Archive for June, 2011
The national dialogue forum Salman is referring to starts on Saturday. It is aiming to attract 300 participants bringing together the full spectrum of Bahrain’s political, social, economic and rights groups. According to Dubai’s Gulf News (which is distributed in Bahrain), the participation rate of invitees is 94 percent. But Al Wefaq was the big undecided group to now suspicious that the wide variety of issues on the table would diminish the chances of agreeing on real democratisation. It was also invited to choose only five representatives out of 300 total delegates.
This is despite Al Wefaq being Bahrain’s largest party winning 18 of the 40 seats in last year’s parliamentary election. However they are regularly outvoted by a bloc of Sunni parties and independents. In February, All 18 Al Wefaq MPs resigned after seven people were killed by security forces in the battle for Pearl Roundabout (now razed and known as Al Farooq junction). The Government crushed the rebellion in March with the aid of troops from Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
On 1 June 1, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa announced the lifting of a “state of national safety” he had decreed and offered talks. Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Khalifa went to the Oval Office a week later to meet President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton to seek support for the national dialogue. Bahrain is home to the US Fifth Fleet so the US has been cautious about overtly attacking the regime despite condemning the security crackdown. The State Department formally welcomed the talks on 15 June. However Assistant Secretary Michael Posner told his Bahraini hosts that meaningful dialogue could only take place “in a climate of respect for the freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly.”
This was a veiled reference to the many trials and military court proceedings initiated by the government to deal with 500 people arrested since the February protest. On Monday Bahrain launched a mass trial of 28 doctors and nurses accused of joining the protests and spreading “false information” which is code for speaking to foreign media. Another 20 doctors and nurses are accused of alleged anti-state plots. On 22 June, a special security court in Bahrain sentenced eight activists and opposition leaders to life in prison on charges of “plotting to overthrow the government”.
Meanwhile a special military court called the Court of National Safety came into being on 12 June to hold politically motivated cases against opposition members of parliament and a prominent defence lawyer. According to Amnesty International the courts were put in place in response to the protests and are presided by one military and two civilian judges. The court sentenced a young female activist to a year in prison for charges related to her public recital of a poem critical of Bahrain’s King.
Two Al Wefaq MPs are also among those arrested and kept in secret solitary confinement. There was no legal representation or family present. Human Rights Watch has called on Bahrain to end the proceedings. “Most defendants hauled before Bahrain’s special military court are facing blatantly political charges, and trials are unfair,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The Crown Prince may be sincere in his efforts to promote dialogue, but what good is that while back home the government is crushing peaceful dissent and locking up people who should be part of the dialogue.”
Typically for matters involving the Chinese security apparatus, the 54-year-old dissident artist’s release after 81 days in detention raises more questions than it answers. There is no word on whether he was formally charged or tried except Ai’s release comes with a caveat: a year-long probation that prohibits him from leaving Beijing without special permission from the Chinese government. “I’m sorry I can’t talk,” Ai told friends and reporters outside his Beijing home and studio hours after his release. “I am on probation, please understand.”
At a regular news briefing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said Ai was still under investigation for unspecified offences. His “obtaining a guarantee pending a trial” can last up to 12 months, according to Hong. “Ai is still in the investigation period for suspected crimes,” he said. “He is not allowed to leave where he lives, cannot interfere (with) other people’s testimony, [and] cannot fabricate evidence nor collaborate with others to make false confession.”
Ai was arrested on 3 April and initially detained under “inciting subversion” charges to which later was added “economic crimes.” The real reason however, was retaliation for a long record of social and political activism. Ai Weiwei rose to international prominence in the mid 1990s. A graduate of the Beijing Film Academy, he lived in the US in the 1980s studying design and gradually building his art portfolio. In 1993 he came home due to his father’s illness and established an experimental artists’ village. In 2000, he curated a Shanghai exhibition of 46 avant-garde artists called “fuck off” which allegedly featured self-mutilation, human corpses and body parts as well as cannibalism and was the subject of a Scotland Yard investigation. Shanghai police were not impressed either and closed the exhibition down before the finish date.
By 2005 his work was featured by the BBC as “one of the stars of China’s art world” with work appearing in exhibitions across the world. At the time, Ai told the British broadcaster he had not held a solo show in China as the country was “not yet ready.” As well as being at the cutting edge of art, Ai was also experimenting at the bounds of political expression expressing negative comments about the Olympics (despite designing the Bird’s Nest stadium) and supporting an investigation in the heavy casualties of the Sichuan earthquake. In 2009 he was beaten up by police when he tried to testify for dissident Tan Zuoren who was sentenced to five years for trumped-up state subversion charges when he tried to investigate the earthquake.
