Thursday, August 31, 2006

Uganda signs truce with LRA

On Saturday, there was a breakthrough in one of Africa’s most intractable and bizarre wars. Uganda’s government signed a deal with the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) that commits both sides to end the bloodshed and cease hostile propaganda. The LRA rebels have now three weeks to leave their hideouts in Uganda and northern Congo and assemble at two south Sudanese camps. The deal offers the best chance yet of ending the 20 year old war.

Thousands have died during the conflict in northern Uganda, and more than one million have fled their homes. The chief mediator, southern Sudan's Vice-President Riek Machar said he hoped the two principals will take action so that the guns can go silent. The two principals that Machar is referring to are the two towering figures of Ugandan politics, President Yoweri Museveni and LRA commander Joseph Kony.

The conflict in Northern Uganda began shortly after Museveni took power in 1986. Remnants of the previous government fled north and formed the Ugandan People’s Democratic Army (UPDA). The UPDA were routed but formed several splinter groups. One of these groups was led by the ‘spirit moved’ Alice Lakwena. Her 3,000 strong army was defeated and she fled to Kenya. But her nephew Joseph Kony re-mobilised the Acholi opposition and renamed the movement the Lord’s Resistance Army. Kony also claims to be a “spirit lead”. His apocalyptic spiritualism gives him Stockholm Syndrome powers over the young boys he has abducted into his army. He also claimed clairvoyant powers that allowed him to predict attacks, or detect attempts by abductees to escape. Former fighters describe how he would appear in a blue cassock or white robe to conduct nocturnal rituals by the light of flickering charcoal fires, or speak in tongues in a special yard reserved for communion with the spirits. The LRA rebels say they are fighting for the establishment of a government based on the biblical Ten Commandments. Kony practices a strategically syncretic religion and celebrates the Islamic holy day of Friday as well as the Christian Sunday. Many believe this is deliberate to broaden his appeal to the Islamists in Sudan as well as the Christians in Uganda.

The LRA is notorious for targeting civilians, mutilating survivors -- often by cutting off their lips or ears -- and for kidnapping over 30,000 children to serve the cult-like movement as fighters, porters or sex slaves. Kony is an Acholi tribesman who was born in 1962 in a small village near the town of Gulu. The town of Gulu is now the site of a major child refugee crisis. He has been supported by the Arab Sudanese government in Khartoum who used him to fight their own southern rebels, the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA). This was in revenge for the Ugandan support of the SPLA. Sudan equipped Kony with Soviet-made anti-tank weapons, machine-guns and mines and his fighters engaged both the south Sudanese rebels and the Ugandan army. But it was civilians in northern Uganda who bore the brunt of their attacks. There are signs that the LRA may now be moving away from their call to overthrow the Kampala government. Their demands now include a negotiated solution to the conflict, an end to Acholi marginalisation, and reparations for cattle rustled by pro-government factions shortly after Museveni took power. There is an another external stumbling block to peace. Kony and his senior leaders were indicted by the International Criminal Court in October 2005. Kony told reporters on 1 August this year that he would not be willing to stand trial at the ICC because he had not done anything wrong.

The 62-year old Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni is a member of the south-western Ugandan ethnic group the Banyankole. His surname Museveni means "Son of a man of the Seventh" in honour of the Seventh Battalion of the King's African Rifles, the British colonial army in which many Ugandans served during World War II. In the 1960s, he studied economics and political science in Tanzania where he embraced Marxism and Pan-Africanism. After a stint with a guerrilla movement in Portuguese Mozambique, he returned home in 1970 and worked for the intelligence service of then-president Milton Obote. When Idi Amin seized power a year later, Museveni fled to Tanzania. Amin attacked Tanzania in 1978 and Museveni led a force of exiles which worked with the Tanzanian army to launch a counter-attack. As a result the Amin regime was toppled in April 1979. Museveni was named Defence Minister in a new national government. He formed a political party which was defeated by ex-PM Obote in a disputed poll in 1980. As a result, the losing parties refused to recognise the new regime. Museveni cobbled together a new army which fought a 5 year campaign from their rural Western stronghold.

By 1986, his forces were strong enough to take Kampala and that same year Museveni was sworn in as president. At the time, he argued that political party activity splits underdeveloped countries like Uganda along ethnic, tribal and religious lines. He brought in a new system which he described as a broad based, alternate system of democracy in which people compete for political office on individual merit. The downside meant political party activity was restricted. Over the next 10 years Mr Museveni became a favourite African leader of the West. US President Bill Clinton visited Uganda in 1998 and described him as the head of a new breed of African leaders. Uganda's economy began to grow steadily and poverty levels dropped by 20% through the 1990s. He doubled primary school enrolment, and controlled HIV levels with a concerted anti-AIDS campaign.

However dissatisfaction is now growing within Uganda over his long-term leadership. Despite saying that his 2001 election victory would be his last, Museveni nominated again in February 2006 and won another bitterly disputed election which was narrowly upheld by the Supreme Court of Uganda. His reputation has also suffered due to Uganda’s involvement in the long running Congo Wars when Uganda and Rwanda united to overthrow long-term dictator Mobutu and then his replacement Laurent Kabila. With Uganda now extricated from Congo, Museveni has been able to concentrate on halting the LRA offensive in the north.

The ceasefire between the Ugandan army and the LRA appears to be holding. Saturday’s truce has furthered hopes that the end may be in sight. On Sunday LRA second-in-command Vincent Otti called on all rebels and officers to assemble to the meeting camp and said “LRA rebels who harass people during this time of the peace struggle would be punished accordingly”.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

John O’Neill quits Football Australia

In a surprise announcement yesterday, John O’Neill quit as chief executive of Football Federation Australia (FFA). In Sydney, the 55-year old O'Neill said he would finish his tenure when his contract expires in March. He turned down the option of staying on for a further four years by mutual agreement with the FFA. Chairman Frank Lowy said "I expected him to sign a new contract for the next four years but he has indicated his need for a change of direction, which I respect.” John O’Neill was appointed in 2004 and oversaw a revolution in the sport of football in Australia.

John O’Neill was an executive at the NSW State Bank before he was appointed managing director and CEO of Australian Rugby Union in 1995. In eight years at the helm, ARU revenues increased seven-fold from $10 to $70 million while participation grew 50% from 100,000 players to almost 150,000. He was named the Sport Executive of the Year in 2002 for securing Australian sole hosting rights for Rugby World Cup 2003 which was initially due to be shared with New Zealand. The event itself in November 2003 was hailed as a great success and made a profit of almost $90 million. At the time O’Neill said the tournament's success had returned Australian rugby to financial health and stated that "Seven years ago we struggled to pay our electricity bill.”

