Monday, March 31, 2008

Basra ceasefire leaves Mahdi Army unbowed

Muqtada al-Sada has ordered his Shia militia Mahdi Army off the streets of Basra after a six day battle in which 163 people were killed and about 500 injured. Al Sada’s militiamen had engaged in long running gun battles with the Iraqi Army and police and the violence has spread to other southern cities and Baghdad. Sami al-Askari, an adviser to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, claims most of the Basra area is now under government control. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is now in Basra and had vowed to stay there until the militia was crushed. But now al-Askari said al-Maliki will return “soon” to Baghdad.

But even members of al-Maliki’s own government say that the Mahdi Army has withstood the US-supported Iraqi assault. Last week, Iraq’s defence minister, Abdul Kadir al-Obeidi, conceded that the government’s military efforts in Basra have met with far more resistance than was expected. Muqtada al-Sada has now demanded concessions in return for his ceasefire call. These include the government granting a general amnesty for his followers, releasing all his imprisoned members who have not been convicted of crimes and bringing back who he calls “the displaced people who have fled their homes as a result of military operations.”

The Iraqi Army started their assault on Basra on Tuesday. An eye witness account by former Iraqi captain Qais Mizher shows that the Mahdis had gained effective control of the city. He said the Iraqi Army assault initially appeared to have backfired as many neighbourhoods were deserted or overrun by the Mahdi Army despite military curfews. He saw scattered Iraqi Army and police checkpoints, but no place seemed to be truly under government control. In addition, travelling around the Shiite south of Iraq has been problematic since the Basra violence erupted.

While the Iraqi are mired in Basra, they were backed up by US fighter planes and helicopter gunships who struck the city and also the Baghdad’s Sadr City with bombs and missiles. The Sadr city slum is home to two million people and is considered Mahdi Army heartland. US helicopters fired missiles at Sadr while planes bombed Basra. Fighting has raged across much of the country with battles reported in Kut, Hilla, Amara, Kirkuk, and Baquba. Both Baghdad and Basra have been placed under a 24-hour curfew for the last three days.

The current violence has a political aim. It intends to severely weaken the Sadrists to the benefit of their political rivals, al-Maliki’s Dawa party and its principal government ally, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI). The ISCI is led by Shia cleric Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, whose own militia, the Badr Brigade, is well represented in the government’s security forces. The Badr Brigade has strong links to the Iranian Government and its secret Quds Force which equips foreign Islamic revolutionary movements.

Some have questioned Prime Minister Nurik al-Maliki’s timing of the Basra assault. Kevin Drum has speculated that his actions got the green light from the Bush regime because of their liking of quick and decisive action, regardless of the consequences. He says Maliki may have calculated this would be a speedy mopping-up operation that would provide General Petraeus with good news ahead of his congressional testimony for his proposal on continued troop deployments. Alternatively it may be a chance to explain the bad news elsewhere with rising violence throughout Iraq at the moment. Lastly, the Basra operation offers another excuse not to withdraw troops.

While the Iraqi army are embarrassed on the streets of Basra, the well-trained 4,000 British army troops remain idly ensconced at Basra airport. They formally returned control of the city to the Iraqis in December but much of Basra has remained under the control of a combination of Iranian-backed militias and criminal gangs. The British retreat from Basra masterminded by Gordon Brown on his visit there in September last year is now looking short-sighted as the army sit helplessly by watching the city disintegrate into anarchic violence.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Abortion and moral equivalence

The Irish Medicines Board (IMB) has warned women against buying the abortion pill RU486 online. RU486 or Mifepristone is widely available in the UK under strict medical supervision but is not authorised for use in Ireland. However Irish women have now started to illegally purchase the pill online avoiding the need to travel to Britain for an abortion. The IMB and customs officers have been monitoring packages coming into Ireland on a continuous basis.

The drug has been promoted by Rachel’s Vineyard, a group which offers weekend retreats for healing after abortion. The group’s director Bernadette Goulding said the drug is used frequently in Ireland. "I've had young women coming to me who would have taken that drug,” she said. “The women would have taken the tablets themselves and aborted at home.” The strictness of Ireland’s anti-abortion laws means that over 6,000 Irish women travel to Britain every year to terminate their pregnancies. Abortion is proscribed by article 40.3.3 of the Irish Constitution which was amended by referendum in 1983 to read “"The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right."

However Ireland is far from being the only country where the abortion debate rages. The UK is examining its first legal change on the subject in twenty years. The Daily Telegraph reports that “hundreds of MPs” are to vote to lower the abortion limit to 20 weeks. Abortion has been legal in Britain (but not Northern Ireland) since 1967 and has allowed abortion under 28 weeks to avoid injury to the mother or existing children. In 1990 the time limit was reduced to 24 weeks for most cases to reflect improving medical technology. Now further advances are driving the push to reduce it again to 20 weeks. Labour pro-lifer Joe Benton said, "I do think many more MPs…will vote for 20 weeks because late abortion seems less acceptable now that the viability of the foetus is much better as a result of advances in medical science."

Despite its reputation as America’s biggest hot button issue, it is pleasing to note that it is not resonating with the southern voters of Virginia despite attempts by Robert G. Marshall to make it the centrepiece of his campaign for the Republican nomination for Senate. Marshall is one of three Republican hopefuls looking to replace retiring Senator John W. Warner. Marshall has tried to exploit the pro-life community telling people they are "not conservative enough" if they support abortion in cases of rape and incest. But a party insider told the Washington Times that if the Republicans focus solely on this issue, they are “going to get our clocks cleaned”.

Here in Australia the abortion debate has been as passionate as anywhere else despite most opinion polls showing overwhelming support for the right of a woman to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. The 2006 decision for the Therapeutic Goods Administration to approve RU486 rather than the Liberal Health Minister Tony Abbott prompted a stormy and emotional parliamentary debate and conscience vote. RU486 is not an abortion drug however, it kills the foetus, though it may have adverse health effects on the mother.

Abbott, a strong Catholic, had publicly criticised the abortion rate in Australia saying in 2004 that 25 percent of all pregnancies end in abortion three quarters of which were funded by Medicare. After that year’s election he announced a desire to limit taxpayer-funded abortion. Abortion is state law in Australia so Abbott could not directly intervene to change abortion law but the federal government could have stopped the Medicare funding. In the end, however Abbott was rebuffed by his boss John Howard who was aware of the potential electoral repercussions. Abbott later said he did not support removing the Medicare safety net and supported abortion that was “safe, legal and rare”.

This is not a view shared by the leaders of Abbott’s Church. Pope John Paul II’s 1995 Evangelium Vitae declared all direct abortion to be a “grave moral disorder”. But the reality is that community views are not so clear cut. As the Jesuit Frank Brennan puts it in his book “Acting on Conscience”, the majority of citizens do not morally equate the “disposing of a beaker full of embryos” with partial-birth abortions on “near viable foetuses”. Problems emerge over the decision of where to draw this line.

Brennan argues that the pro-choice and the pro-life lobbies are actually in agreement in that they both refuse to countenance that there is a moral difference between the two extremes. For the pro-choicers, partial-birth abortion (usually over 20 weeks) is permissible no matter what the tangible and visible effects while the right-to-lifers argue that community revulsion over partial birth procedures should be translated into a blanket ban on all direct abortion. As Brennan says, it becomes a “winner take all argument” where either all is permitted or none.

Brennan also castigated the stance of the American bishops who threatened 2004 Democrat (and Catholic) presidential nominee John Kerry with excommunication for his pro-choice stance. For some US bishops, Kerry’s stance was a greater crime against conscience than non-Catholic George W. Bush’s reluctance to waive executions as governor of Texas or his decision to go to war in Iraq in 2003. These bishops urged Catholics not to vote for Kerry. Brennan pointed out that “singling out voters for Kerry from voters for Bush is so morally selective as to be political, being perceived to be partisan”.