The authorities stepped up their harassment of Ai as he became a more vocal critic of the regime. Last year, he was stopped at Beijing’s airport from flying to South Korea because authorities feared he might go to Oslo to attend the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony for his friend Liu Xiaobo. Then they ordered a demolition of his Shanghai studio saying it was built illegally. Ai decided to hold a party to mark the demolition and issued an open invite to attend via Twitter. However on the day of the party national security officers placed him under house arrest. “They came last night and tried to interview me, saying I should not do it because it was getting too big,” he said. “This is the general tragedy of this nation. Everything has to be dealt with by police. It is like you use an axe to do all the housework because this is the only tool you have.”
The party happened anyway without Ai who was released two days later. The studio was demolished in January and Ai was arrested in April. By now the Chinese authorities were paranoid the contagion of Middle Eastern revolutions might spread to their country, revolutions Ai supported. In the weeks after mid-February, China arrested 26 people, while 30 more disappeared presumed held by security forces, and 200 were placed under “soft detention.” Ai was arrested without explanation and with no communication to family or friends. Police blocked off the streets to his studio during the raid and took away laptops and the hard drive from the main computer, and detained eight staff members and his wife Lu Qing for questioning.
Initially claiming his arrest was due to issues with his travel documentation, authorities changed their tune citing the existence of “economic crimes”. Financial fraud has been convenient catch-all way of shutting down opponents of the regime. Ai’s 78-year-old mother, Gao Ying denounced the government line. “Economic crimes! They say one thing now and another later. It’s ridiculous,” she said. “They must tell the family why and where they are holding my son? They have no right to keep us guessing. Where is the Constitution? Where is the law?”
But it wasn’t just Ai’s mother who was exasperated. Art groups created the protest “1,001 Chairs for Ai Weiwei” to call for artists to bring chairs to Chinese embassies and consulates around the world on 17 April “to sit peacefully in support of the artist’s immediate release.” Other museums and cultural organisations around the world signed an online petition expressing concern for “Ai’s freedom and disappointment in China’s reluctance to live up to its promise to nurture creativity and independent thought.” As Ai’s release yesterday proved, China’s “promise” comes with multiple strings attached none of which are designed with the west in mind.
Ever since Sudan itself gained independence from Britain in 1956, Muslim Khartoum has been at war with the Christian/animist south. The Tribune mentions nothing about animist prayers on independence day, but no doubt they will heard, at least in private. It has been a long and bloody conflict in which two million people have died. A so-called Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005 finally allowed for a referendum in January this year in which 98 percent of the Southern Sudanese voted to go their own way. But tensions and troubles continue to dominate in the border regions of the soon-to-be two countries especially the disputed oil-rich Abyei whose status remains unclear after independence.
Khartoum seized Abyei’s main town on 21 May, causing tens of thousands of people to flee the area, triggering an international outcry and raising fears the two sides could return to open conflict. For the last week, Ethiopia has hosted a peace conference between the Sudanese government and Southern Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement. Finally former South African president Thabo Mbeke announced yesterday he had brokered a ceasefire in Abyei to demilitarise the region and bring in Ethiopian peacekeepers. Mbeke said the northern Sudanese military, the south’s Sudan People’s Liberation Army and Ethiopian officials would meet to settle on a mandate for Ethiopian peacekeeping forces that will be deployed in the region.
While it is culturally analogous to the rest of the south, it has geological features that make it attractive to Khartoum. It sits on top of the Muglad Basin, some 120,000 km2 of land which home to the Muglad Basin Oilfield. Khartoum has built a 1540km long pipeline – with Chinese and Indian help – to carry 150,000 barrels of crude every day from the Basin to Port Sudan on the Red Sea. The bulk of Sudan’s oil (proven reserves estimated at five billion barrels in 2007) is in the south at Abyei and Heiglig. The 2005 deal allowed for 75 percent of oil revenue sharing from the southern fields (but with no reciprocal agreement from northern fields). Khartoum has also fudged the figures to avoid sharing revenue and much wealth has been skimmed off by the capital’s kleptocracy. The north also has all of the oil infrastructure with fulcrums at Khartoum and Port Sudan.