Just as he did yesterday, O’Neill resigned as rugby boss unexpectedly in December 2003 after a falling out with his employers, the ARU. There were serious concerns within the organisation that he had turned the World Cup into "the John O'Neill show". This was due in part to a TV documentary on the event where O’Neill had the starring role. He was also criticised for spending too much time with Prime Minister John Howard and not sharing the plaudits of the successful organisation of the tournament with other key officials. His relationship with team captain George Gregan was also poor. O’Neill wanted to replace him as captain and he was forced to deny claims that he was the source of leaks to the News Limited media to destabilise Gregan.

In June 2004, the new football supremo Frank Lowy hired O’Neill to be his chief executive. The job was considered one of the toughest in Australian sport. Sectarian and ethnic rivalries, financial crises, state jealousies, poor attendences and bad administrative practices had left football in ruins. In 2003, the situation was so bad that the Government instituted the Crawford Report to investigate the problems. This inquiry (named after its chair David Crawford, retired Chairman of KPMG) recommended a series of reforms to the game. The board of Soccer Australia resigned en masse and billionaire business and football fan Frank Lowy was appointed chair of a new board charged with implementing the Crawford reforms.

The appointment of O’Neill was a crucial factor in improving the governance of the game. Under the Lowy/O’Neill axis, the old National Soccer League was abolished and a new A-league was planned with major corporate sponsorship and live TV coverage. The foundation clubs had no ethnic-based affiliations and required proof of start-up capital of at least $1 million before gaining entry to the league. The inaugural 2005-2006 A-league season was considered a slickly-advertised success with average crowds of over 10,000 in large well-appointed stadia. The next major achievement of O’Neill was overseeing the move of Australia into the Asian Football Confederation (AFC). This has long been a dream of Australian football - they and New Zealand were both rejected Asian membership in 1964. The change of confederation had two benefits; it would ease the torturous World Cup qualification path and also gain access to lucrative Asian markets and tournaments. Australia officially resigned from Oceania in March 2003 and were accepted as a new member of the 45-country AFC.

The third plank of O’Neill’s success was the hardest of all to achieve. Australia had not taken part in a FIFA World Cup finals since its sole appearance in 1974. The intervening years had seen nothing but quadrennial heartache including the most infamous loss in 1997 when Australia threw away a two goal lead to crash out to Iran in front of 100,000 people at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. In 2005, Lowy and O’Neill appointed highly respected Dutchman Guus Hiddink as team coach. Hiddink duly provided the miracle as Australia qualified by defeating Uruguay on penalties in November. Hiddink continued to work miracles by coaching the team to a last 16 finish in the World Cup itself. Football achieved its highest ever profile in Australia during the World Cup with massive media coverage and huge crowds in all major cities attending open-air TV screening in the small hours.

With Hiddink and now O’Neill no longer in the picture, Lowy will need to act decisively to ensure that Australian football does not lose its hard-won gains. Like Hiddink, the master administrator O’Neill leaves the Australia job with his already glowing reputation greatly enhanced.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Police declare jihad on Jack

Yesterday, Melbourne man Jack Thomas made unwanted legal history. He is the first subject of a control order since the advent of the 2005 Australian anti-terror laws. On Sunday, federal police successfully convinced a Canberra magistrate that Thomas should be the first Australian subjected to the Howard Government's control order regime. Thomas was on a beach in South Gippsland with his wife and children on Monday when he was ordered to return to Melbourne. Under the terms of the control order, he is now under a strict night-time curfew at his parents' house, must check in at a police station three times a week and is banned from using any telephone that has not been approved by federal police. Jack Thomas is also specifically barred from contacting Osama bin Laden, whom he met in Afghanistan in 2001. Thomas, dubbed “Jihad Jack” by the media, had his conviction on terrorism offences quashed in the Victorian Court of Appeal on Friday 18 August.

Muslim convert Joseph "Jack" Thomas was found guilty in February of accepting AUD $5,000 and a plane ticket from an al-Qaeda agent in Pakistan. The former taxi driver was the first person to be convicted under new Australian anti-terror legislation adopted in October 2002 (and revised in December 2005). He faced a maximum of 25 years in prison. In March he was sentenced to five years jail with a non-parole period of two years. The appeal court has now acquitted on two charges of receiving funds from a terrorist network and for carrying a falsified passport. The court ruled Thomas's interview with the Australian Federal Police (AFP) in Pakistan was inadmissible evidence.

The court heard that Thomas had visited al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan shortly before the 9/11 attacks. The prosecution alleged Thomas trained in al-Qaeda bases there before moving to Pakistan. In November 2004, Thomas returned to Australia and was promptly arrested. His lawyer had argued for lenience, saying that Thomas never had any intention of becoming an al-Qaeda operative and accepted the money and plane ticket because he wanted to return home. His family also allege government intimidation and treatment similar to Guantanamo Bay detainees. For three months until mid February 2005 he was confined in Barwon maximum security prison, in solitary confinement for up to 23 hours a day

Prosecutor Nick Robinson is calling for a retrial based on fresh information he alleges emerged in the ABC's Four Corners post trial interview with Thomas. The Four Corners transcript of 27 February 2006 is listed as “currently unavailable for legal reasons”. However the Australian newspaper printed the full transcript on 21 August. Jack Thomas is 32 years old, married and has three children. In his own words, he converted to Islam after “dabbling with Buddhism and the occult”. Thomas sought a Muslim name and was drawn to the Arabic word meaning striving or struggle. And so "I chose the name Jihad, an Aussie battler or struggler. From there we got from the media the lovely headlines,” he told 4 Corners. His wife Maryati is the daughter of an Indonesian policeman with degrees in arts and information systems from Monash University. Through his wife, Thomas became involved in the local Indonesian community, many of whom were exiled opponents of the former dictator Suharto and supported an Islamic state in Indonesia.

In 2000, Thomas met Jemaah Islamiyah's leader, Abu Bakar Bashir, during a stopover in Malaysia after going on the Haj pilgrimage to Mecca. Bashir’s wife was a schoolfriend of Thomas’s wife. In March 2001, Thomas went to Afghanistan to fight for the Taliban in their war against the Northern Alliance. Through Melbourne contacts, Thomas was introduced to a Taliban commander who vetted him, then sent him to a mountain training site near Kandahar for new recruits called Camp Faruq. Bin Laden was a frequent visitor to the camp usually accompanied by his chief adviser, the Egyptian surgeon Dr Ayman al Zawahiri. Thomas saw him there three times and shook hands once. Here he also met and befriended David Hicks. At the end of their training Thomas and Hicks both went to the frontline. Thomas wasn’t sent into combat and went back to Kabul. He was in Kabul on September 11, 2001. When the Americans invaded Afghanistan, Thomas sent his family to Indonesia and he stayed on to fight.