The case against abortion in the US is undermined, says Brennan, by the numbers of Catholics having and performing abortions. Even if Roe v Wade was overturned, it is unlikely that many jurisdictions would recriminalise all abortion from the moment of conception precisely because there is no moral consensus on when a life begins. There is a big difference between the withdrawal of an embryo from the womb and what Brennan emotively calls the “dismembering and killing [of] a near viable foetus who is only days and inches from a life protected by law and respected by society”.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Zimbabwe elections underway

Long queues have already formed outside polling stations in Zimbabwe which opened at 7am this morning. For the next 12 hours, the country goes to the polls for presidential, parliamentary, senatorial and local government elections. The presidential election is the key vote and the state of the country’s economy under longtime president Robert Mugabe is likely to the decisive issue. Food shortages have helped drive prices higher and inflation topped 100,000 percent in January. Zimbabwe’s collapse in foreign currency earnings is partially the result of Mugabe's seizure of white-owned farms to give to landless blacks.

This election represents the biggest challenge yet to the 84 year old Mugabe who has led his country since independence in 1980. Mugabe has no intention of stepping aside and many are predicting a violent outcome. Gabriel Shumba, a former political prisoner and executive director of the South Africa-based Zimbabwe Exiles Forum, says the security forces are threatening a coup if Mugabe loses the election. But Shumba also believes many people have reached breaking point. "The people are ready to say enough is enough," he said. "We have had three elections that have been blatantly stolen, so tension is very, very high."

Mugabe’s opponents this weekend are former labour leader Morgan Tsvangirai, 56, and his ex-finance minister Simba Makoni, 58. A second round will be held within three weeks if none of the candidates wins more than 50 percent. Tsvangirai is an old adversary of Mugabe having run against him in the 2002 election. He won 42 percent of the presidential vote to Mugabe's 56 percent amid violence and claims of vote-rigging as large numbers of citizens in urban areas were prevented from voting. This year’s three-way contest looks more more unpredictable to call.

Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change has accused the electoral commission of printing 3 million more ballots than there are registered voters and of keeping the voters' roll in disarray. Tsvangirai relies on urban support and his MDC won 24 of the 25 seats in Harare and Bulawayo, the country's two biggest cities, in 2005’s parliamentary elections. He will benefit most from the expected split in the ZANU-PF vote between Mugabe and Makoni.

Simba Makoni is also in confident mood going into the election. A cabinet minister between 2000 and 2002; he quit the ruling ZANU-PF party to mount his challenge against Mugabe and predicted he would win over 70 per cent of the vote. He now says his chances "are very good" and said his final tally should be "more than" his initial prediction. "I feel good, I voted for the best candidate, I voted for Simba Makoni," he told reporters after he voted this morning in the capital Harare. Mugabe has been rattled by his candidacy from within the party. "He is like a frog trying to inflate itself up to the size of an ox," said Mugabe about Makoni. "It will burst."

Meanwhile Robert Mugabe's own support remains strong in the Shona-dominated rural north of the country. There, his policy of seizing white-owned farms and redistributing them to black subsistence farmers has proved popular despite it pushing the country into recession. But Mugabe’s biggest advantage is incumbency and use of the state machine. He has dominated the press and airwaves and the stench of corruption refuses to go away. The opposition has revealed more than nine million paper ballots were printed for Zimbabwe's 5.9 million voters, while another 600,000 special ballots were produced for only 20,000 diplomats and soldiers stationed abroad.

Many are convinced that this year’s result has already been rigged. Earlier this month, the government banned election observers from western countries and most foreign media from monitoring the polls. No reliable opinion polls were conducted during the campaign, although state media has predicted Mugabe would triumph with 57 percent of the vote and avoid the need for the run-off election three weeks later. This would clearly be the worst outcome for Zimbabwe. The country has the world’s highest rate of inflation at a staggering 100,580 percent and four people in every five are unemployed.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Ten useful websites

1. ABC News (Australia)
ABC News online relies on the authority provided by Australia’s national broadcasting corporation. The website uses the full capability of its broadcasting newsroom including video on demand and around the clock news updates. ABC’s Managing Director Mark Scott sees this as “the seeds of a 24 hour news channel”. The website also provides downloads and podcast feeds for radio Current Affairs programs in MP3 format. ABC News demonstrates the Internet's greatest strength with its ability to attract people during the day for short news grabs.

2. Tim Blair
“Tim Blair” is the personal weblog of the eponymous Sydney-based journalist. Blair is a prolific poster and his posts are usual pithy and humorous takes on political events from a right wing perspective. Each entry is hyperlinked to either another blog or a mainstream media report, with the intention, more often than not, to satirise. Blair is one of Australia’s most popular bloggers and gets over 14,000 visitors every day, with a large proportion of these from the US. Blair was the first blogger to make the transition to mainstream media and is now an opinion editor at the Sydney Daily Telegraph.

3. Blogocracy
Blair was followed into the Murdoch mainstream by another blogger, Tim Dunlop. Dunlop made the transition from his personal The Road to Surfdom (which he still maintains) to his News Corporation blog at Blogocracy. If Blair is the lion of the right, Dunlop is consistently the most incisive of the left wing commentators. Whereas Blair tends to brevity, Dunlop unpacks the political issues of the day in a weighty and considered manner usually backed up by either official reports or other media stories. His comment threads are usually informative and he provides a blogroll link to many of Australia’s top political blogs.

4. Hugh Atkins (Youtube)
Hugh Atkins is a young Australian satirist whose YouTube videos have achieved international stardom in last 12 months. His online video called "Clinton and Cruise — on the campaign trail", has featured on The New York Times and Guardian websites and been watched by almost 100,000 people. Atkins uses the technique of “mashup” which involve the combination of two or more disparate elements. Atkins’ mashups splice videos, texts, audio, images, and animation of unrelated events to spoof political actors in an often hilarious fashion.

5. Possums Pollytics
The people that have made the greatest impression in the Australian blogosphere are the psephologist bloggers. The likes of Bryan Palmer (Ozpolitics), William Bowe (The Poll Bludger) and Peter Brent (Mumble) are consistently providing opinion poll analysis that is as good if not better than their equivalents in the mainstream media (Bahnisch 2007). Probably the most accomplished of these, and certainly the most acerbic is the anonymous blogger called Possum Comitatus (punning on the US law “Posse Comitatus” that limit the powers of the federal government to use the military for law enforcement) who writes at the site Possums Pollytics (Possums Pollytics 2008, online). This site uses sophisticated statistical analysis such as regression modelling to observe underlying political trends and skewer political shibboleths. These have led to controversial “poll wars” particularly with The Australian newspaper. Although his authority is somewhat diminished due to his anonymity, Possum is now employed on a regular basis by Crikey to provide opinion poll analysis.

6. Crikey
Crikey is often considered the “first” or “senior” Australian blog. It takes the format of a website and a daily email sent to 16,000 addresses of which over 5,000 are paying subscribers. This lively vehicle for political, financial and media commentary and gossip was founded by Stephen Mayne and sold for $1 million in 2005. Crikey’s subtitle “telling you what they won’t” promotes the picture of a political and media outsider not beholden to big business. Crikey combines traditional media traits such as news, political analysis, business news, sport and cartoons with Internet capability such as email, YouTube videos, hyperlinks, excerpts from blogs. A 2006 poll reported that Crikey’s website gets 190,000 visitors each month making it the sixth most popular news website in Australia.

7 Larvatus Prodeo
The group blog Larvatus Prodeo is the brainchild of Brisbane academic Mark Bahnisch. The blog carries several daily updates from the members of its collective often with useful and informative links to other media outlets both inside and outside Australia. The other important feature of the site is the comments section, most of which contain very long and lively threads. Larvatus Prodeo is openly partisan discussing politics and social issues “from a left of centre perspective”. It often carries informed comment and commentary within minutes of news being announced, usually hours ahead of any the mainstream media sites.