The 2005 CPA agreement makes it far from clear what will happen to Abyei. The region is administered by a committee of northern and southern Sudanese, with security provided by so-called Joint Integrated Units, groups of soldiers from both sides. But it is racked by disagreements and violence. The Bashir regime has used the instability of Abyei as a tool in their ongoing struggle to delay full independence. He ordered the army to invade the town after fighting in the ethnically mixed region gave him a pretext. He sent artillery, dozens of tanks and thousands of soldiers in and shelled a UN compound. They claimed the invasion was a response to attacks by southern forces which killed northern soldiers.
The new agreement puts a bandage on Abyei but does little to stop the wounds from re-opening elsewhere along a porous 3,500km border. Darfur is a well known trouble spot as is Southern Kordofan. There the Sudanese Army have been on the rampage in the Nuba Mountains. Tens of thousands of rebel fighters have refused the government’s order to disarm and instead have disappeared into the mountains. The army has sealed off the area threatening to shoot UN helicopters if they intervene.
So far, the fighting in Kordofan and Abyei has done nothing to change the plans for 9 July. But the new nation could start its life with a humanitarian catastrophe with half a million people on the move. Lise Grande, the top UN humanitarian official in the south said last week they needed $200 million to deal with a looming refugee crisis. “It really is a race against time at this stage because with the rainy season at its height, in probably less than two weeks large parts of the south will be inaccessible so we need to do it right now,” Grande said. “We can’t wait.”
The full name of today’s carnival is the PCAP Mid Winter Carnival and is sometimes shortened as PCAP Winterfest. PCAP is an acronym for the Priority Country Area Program. It is the Queensland version of the national Country Area Program introduced by the Fraser Government in 1977 under the Disadvantaged Schools Programs to recognise students attending schools in isolated areas have less access to educational, social and cultural opportunities than metropolitan students. Queensland’s PCAP is an annual community-based program and unusually – and critical to its success – is intersystemic, that is, jointly administered by the State and Catholic school system.
From 1982 onwards eligibility under the program was determined by eligible local government boundaries. Rural Queensland was divided into four geographical areas and with local administration; each grew differently to each other as local needs were cared for. Itinerant PCAP teachers became devoted to the areas they served in. In 2008 there were 242 PCAP schools, many of them very small, enrolling 31,500 students. There are 48 local committees that sit to decided where funds should go. These committees had high level of community involvement as social events and bonded rural communities as much as the programs they sponsored.
The Federal Government provides the funds to PCAP and gave $6.4 million in 2008. The cost of administering the program in wages, committee meetings and operational costs is $1.6. While the PCAP has good educational outcomes in the bush, they are difficult to manage on a balance sheet. However, the administrative bill of 26 per cent of the total budget had bean-counters in faraway Canberra worried. The 2008 Queensland Council Amalgamation and COAG insistence on more “accountability” from the states – gave the cost conscious Queensland Government the opportunity it needed to claw back some of that funding.
They called in former Education Department bureaucrat Frank Rockett to review the program and his consultation report had contradictory findings. Focus group meetings with stakeholders revealed a number of flaws in the program including an onerous fund application process for even the smallest dollar amounts, occasional trips for entertainment rather than educational purposes, and a bucket of funding money for wider community groups. But Rockett also acknowledged the vital role it played in forging community ties and good educational outcomes for isolated kids. He made 27 recommendations to the Minister for Education, 20 of which were accepted in full in the final report.
The program will be axed at the end of 2011 and replaced by Rural and Remote Education Access Program, to be known as RREAP. Eligibility will be based on the Australian Standard Geographical Classification used in the Health industry bringing in a total of 347 schools and 54,850 students. The administrators would all be removed, the teachers will be based in schools not paid by the program and funding will be tied to learning outcomes. The administration will be divested to the schools themselves – adding to their already large workload. According to Rockett, the School Principal “is clearly held accountable for school performance just as the manager of a business or the Chief Executive Officer of a large company are equally held accountable.” But there is no one the school CEO can turn to with knowledge of the program’s many small but vital services.
Without administrators RREAP will also not be able to promote itself. Most people in the south-west know about PCAP – there are stickers everywhere in the community promoting them. Here, PCAP is most synonymous with music and produces a huge amount of musically-talented kids through the program, as Surat today showed. But it does much more. In the South-West, they run their own bus to events around a huge district, they charter other buses to take people to regional competitions in Toowoomba and they subsidise dance teachers to drive 200km to help children learn ballet in St George. There were also benefits that couldn’t be measured on the bottom line such as the confidence that flows on to other areas of learning and the sense of discipline and responsibility a child takes as a musician. As one parent told me today, her son was sick but didn’t want to miss playing as “he was the only saxophonist in the group”.