Eventually he fled to Pakistan where he spent a year in hiding staying in Laskar-e-Toiba safehouses. He was contacted by a senior Al-Qaeda member Khalid Bin Attash who asked him to return to Australia and work for them. Attash gave Thomas US$3,500 in cash and a plane ticket back to Australia. The prosecution would later claim that by accepting the ticket and the money, Thomas was agreeing to work for al Qaeda. Thomas was arrested when he attempted to fly out of Karachi in January 2003. He was interrogated and tortured by Pakistan's notorious intelligence agency, the ISI and the CIA. Two weeks into his detention, the Australian Federal Police (AFP) and ASIO sent agents to interview him. Under Australian law they were obliged to offer him access to a lawyer. They told him he was entitled to one, but that none would be available. It was this interview that the Court of Appeals deemed illegal. In June 2003 he was released and flew home to Melbourne. It was not until November 2004 that ASIO and the Federal Police finally moved to arrest him. His short trial occurred three months later.

His family have vowed to fight the control order. His brother Les says the move is a political stunt. "The timing is just extraordinary and we're hoping that this can be overturned promptly," he said. Attorney-General Philip Ruddock defended the granting of the interim order when Mr Thomas's charges had been quashed. "The issue is about protecting the Australian community and not punishing a person for an offence," he said. "If you work on the assumption that only those people who could be convicted of an offence are subject to a control order, then you wouldn't have control orders."

The interim order will be subject to further proceedings in the Federal Magistrates Court later this week.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Katrina still making waves

While New Orleans conducted a weekend of remembrance to honour the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, this year’s first major hurricane was gathering strength in the Caribbean. The latest storm “Ernesto” could reach Category 3 strength by late Wednesday when it moves into the Gulf of Mexico. The Florida Keys have ordered visitors to leave the islands. Strong rain and winds are now hammering south-western Haiti, prompting fears of landslides in an area that has been heavily deforested.

New Orleans is yet to finish the repair of 320 kms of levees damaged by Katrina and officials there are carefully watching the path of Ernesto. This time they will evacuate residents in low-lying districts a full 50 hours before landfall if a hurricane threatens the city. Katrina made landfall in Southern Louisiana and Mississippi on 29 August 2005 and claimed 1,695 lives according to official estimates. The disaster was notorious not only for the scale of the devastation but also the slow response of federal and state officials in dealing with the ensuing crisis.

$110 billion has allotted for reconstruction of which authorities have already spent $44 billion. Thousands of people are still waiting for aid to rebuild their homes. The Category 5 storm Katrina was the sixth-strongest Atlantic hurricane ever recorded and the third-strongest landfalling U.S. hurricane ever recorded. Levees separating Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans were breached by the surge, ultimately flooding 80% of the city. The levees were not designed to withstand category 5 storms. The magazine Scientific American published an article in 2001 predicted that a “major hurricane could swamp New Orleans under 20 feet of water, killing thousands”. The article pointed out that New Orleans was a disaster waiting to happen. The city lies below sea level, in a bowl bordered by levees that fend off Lake Pontchartrain to the north and the Mississippi River to the south and west. The city is sinking and the low-lying Mississippi Delta, which buffers the city from the gulf, is also rapidly disappearing. In 1990 the Breaux Act, named for its author, the Louisiana Democrat senator John Breaux created a task force of several federal agencies to address the severe wetlands loss in coastal Louisiana. The act has brought about $40 million a year for wetland restoration projects, but it hasn't been enough.

Louisiana loses two acres of wetland every hour. This is due to subsidence, oil and gas exploration, the levees on the lower Mississippi River, and other factors. The Louisiana wetlands were created by the draining of the massive Mississippi-Missouri river system onto its delta. It is the third largest drainage system in the world and the largest watershed in North America containing all or part of 31 US states. The delta was built up by alluvium deposited by the river as it slows down and enters the Gulf of Mexico. 12 months ago today, the oppressive atmosphere of the Gulf of Mexico turned the moderate category 1 hurricane Katrina into something massive.

Its landfall in Florida did very little damage. As well as hammering New Orleans, the subsequent storm surge caused severe or catastrophic damage along the Gulf coast, devastating the cities of Mobile, Alabama, Waveland and Biloxi/Gulfport in Mississippi, and Slidell and other towns in Louisiana. On 28 August, 2005 the scale of Katrina became apparent. The weather service predicted that the New Orleans/Baton Rouge area would be "uninhabitable for weeks" after "devastating damage". On 29 August, the storm made landfall with 200 kph winds and the surge breached the levees around New Orleans. 4 metre tides were recorded on the coast of Mississippi. New Orleans was subjected to hurricane conditions for many hours. Most of east New Orleans was flooded by levee breaches. The badly damaged Superdome was not evacuated and sheltered up to 20,000 people. Two sections of its roof were compromised and the dome's waterproof membrane had been peeled off. The situation inside the building was described as chaotic; reports of fights, rape, and filthy living conditions were widespread.

The rescue effort was hampered by damage to most of the road in and out of the city. Because authorities were focussed on rescue efforts, looting and violence became serious problems in the aftermath of the storm. On 31 August, New Orleans's 1,500-strong police force was ordered to abandon search and rescue missions and turn their attention toward controlling the widespread looting. They were bolstered by 6,500 National Guards who arrived a day later.

By 3 September the situation had stabilised. The political price was paid by Michael D Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). He resigned on 12 September in a move that made him look like the scapegoat. Video was released that showed President George W Bush being warned on the eve of Hurricane Katrina that New Orleans' flood defences could be overcome. Bush accepted he shared some of the responsibility for the flawed response to Katrina and the White House has talked of the "fog of war" rendering decision-making difficult. Michael Brown told AP this week that he did not "buy the 'fog of war' defence". "It was a fog of bureaucracy," he said.

That fog has not yet lifted and the delta remains vulnerable to an almost entirely man-made catastrophe.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Toes with Strings attached

Hidden by the fabric of our universe lie at least seven more dimensions. There are 11 in all, a football team of dimensions. Time would have to be the goalkeeper. Totally mad and focussed on one thing only. Three more are defined by the formation. Left-right, back-forth, up-down. Another might be the fiery ball in the middle. Another one still is the opposition. The ref could be a dimension. Then there’s the manager and the audience. That’s nine. Throw in the weather and the attitude and there are your dimensions. But there's possibly more. Some say there are 26 dimensions and there are possibly a few more hidden under THOSE ones.

String Theory predicts all these things. It does that by being many things to many people, including five different mathematical versions of the same thing. Ed Witten proved they were the same. It is the TOE, a theory of everything that Einstein searched in vain for the last 40 years of his life. But just like all the socks that Einstein lost through his life, these dimensions were there all the time.

