Professor Henry Srebrnik

Professor Henry Srebrnik

Monday, December 30, 2013

The Gathering Academic Storm Enveloping Israel

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

Earlier this month, the 5,000-member American Studies Association (ASA) voted more than two to one to endorse a scholarly boycott against Israeli universities.  It asked its members to refuse to "enter formal collaboration with Israeli academic institutions or with scholars who are expressly serving as representatives or ambassadors of those institutions, or on behalf of the Israeli government."

Boycotting Israel "represents a principle of solidarity with scholars and students deprived of their academic freedom and an aspiration to enlarge that freedom for all, including Palestinians."

Why are academics, supposedly devoted to the free exchange of ideas and knowledge, voluntarily cutting off contacts with fellow scholars? Actually, there's a history behind this and it doesn't bode well for Israel.

The movement to demonize, delegitimize and eventually eliminate the state of Israel has been gathering steam ever since the World Conference Against Racism held in Durban, South Africa in 2001, where Israel was singled out for special condemnation as a "racist" state practising "apartheid."

In April 2004, sixty Palestinian academic and non-government organizations called for an academic and cultural boycott of Israel. The worldwide Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement has grown in the years since; its objective is to force Israel through various boycotts to comply with its goals: The end of Israeli occupation and colonisation of Arab land, full equality for Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel, and respect for the right of return of Palestinian refugees into Israel itself (which would likely turn it into a non-Jewish country).

The BDS movement, already a force in the British academic community, is now spreading to the United States. In the wake of the Gaza war fought between Israel and Hamas between December 2008 and January 2009, a group of American university professors launched a campaign calling for an academic and cultural boycott of Israel.

"As educators of conscience, we have been unable to stand by and watch in silence Israel's indiscriminate assault on the Gaza Strip and its educational institutions," the U.S. Campaign for the Academic  & Cultural Boycott of Israel stated in its inaugural press release.

In April the 800-member Association for Asian American Studies voted to support a boycott, the first American academic group to do so. Their resolution contended that the boycott was "in protest of the illegal occupation of Palestine, the infringements of the right to education of Palestinian students, and the academic freedom of Palestinian scholars and students in the West Bank, Gaza, and Israel."

Next month, the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association (MLA) in Chicago will debate a resolution calling on the State Department to criticize Israel for barring American professors from going to Gaza and the West Bank when invited by Palestinian universities. With 30,000 members, the MLA is a much larger body than the ASA.

"The debate at ASA breached a taboo that existed about how people discuss Israel and Palestine," explained David Lloyd, an English professor at the University of California at Riverside, who will speak in favor of an academic boycott at the MLA meeting. "ASA has paved the way for MLA and other associations."

These are organizations with professors from many institutions and covering many disciplines, he added, maintaining that the discussions indicate a "larger, nationwide shift" regarding Israel. "It's beginning to become something people recognize as an issue of justice and ceases to be something held by a vocal minority."

The 749-member Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA) will also be debating a resolution in support of an academic boycott of Israel at the group's national conference next May in Austin, Texas.

The NAISA Council has encouraged its members to boycott Israeli academic institutions to protest "the infringement of the academic freedom of Indigenous Palestinian academics and intellectuals in the Occupied Territories and Israel who are denied fundamental freedoms of movement, expression, and assembly."

Ohio State University English Professor Chadwick Allen, the president, said the move followed a member-generated petition asking that the group formally support the boycott.

Another group potentially considering anti-Israel measures is the 62,000-member American Library Association, where several members have called for action against Israel.

Many academics are incensed at the way Israel is being singled out, noting that these scholarly groups have not taken it upon themselves to boycott, among others, China, Iran, Russia, Syria, or Zimbabwe - countries with far worse records. This is true but it doesn't change the fact that Israel is losing the battle within the academic community, once a reliable friend of the Jewish state.

For years, pro-Israel activists have tended to minimize the impact of the BDS movement and claimed that it has not been successful in shaping public opinion regarding Israel's treatment of the Palestinians. They are wrong.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

A Tilt to the Left in South America

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

Many people remember the blustery late president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, long a thorn in the side of the United States. A populist par excellence, Chavez, who died in March, referred to his ideology as Bolivarianismo (“Bolivarianism”), based on the ideals of the 19th century soldier who led the fight for South American independence from Spain, Simon Bolivar.

He was an exponent of anti-imperialism, national sovereignty, and grassroots political participation. His hand-picked successor, Nicolas Maduro, who was his vice-president and minister of foreign affairs, is carrying on his legacy.

The National Assembly has granted Maduro decree powers that will allow him to create laws on his own without legislative approval. The president insists that he needs the powers to address the country’s grave economic difficulties, for which he blames an “economic war” being waged by the political opposition.