8 The Bartlett Diaries
Andrew Bartlett is Australia’s most prominent and consistently active politician-blogger. Over the last four years, the Queensland Democrat senator has provided an insider’s view on Canberra politics in his blog The Bartlett Diaries (Bartlett 2008, online). His articles are usually balanced, thoughtful and provocative and they add to the understanding of the workings of the Australian parliamentary system. Bartlett’s blog provides particularly useful insights into Senate committee inquiries. However, the future of this blog is uncertain after Bartlett’s defeat in the 2007 election which means he leaves parliament on 1 July 2008.

9. Al
Al Jazeera is an international news broadcasting organisation based in Doha, Qatar. Its English language website reflects the Al Jazeera International TV channel’s style and editorial content and provides news from all over the world as well as in-depth analysis and background. With a template similar to the BBC, it categorises its news across geographical regions and provides access to news not easily accessible elsewhere – especially about the Middle East and Africa. They also reuse video content from their TV newsroom. The station has gained a reputation for feisty independence having offended every government in the Arab region as well as upsetting Washington for what they saw as its “unbalanced and anti-American coverage”).

10 Freedom to Differ
Freedom to Differ is a blog by QUT law academic Peter Black about legal and policy issues facing the media and the Internet. Black is a passionate believer in the power of web 2.0 and his site is linked up to several social media such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Stumbleupon. Black’s blog is a media news aggregator. On a daily basis, Black will link to several media articles about internet technology and legal implications Black’s blog is an excellent example of the scintillation model of news coverage in that it serves as a meta-blog citing links to discussions that have “scintillated” into newsworthiness elsewhere on the Internet.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Earth Hour: 60 minute gimmicks

India is bucking the worldwide trend and ignoring this weekend much-hyped Earth Hour which will be observed across four continents. The event started in Sydney last year where observers claimed 57 per cent of local residents took and place and electricity consumption was reduced by 10.2 per cent during the 60 minute campaign. Earth Hour is now spreading its wings internationally to at least 13 countries where it will be observed at 8pm local time this Saturday. Bangkok, Dublin, Chicago, Suva, Copenhagen, Manila, Tel Aviv, Christchurch and Toronto are among 24 cities joining Sydney in a campaign begun just last year by the international environmental group World Wide Fund For Nature (WWF).

But this apparent goodness in aid of environmental change is not all that it seems. Some critics argue that any saving would have to be offset against additional carbon burned during the publicity campaign for Earth Hour. Others suggested the original statistics for the 2007 version were exaggerated. The University of Chicago’s David Solomon did a statistical analysis (pdf) of the impact of Sydney’s 2007 version. He found that once factors common throughout the day were removed from the apparent decline, actual consumption dropped by just 2.1 per cent (not the 10.2 per cent claimed by Energy Australia), which he says is “statistically indistinguishable from zero”. Solomon says there is no reliable evidence the event caused any significant decline in NSW electricity consumption.

Solomon’s analysis proves that because there is negligible tangible benefit to the environment, the event is entirely symbolic in meaning. Nevertheless NSW Premier Morris Iemma is refusing to countenance any criticism of Earth Hour. "The critics and sceptics need to get on board," he said when pledging to dim Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Opera House for the occasion. "It's utter rubbish to say that symbolism can't lead to change."

Many don’t share Iemma’s view. Libertarian Catallaxy’s Jason Soon describes the event as a “ridiculous fad” and says its fundamental premise is about “Romanticist aesthetics” which he described as “the thought of being able to see the stars because all artificial lights are turned off and the idea of a retreat to an idyllic past that never existed when cavemen and cavewomen sang kumbaya around a fire”. Soon makes the cogent point that whatever it stands for, it is hardly about efficient energy use which should be based on everyday practice not an extravagant one-off event.

The pointlessness of Earth Hour is gleefully pointed out by climate change sceptics such as Tim Blair. Blair’s mockery has extended to the creation of an alternative event he calls the Hour of Power where he encourages everyone to use as much electricity as possible during the Earth Hour. Blogger Samantha Burns has launched a similar Anti-Earth Hour campaign against what she calls “globalised gullability.” Like Blair, she is suggesting a counter-measure of switching every household appliance on to counter the effects of Earth Hour. But both Burns and Blair are trying to have it both ways, they mock the stupidity of Earth Hour and then suggest an equally lame counter-measure, and in the process give Earth Hour unintended credit and respect it does not deserve.

Earth Hour is a gimmick. This point is acknowledged by supporters such as Mike Garfield, executive director of the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan, when he said Earth Hour is “great theatre if it's done on a large scale.” "The first thing is that an event like Earth Hour shows the world how much of an impact an individual has the environment," he said. "To see the aerial photographs of cities lit up at night all of a sudden going dark almost has the impact of seeing the Earth from outer space."

(Image credit: Sydney Observatory)
Earth Hour is a brand owned jointly by WWF Australia, Fairfax Media and the advertising company Leo Burnett Worldwide. And the event is great publicity for all three organisations. As part of the campaign, Leo Burnett created a 30-second advertising spot showing lights being doused across the city, as well as print executions, radio ads, web, posters, postcards, press packs, brand partnerships and merchandise. Leo executive creative director Mark Collis described the event as a “little hippyish”. Of course, it is nothing of the sort. Over 600 very unhippyish businesses and corporations, such as McDonald's, Qantas, Coca-Cola and HSBC have supported the event seeing the benefit of wrapping themselves in the green flag.

Participation in Earth Hour is a salve for people who are otherwise thoughtless about their impact on the environment. It becomes a one hour penance for spendthrift activity and as soon as it is over, they can go back to their TVs and entertainment units, and continue to live their lives the way they always have. They can even feel good about it having “sacrificed” an hour in the battle against climate change. And while Victoria will delight in saving 21 million black balloons in one hour, Australia’s selfishly-high carbon emissions will continue to balloon serenely. The Earth needs a lot more than an hour of our time.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

King leads Bhutan to democracy

A pro-King party has won a landslide victory in Bhutan’s first ever democratic election. The election has ended a century of royal rule and the new governing party has pledged to follow the policies of the absolute monarchy it is replacing. The Druk Phuensum Tshogpa, or Bhutan Peace and Prosperity Party has won 44 out of 47 seats with the People's Democratic Party taking the remaining three seats. Both parties say they will follow the government's latest five-year plan, known as "his majesty's vision."

His majesty’s vision includes a measure unique to Bhutan, the gross national happiness policy, an all-encompassing political philosophy that seeks to balance material progress with spiritual well-being. Proclaimed by Bhutan’s king in 1972 as a standard for the country’s well-being, Gross National Happiness (GNH) has been proposed as a model for other countries as well. According to Bhutanese Home Minister Lyonpo Jigmi Thinley the four pillars of GNH are: socioeconomic development, environmental preservation, cultural promotion, and good governance. “GNH recognizes that happiness can be realized as a societal goal,” Thinley said. “It cannot be left as an individualized goal”.

The democratic process was started by King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who abdicated in favour of his son Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck in December 2006 with an order to end absolute monarchy. Associated Press described the election as taking place in “the first country in history where a king had to convince his people that democracy was a good idea.” With an average income of US$1,400, twice that of India's, and nearly all its people had access to schools and hospitals many have questioned whether the election was necessary at all.

Nevertheless the turnout was high with nearly 80 percent of the population voting by order of the King. The 28 year old monarch will remain head of state after the elections and he has probably staved off potential antimonarchist rumblings and helped the palace retain its credibility as well as influence. Both parties were forbidden from addressing “national security” issues, including the expulsion of tens of thousands of ethnic Nepalis in the early 1990s.

The country’s first elected Prime Minister is likely to be Peace and Prosperity Party leader Jigmi Thinley. The US educated Thinley has twice been premier under the previous royal governments and has been one of the architects of the GNH policy. With little policy difference between the two parties, some analysts believe Thinley's focus on happiness may have swung the election in his party's favour. The country's election body will certify the victory on 5 April, after which the party will form a government.