String theory is a model of fundamental physics whose building blocks are one-dimensional extended objects (strings) rather than the zero-dimensional points (particles) that are the basis of the Standard Model of particle physics. It is the only known theory that explains gravity. But there are five models and Witten called the combination of all five “M-Theory”. He said the letter M stood for many things, just the theory itself. He also suggested that a general formulation of M-theory will probably require the development of new mathematical language.

These things are very small. How small? About as small to an atom as a tree is to the solar system. Small. That’s why it lies in the reach of untestable mathematics safe from scrutiny. Philosophy rather than science. That’s also why CERN (Organisation Européenne pour la Recherche Nucléaire) in Geneva are building a 27km ring 100 metres deep in the Alps costing 2 billion Euros. CERN have scientific credibility. In 1993, they gave the world the World Wide Web for free.

They are now looking for the God Particle. Jim Verdee, a particle physicist at the Imperial College London describes the testing thus “We are at a point where experiments must guide us, we cannot make progress without them”. Particles will be send around the course to collide with each other. Mostly they will bounce off each other. But occasionally they will collide head-on. Scientists are hoping to examine the wreckage of these explosions to see if they can isolate some of the sub-components that may some day look string. Man has guided large particle explosions before. Nuclear fission was predicted by Einstein long before Hiroshima proved him right. Does string theory have military connotations?

At the moment, such questions are the domain of “metareligions” looking out for conspiracy theories. Metareligionist Gary Bukkum says that the US military are producing “exotic bombs - including a new class of isomeric gamma ray weapons.” However if practical advances are discovered by this CERN mega laboratory under the mountains, it cannot be long before there is a military angle.

CERN currently has 20 member countries. They are: Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, The Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, the Slovak Republic, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. It maps roughly onto the core membership of the EU (Ireland and Luxembourg are out but non-members Norway and Switzerland are in). The acronym originally stood, in French, for Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire (European Council for Nuclear Research) for the original 11 members in 1952. It kept the acronym even when the name of the organisation changed. About half of the world's particle physics community are working on experiments conducted at CERN.

Their test called the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) will switch on in 2007. The 27km tunnel is buried around 50 to 175 metres underground. It straddles the Swiss and French borders on the outskirts of Geneva. Two counter rotating beams of protons or heavy ions are designed to collide at 7 TeV per beam (1 TeV is the energy of motion of a flying mosquito). The aim is to determine what happens on or near the big bang. CERN's website quotes the Guardian “To pinpoint the smallest fragments of the universe you have to build the biggest machine in the world. To recreate the first millionths of a second of creation you have to focus energy on an awesome scale."

Is the collision of fourteen times as much energy as mosquitos likely to be on the awesome scale? Does String Theory sting? CERN will provide some intriguing answers next year.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Tibet railway

In October 2005, China announced the completion of the first railway line to Tibet - one of the world's highest train routes. The pan-Himalayan line climbs 5,072m (16,640ft) above sea level and runs across Tibet's snow-covered plateau. China spent $3 billion on the challenging 1,142km (710-mile) final section, after four years in construction. The workers who built the line had to breathe bottled oxygen in order to cope with the high altitudes. The line links the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, with the north-western province of Qinghai. The total cost of the line is $26 billion.

The railway opened trial service on July 1 this year. Trains now connect Beijing and Lhasa via Chengdu, Chongqing and Xining. Tibet now receives 5,000 tourists every day, and with four trains steaming into Lhasa everyday, more than 2,500 passengers, most of them tourists, have begun arriving in the Tibetan capital creating additional pressure on civic facilities. The train’s popularity has caused ticket touting to increase. China has cracked down on illegal train ticket dealers and reported that local railway policemen in Beijing, Chengdu, Lanzhou and Qinghai had cracked down on 14 ticket brokering gangs. The normal price of a hard seat ticket from Xining to Lhasa is 226 yuan ($28 US) while hard sleepers and soft sleepers are 523 yuan and 810 yuan respectively. The brokers were selling tickets to Lhasa at 1600 yuan (US$200).

China says the line will promote the development of impoverished Tibet. But it is the influx of the Han Chinese from mainland China that is a long-term concern. More prosperous, better connected and definitely more enterprising, the Han Chinese have already begun to control major enterprises in Tibet. With time, many Tibetans fear they will be reduced to a minority in their own land, and thanks to the railway, Tibetan activists say Beijing can deploy more troops in the area with greater ease.

The government of the People's Republic of China and the Government of Tibet in Exile disagree over when Tibet became a part of China, and whether this incorporation into China is legitimate. In 1959, the 14th Dalai Lama fled Tibet and established a government in exile at Dharamsala in northern India. The Mongol Khans invaded Tibet in the 13th century and also ruled China at this time under the name of the Yuan dynasty. The Chinese therefore see their rule of Tibet as stretching back to this era. Kublai Khan appointed the Sa-skya Lama his "Imperial preceptor" or chief religious official in Tibet. The country was ruled by secular dynasties for 300 hundred years after the collapse of the Yuan. The first Dalai Lama, Gendun Drup lived in the 15th century and established a lineage to be the dominant religion among Mongols and Tibetans. Between the 17th century and 1959, the Dalai Lama was the head of the Tibetan government, administrating a large portion of the country from the capital Lhasa. The Chinese still had influence, sending “commissioners” occasionally backed by armed forces to extract tribute.

The British sent an expeditionary force into Lhasa in 1904 and signed a treaty fixing the border between the Indian province of Sikkim and Tibet. In 1907 Britain also recognized the "suzerainty of China over Thibet" and, in conformity with such admitted principle, engaged "not to enter into negotiations with Thibet except through the intermediary of the Chinese Government. Imperial China briefly occupied Tibet until the Republic of China was formed in 1912. The ensuing wars and revolution saw China temporarily lose interest in Tibet. That interest resuming in 1950 when the People’s Liberation Army re-entered the country and crushed the ill-equipped Tibetan Army.

1950 was also the year Tenzin Gyatso was appointed Dalai Lama. He ruled briefly before the Chinese invaded. He negotiated with the Chinese government for ten years. However in 1959, there was a major CIA-backed uprising in Tibet. In the tense political environment that ensued, the Dalai Lama and his entourage began to suspect that China was planning to kill him. Consequently, he fled to Dharamsala, India. The uprising was crushed and tens of thousands were killed. Representatives of the exiled government say that China has killed approximately 1.2 million Tibetans since 1950.