But Venezuela is not the only country in South America which has tilted to the left in recent years. In Bolivia, the left-wing Movement for Socialism-Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the Peoples (MAS-IPSP) is now in power. Its leader, President Juan Evo Morales, was first elected in 2005 and re-elected four year later. This followed years of discontent with International Monetary Fund-imposed austerity measures instituted by his predecessors.
A member of the Aymara people, Morales has focused on issues affecting indigenous and poor communities. He has instituted land reform, redistribution of wealth from natural gas and petroleum extraction, and nationalisation of key industries.

Peru has now elected two presidents of aboriginal Quechua descent, Alejandro Toledo and Ollanta Humala. This has been a breakthrough, in a country ruled for most of its history by a privileged ethnic Spanish oligarchy that owned most of the land and resources, and was protected by the country’s military. Native peoples were politically marginalized within a highly stratified society with a racial hierarchy.

After winning in 2001, Toledo brought together experts and indigenous leaders to discuss the needs of indigenous people throughout the country. His symbolic inauguration ceremony at the Inca ruins at Machu Picchu was attended by all the presidents of the neighboring Andean states, who joined him in signing the “Declaration of Machu Picchu,” promising to protect indigenous rights.

Humala, the current leader, in office since 2011, also came in as a left-wing reformer. He has created or bolstered some social programs, and poverty in Peru has been cut by more than half in recent years, falling from 59 per cent of the population in 2004 to 26 per cent last year, according to government figures. Political polarization has decreased.

Rafael Correa, Ecuador’s president since 2007, is a popular leader who in 2008 declared the national debt “illegitimate,” having been contracted by corrupt and despotic prior regimes. His administration has reduced the high levels of poverty, indigence, and unemployment in Ecuador.

In Paraguay, Fernando Lugo won the presidency in 2008 but was removed four years later. A Roman Catholic priest, Lugo was ordained a bishop in 1994. He gained prominence by backing peasant claims for better land distribution. Resigning his Church position, he became the candidate of the Patriotic Alliance for Change, a coalition of parties on the left, and pledged to give land to the landless and fight corruption.   

However, Lugo faced impeachment proceedings following a June 2012 incident in which police clashed with landless peasants, resulting in 17 deaths, and he was removed from office by a Paraguayan Congress controlled by his political enemies.

Lugo maintained that his presidency was targeted because he tried to help the country’s poor majority. Paraguay's powerful elite, long accustomed to getting their way during 61 years of rule by the Colorado Party, had fought Lugo’s attempts to raise taxes on the country's major export, soybeans, and redistribute farmland to the poor majority.

The current president, Horacio Cartes, elected earlier this year, joined the Colorado Party in 2009 and said he wanted to counter the swing to the left in Latin American politics.

He’ll certainly face an uphill battle. In Chile, Michelle Bachelet, a Socialist who had ruled the country between 2006 and 2010, decisively beat rival candidate Evelyn Matthei to retake the office on Dec. 15.

After General Augusto Pinochet’s 1973 coup, Bachelet was arrested and tortured, before being allowed to leave the country in 1975. She finally returned to Chile in 1979 after four years in exile.

Now again president, she plans to push forward major social reforms and has vowed to raise corporate taxes to fund an education overhaul, expanding access to higher education, and to reduce the wealth gap.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Ethnicity and Politics in Guyana

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer
What’s the answer to this trivia question: “Which Jewish woman other than Israel’s Golda Meir has ever governed a country?” It’s Guyana’s Janet Jagan.

 Janet Rosenberg Jagan was a Chicago-born socialist politician who from 1997 to 1999 was president of Guyana, a republic on the northern coast of South America whose 795,000 people are mostly the descendants of African slaves and South Asian indentured labourers. How then did this come about?

Guyana, the former British Guiana, gained its independence from Great Britain in 1966. Its national motto is “One People, One Nation, One Destiny.” Rarely has a slogan reflected reality less.

Guyana is one of only three entities on the continent which are not Spanish or Portuguese. To its east is Suriname, the former Dutch Guiana, and further east is French Guiana, still under French sovereignty. The three Guianas are, in ethnicity, language and orientation, more part of the Caribbean than mainland South America.

Indo-Guyanese (or East Indians) constitute about 43 per cent of Guyana’s total population, followed by Afro-Guyanese at 30 per cent. People of mixed heritage are at 16 per cent and Amerindians (native American tribes) make up nine per cent. Most Indo-Guyanese practice Hinduism or Islam, while Blacks are mainly Christian.