After many years of reclusiveness, Bhutan is rapidly opening up to the world. Both the Internet and television came to the remote Himalayan kingdom just nine years ago. With a population of just 600,000 the country has successfully modernised while protecting its unique culture and environment. Its economic boom is based on hydro-power and a strictly enforced tourist industry that allows in only 20,000 foreigners a year and charges them $200 a day.

Bhutan has been keeping a close eye on the problems of neighbouring Tibet. After Tibet was invaded by China in 1950, Bhutan realised that its policy of isolation could lead to the same fate. It launched a gradual process of opening up and modernisation culminated with the elections this week. Kinley Dorji, managing director of the state-owned Kuensel newspaper, said that sandwiched between India and China had left Bhutan feeling vulnerable. "Our strategy was to hide up in the mountains," he said. "That worked until 1960." That was a year after the Dalai Lama fled Tibet. Bhutan wanted to avoid Tibet’s mistake of having few diplomatic friends and saddled with a feudal society that could give China the excuse to "liberate" it. That process has reached its logical conclusion with Bhutan launching its own liberation.

Monday, March 24, 2008

No one can stop the rain: a story of aid workers in Angola

On Saturday, Angola celebrated the 20th anniversary of one of the most important battles of the civil war. The Battle of Cuito Cuanavale on 22 March 1988 was a key episode in the conflict between the Marxist rulers of Angola supported by Cuba and the UNITA rebels supported by apartheid-era South Africa. While victory was claimed by both sides the conflict was significant as media criticism in South Africa led both sides back to the negotiation table, the departure of all foreign troops from Angola and the eventual independence of neighbouring South West Africa as Namibia.

The Angolan war itself dragged on for well over another decade. It took the death of charismatic UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi in 2002 to be the catalyst for a lasting ceasefire. One of the cities worst affected by that war was another Cuito or Kuito as it is better known. Set in the middle of Angola 600km from the capital Luanda, Kuito is the administrative capital of Bié Province and was the scene of a nine month siege by UNITA in 1994. The city was also attacked in 1998 and was left a crumbling and heavily landmined ruin. Only now is the city beginning to plan for the future with the announcement of a new thermal power station comprising four diesel ten-Megawatt generators to be built within 30 months.

The news will be greeted with delight by Karin Moorhouse and Wei Chang, an Australian-Chinese couple who were posted to Kuito in 2000-2001 as aid workers. The pair documented their experiences in the book “No One Can Stop the Rain”. The title comes from a poem by Angola’s first president Antonio Agostinho Neto written in a Portuguese colonial prison in 1960.

In 2000, Wei Cheng was a Hong Kong-based paediatric surgeon, and his wife Karin Moorhouse (her author uncle Frank Moorhouse wrote the introduction to the book) was a senior marketing executive for Nestlé. The pair decided to act out a long-term ambition to work for an overseas aid agency and they signed up for Médecins Sans Frontières. They were assigned to Kuito, Wei as a surgeon and Karin as a financial administrator at the MSF project. They would be arriving at the end of 2000, with the civil war petering to a close and Kuito in government hands, but military violence a very real presence in the nearby countryside. Kuito was a safe haven in an otherwise dangerous landscape just beyond the city limits.

Due to the desperate need to get a surgeon on the ground, Wei arrived in Kuito some eight weeks ahead of his wife. He flew into a hot, listless town that was devastated by years of war. Every house façade was peppered by mortar spray and there was no running water and heavily rationed electricity. His place of work would be the Provincial Hospital of Bié ostensibly managed by Angola’s Ministry of Health. They provided the nurses and administrative staff. But it was MSF who provided most of the drugs and equipment and all of the doctors.

Facilities were rudimentary as was hygiene. Wei was horrified to see people walk into theatre wearing street shoes while scrubbing for an operation simply meant washing hands with soap. Many of Wei’s operations were on victims who had stood on a landmine. Typically the victims had travelled large distances to get to the hospital by which time their wounds were foul smelling and ridden with maggots. More often than not, Wei was left with no option but to amputate. In his first week there, he visited the British humanitarian de-mining organisation called HALO Trust. Here he found out where it was safe to move and where it wasn’t. It was at a HALO Trust site near Kuito where Princess Diana made her famous minefield walk in 1997.

At the time, Kuito’s population of 100,000 was almost doubled by a vast amount of Internally Displaced Persons from neighbouring areas. The IDPs camped around the outskirts of the city in search of security, care and food. But because they had not crossed any international borders they could not come under the jurisdiction of the UNHCR. Despite two million IDPs in Angola, the government in Luanda consistently downplayed the problem. In 2001 Angola exported 800,000 barrels of oil a day, yet the majority of the country lived in abject poverty.

Wei had settled into a rhythm of almost endless surgery by the time Karin arrived in Kuito. Wei forewarned her of what to expect with a photomontage of the patients he had treated. It was a catalog of legs blown away by landmines, children’s arms shredded by bullets, festering wounds, shattered bones, gunshots and distorted limbs. When Karin arrived, Kuito’s dry dusty air struck her as resembling outback Australia. That impression would change quickly with the coming of the rainy season.

Wei and Karin had to deal with a constant stream of children though the hospital. UNICEF have claimed Angola is the second worst country on the planet to be a child. One in three die before the age of five. In 1999 Angola ranked 146th out of 162 nations in terms of human development, despite its oil and mineral wealth. Angola was also the sixth most corrupt country in the world and a million people had died in the 25 year civil war. The capital Luanda had only one doctor for every 50,000 people. This statistic was even worse for the country: one doctor for every 400,000 people, the equivalent of just 50 doctors for the whole of Australia.

The couple gradually got used to life in Kuito. They became “desensitised” to the lack of fresh food, the constant power blackouts and the litany of cruel injuries they had to deal with on a daily basis. Even harder to deal with were the patients they had to turn away because their wounds were not serious enough. Prioritisation was their toughest task. Most of their patients were civilians as the army treated their own. Wei and Karin survived and even thrived due to their strong love for each other, the occasional break in South Africa and Luanda, and the bonds they made with fellow staff, patients and locals. They celebrated Christmas by giving out simple presents to the children in the orthopaedic ward and enjoying a rare food order from Luanda.

Although one of their staff was killed in an ambush, Wei and Karin kept out of harm’s way during their stint in war-ravaged Kuito. The closest they came to trouble was related to Angola’s Independence Day, 4 February, when a bomb exploded at an already gutted premises near the house where they lived. They were away at the time so were not impacted. After eight eventful months, their assignment came to an end. Wei later spoke about his hopes for the book of their experiences. “One could believe that the flickering light of humanity we witness almost daily in this world of conflict and tragedy is not about to be extinguished,” he said, “but rather can be given new energy through the efforts of ordinary people.”

Sunday, March 23, 2008

AU poised to invade rebel Comoros island of Anjouan

More than 500 African Union troops landed on the Comoros island of Moheli yesterday to join forces massed to retake the rebel island of Anjouan. 400 Tanzanian and 168 Sudanese soldiers join 500 AU soldiers as well as 400 local troops in the port town of Fomboni all poised to end the stand-off between Comoros and Anjouan. The Comoros did not recognise the re-election of Anjouan leader Colonel Mohamed Bacar in June 2007.

The AU has supported the central government in the stand-off and sponsored military support. Senegalese troops will arrive in the next few days, while Libya has provided transport assistance for the operation. Abdul Bacar Soihir, Comoros head of the cabinet, said "The invasion will be very soon." Yahya Abdallah, the Sudanese commander, said as he arrived with a deployment of paratroopers: "We are happy to be here...The Comoran people are our Muslim brothers and we are proud to be able to help them."

The Comoros is an archipelago of islands in the Mozambique Channel of the Indian Ocean between Mozambique and Madagascar. The capital Moroni is on the main island of Grand Comore and Moheli and Anjouan are the other two main islands. Each of the federation's three islands has its own president and government institutions with a rotating presidency for the over-arching Union government. A standoff between Anjouan and the other two islands has lingered since individual island elections were held in June 2007.