The Dalai Lama sees the millions of Han immigrants, attracted to Tibet by economic incentives and preferential socioeconomic policies, as presenting an urgent threat to the nation by diluting the Tibetans both culturally and through intermarriage. The new railway is also viewed as politically motivated to consolidate central control by facilitating militarisation and Han migration while benefiting few Tibetans.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Congo elections stalemate

The first election in 46 years in the Democratic Republic of Congo has ended in deadlock. The 30 July result means that the country is headed for an 29 October second round run-off between President Joseph Kabila and former rebel chief Jean-Pierre Bemba. The 35 year old incumbent is son of ex-president Laurent Kabila who was gunned down by a bodyguard in his own office in 2001. Kabila hails from the southeast Katanga province. But having spent much of his formative years abroad - going to school in Tanzania, studying at university in Uganda and receiving military training in China -- many Congolese see him as a foreigner. This perception is not helped by his poor knowledge of Lingala, the language spoken in the west of Congo including Kinshasa, the capital. But he remains popular in Congo's east.

The 43-year-old opposition leader Jean-Pierre Bemba headed the Ugandan-backed Congolese Liberation Movement (MLC) in the Second Congolese War between 1998-2003. His was the first rebel group to sign peace deals with Kabila and the MLC became a political party, joining the transitional government in 2003. He is from the northwest province of Equateur which was also the home of longterm ex-dictator Mobutu who was overthrown in 1997. Bemba graduated in business and finance in Belgium and is also a qualified pilot who has run an airline. Backed by Uganda in the war, his faction captured much of the country including the diamond mines which financed his campaign. He represents the Mobutists and as a Lingala speaker picked up significant support in Kinshasa.

As a result of the stalemate in the election, a heavy gunbattle broke out in Kinshasa on August 20 between forces loyal to the two main candidates. The fighting erupted Monday around Mr. Bemba's Kinshasa home. Bemba and several foreign ambassadors were in the house when the gunfire began but escaped uninjured. Elsewhere at least five people were killed in clashes between the two groups.

The provisional results show Mr. Kabila winning 45 percent of the vote, with Mr. Bemba taking 20 percent. A veteran politician, Antoine Gizenga, finished third with 13 percent. Over 25 million people registered to vote for the elections and the turnout was estimated at 70 per cent. Congo's first election in 46 years, which cost the United Nations almost $500 million US, was held to select a leader for the country's 58 million people and end years of corrupt rule and war that have disrupted the vast country and wider Central Africa.

Since 1994, the Congo has been rent by ethnic strife and civil war, touched off by a massive inflow of refugees fleeing the genocide in Rwanda. Kabila the elder overthrew the longterm dictator Mobutu in 1997 and change the name of the country back from Zaire to the Congo. Neighbouring countries turned against him and sparked the first Congolese War. The parties signed a tenuous ceasefire in 1999. It didn’t last long before the second Congolese War broke out. The five-year civil war left nearly three million people dead from hunger and disease. The war still drags on in the east by Rwandan-backed rebels. The war dragged in many other nations in Southern and central Africa including Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia (who all supported the central government) and Uganda and Rwanda (who supported the rebels). A transitional government led by Kabila has been in power since 2003. It has four vice-presidents representing the various opposition factions. The peace deal signed at the war’s end called for elections by June 2006.

The UN has also expressed concerns about the logistics of holding an election in a country which is so large, yet lacks basic infrastructure. According to the UN's humanitarian chief Jan Egeland, about 1,000 people are dying every day in DR Congo - many from disease and malnutrition. Troubles in the remote, resource-rich provinces near the eastern border continued to loom in the background. Congo was voted the world's most neglected humanitarian hotspot in AlertNet's 2005 poll of forgotten crises.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Australia to vote on embryonic stem cell research

Embryo stem cell research is currently illegal in Australia. However that is likely to change after PM John Howard indicated last week he would allow a conscience vote in Federal Parliament on the use of stem cells. MPs from all parties have agreed to work together on a private member's bill to extend stem cell research. In December 2005, a government-commissioned review of biotechnology recommended scientists should be allowed to use therapeutic cloning to generate stem cells for research into specific diseases. Instead, the cabinet voted to maintain 2002 laws allowing only spare embryos left over from in vitro fertilization (IVF) procedures to be used for research. Scientists hope that stem cells can be grown into a variety of tissues and cells which will help treat degenerative diseases such as Parkinson's and motor neurone disease

Stem cells in animals are primal undifferentiated cells that retain the ability to produce an identical copy of themselves when they divide (self-renew) and differentiate into other cell types. Medical researchers believe stem cell research has the potential to change the face of human disease by being used to repair specific tissues or to grow organs.

However there is widespread controversy over the research, which arises from the techniques used in the creation and usage of the stem cells. The creation of a stem cell 'line' requires either the destruction of a human embryo, removal of some embryonal cells, and/or therapeutic cloning. A stem cell line is a family of constantly-dividing cells which are obtained from human or animal tissues. Most stem cell lines are created from embryos. An embryonic cell is kept in a petri dish and provided with nutrients it would normally find in a womb. The stem cell debates have reinvigorated the ‘pro-life’ movement who have concerned themselves with the rights and status of the embryo as an early-aged human life. The embryo itself is the earliest stage of reproduction. As soon as a sperm fertilises an egg cell, the resultant cell, called a zygote will contain the DNA of its parent cells. The zygote divides by a process called mitosis and separates into two identical halves. The term embryo is used to describe the early stages of this development, after the zygote has divided at least once, but before the process has completed to produce the next stage of development.

Many opponents of the research say scientists should focus on adult stem cell research without the use of embryonic stem cells. These claims are usually made on the basis that the embryonic stem cell research causes the destruction of human life. In 1969 the first human in vitro fertilization (IVF) was accomplished. In 1995, the American Human Embryo Research Panel advised the Clinton administration to permit federal funding for research on embryos left over from IVF treatments and also recommended federal funding of research on embryos specifically created for experimentation. However this request was turned down based on moral and ethical concerns. The moral problem is that many believe that life begins at conception. The influential US conservative spokesman, Jerry Falwell, believes new medical research needs to pass a three part test "Is it ethically correct? Is it biblically correct? Is it morally correct?” While the biblical dilemma may only be of direct relevance to Falwell’s constituency, secular scientists do understand that personal morality and professional ethics carry weight in the argument. The moral and ethical quandary is how to apply the principles of life given the advances in biotechnology that have made traditional definitions on when commences life difficult to apply.

The issue becomes further clouded with the principle of therapeutic cloning. Therapeutic cloning is currently legal for research purposes in the UK and a few other countries. In 2004 a Korean team headed by Professor Hwang Woo-suk was feted for its announcement that it produced the world's first cloned human embryos. At the time he described the breakthrough as "a giant step forward towards the day when some of mankind's most devastating diseases and injuries can be effectively treated through the use of therapeutic stem cells. But allegations he used unacceptable practices to acquire eggs from human donors, then faked two landmark pieces of research into cloning human stem cells, have left his reputation in tatters. Dr Hwang admitted that female researchers in his own lab had supplied eggs for his research. In 2006, he was fired from his professorship at Seoul National University (SNU) and in May was charged with fraud and embezzlement.