In such societies, ethnic divisions easily become the basis for political cleavages. Tensions periodically have boiled over between the two main groups, which back ethnically based political parties and vote along ethnic lines.

The People’s Progressive Party (PPP) has been largely pro-Indian since the mid-1950s, while the People’s National Congress (PNC) has been mainly Afro-Guyanese.

The PNC managed to gain power for much of the period since independence even though its Afro-Guyanese supporters were numerically inferior to the other large bloc, the East Indians. This was due to the fact that it managed to obtain support from the mixed population, which is culturally similar to the Afro-Guyanese, and from the Amerindians.

The PPP was formed in 1950 by Dr. Cheddi Jagan, an Indo-Guyanese, and his American-born wife Janet.  It was socialist and at first genuinely multi-ethnic. One of the founders of the new party was a London-trained Afro-Guyanese, Forbes Burnham.

The PPP would prove too radical for the British, who still governed the colony; they suspected it of links with Communists. In 1955, the PPP split, and Burnham and his faction created the mainly Black PNC. Both parties became vehicles for the rival ethnic groups. The pro-PPP Hindi slogan “apan jaht” (vote for your own kind) became true for the whole society.

Washington, too, worried that Jagan was too left-wing and in 1961 President John Kennedy ordered the CIA to covertly finance a campaign of labour unrest and sabotage that led to race riots.

As independence drew near, London drafted a new constitution with a proportional representation electoral system favourable to the PNC. In the last pre-independence election in1964, a PNC coalition took office, and Burnham became prime minster. It was this government that led the country to independence two years later.

Back then as an aspiring journalist, I remember meeting and interviewing Cheddi Jagan in the autumn of 1965 when I was a student at McGill University. He was visiting Montreal and spoke at the university trying to make the case that he had been railroaded out of office as London was preparing to grant British Guiana independence.

Rigged elections would follow one after another after independence, as Burnham and his cronies – now calling themselves “socialists -- remained in power, driving the economy into the ground. A new constitution became law in 1980 and Burnham declared himself executive president. When he died in 1985, Guyana was the poorest nation in the western hemisphere.

His successor Desmond Hoyte began to revive the economy by courting foreign capitalists and privatizing many nationalized industries. He also opened up the political system to genuine competition.

In the October 1992 elections, Cheddi Jagan’s People’s Progressive Party/Civic led a four-party coalition to victory against the ruling PNC. Despite his Marxist philosophy, Jagan promised to continue the free market economic reforms.

Jagan would serve as president until his death five years later. His wife Janet held the post until 1999, when she retired due to ill health; she died in 2009. The Jagans had married in Chicago in 1943, while Janet was a nursing student at Cook County Hospital, Cheddi a dental student at Northwestern University, and both already involved in radical politics.

Since 1992 the PPP/Civic has won five straight victories. Guyana’s current president, Donald Ramotar, an economist by training, has been in office since 2011, succeeding Bharrat Jagdeo. He has pledged to continue his predecessors’ policies, with their emphasis on improving social conditions and government services, especially in the fields of housing, education, health and energy security.

Guyana has experienced positive growth almost every year over the past decade. But it continues to suffer from widespread government corruption and the fragile protection of property rights under the weak rule of law.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Frozen Conflict Between Moldova and Transnistria

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

When it comes to eastern Europe, most of the world’s attention these days has been focused on the quarrel within Ukraine between those who want the nation to join the European Union and those who desire closer ties with Russia. But it’s not the only problem in that part of the former Soviet Union.

Just to the west of Ukraine lies Transnistria, also known as the Trans-Dniester Republic and (officially) the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, an unrecognized state that broke away from the former Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic of the Soviet Union in 1990.

Today it retains its independence thanks largely to the military support provided by the Russian 14th Army, which has been stationed there since the 1950s, when the whole area was part of the USSR. Russia also provides Transnistria with financial assistance.

The tiny breakaway republic of 4,163 square kilometres consists of a narrow strip of land located east of the Dnieper River (hence the name), plus the city of Bender and its surrounding localities located on the western side. The country borders Ukraine to its east.

In total, Transnistria comprises more than 500,000 people, with Russian and Ukrainian Slavs making up 59 per cent of the population and Moldovan Romanians 32 per cent. The capital, Tiraspol, a city of 203,000, is almost three-quarters Russian and Ukrainian.

Moldova itself has a checkered history. It is a largely Romanian-speaking entity, historically known as Bessarabia, which was part of Romania after the First World War until occupied by the Soviets in 1940 and reconstituted as the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic (Moldavian SSR).

However, when Moscow created the Moldavian SSR, it added the mainly Russian-speaking Dniester region, formerly an autonomous part of Ukraine, to Romanian Bessarabia – sowing the seeds of future ethnic trouble.