Anjouan is ruled by Mohamed Bicar. Bicar is a former chief of police on Anjouan and took part of a military coup in August 2001 after which he became the head of the country. Bacar has ruled Anjouan outright since 2002, but his re-election in June 2007 was deemed illegal by both the central authorities and the AU citing irregularities and intimidation in the run-up to voting. However Bacar went ahead with the ballot printing his own papers and has since defied calls for him to stand down.

The central government has said it will try Bicar for war crimes and crimes against humanity unless he flees. A Government spokesman said Bacar had committing atrocities against residents of Anjouan, and was responsible for abuse and torture by his security forces. Over two thousand refugees fleeing to Grande Comore have given firsthand accounts of atrocities including torture, rape and burning.

These abuses have worsened since the Moroni Government announced its plan to reclaim the island on 31 January. Comoros Education Minister Abdoulrahime Said Bacar said the government had no alternative after sanctions against Anjouan failed to have any impact. "The army is well prepared, psychologically ready and has the necessary materials, I am confident,” he said. “We want to organise elections."

The Comoros has endured 19 coups or coup attempts since it gained independence from France in 1975 after 130 years of colonial rule. In 1997 Moheli and Anjouan seceded from Grand Comore after a failed attempt by the government to re-establish control over the rebellious islands. The current federal system has been in place since 2002 when a new constitution, brokered by the Organisation of African Unity (predecessor of the AU), mandated the election of a President of Anjouan along with presidents for the other two islands and a federal president. The 830,000 people of the Comoros are among the poorest in Africa and are heavily dependent on foreign aid.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

The death of Robert Maxwell

The recent troubles of Bear Stearns and now British mortgage lender HBOS have caused commentators to see resemblances with the empire of publishing tycoon Robert Maxwell which collapsed on his mysterious death in 1991. The Times’ Patrick Hoskins suggests the financial world could do with a few more naysayers as it did when “half the City was employed in puffing up Maxwell’s house of cards”.

That mogul’s house spectacularly collapsed during the night of 5 November 1991, when he disappeared at sea off the side of his yacht, aged 68. The official verdict was accidental drowning though family members disputed the finding. While some have called it suicide, the most overwhelming evidence for his death is murder, especially as presented in the book “The Assassination of Robert Maxwell: Israel’s Superspy” by Gordon Thomas and Martin Dillon. As the subtitle suggests, the authors say it was Maxwell’s espionage exploits on behalf of Israel that brought about his eventual death – at the hands of Mossad, the agency he gave so much service to.

There were many things to doubt about Maxwell's strange life, but there was no doubt that he was Jewish. He was born in 1923 in the village of Slatinske Doly in a remote anti-Semitic corner of what was to become Czechoslovakia. His father was given the surname Hoch (German for “tall”) by a census taker. When the Czechs took over after World War I, Hoch's name was changed to Ludvik. Born in 1923, Robert Maxwell’s earliest name was Jan Ludvik. He was a model pupil and a quick learner. But these were dangerous times to be Jewish. Encouraged by his father young Jan left Czechoslovakia before the Nazis took over.

Maxwell moved to Budapest. He claims he joined the Czech resistance there in 1939 and fought with the exiled Czech army in Eastern Europe. This is unverified but what is known is that by 1940 he was in Marseilles where he joined the Czech Legion before sailing to Liverpool. In England, he instinctively felt at home. Frustrated by the anti-Semitism of his fellow Czechs, he transferred into the British Army’s Pioneer Corps under the name of Jan Hoch. Here he perfected his English and assumed the mannerisms of a born and bred Englishman.

But it was Maxwell’s German language skills that got him his break. He was transferred to an intelligence unit in the North Staffordshire Regiment. He changed his name again, this time to Leslie du Maurier and returned to France in the second wave of the Normandy Landings. Once he was promoted into the officer class, he picked a new and very British name Ian Robert Maxwell which, with the Ian dropped, he would keep for the rest of his life. He fought with distinction in a number of battles and won the Military Cross. Stationed in liberated Paris, he attracted the eye of a young woman named Elizabeth Maynard. They married in 1945, shortly before the fall of Germany.

After the war, he served in Berlin and then into business as a distributor for scientific books. Maxwell’s fortune was linked with Pergamon Publishing, a specialist firm he set up in 1951 that launched scientific publishing in Britain. Pergamon found a niche and did well for itself. The now wealthy Maxwell was elected to parliament in 1964 as a Labour MP in Harold Wilson’s first Government. He was unseated in Wilson’s surprise defeat by Ted Heath in 1970. But his media interests prospered and in 1984 he acquired Mirror Group Newspapers which printed the Daily and Sunday Mirrors and the Sunday People. From then on, he was one of the most well-known people in the world.

His business empire’s Israeli head was the son of that country's Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. Maxwell and the PM were good friends, especially since Maxwell invested $100 million in Israel’s unsteady economy. One of the Israeli companies he acquired was a Tel-Aviv software house called Degem Computers. Israel’s intelligence agency Mossad used this company as cover for many of their worldwide operations. Israeli was also interested in Maxwell’s links with the USSR. Maxwell met Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in 1978 and since then had met every important member of the Politburo and those who ruled over the Soviet satellite states. Israel wanted Maxwell’s help to bring home USSR’s Jews.

Robert Maxwell became Mossad’s most valuable asset. As well as his Soviet bloc contacts, Maxwell was also friendly with then US President George H.W. Bush and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. He also knew French President Mitterand and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. As well, he knew most of the key players in the intelligence world through his work in the British army and the scientific world through his work in the publishing industry. Through this vast network, he could open most doors for Mossad.

Meanwhile the Israeli intelligence agency had illegally gained access to a super-spy computer software. Promis (Prosecutor’s Management Information Systems) was owned by American company Inslaw and was used by the US Justice Department to track intelligence information across the world. Incredibly, they gave a disk copy to a Mossad operative who took it back to Israel where it was reverse engineered, enhanced and given the name Promis. They added a "trapdoor" to Promis, a microchip give Israel information about the purchaser. Mossad knew potential buyers would be suspicious of Israeli software. What they needed was a trusted outsider, someone beyond reproach who would sell it on their behalf – Robert Maxwell.

His first client was Robert Mugabe. Maxwell told him Promis was better and cheaper than anything else on the market. He assured Mugabe it would enable him to track any plotters among the remaining white tobacco farmers in the country. After making the deal, Maxwell went south and sold it to the apartheid regime in Pretoria. They day after he left, black miners’ leaders planning a strike were all arrested. There was similar "success" in Guatemala where government rounded up 20,000 government opponents thanks to Promis. Maxwell persuaded Swiss banks to install it, which gave Mossad valuable information on what Israeli businessmen were illegally sequestering money out of the country.

As the 1980s drew to a close, Maxwell’s empire was in trouble. With interest rates high and the share price falling in his major companies, he secretly brought millions of his own shares through tax havens in Virgin Islands, Gibraltar and Liechtenstein. Maxwell purchased these through collateral for bank loans. He was secretly withdrawing vast sums of money from the pension funds of his 24,000 Mirror Group employees which he invested in French and Israeli companies. By 1990 repayments to his bankers had reached £415m a year while he was caught in a vicious debt spiral.

With police and journalists on his trail, an increasingly desperate Maxwell turned to Israel to bail him out. Mossad turned him down. When Israel refused to help, Maxwell threatened to spill the beans about his spying in the Daily Mirror. When the first claims of links between Mossad and Maxwell became public, the intelligence agency was seriously alarmed. Though he was a hero to many in Israel, Mossad concluded he had to be silenced before he could do serious damage. They recruited a four man “kidon" (death squad) to kill Maxwell.

