s power to remove the prime minister.
Notwithstanding the 19th Amendment’s checks on the presidential powers, President Maithripala Sirisena appears to take an upper hand in the present crisis engulfing the cohabitation government, which, unlike in France, is also a coalition government, sometimes called a national unity government by two rival parties which coexist despite regular conflicts. The fact that the prime minister’s party lacks a clear majority in parliament and that its public standing has taken a beating due to its failure to fulfill its campaign pledge to bring in good governance has enabled the president to call the shots and shoot down proposals from the prime minister’s party – proposals which if implemented could make the premier popular.
Sri Lanka’s cohabitation politics smacks of political skullduggery. Our politicians are even averse to bipartisanship for a national cause such as finding a solution to the national question. The collapse of the 2011 Liam Fox agreement between Kumaratunga and Wickremesinghe and the 2006 memorandum of understanding between the United People’s Freedom Alliance and the United National Party only confirm that our politicians give more priority to party politics than to national causes.
The recent events probably indicate that President Sirisena also awaits the Kumaratunga moment to stab Wickremesinghe in the back, though it was Wickremesinghe’s party that catapulted him to the president’s office. This is nothing uncommon in cohabitation politics. It happens even in France which tried out the first cohabitation government in 1986 with Socialist President Francois Mitterrand as president and the right wing Republican Party leader Jacques Chirac as prime minister. Mitterrand kept the portfolios of foreign, defence, nuclear strategy and European Union affairs while Chirac took charge of the economy and domestic affairs. In this arrangement, Mitterrand often interfered when the government was in a difficult situation. As a result, the prime minister took all the flak and became unpopular while the president’s star was on the ascent. Well, in Sri Lanka, too, this is happening. The SAITM issue and the controversy surrounding a brigadier attached to Sri Lanka’s High Commission in London are cases in point, where the UNP is seen as the villain and the president the trouble shooter and patriot.
France’s first cohabitation experiment lasted only two years. Mitterrand dissolved the government in 1988 and his party won the subsequent presidential and assembly elections. France also had cohabitation governments in 1993 and 1997. Of these cohab governments, the most acrimonious was the 1997 arrangement where Chirac was the president and the socialist politician Lionel Jospin was prime minister. Chirac alluded to the period as ‘political paralysis’.
The French experience shows, that after every cohab government, the president’s party wins the next election. In Sri Lanka, however, President Sirisena’s opportunity has been usurped by the Joint Opposition’s de facto leader and former president Mahinda Rajapaksa. Only Sirisean is to be blamed for this state of affairs, because he failed to take effective control of his party and crack the whip on dissidents when he was seen to be powerful. If he had done that, he could have by now become a formidable candidate for the 2020 presidential election, with the cohab government’s prime minister taking the blame for failures.
In this regard, the premiership appears to be disadvantageous to Wickremesinghe, unless he believes that holding on to the post will enable him to execute a well-thought-out plan to outfox his rivals. But the issue is his rivals also have big plans for 2020 polls.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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