In the late 1980s, as the Soviet Union was collapsing, it was clear that Moldova had an identity problem and that the inhabitants, coming from an array of ethnic backgrounds, were a long way from being a cohesive and friendly family.

The mainly Russian and Ukrainian population in the Dniester region grew alarmed over growing Moldovan nationalism and even the potential reunification of Moldova with Romania. A 1989 law which made Moldovan an official language added to the tension. The law made it compulsory for everyone who worked in a position where they had to communicate with customers to speak both languages; Russian and Ukrainian speakers saw this as discriminatory.

Given all this, the Trans-Dniester Republic proclaimed its secession from the Moldavian SSR in September 1990. A year later, when the USSR ceased to exist altogether, the Moldovian SSR declared its own independence, as did Transistria.

After World War II, Transnistria had been heavily industrialised and though it accounted for only 17 per cent of the old Soviet republic’s population, it was responsible for 40 per cent of its GDP. So the newly independent state of Moldova, whose 3.6 million people are themselves quite poor, attempted to regain the Trans-Dniester Republic, resulting a in a short war between March and July 1992.

With aid and equipment from the 14th Army, which still retains a 1,200-strong Russian military contingent in Transnistria, the region held off the Moldovans. A cease-fire led to the creation of a three-party Joint Control Commission, consisting of Russia, Moldova, and Transnistria, which supervises a demilitarized security zone on both sides of the Dniester River. It has been a “frozen conflict” ever since.

In September 2006 Transistria’s citizenry voted overwhelmingly to confirm their independence and the country has created its own constitution, flag, national anthem, and coat of arms, as well as a military, police, postal system, and currency. But Transnistria remains a de facto state, unrecognized by sovereign members of the international community -- including even Russia itself.

Transnistria is plagued by corruption, organised crime and smuggling. It has been accused of conducting illegal arms sales and of money laundering.

However, it remains an electoral democracy. Indeed, the current president, Yevgeny Shevchuk, an ethnic Ukrainian, won the December 2011 election by beating the incumbent, Igor Smirnov, and the Kremlin-backed speaker of the parliament, Anatoliy Kaminski.

Moldova is also home to 160,000 Gagauz, a Turkic Christian people. In 1994 the Autonomous Territorial Unit of Gagauzia, in Moldova’s south, was established for them.  If Moldova decided to unite with Romania, Gagauzia would have the right of self-determination.

Moldova and Transnistria have engaged in talks in recent months, including a meeting between Moldovan Prime Minister Iurie Leanca and Shevchuk. Moldova announced that its parliament would consider removing travel restrictions on Transnistrians with Russian or Ukrainian passports.

Moldova last month signed a free trade pact and political association treaty with the European Union which offered the impoverished country’s 3.5 million citizens visa-free travel entry within the 28-nation bloc.

Russia has already shown its dissatisfaction by banning the import of Moldovan wine, Moldova’s major export, and it has delivered thinly veiled threats that Russia might stop supplying Moldova with natural gas.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited Moldova recently, and said that the Obama administration would sponsor a Moldovan trade mission so it could develop a market for its wine in the United States.

It is unlikely that war will be renewed because Russian President Vladimir Putin would actively support Transnistria, while the Moldovans could expect little military aid from the United States and NATO.

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Andean Nations of South America Have Large Native Populations

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

Along the mountainous western spine of South America, in regions once mainly part of the Inca Empire, there are a number of countries with significant Amerindian populations who speak native languages. And it has given these nations a decidedly left-wing cast.

Quechua speakers make up a large part of the population of Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia.  The language spoken by some 10 million people in South America, it was the one used by the Incas. With some five million speakers in Paraguay, Bolivia, and elsewhere, Guarani is another major South American language.

A quarter of Ecuador’s population of 15.7 million is native, while another 65 per cent is mestizo, having mixed European and indigenous ancestry. Almost all of the indigenous population are Quechuas living in the valleys of the Sierra region.

Indigenous peoples in Peru make up about 45 per cent of the total population of 30 million, with most living in the Andes mountains. There are a large number of distinct ethnic groups, with about 3.5 million speaking Quechua. Mestizos account for another 37 per cent.

Amerindians are the majority ethnic group in Bolivia, accounting for 62 per cent of the population of 10.5 million. An additional 30 per cent is mestizo. Here too the predominant native language is Quecha. Along with Aymara, Guarani, and Spanish, it is an official language of Bolivia.