The controversy of Dr Hwang was a set-back for therapeutic cloning and stem cell research as a whole. But the technology is not about to disappear any time soon. The overall problem is that the moral and ethical view on the beginnings and sanctity of life is macroscopic whereas science has moved on to astonishing microscopic levels of distinction of how cells are created. The debate needs to focus on how to cross the apparent unbridgeable chasm between the philosophy and the science.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Saddam Busters

The trial of Saddam Hussein has resumed this week in Baghdad without the presence of the former Iraqi leader who is ill. He was taken to hospital on Sunday as a result of a hunger strike in protest at the murder of his lawyer. Saddam and seven co-defendants are on trial charged with crimes against humanity but the entire defence team is also boycotting the trial. The court heard a statement from a court-appointed lawyer representing Saddam’s former intelligence chief and half-brother, Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti. It said he refused to accept the lawyers nominated by the court. The judge adjourned the case until Wednesday, when he hoped lawyers for the defendants would come to present their case. The 68 year old former leader is being force-fed in hospital and in "good condition".

The former leader's full name is Saddam Hussein Abd al-Majid al-Tikriti. Saddam is Arabic for “stubborn one” and Hussein is a patronymic rather than a surname. It means the stubborn one is the son of Hussein. Abd al-Majid is his grandfather’s name and al-Tikriti means he is from the town of Tikrit. Saddam is not quite a townie. He was born of peasant stock in 1937 (though this date has been questioned) in the village of Al-Awja which is eight kms outside of Tikrit. He never knew his father, Hussein 'Abd al-Majid, who disappeared 6 months before Saddam was born. His mother remarried when he was three years old and he was treated harshly by his new stepfather. Aged 10, he fled to live with relatives in Baghdad. There he lived with his uncle Kharaillah Tulfah who was a prominent leader in the failed 1941 Nazi backed coup of Iraq.

The British occupied Iraq during the Second World War to ensure its own wartime oil supplies. The pre-war Hashemite monarchy was reinstalled in 1945 and lasted until the 14 July Revolution of 1958. By now Saddam was 21. He had left school and joined the Ba’ath Party. The Ba'athists started their party in Syria in 1947. They were a radical, secular Arab nationalist political party. The Arabic word Ba'th means "resurrection" or “renaissance”. Because it was a pan-Arab party, it quickly became popular in Iraq also. In 1958, the Ba’athists opposed the new army-led government of Iraq which overthrew the Hashemite regime. A year later, new Prime Minister Qasim took Iraq out of the anti-Soviet Baghdad Pact. Saddam was involved in the attempted CIA-backed plot to assassinate him. One former CIA official said that the 22-year-old Saddam lost his nerve and began firing too soon, killing Qasim's driver and only wounding Qasim in the shoulder and arm. Saddam escaped back to Tikrit then crossed into Syria and was transferred by Egyptian intelligence agents eventually to Cairo. There he studied law and lived on expenses paid by both Egypt and the US.

Army officers with ties to the Ba'th Party overthrew Qassim in a another coup in 1963 and Saddam returned home. His freedom was short-lived. A year later an anti-Ba’thist coup took power and imprisoned many opponents including Saddam. He escaped prison in 1967 and was now considered to be a leading party member. The Ba’thists regained power in 1968 and General Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr became president. He appointed fellow Tikriti and his cousin Saddam as his vice-president. The al-Bakr regime nationalised the Iraqi Petroleum Company which brought in major revenues after the 1973 oil crisis. It also strengthened Iraq's ties with the Soviet Union. Hussein moved quickly to usurp more power from the older president and by the mid 1970s he was the de facto ruler. In 1979 Saddam formalised the relationship and forced Al-Bakr to resign on “health grounds”. Saddam used the country’s oil revenues to invigorate education, health and industry. Iraq became wealthy and attracted many guest workers from poorer countries to serve the economy. His allies in the modernisation of Iraq were the minority Sunni Muslims. The majority Shia and the Kurds were mostly hostile to his regime.

When the Shah was overthrown in 1979, Saddam feared that revolutionary Shi’ite Islam would spread to Iraq. Ayatollah Khomeini had lived in exile in the Iraqi Shi'ite holy city of An Najaf. There he incurred Saddam’s suspicions for fomenting a strong, political and religious following with Iraqi Shia. After Khomeini gained power in Iran, Saddam attacked Tehran International airport and invaded the oil-rich border province of Khuzestan. After initial gains which were encouraged secretly by the Jimmy Carter administration, the sheer numbers of Iranian troops pushed them back at the cost of very heavy casualties. The conflict settled into a long, intractable defensive war of attrition. During the war, Iraq used chemical weapons against Iranian forces and Kurdish separatists. On March 16, 1988, the Kurdish town of Halabja was attacked with a mix of mustard gas and nerve agents, killing 5,000 civilians, and maiming, disfiguring, or seriously debilitating 10,000 more. Thousands died of horrific complications, debilitating diseases and birth defects in the years that followed.

The 8 year Iran-Iraq war ended in a stalemate with over a million deaths shared equally by both sides. The two countries’ economies were left in ruins. The war left Saddam with a post-war debt of roughly $75 billion. Saddam encouraged Kuwait to forgive its $30 billion share of the debt due to his role in “saving” Kuwait from Iranian domination. Kuwait refused and also turned down his request to cut back oil production to raise prices. The situation escalated as the US gave conflicting responses to an Iraq-Kuwait boundary dispute. In August 1990, Saddam invaded Kuwait. Although the US president George Bush snr initially wavered on a response, their hand was forced by British PM Margaret Thatcher. Britain was a close ally of Kuwait. Thatcher’s famous reaction the day after the invasion was “Don’t go wobbly on me, George”. Saddam ignored a Security Council resolution on a withdrawal. The US responded with air strikes on Iraq in January 1991. Ground forces from a US-led coalition invaded Kuwait in February and the war was over by early March. Although the Americans encouraged the Iraqi population to “rise up” against Saddam, they offered no substantial aid other than enforce no-fly zones. Turkey opposed Kurdish independence and the Saudis did not want to see another Iranian-style Shia revolution on their border. The UN placed sanctions on Iraq before the war blocking oil exports and they remained in place after the war.