PCAP was introduced in the Joh era and some might call it pork-barreling, subsiding educational outcomes for a particular area. In Queensland parliament in September 2009, Current LNP leader-in-the-house Jeff Seeney called it “an important source of funding for country area schools in order for them to provide the extra opportunities that larger schools take for granted.” I would go further than that. PCAP is a great model for effective micro-local government. It cost money to run but it was ecumenical, it was rooted in the community, it inspired kids to be musicians and parents to be volunteers and it had value-added services based on unique local needs. The Government will save $1.6 million on the empty swings of administrators but may lose more on the busy roundabouts of harassed principals and demotivated volunteers with no paid support staff to give both a gentle push. As any parent in Surat could tell you today, it’s a false economy.
After a year of fighting, Australian efforts switched to reconstruction in November 2002. Special forces were withdrawn as the focus switched to Iraq in 2003. But the war against Saddam hid the fact the Taliban had never been eliminated and the Iraqi distraction was a huge boost to their morale. Meanwhile a second group known as the Pakistani Taliban- unaffiliated with the Afghan version – were becoming increasingly important and operated with impunity on their side of what was a fairly lawless border at the best of times.
According to the ADF’s 2009 white paper Force 2030, success in Afghanistan is crucially dependent on ensuring “the local population is protected and separated from the insurgents, economic and social reconstruction occurs, indigenous security capacity is strengthened, insurgent networks are disrupted and the prospects for a long-term political solution are enhanced.” It foresaw significant international support for over 10 years. Afghanistan was a source of instability because of its “potential” for being a terrorist base and also because of its narcotics trade. Crucially the paper acknowledged any solution would need to address “insurgent safe-havens located in Pakistan, and there will need to be found a comprehensive solution to the problems of cross-border movement between Afghanistan and Pakistan by al-Qaeda terrorists and Taliban insurgents.”
As the Afpak situation became increasingly murky, public unease has grown. Neither major party has been able to clearly articulate a vision for Australian action in the region outside the murky goal of defeating “international terrorism”. The official ALP policy on Afghanistan is buried in a “Labor Plan for Defence” fact sheet: “Federal Labor has maintained Australia’s commitment to the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force operation in Afghanistan, in recognition of the fundamental importance to Australia’s security interests that terrorists be denied a safe haven in that country.”
According to the policy, the Gillard Government will not keep Australian troops in Afghanistan “any longer than necessary”. But Labor remains committed to our troops being there as long as our mission requires. Neither the withdrawal nor the commitment are expressed in any clear terms of objectives or critical success factors. The policy says Defence expects to be able to complete the Uruzgan training, transition security responsibility and move into a supporting role there “within two to four years”.
Recent Liberal policy on Afghanistan is harder still to find. It doesn’t appear in either its Foreign Affairs or Defence policies. The only references to Afghanistan found on the Liberal Party website are in press releases such as after the latest death which says Australian troops are in Afghanistan “fighting in defence of our values of liberty and democracy, wearing our uniform, serving under our flag, against the world’s most dangerous enemy.”
The last policy statement was issued in April 2009 which supported the Labor move to deploy the additional troops. Shadow Minister for Defence Senator David Johnston said boosting troop numbers “sent the right message to our allies that we are in for the long haul in terms of rebuilding Afghanistan so it was no longer a safe-haven and training ground for terrorists.” Senator Johnston said Australians should never forget the terrorists that perpetrated the Bali bombings were trained in Afghanistan. “It is dangerous to be there but it is even more dangerous for us not to be,” he said.
The link between the Bali bombers and Afghanistan is undeniable though a little disingenuous. Indonesian police said bombing “field commander” Imam Samudra went to Afghanistan in 1991 and learned how to make bombs there. The attack’s overall co-ordinator Mukhlas also worked with the mujahidin in the 1990s as did fellow planner Ali Imron. Nevertheless these were all there well before the Taliban were installed in power. Initially the mujahidin were supported by the West who wanted to overthrow the Communist Najibullah regime. Although that objective succeeded in 1992, war continued throughout the mid 1990s as many of the mujahidin forces began to fight each other for control of Kabul. The war continued until the Pakistan-backed Mullah Omar took control with his Taliban forces in 1996.