The kidon hired a small motorised yacht in the Gran Canaria port of Las Palmas. They looked like four men on a fishing trip but on board they had locked onto the frequency of Maxwell’ superyacht the Lady Ghislaine (named for his favourite daughter). They followed the Ghislaine up the coast. Mossad passed a secret message to Maxwell to expect a secret package on board in the early hours of the morning. They told him go on deck between 4 and 5 am and stand on the starboard side.

With Maxwell in place for the hit, a dinghy from the kidon’s yacht crept up under the radar, hidden by the noise of Ghislaine’s engine. Two frogmen climbed aboard and reached Maxwell in a few strides. One held a syringe which he plunged into Maxwell’s neck. It contained a lethal nerve agent developed by a biological research institute in Tel Aviv. The men gripped the body and lowered it over the side and into the sea. It would be another six hours before anyone on board realised he was missing. His body was recovered 30km south of Gran Canaria.

A botched Spanish autopsy concluded his death was due to heart failure. They ruled out suicide because Maxwell was a good swimmer. His unhappy insurers insisted on a second autopsy which occurred before his burial in Jerusalem. This one found the most likely cause was drowning but the insurers refused to pay up anyway saying it was suicide. Maxwell was buried with full state honours in Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives. Prime Minister Shamir, who probably authorised his death, eulogised “He has done more for Israel than can today be said". His death could not be spoken about either.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Being Good Friday

(Picture: the Breakfast Creek Hotel, a Brisbane pub that wasn't open today)

Though it was a 28 degree scorcher of a public holiday in Brisbane today, there was little chance of being able to quench your thirst with a beer. Because here as in the rest of Australia, the pubs were shut for Good Friday. But why should shops and pubs shut for a Christian festival? This is a quaint practice retained from the days that Australia was a Christian country but those times have long since past. The census is showing Christianity declining as a force in Australian society with just 64 per cent of the population (down from 71 per cent in 1996) calling themselves Christians in 2007. It is surely time to remove this archaic custom.

Meanwhile, the Australian Retailers Association believes the shops should also remain open on the day. They have asked the Federal Government to take the lead in deregulating shopping hours at Easter across the country. They say ambiguous and inconsistent state laws are hurting national chains, franchises and consumers. While the laws have been liberalised in the ACT (where there are no restrictions) and Tasmania (where they still close on Good Friday), laws elsewhere remain stuck in a mid century timewarp. WA is particularly regressive with shops shut throughout Easter except Saturday.

Adelaide businesses are pushing hard to liberalise their laws ahead of the Rugby World Sevens tournament to be held there next Easter. Rugby bosses also want the Good Friday laws relaxed. But vested interests are speaking up determined to keep the status quo. The Catholic Church has warned that opening on Good Friday for shop and hotel trading would destroy a tradition they describe as “deeply embedded in the South Australian psyche”. The Church's Monsignor David Cappo says the day is a holiday, a rest day and a highly religious day for an enormous number of South Australians which needs to be treated with respect. "I would urge very strong caution about such a fundamental change to Easter,” he said. “Good Friday is such a powerful day, it is about the death of Christ."

Britain has begun the process of open trading on Good Friday. High street betting shops are the latest to open today for the first time on Good Friday. Bookmakers reckon thousands of shops will be operating, even though there will be no racing taking place today. Church groups are angry, saying the opening showed a lack of respect for the day of Christ's crucifixion. The Church of England said it was part of a gradual trend to remove the shared holidays that "help create a rhythm for the nation's life".

This point was also picked up by the Daily Telegraph opinion writer who said that a liberalised trading has led to rampant commercialism. While the writer acknowledged that previously Good Friday was stupefyingly dull, he or she (the writer’s name is not identified in the article) is not convinced the replacement is any better. “Instead of it being a day for churchgoing, Good Friday now marks the start of the Easter sales frenzy,” said the Telegraph. “It's as bad as any Bank Holiday, and we wistfully long for quieter times.”

While such materialism is an unwelcome side-effect of liberalisation, it is not enough justification to stop it. While Australia remains steadfastly shut down on Friday, its commonwealth cousin Canada has removed most restrictions in the last couple of decades. This year Nova Scotia has changed its 80 year old laws that allowed pubs to only serve alcohol with meals on Good Friday. Nova Scotia was one of the last holdouts. Only Manitoba and Prince Edward Island still require pubs and clubs to be closed on the day while in Saskatchewan, bars cannot open until noon. "Good Friday has held out…because of its religious connotations," said Craig Heron, associate professor of history at York University. "Which is odd in a society where there are many, many other religions that don't celebrate Good Friday."

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Toohey returns Walkley in protest at permit system changes

Today’s Media section of The Australian led with the story of journalist Paul Toohey returning his Walkley award in protest at the proposed code of conduct for journalists entering and reporting on Aboriginal communities. Toohey, the newspaper’s Northern Territory reporter, said he sent back his award to the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) which represents journalists. Toohey said the MEAA was “actively working against media freedom in favour of what it mistakenly believes are the interests of Aborigines”.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin had asked the MEAA to provide input to legal changes proposed by the new Labor government. The union response was a draft code of conduct which would require journalists to report to Aboriginal Councils and police when they enter Indigenous communities. The MEAA has called Toohey’s protest a beat up and said the new code was not “an onerous requirement”.

The story began after Howard’s Aboriginal Affairs Minister Mal Brough’s NT intervention last year when he scrapped the permit system to visit Aboriginal lands. He was supported at the time by NT journalists who believed that the system encouraged secrecy and lack of accountability. However the MEAA advocated retention of the system. The Rudd Government has now wound back some of Brough’s initiatives and brought back an amended permit system. Critically, governments and journalists would be excluded from the rule.

However the government did want to see a code introduced to govern journalist conduct. The MEAA outlined their idea of a code of conduct in a letter to the government released on 7 March, which said the proposed changes would allow journalists access to Aboriginal community subject to “certain conditions”. It proposed journalists carry proof of their occupation, report to the police and the council on arrival in the community, respect sacred sites, respect privacy, and attend a seminar on cultural sensitivities.

Toohey objected to two of these conditions. He said reporting intentions to the police and council could be counter-productive if the journalist was there to investigate the authorities. Toohey asked “would the MEAA suggest to correspondents in China that they should first consult authorities before seeking out Tibetan dissidents?” He was also scathing of the requirement to attend a cultural seminar which he called “meaningless bleeding-heart bullshit that won't teach anyone how to talk with a fellow human”. Toohey believes it should be sufficient for journalists to follow the 12 point MEAA Code of Ethics when visiting Aboriginal communities.

Writing for Crikey, Margaret Simons believes Toohey is overreacting. She says the code has not yet been approved and in any case would be voluntary. She also says the majority of the code is not objectionable. The only point in the code Simons didn’t like was also picked up by Toohey. This is the need to report to police and council and informing them what they are doing in the community. Defending the move, Fairfax NT reporter Lindsay Murdoch (who drafted the recommendations) says the reference to the police is negotiable but argued that informing the council of a journalist’s presence is current practice.

Meanwhile Simons called Toohey’s protest “premature and melodramatic”. Toohey won his award for magazine feature writing in 2002 for an article called “Highly Inflammable” in the Weekend Australian Magazine about the scourge of petrol sniffing in Aboriginal communities. In his article, Toohey explored the links between petrol sniffing and consequences such as aggression, violence (including murder), theft and property damage. These in turn bring most sniffers in front of the justice system.

In 2001, Toohey told ABC’s Media Report that working in Darwin has given him a different sense of news. He said that a lot of that news came from the 35 per cent of the Territory’s population which was Aboriginal. He said he was conscious of being a white reporter working in black communities. “In a lot of these communities, people would never have seen The Australian for instance,” he said. “Sometimes you feel a little guilty about using the information they've provided you, guilty in the sense that they don't know what they're up for here, but you try and explain that”.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Tuvalu wavering not drowning

A New Zealand academic has disputed recent reports that the Pacific island of Tuvalu is sinking under the sea. Writing in the NZ Herald, Chris de Freitas, an associate professor in the School of Geography, Geology and Environmental Science at the University of Auckland, says that there has been no discernible evidence that sea levels have risen on the main island of Funafuti and what inundation has occurred in other islands is due to erosion caused by industrial activity not global warming. De Freitas also cites other factors such as the paving over of one quarter of Funafuti’s land mass which has increased rainwater runoff causing flooding.