Saddam was repeatedly charged throughout the 90s of violating the ceasefire by developing chemical weapons. After September 11, 2001, the new George W Bush administration increased its focus on Iraq and attempted to document what were, at best, tenuous links between Saddam and Al-Qaeda. The US “coalition of the willing” (which did not have as many willing participants as Gulf War 1) invaded without UN approval in March 2003 and the Iraqi government collapsed three weeks later. Hussein went into hiding and played a game of cat-and-mouse with American authorities for the remainder of the year. He was finally captured in his hometown of Tikrit in December. He was held at the high-security Camp Cropper detention centre near Baghdad airport until his trial.

The first legal hearing took place in July 2004. Seven preliminary charges were read out. Saddam was combative and referred to himself as “Saddam Hussein, the president of Iraq”. The Iraqi Tribunal formally charged him a year later with the mass killings of the inhabitants of the village of Dujail in 1982 after a failed assassination attempt against him. The trial proceeded slowly through 2005 punctuated by the slaying of two of his lawyers and complaints from Saddam about the lack of a fair trial. In June this year, Iraqi prosecutors recommended that he receive the death penalty. In his final appearance on July 26, Saddam seemed to accept this outcome when he told the court “"I ask you, being an Iraqi person, that if you reach a verdict of death, execution, remember that I am a military man and should be killed by firing squad and not by hanging as a common criminal.” The verdict will be laid down on October 16. A second trial starts next week and the US has not ruled out a posthumous trial in the event he is executed for the Dujail charges.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Lacking wisdom in the Solomons

Today, Solomon Islands PM Manasseh Sogavare announced he was replacing his Attorney-General with a controversial Australian lawyer. Many critics fear his move is aimed at releasing two powerful leaders charged over the riots which destroyed the capital Honiara in April. Sogavare told the SMH he had lost trust in the Attorney-General Primo Afeau, after a dispute between the two spilled into a local newspaper. He said he was considering replacing Afeau, who has held the job under four governments, with an Australian lawyer Julian Moti. Moti, an adjunct professor of law at Bond University on the Gold Coast, is a QC in the small Honiara legal set. The Solomons Bar Association has warned against appointing him. Moti was deported in 1994 after giving advice to a governor-general who tried to sack a government which attempted to put controls the country’s Malaysian-dominated logging industry.

Sogavare’s sacking of his Attorney-General is related to Afeau’s support of the public debate on his High Court challenge of the Terms of Reference of the Commission of Inquiry (COI) into the April riot. Afeau has challenged the two Terms of Reference that touched on the two detained Honiara MPs, Charles Dausabea and Nelson Ne’e, saying he was acting in the public interest. Sogavare countered by saying the government viewed it was in the public interest the COI was established, adding that the fundamental question raised by the April civil unrest was why people reacted and behaved the way they did. However it would appear Sogavare would prefer if the COI did not consider the behaviour of Dausabea and Ne’e. Dausabea is his police minister and Ne’e is his minister for tourism. Both MPs were charged by the Islands' Australian director of public prosecutions John Cauchi with inciting the April rioting in Honiara.

The Solomon Islands achieved self-governance around the same time as neighbour PNG and was granted full independence in 1980. But although the newly-fledged country struggled economically, it was not until the 1997 election of Bartholomew Ulufa'alu as Prime Minister did the Solomons take a serious turn for the worse. Ethnic rivalries plagued the police force and other government agencies. In June 2000 Ulufa'alu was kidnapped by militia members from the island of Malaita (whose migrants form a significant population of the capital Honiara) protesting the government, and he resigned his post in exchange for release. Manasseh Sogavare, leader of the People's Progressive Party, was chosen Prime Minister by a loose coalition of parties. Militants retaliated and sought to drive Malaitan settlers from Guadalcanal, resulting in the closure of a large oil-palm estate and gold mine vital to exports. Two rival armed ethnic factions, the Isatabu Freedom Movement (IFM) and the Malaita Eagle Force (MEF) crippled the country in a wave of violence from 1999 to 2003. The Isatubus of Guadalcanal began to force Malaitans out, accusing them of taking land and jobs. Around 20,000 people abandoned their homes, with many subsequently leaving Guadalcanal.

As a result of the ethnic tensions, the Australian government acted with other Pacific nations to send an armed force into the Solomons. The force was called Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI). Fourteen countries have contributed forces to RAMSI: Australia, Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, Federated States of Micronesia, Palau and Marshall Islands. It currently includes around 250-300 police officers (the Participating Police Force), 120 civilians and a contingent of military personnel working across all of Solomons provinces. Its mandate is to create “a safer Solomons” by restoring security, maintaining law and order and rebuilding the local police force. It is also rebuilding the public service and working to achieve electoral reform and public education about government. Its final goal is in the area of government finance, aiming to stabilise spending and manage debt repayments.

RAMSI has been a qualified success. It largely restored law and order, removed many weapons from the streets, and got the government machinery moving again. However its credibility was severely tested by the riots in April 2006. The riots occurred after newly elected Prime Minister Snyder Rini was alleged to have used bribes from Chinese businessmen to buy the votes of members of Parliament. This unleashed deep underlying resentment against the minority Chinese business community and led to a 2 day mass riot and the destruction of Honiara’s Chinatown. RAMSI officers were overwhelmed and over 30 were injured in the violence. In response, Australia, NZ and Fiji dispatched extra police and defence personnel to the capital. On 26 April, Rini resigned before facing a motion of no confidence in Parliament. The news caused celebrations in the streets of Honiara. His successor, Manasseh Sogavare, took office on 4 May. It is Sogavare’s second term in office having served as PM for 18 months between the middle of 2000 and the end of 2001. Sogavare controversially appointed the two MPs facing trial as government ministers. Corruption remains endemic throughout the islands while prosperity is elusive. The three year civil war left the country almost bankrupt, and the April riots quashed some of the advances made since 2003. Similar to its fellow Melanesian neighbours PNG, Timor Leste and Papua, the future remains uncertain for the Solomons.

Monday, August 21, 2006

the Solar System gets busier

A long-standing fact beloved of school-children across the world is about to change. Ever since American astronomer Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto in 1930, it has been commonly understood that the Solar System contains 9 planets. In order of distance from the Sun they are Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto (although Pluto occasionally goes nearer to the Sun than Neptune due to its eccentric orbit). However, that list is about to grow. On August 16, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) announced that it is planning to add three new members to the exclusive club of large celestial objects orbiting our Sun.

The additions come after the organisation concluded two years of work defining the difference between "planets" and the smaller "solar system bodies" such as comets and asteroids. If the new definition is approved by the astronomers gathered at the triennial IAU General Assembly in Prague (14-25 August 2006), the Solar System will include 12 planets, with more to come. These will be the 8 closest planets to the Sun, the largest asteroid (Ceres) and three remote ‘plutons’. This new category contains Pluto itself, its erstwhile moon and now double planet Charon and the provisionally sexy-named 2003 UB313. Plutons are distinguished from classical planets in that they reside in highly tilted orbits around the Sun that take longer than 200 years to complete (i.e. they orbit beyond Neptune). The draft "Planet Definition" Resolution will be discussed and refined during the General Assembly and then it will be presented for voting on 24 August.