The point of this history lesson is that Afghanistan has always been a volatile training ground for jihadists, sometimes with western support. The terrorists had training there not because it was a “haven” but simply because it is a war-torn country where the norms of law and order don’t have much standing. Fighting this fire with fire does not seem like a way to solve the problem. Not only that, but the long war there is seriously undermining Afghanistan and Pakistan’s ability to function as democratic states. In his acceptance speech today for the Sydney Peace Prize, Noam Chomsky said no-one wanted Afghanistan to be run by the Taliban or the US-backed warlords. “There are very significant Afghan peace forces, pro-democracy forces, but if you check with them, they regularly regard themselves as facing three enemies: the Taliban, the US-backed warlords, and NATO forces.” In a world where politicians and media prefer to keep messages black and white, there are too many shades of gray in this Afghanistan war to sustain it for much longer.
In Shahzad’s last fatal article he said the underlying motive for the air base attack was a reaction to massive internal crackdowns on al-Qaeda affiliates within the navy. Shahzad revealed that several weeks ago, naval intelligence traced an al-Qaeda cell operating inside navy bases in Karachi. An anonymous senior navy official told him Islamic sentiments were common in the armed forces. “While nobody can obstruct armed forces personnel for rendering religious rituals or studying Islam, the grouping [we observed] was against the discipline of the armed forces,” the source said. “That was the beginning of an intelligence operation in the navy to check for unscrupulous activities.” Shahzad also revealed there were negotiations between an Al-Qaeda operative in North Waziristan and naval officers.
A few days after writing the article, Shahzad went missing in Islamabad. He was driving his Toyota Corolla on Sunday evening to the Dunya TV Studios to participate in a current affairs show that evening but he never made it. According to Pakistan’s The News, the kidnappers overpowered him and took him in his own car past three police checkpoints and three toll plazas where police are also usually present. The dumped his body in the Jhelum canal 100km north of Islamabad where it got entangled in the net placed to recover the bodies of drowning victims in the canal. The kidnappers then travelled to the town of Sarai Alamgir about 150km southeast of the capital where they abandoned the vehicle. The body was found late Tuesday.
Human Rights Watch said Shahzad was held by the Pakistani intelligence organisation the Inter-Services Intelligence. Ali Dayan Hasan, senior South Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, said Shahzad had complained about being threatened by the ISI. “The other day he visited our office and informed us that ISI had threatened him. He told us that if anything happened to him, we should inform the media about the situation and threats,” Hasan told AFP.“We can form an opinion after the investigation and a court verdict, but… in the past the ISI has been involved in similar incidents.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists said it was alarmed and angered by the targeted killing. They said Pakistan had the most journalists deaths in the world in 2010. Shahzad is the 15th to die since the 2002 killing of the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. On May 3 (World Press Freedom Day), a CPJ delegation met with President Asif Ali Zardari and Interior Minister Rehman Malik to press for a reversal of the abysmal record of impunity with which journalist are killed in Pakistan. “Zardari and Malik pledged to address the vast problem of uninvestigated and unprosecuted targeted killings of journalists,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator. “With the murder of Saleem Shahzad, now is the time for them to step forward and take command of this situation.”
As the Daily Beast notes, Shahzad, a father of three, covered a particularly dangerous beat and he and landed many exclusive stories. In 2008 he interviewed Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, who died in a drone strike the following year.A year later, he interviewed Ilyas Kashmiri, the al Qaeda-affiliated jihadist who masterminded the 2008 Mumbai attack. Shahzad had just published latest book, Inside al Qaeda and the Taliban: Beyond bin Laden and 9/11, to much critical acclaim. Historian Gareth Porter said he unique knowledge and contacts made his writing a ‘must read’ for anyone who wants to understand Afghan and Pakistani Taliban.
Shahzad’s editor said Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari has expressed deep grief and sorrow over his death but doubted anything would come of it. “It will be business as usual in a country that had the most journalist deaths in the world in 2010,” the editor said. “As long as this appalling record continues, and Pakistan mouths platitudes while its security apparatus – whether directly or though subcontracting – runs rampant, the country will never be viewed as a trusted partner, as the United States has learned over and over again in the 10 tortuous years that it has been forced into an embrace with Islamabad.” Syed Saleem Shahzad learned brutally just how rampant that apparatus is.