De Freitas also quotes a growing body of research that says that global warming will cause sea levels, which have been rising since the end of the last ice age, to either stabilise or possibly even fall. Some scientists believe there is an inverse relationship between global temperatures and sea levels, due to sea surface evaporation that transports moisture to the polar ice caps.

Dr. John Bratton of the US Geological Survey argues that global warming could cause sea level to fall for another reason. He believes the temperature rise would cause the melting of sea-floor crystals of ice (known as clathrates) which enclose gases such as methane. When these crystals melt, the gas escapes leaving a hole that could cause sea levels to fall by as much as 25 meters. Bratton estimates that sea level will fall by about 1.5 meters due to this phenomenon.

Nevertheless Tuvalu remains on the frontline of climate change. Since as far back as 1992, its government has been speaking out in international forums about the impacts of global warming. More common flooding due to storm surges has increased the salinity of the soil which in turn is forcing farmers to grow their root crops in metal buckets instead of in the ground. Tuvalu’s government have had little success in getting their big international neighbours to change their ways. “The oil industry is powerful” said local politician Paani Laupepa. “It works in sinister ways to maintain its grip on the politicians”.

Historically Tuvalu was southern Ellis part of the Gilbert and Ellis islands but opted for separation (from what is now Kiribati) and then independence in 1978. The name Tuvalu means “eight standing together” and refers to the number of populated islands in the chain. It relies on international aid (which has been put into a trust fund) and the US, Taiwan and Japan also pay lucrative amounts for fishing rights. In 1998 Tuvalu sold 80 percent of the rights to the “tv” internet domain to a Californian company for $48 million. Tuvalu still makes $3 million a year from the remaining 20 percent share with internet registrations rising by almost half in the last two years.

Tuvalu is a chain of nine islands with a population of roughly 11,000 making it the smallest voting member of the UN. The islands are mostly two to three metres above sea level and its coral atoll villages already flood at high tide. In the IPCC fourth assessment report released last year gave a range of possible sea level rises up to a metre by 2099 so most of the islands seem safe enough in the short term.

Citizens of Tuvalu are among seven million Pacific Islanders who are most at risk. Although Pacific nations contribute just one percent to global greenhouse pollution they suffer the worst of the extreme weather events and other climate change impacts. When air temperatures rise, the oceans heat up and cyclones become more frequent and severe. Changes are causing many to leave to Australia and New Zealand and these people have been called “climate refugees”.

Now a Japanese activist and journalist Shuichi Endo has set himself the task of photographing the entire population of Tuvalu (10,000 people) in order to draw political attention to the threat they face from global warming. Endo said the islanders live in tune with their environment and the rest of the world could learn a lot from them. "If industrialised countries like Japan and the United States don't cut their greenhouse gas emissions, the Tuvaluans won't be able to carry on living here," Endo said. "Their culture will be lost, the Tuvaluans will no longer exist."

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

More or less Unaustralian

The term “Unaustralian” is the great Australian pejorative weaselword. It has jumped into the popular lexicon in last decade or so, almost always as a dog-whistle to call attention to some undesirable activity in the eye of the beholder. And just about anything can be thus labelled. In recent weeks such diverse items such as binge drinking, school metal detectors, the Melbourne 2030 blueprint (which limits outer suburban housing development) and the racist removal of Aboriginals from an Alice Springs motel were all lumped together as being “unaustralian” (or sometimes unAustralian or un-Australian).

This word is wideranging and eminently adaptable. People can be unaustralian too, such as Dick Smith, for helping David Hicks find employment. Actions can be unaustralian such as slurring Liberal politician Eric Abetz by association with his great uncle Otto who was Nazi ambassador to Vichy France (even though the only person making the association, and using the unaustralianism is Eric Abetz himself).

One can also be labelled unaustralian in more deliberately facetious ways such as the refusal to stop work and have a pint of Guinness on St Patrick’s Day (yesterday) or by having humility and good taste or by hating lifeguards.

The Australian newspaper’s (which ought to be an authority about its opposite) music columnist Ian Shedden claims the title of Un-Australian of the Year, which he says was bestowed upon him for suggesting that the Country Music Association of Australia was considering moving the annual Tamworth country music festival away from Tamworth. If true, and it has yet to be corroborated, he is in august company as it is a title he must share with Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. Rudd was also named 2008 Un-Australian of the Year by men’s magazine Zoo Weekly for his revelation he behaved like a “perfect gentleman” during his 1990s New York strip club adventure. Rudd narrowly edged out David Hicks and Eddie Jones for the award.

He follows in the footsteps of Muslim cleric Sheikh Taj al-Din al-Hilali who has been quiet for the past 12 months but who won the award in 2007 for his long list of controversial pronouncements all gleefully reported by the media. Hilali beat out Germaine Greer and Paul Hogan for the title. The magazine’s editor declared the nominees all deserved "a tonk over the head" for not displaying "good old-fashioned Aussie values".

According to the Macquarie and Australian Oxford dictionaries the word “unAustralian” means: "not in accordance with the characteristics…said to be typical of the Australian community". It also has connotations of "incivility and foreign influence". The Melbourne Age suggests the phrase dates back to 1855 when it was used to describe a part of the local landscape that looked British and hence unAustralian.

The subject of unaustraliana has received attention in academic circles too. Researchers Philip Smith from the University of Queensland and Tim Phillips from the University of Tasmania wrote a paper (pdf) in 2001 about it which suggests the word is a relative latecomer to fame having entered popular culture in the 1990s. But contrary to The Age, Smith and Phillips can only trace the history of the word back to the early 20th century and the institutionalisation of the White Australia Policy. In the military aftermath of World War I and the Russian Revolution the archetypal “heroic digger” was portrayed as willing and ready to guard and defend Australia against such ‘UnAustralian’ ragtag elements as communists, radicals, the Irish, trade unions and pacifists.

The academics also saw parallels with the use of the word and the term ‘UnAmerican’ which was introduced into the popular vocabulary during the 1940s and 1950s by the Senate Committee on UnAmerican Activities. They quoted political sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset who pointed out in 1990 that “being an American … is an ideological commitment. It is not a matter of birth. Those who reject American values are un-American”. However while the American Unamericanism was well documented Smith and Phillips decried the lack of information about the Australian Unaustralianism.

But things have moved on in the last seven years. The conclusion of a three-day conference at the University of Canberra in 2006 was that the word unAustralian meant: nothing. They quoted a 20-year study of the Hansard record which found that politicians of all parties used it 600 times to describe just about everything, with former PM John Howard a prominent user. The study was conducted by German researcher Klaus Neumann who pointed out “it's more or less meaningless. You know, it's used in all sorts of circumstances. The best that could be said for it is that it's a synonym for bloody awful.” But what would he know? He is unAustralian, after all.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Tibet braces for Chinese crackdown

In an announcement that has the sinister ring of Orwellian Newspeak, China claims it has shown “great restraint” in its attempt to crush the riots in the Tibetan capital Lhasa. But while the Chinese-appointed governor of Tibet asserted no guns were used against protesters in the capital, troops flooded into neighbouring areas to enforce control after violent protests. And Lhasa itself faces a midnight ultimatum for protesters to give themselves up or face tougher punishment.

Tibet’s governor Champa Phuntsok promised leniency to those who turned themselves in before the day’s end while threatening harsh consequences for those who don't. He also claimed that the total death toll was 16 so far, a figure greatly disputed by Tibetans exile groups who say over a hundred have died. The governor blamed supporters of the Dalai Lama for the protests. Meanwhile the Dalai Lama himself has condemned what he called "cultural genocide" in his homeland and called for an international investigation.