Paraguay was established in colonial times as a refuge for native peoples. In 1609 the Catholic Jesuit Order created the Jesuit Reductions in Paraguay, which lasted from 1609 until 1767, to prevent the exploitation of the Indian peoples. By 1732 there were 30 Guarani missions in the colony; however the Jesuits were expelled by the Spanish crown in 1767 and the missions rapidly declined.

Today, while only a small per cent of Paraguay’s population is fully indigenous, with most of them living in the remote Gran Chaco region, almost all of the country’s other 6.8 million citizens are partially of native heritage. Along with Spanish, Guarani is one of the official languages of Paraguay, spoken by the majority of the population.

These countries all now have organizations dedicated to protecting and promoting the rights of indigenous peoples.

The Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), formed in 1986, has pursued social change using a wide range of tactics. In 2005, CONAIE participated in an uprising which ousted President Lucio Gutierrez, whom they accused of betraying native peoples on behalf of foreign corporations. The Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon represents people in the Amazon region of the country.

The Interethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Rainforest (AIDESEP), comprising 57 organizations, is the primary indigenous rights movement in Peru. The Movement in the Amazon for Tribal Subsistence and Economic Sustainability (MATSES), is another rights organization that is working for the cultural survival of indigenous people.

In 2009, opposition to oil development in the Amazon region, led by AIDESEP, led to months of civil disobedience, including the closing down of roads and rivers to traffic. The protestors feared the toll it would take on the environment. Intervention by the military resulted in dozens killed.

Then president Alan Garcia charged AIDESEP’s leader, Alberto Pizango, with sedition and called the organization part of an “international conspiracy” backed by Bolivia and Venezuela to destabilize his regime.

Bolivian social movements developed primarily due to the failure of the political party system. These movements emanated in conflicts against privatisation of vital resources such as gas and water, and they coalesced into a larger struggle for justice by adopting a radical reform agenda.

The Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia, founded in 1982, is now the representative umbrella organization of 34 native groups in the country. Since 1990 it has organized major marches demanding indigenous autonomy, territorial protection, more seats in the national legislature, and indigenous control over natural resources in their territories.

Paraguay has two main native groups, the Coordination of Indigenous Peoples of the Cuenca of Pilcomayo River, and the Native League for Autonomy, Justice, and Ethics. The indigenous communities, who live in poverty and face discrimination, have been chased from their lands as a result of deforestation for livestock and agriculture.

Some groups have turned to violence in reaction to the poverty and oppression suffered at the hands of dictators and economic oligarchies.

Peru, in particular, endured a decades-long insurrection by a Maoist guerrilla movement based mainly in the native-populated rural highlands, known as Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), which became notorious for its use of terror.

Formed in the 1970s in the impoverished region of Ayacucho by Abimael Guzman, its militants fought a vicious war against the ethnically Spanish-dominated regimes in Lima. By the time of Guzman’s capture in 1992, at least 70,000 people had died, and hundreds of thousands displaced.

A smaller group, the Cuban-inspired Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, was also active at the time. Named for the last indigenous leader of the Incas, it was led by Victor Campos and its stated goals were to establish a socialist and anti-imperialist state. In December 1996, fourteen of its members occupied the Japanese Ambassador's residence in Lima, holding 72 hostages for over four months until killed by the military.

In Paraguay, the Paraguayan People’s Army (EPP) is a Marxist rebel group that has recently stepped up attacks in areas where the guerrillas are thought to draw support from impoverished farmers chafing at the expansion of large-scale soybean farms and cattle ranches. The group, which adopted its current name in 2008, proposes the destruction of “imperial-bourgeois democracy.”

It’s an uphill road, but Amerindian peoples are making progress. Bolivia and Peru have even in recent years elected presidents of indigenous heritage.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Mandela's South Africa and the Middle East

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

As the world mourns the death of a truly great man, Nelson Mandela, it is interesting to look back on his, and South Africa’s, relationship with Israel and the Arab world.

A disproportionate number of white South Africans who opposed apartheid and aided the African National Congress during the years of white-minority rule were Jewish, and Nelson Mandela always made sure the world knew it.

In his 1994 autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom,” Mandela said “I have found Jews to be more broad-minded than most whites on issues of race and politics, perhaps because they themselves have historically been victims of prejudice.”

But he also sometimes viewed Israel as a colonial power, and Jewish groups criticized Mandela for praising the Palestine Liberation Organization just a month after he was freed in 1990. The PLO had built a close relationship with the ANC and for some years had helped train members of its military wing. One of Mandela’s first acts as a free man was to visit Yasser Arafat.

After all, following the 1973 Yom Kippur War, an increasingly isolated Israel developed close ties with the apartheid regime in Pretoria. By the mid-1970s, an economic and military alliance between Israel and South Africa was on the ascendancy.