Tibet’s Prime Minister in exile Samdhong Rinpoche said that hundreds have died since violence broke out a week ago. He told reporters in the Indian hillside home of the government in exile, Dharamshala, that they had requested the international community and the UN send a delegation to Tibet to investigate the claims. China rejects these charges, saying today that 13 "innocent civilians" were killed by “Tibetan rioters” during violent protests in Lhasa, and that it did not use lethal force to quell the rioting.

With western media banned from Tibet, it has been difficult to verify competing claims. The only outside journalist still in Lhasa is The Times’ James Miles. He says that all is quiet at the moment after two days of deadly riots and arson attacks, with the people of Lhasa lying low ahead of the midnight deadline. Rubble and burnt-out vehicles littered the streets, with just an occasional gunshot. Miles said armed troops entered the city on Saturday to quell Tibetan rioters who targeted both Han Chinese and Hui Muslims.

Today, army units drove through the streets parading dozens of Tibetan prisoners in handcuffs with their heads bowed. Soldiers stood behind each prisoner, a hand on the back of their neck to ensure their heads were bowed. Other troops stepped up their hunt for the rioters in house-to-house searches, checking all identification papers. Anyone unable to show an identity card and a household registration permitting residence in Lhasa was arrested. Loudspeakers on the trucks broadcast calls to anyone who had taken part in the violent riots on Friday to turn themselves in.

China is especially sensitive to media reports of the riots as the Beijing Olympics looms on the horizon. Steven Spielberg was the first to use the Olympics card when he resigned as the Games “artistic adviser" in protest over China not using its links with Sudan to help bring an end to violence in Darfur. Now it faces the possibility that a major crackdown in Tibet could unleash calls for a boycott of the Olympics. British Foreign Secretary David Miliband hinted at this recently when he said diplomats should no longer fear that raising human rights with China meant that economic relations would be damaged.

Despite worldwide protests, so far all leades including the Dalai Lama, have stopped short of calling for a boycott of the Games. But International Olympic Committee (IOC) chief Jacques Rogge is worried. Yesterday he said he was “concerned” about the Chinese crackdown and hoped “there can be an appeasement as soon as possible.” There is little doubt that Rogge’s real concern is the possibility that Western nations might skip his showpiece event in Beijing in August. Saying that the IOC was "in favour of the respect of human rights", Rogge rejected the idea of a boycott saying it would only penalise athletes and would not solve anything. What Rogge know is that the Games offers Tibet its best chance to squeeze compromise from Beijing.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Gautama and Buddhism

Thousands of Buddhists are marching worldwide in solidarity with the current protests in Buddhist Tibet. With 365 million followers, over 6 per cent of the world’s population claim to be Buddhists. It is the fourth largest religion in the world behind only Christianity, Islam and Hinduism. Established in India in the sixth century it spread out across south, east and south-east Asia before emerging as a truly international movement in the 20th century. Arguably not even a religion, Buddhism is certainly a tradition that focuses on personal spiritual development that dates back almost 2,500 years.

The first external evidence about the existence of Buddhism comes from inscriptions made by King Asoka who ruled the Mauryan state of North India from 269 BCE to 232 BCE. This was some two hundred years after the death of the Buddha himself. The majority of what we know about the life of Siddartha Gautama comes from the voluminous Buddhist scriptures written in various Asian languages. The most useful of these texts were written in Pali, an extinct north Indian dialect which was close to Magadhan, the language most likely spoken by Gautama.

These traditions began to be preserved shortly after his death. Itinerant Buddhist monks wandered around the cities of the Gangetic Plain and taught Buddha’s message of enlightenment and freedom from suffering. During the impassable monsoon rains, the monks retreated to their settlements where they discussed doctrine and practice. Eventually some began to collect their testimony of Gautama and formalised it into songs, discourses and rules of their orders in formulaic and repetitive style. Several monks were assigned the role of committing anthologies to memory.

After a hundred years, these discourses became formalised as the Pali Canon. They covered the Buddha’s sermons, stories about his life, suttas about the Eightfold Path and the makeup of human personality, anthologies of his epigrams and poems, and the Book of Monastic Discipline which codified the rules of the Buddhist Order of monks. They paid more attention to the philosophies of the Buddha than the key dates of his life, which remain frustrating vague for modern scholars. These Pali texts became the provenance of Theravada Buddhism which stressed the importance of yoga and honoured monks who became “Arahants”, accomplished ones who had achieved enlightenment like the Buddha himself.

Siddharta Gautama was born in the sixth century BCE in Kapilavatthu in the foothills of the Himalayas. His father was one of the leading men of the town and showered his son with every pleasure he could desire. But young Siddharta felt suffocated by his lifestyle and took to the road at the age of 29, leaving behind a wife and son of his own. India was undergoing an economic transformation at the time with power transferring from the priestly caste to the merchants. Gautama believed that family life was not conducive to spirituality and he joined the thousands of mendicants, mostly men, who settled in the forests near the plain in a search for “brahmacariya” (the holy life).

Gautama’s Holy Grail was Nibbana or Nirvana (“blowing out”); a deathless, sorrowless and incorrupt place where it was possible to extinguish life’s passions, attachments and delusions. It was also an attempt to deal with the North Indian belief of karma, the endless cycle of death and re-birth. Gautama was preoccupied especially with the horror of re-death and Nirvana, like many other theories of the day offered a way to extricate people from this endless cycle.

Gautama travelled to the Kingdom of Magadha, in modern Bihar south of the Ganges. There he came to the attention of King Bimbisara who was apparently so impressed by the young almsman, he offered to make him his heir. But Gautama instead set off in search of a teacher to guide him through his spiritual apprenticeship. He found what he wanted in Vesali, the capital of the Videha Republic. The school here, under Alara Kalama taught that ignorance not desire was at the root of human problems and suffering derived from lack of understanding of the true Self.

Gautama mastered the essentials of Kalama’s path by using the disciplines of yoga. The word is derived from the verb “yuj” meaning ‘to yoke’ or ‘to bind together’. Yoga was an ancient Indian tradition which cultivates a different mode of consciousness. Gautama used it to train his mind into a state that lay beyond error and illusion. This required the young monk to practice five prohibitions to bring his mind under control. They forbade him to steal, lie, take intoxicants, kill or harm, or have sex. He practiced ‘asana’ the physical cross-legged posture characteristic of yoga where he learned to cut the link between mind and senses by refusing to move. Once he entered a trace, he moved through a succession of stages until he reached the third ayatana – blissful ‘nothingness’.

But Gautama remained dissatisfied he had not found a truly unconditioned and uncreated self. He tried asceticism which proved as fruitless as yoga. Eventually he gave himself up to a childhood memory of sitting under a rose-apple tree when he had gained an ecstatic moment. He wondered if this was the way to enlightenment. He began to notice the ebb and flow of his feelings and sensations and took note of sensual desire when it happened. He became supremely aware of himself and took on as he called it, a state of mindfulness. This purification process took many years. One day around the year of 528 BCE he was walking by the Neranjara River where he spotted a pleasant grove for meditation. He sat there and took up the asana position determined not to move until he achieved enlightenment. It was here he became a Buddha. The word Buddha meant the Enlightened or Awakened One. This spot, now known as Bodh Gaya is an important site of Buddhist pilgrimage.

The rest of the Buddha’s life was spent helping others achieve the same state. But he did not preach. He became known as Sakyamuni the Silent One from the Republic of Sakka because his knowledge was ineffable and could not be described in words. He had no doctrine, no theology, no theory about root cause and no definition about ultimate reality. What was important to him was ‘letting go’, his purpose was to enable people transcend pain and attain the peace of Nirvana. Buddha lived a long life and died an old man in an obscure town. But a Buddhist has no time to think of himself, even on his deathbed. To the last he taught. His final advice to the monks that followed him was “All individual things pass away. Seek your liberation with diligence”.