In April 1976 South African Prime Minister John Vorster paid a state visit, meeting Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. The two countries even cooperated in the development of nuclear technology. By the late 1980s Israel was virtually alone among countries that still maintained strong, even strategic relations with apartheid South Africa. Obviously, it would have been asking too much of even a Nelson Mandela to ignore all this.

Libya had also provided funding and support, as well as military training, to the ANC. Mandela, in turn, said he considered Moammar Gadhafi a friend and made two official visits to the country as president of South Africa, in 1994 and 1997.

Mandela chided those who expressed opposition to these ties by declaring that they made the mistake of assuming that “their enemies should be our enemies.”

However in October 1999, after he had stepped down as president, Mandela came to Israel, visited  theYad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum, and met with newly elected prime minister Ehud Barak. But he reiterated his unwavering opposition to Israeli control of Gaza, the West Bank, the Golan Heights and southern Lebanon.

In recent years, under presidents Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s relationship with Israel has been decidedly cool, as Pretoria sees itself as sharing an affinity with the Palestinians and other Third World peoples. Just last month, South Africa’s Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane said that South African ministers are not visiting Israel out of solidarity with the Palestinians.

“The struggle of the people of Palestine is our struggle," she told an audience of trade unionists.

“The last time I saw a map of Palestine, I couldn’t sleep,” Nkoana-Mashabane added, explaining that the map “is just dots, smaller than those of the homelands, and that broke my heart.” The “homelands,” also called Bantustans, were territories set aside for Black South Africans in apartheid-era South Africa.

Iran’s nuclear quest, however, did not bother her when she met with Iran’s visiting Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and praised Iran for its “for human rights."

None of this bodes well as the country faces a future without the stabilizing inspiration of Nelson Mandela.

Monday, December 09, 2013

For the Past 35 Years, Iran Has Been the World's Major Problem

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

As the year draws to a close, the greater Middle East, that immense region from Morocco in the west to Afghanistan and Pakistan in the east, remains to most volatile part of the world. And American presidents have for the past 35 years seemingly been clueless about the region.

In 1979, Jimmy Carter, inept and indecisive, abandoned the Shah of Iran and allowed Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to outfox and run circles around him. His botched attempt to rescue the American embassy hostages only magnified his failures. Those who want to get a fuller account of how this transpired should watch the first installment of an excellent three part BBC documentary on Iran and the West, “The Man Who Changed the World,” available on You Tube.

This regime change ushered in a new zeitgeist in the world, and especially in the Middle East. By 1982 the Islamic Republic was sowing terror around the region and elsewhere, including the killing of 241 U.S. Marines in Beirut by its protégé Hezbollah in 1983. It has gone from strength to strength.

In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan supported the mujahideen in Afghanistan against the decaying Soviet empire, because in his tunnel vision “religion” was “good,” Communism “bad.” Of course the Islamist fighters later morphed into the Taliban and America is still paying the price.

Bill Clinton was, let us say, “busy” as al-Qaeda bombed two American embassies in east Africa in 1998, killed 19 U.S. servicemen in Khobar, Saudi Arabia in 1996, and destroyed the USS Cole in Aden in 2000. By the time he left office, al-Qaeda was no doubt planning the attacks of 9/11.

George Bush fought the Taliban in Afghanistan and Baathist Iraq “on the cheap,” and knowing nothing about the culture of either country, declared them both safe for democracy after American forces “beat” Saddam and Mullah Omar.

Actually, both wars had barely begun. The real victor in the Iraq war when the Americans finally left  was actually Iran, as the Baghdad Shi’a regime of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki now is little more than an Iranian vassal.

As for Afghanistan, the Pashtun Khan Hamid Harzai, chief of the Popalzai tribe – known to us as the “president of Afghanistan” -- is negotiating with fellow Pashtuns in the Taliban, who are mostly from the rival Ghilzai tribe, in order to save his own neck once western forces depart the country. Already there are sources claiming that he will reintroduce stoning as a punishment for adultery in the country’s penal code. How long before the Taliban regains control over large parts of the country?

Barack Obama has been giving away the store entirely. He looked away when Iranians protested in 2009 against a fixed election; only reluctantly got involved in the uprising against Moammar Gadhafi in Libya in 2011, and did nothing when Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in Syria earlier this year.

Obama has now declared a great diplomatic victory in the attempt to prevent the Iranians from developing a nuclear bomb. The “Plan of Action” signed by Iran, the United States, Russia, Britain, France, Germany and the European Union declares that Tehran can no longer enrich uranium to 20 per cent and must neutralize its existing stockpiles of 20 per cent enriched uranium. It also cannot increase its stockpiles of 3.5 per cent enriched uranium.

The sanctions relief, some $7 billion, is relatively limited and theoretically reversible if the Iranians break their promises. All the main sanctions will stay in place until a final agreement has been signed -- if it will be -- six months from now.

But can Iran be trusted? Its record is far from reassuring. Its leadership has not given up on wanting to wipe out what its leaders have called the “cancerous Zionist entity,” Israel. Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini recently remarked that “Zionist officials cannot be called humans, they are like animals, some of them.” The Israeli regime “is doomed to failure and annihilation,” he added.

In any case, hard-liners in Iran think Tehran has already made too many concessions and think all sanctions should be lifted. And Khameini is himself leaving his options open and can always ask them to step in if he doesn’t like the way the talks develop.

We seem to have come full circle from 1979– once again Iran is the major problem, as it has been for the last six U.S. presidents.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Burma's Ethnic, Religious Divisions Make Democracy Difficult

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

Burma, or Myanmar – the country is known by both names – has for decades been one of the most oppressive states in Asia, under military rule between 1962 and 2010. Part of the reason stems from its many ethnic divisions, which has made it difficult to establish democracy in this southeast Asian nation.

Burma consists of seven regions populated chiefly by the Burmans, or Bamar, who make up two-thirds of the population of 60 million; and seven states inhabited mainly by indigenous ethnic minorities, including the Shan, Kayah, Mon, Kayin, Rakhine, Chin and Kachin.

When the Shan, Chin and Kachin minorities accepted a semi-federal constitutional framework in 1947, as Burma was about to emerge from British colonial rule, the Bamar majority guaranteed them autonomy. But the other minorities were not invited, and Kayin observers rejected the outcome.

Following the failure of these accords, the ethnic policy of the Bamar-dominated central government has alternated between dialogue and violent counter-insurgency. Hostility to the government’s Burmanization policies contributed to this alienation on the part of the minorities. 

Since coming to power, following the country’s first elections after decades of military rule in 2010, President Thein Sein has said that peace with minority groups is a priority, and the government has signed individual cease-fires with many ethnic armed groups. It has also freed more than 1,100 political prisoners since the reforms began.

But leaders of ethnic minorities remain wary, pointing to the military’s continuing campaigns against ethnic armies in Kachin, Shan and other states. Fighting between the Kachin Independence Army and government forces since June 2011 has displaced more than 100,000 Kachins, with many seeking refuge in Yunnan Province, in neighbouring China.

Even Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and a revered advocate of democratic government, who was released from years of house arrest in 2010, has been less than forthcoming when it comes to the rights of ethnic minorities.

 “The ethnic nationalities want to set up a federal system,” David Tarkapaw of the United Nationalities Federal Council, an umbrella organization representing 11 ethnic armed groups, asserted recently, and this will require “agreement on some basic changes to the constitution” that came into force in 2008.

Meanwhile, another serious issue has come to the fore, involving the country’s small Muslim minority, who consist of somewhere between four and eight per cent of the population.

This is a legacy of the colonial past, when Burma was part of the British Indian Empire. Indians, many of them Muslims, came as civil servants and soldiers, stirring resentment among Burmese Buddhists. In recent months radical monks have built on those historic grievances, stating that Muslims are having more children than Buddhists and could dilute the country’s Buddhist character.

In recent months, Buddhist mobs have killed more than 200 Muslims and forced more than 150,000 people from their homes. In March, a three-day rampage through Muslim neighborhoods in the central city of Meikhtila left 43 people dead. In August, a mob in the city attacked Tomas Ojea Quintana, the United Nations’ special human rights rapporteur in Burma.

In Lashio, a city in the northern Shan state, mobs set fire to a Muslim school and orphanage in May.

A growing Buddhist movement known as “969” is campaigning for a boycott of Muslim products and businesses and a ban on interfaith marriages. “If we are weak,” Ashin Wirathu, the spiritual leader of the radical movement has declared, “our land will become Muslim.”

The suggestion that Muslims leave the country has been a common refrain during the violence, which bewilders many Muslims who have always considered themselves Burmese.

There is particular disdain for a group of about one million stateless Muslims, who call themselves Rohingya, some of whom migrated from neighbouring Bangladesh. The local authorities in the western state of Rakhine, where most live, have imposed a two-child limit for Muslim Rohingya families, a policy that does not apply to Buddhists. Human Rights Watch has accused the authorities of fomenting an organized campaign of “ethnic cleansing” against the Rohingya.

This has also tarnished the image of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, head of the National League for Democracy (NLD), who has been criticized for failing to speak out strongly in defense of these stigmatized Muslims.

Asked at a news conference in 2012 whether the Rohingya should be given citizenship, she equivocated. “We have to be very clear about what the laws of citizenship are and who are entitled to them,” she responded.

Clearly, if Burma is to successfully continue its transition to democracy – at the moment, the military still has a major say in government -- critical problems of ethnic discord remain to be properly managed and resolved. And the NLD needs to realize that ethnic relations must be accorded a full place alongside democratization.

Monday, December 02, 2013

Rwanda Has Been Rewriting its History Since the 1994 Genocide

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Pioneer Journal

In 2010 Paul Kagame, president of Rwanda since 2000 and candidate of the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), won a second term with 93 per cent of the vote, in an election marred by repression, murder, and lack of credible competition.

Some potential opponents were disqualified or failed to enter the race, because they would have been charged with “divisionism.” What is that all about? It’s part of an attempt to rewrite the country’s bloody history.

On April 6, 1994 President Juvénal Habyarimana of Rwanda was returning from a summit in Tanzania when a surface-to-air missile shot his plane out of the sky over Rwanda's capital city of Kigali.
Habyarimana, a Hutu, had excluded all minority Tutsis from participating in government. That changed on August 3, 1993 when Habyarimana signed the Arusha Accords, which would have weakened the Hutu hold on Rwanda. Eight months later he was dead.

Hutu extremists in the National Republican Movement for Democracy and Development blamed the Tutsis for the assassination. From April to July of 1994, upwards of perhaps one million Tutsi were massacred by Hutu-led gangs and the country’s army. It ended when Tutsi exiles in Uganda, organized in the RPF, invaded the country, marched into the capital of Kigali, and defeated the perpetrators of the genocide.

Some two million of the genocidaires, known as the Interahamwe, fled into the vast rain forests of the eastern Congo, from where they have periodically launched attacks into Rwanda.

In Rwanda, Hutu nationalists had come to power in the “Hutu rebellion” of 1959–1962, during the last years of Belgian colonial rule. They overthrew the traditional Tutsi kingdom and its ruling class, resulting in the death of around 20,000 Tutsi and the exile of another 200,000 to neighboring countries. Independence from Belgium in 1962 marked the establishment of a Hutu-led Rwandan government.

The RPF was formed in 1985 by Tutsi nationalist exiles who demanded the right to return to their homeland. They attacked Rwanda from neighboring Uganda in 1990; though the invasion failed, Hutu fear of losing power paved the way for mass murder four years later. Pro-genocide propaganda ran in newspapers, dominated public gatherings, and was broadcast across the country.

Since 1994, the RPF-led government has been dominated by a small clique of anglophone Tutsi who had been in exile in Uganda, and who blamed Belgium and France for having supported Hutu rule. (Although never ruled by Britain, Rwanda joined the Commonwealth in 2009.) They have made “divisionism” and references to “Hutu” and Tutsi” in public discourse a crime, as part of its “unification” policies designed to create a national identity. Offenders can be prosecuted, newspapers shut down, and political parties banned.

The government insists that all of the country’s citizens are simply “Rwandans” and has had the history books rewritten to stress the “harmony” of its pre-colonial past. This form of what the sociologist Stanley Cohen, in his book “States of Denial,” refers to as “social amnesia,” is an attempt to allow the country to separate itself from its horrific past.

This is not the first time, nor will it be the last, that politically constructed identities have been imposed on diverse societies.

According to this new historical discourse, prior to the arrival of, first the German, then Belgian, colonialists, the labels “Hutu” and “Tutsi” referred to wealth and social status, not “essentialist” ethnic groups, and hence they were fluid. Insofar as there was inequality between the royal court and ordinary Rwandans, both Hutu and Tutsi were equally victims of subjugation.

It was the Europeans, it is now claimed, who introduced the “Hamitic hypothesis” -- the idea that the Tutsi were actually immigrants to Rwanda from Ethiopia, whereas the “Bantu” Hutu were indigenous to the region. The Europeans thus elevated the Tutsi as the supposedly “superior race,” breeding resentment among the Hutu. They were the creators of ethnic dissension.

After 1934, the Belgian government introduced an identity card system, which identified each person as either a Hutu, Tutsi or Twa (a very minor ethnic group).

And by having defined the Tutsi as more recent arrivals, the colonialists also allowed Hutu nationalists to argue that the country should be restored to its “original” owners. With independence, Tutsi could thus be portrayed as a foreign minority who were enemies of the country.

Hence it was necessary to eliminate the colonial discourse about ethnic identity -- which, by happy coincidence, also obscures the predominance of the minority Tutsi, now some 15 per cent of Rwanda’s 12 million people, and allows them to run the state without official reference to that fact, even though everyone knows it!