The word "planet" comes from the Greek word for "wanderer”. There is no formal definition for the term but it is generally considered to be a relatively large mass of accreted matter in orbit around a star. Astronomers also drew a distinction between planets, and large asteroids (sometimes confusing called minor planets). With a diameter of almost a thousand kilometres, Ceres, discovered by an Italian monk in 1801, is by far the largest of the asteroids. For the next fifty years it was classified as a planet but once its true size was known, it was reclassified as an asteroid. Ceres has remained an asteroid for the last 150 years.

But the meaning of the word planet has come under increasing scrutiny due to recent discoveries. Pluto was initially added to the list of 8 planets because it was believed to be as big as Earth. Later its diameter was measured to be just 18% of Earth’s. Pluto is smaller than the Moon which is 25% of Earth’s diameter. From the 1990s onwards, astronomers became aware of a vast population of small bodies orbiting the sun beyond Neptune. But the trouble really started with the discovery of 2003 UB313. As the name would suggest it was discovered in 2003 by a team at Mt Palomar observatory in San Diego. Dubbed “Xena” by its discoverers, it is currently classified as a “Scattered Disk Object” but because it is slightly larger than Pluto and even has its own moon, many have argued that it too should be given planet status. Xena is three times further away from the Sun as Pluto.

The discovery drastically heated up the debate over how to define a planet. Some astronomers claim Pluto is just an overgrown Kuiper-belt object and there are really only eight planets. However, if the new definition is accepted, then the list will rise quickly from 12. Currently a dozen other "candidate planets" are listed on IAU's "watchlist" which keeps changing as new objects are found and the physics of the existing candidates becomes better known. The number could rapidly accelerate to the thousands as objects in the Kuiper belt are identified by prospective planet-finders. This should make an interesting dilemma for those attempting to stay within the current naming convention: all planets must be named after Roman gods.

The days of an easily memorised and numbered Solar System are itself numbered.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Long Tan Ago

On Friday Brisbane was one of many cities which remembered the 40th anniversary of the battle of Long Tan. A parade of 500 marchers stretched across two blocks and the event ended with a service at the war memorial in Anzac square. Australian soldiers, most now in their sixties, rubbed shoulders with a contingent from Vietnam. The Vietnam Veterans' Association motorcycle club proudly displayed leather vests emblazoned with the image of a skull wearing a slouch hat. Vietnam Veterans Day marks a battle where 108 soldiers from Delta Company 6RAR fought about 2500 North Vietnamese troops. Nearly 300 people died, 85 percent of whom were Vietnamese.

Meanwhile in Sydney, Defence Minister Brendan Nelson said Australian Vietnam veterans should be shown the highest respect and apologised for inadequate recognition given to those who served in the campaign. This year's Long Tan event was attended by Governor-General Major-General Michael Jeffery, Prime Minister John Howard and other politicians. Some commentators and veterans are worried the commemoration was becoming a political circus as memory dims about what actually happened there.

Long Tan is a small village 40km north of the city of Vung Tau in the Phuoc Tuy province. The area was part of South Vietnam in 1966. The war between South and North Vietnam followed on from the Second World War. The Vichy French regime that ruled Vietnam in 1941 ceded power to imperial Japan. There wad a power vacuum at the end of the war that the British and Chinese rushed in to fill.

Less than a month after Hiroshima, Ho Chi Minh declared independence in a ceremony where they played the "Star-Spangled Banner" in a vain hope the US would support their anti-colonialist move. Ho's provisional government was overwhelmed a few days later by the Chinese army. The two victorious powers, China and Britain, met and settled around a demilitarised zone at the 16th parallel. The French came back to claim the Indochinese empire they had ruled for a century. The US looked the other way and the British also stood aside to protect their own interests in Singapore and Hong Kong.

That left the Chinese. The French struck a deal with Chiang Kai Shek to forfeit their Shanghai interests in return for unfettered rule of the bottom half of Vietnam around their Saigon power base. When the Chinese went home to deal with their own communist revolution, the French re-entered Hanoi. Ho Chi Minh started an insurgency which ended with the victorious battle of Dien Bien Phu. This defeat ended French interest in the region and Ho Chi Minh consolidated a communist regime north of the 17th parallel. Below that line lay South Vietnam ruled by Ngo Dinh Diem. Post the Korean war stalamate, the US was now determined to provide a buffer to non-communist states. With the French gone, they assumed lead colonial responsibility.

Diem was a dictator, a minority Catholic in a Buddhist country. He was a high ranking official of the emperor of the South whom he overthrew. His was a corrupt regime, but supported by the Americans, they refused to sign the UN-backed 1954 Geneva Accords which stipulated re-unification and free elections for all Vietnam. Diem and Ho fought viciously throughout the fifties with both sides indiscriminately arresting, imprisoning and executing political opponents.

In December 1960, southern communists established the National Liberation Front to overthrow the government of the South. The NLF, also known as the Viet Cong, was supplied by the North through a long trail that looped through parts of Laos and Cambodia called Truong Son Road. The Americans called it the Ho Chi Minh trail. American “advisers” had been in the country since 1950 renamed by Eisenhower as the Military Assistance Advisory Group. MAAG provided combat training for all branches of the South Vietnamese armed forces.

In 1964, the Tonkin Gulf incident gave the Americans the excuse to bomb North Vietnam. It was also the year MAAG disbanded. The American army was officially fighting the North Vietnamese. The conflict escalated through the actions of the Kennedy and McNamara administration in supporting Diem. The two Catholic leaders Diem and Kennedy were assassinated within three weeks of each other. Less than a year later, the US senate approved the Tonkin Gulf Resolution to giving broad support to President Lyndon Baines Johnson to escalate U.S. involvement "as the President shall determine" without actually declaring war.

With the US decision to escalate its involvement, its ANZUS Pact allies Australia and New Zealand agreed to contribute troops and material to the war effort. These countries' ground troops had gained valuable experience in counterinsurgency and jungle warfare in the long-running war quaintly known as the Malaya Emergency. Australia initially sent “advisers” of its own to Vietnam.

After a Cabinet meeting on 20 January 1966 the Anglophile Robert Gordon Menzies, who was reluctant to involve Australia more deeply in Vietnam, resigned after 17 years as Prime Minister of Australia. He nominated Treasurer Harold Holt as his successor. Holt announced Australia was to go ‘all the way with LBJ’ into the Vietnam War.

At its peak in 1969, the Australian Army in Vietnam totalled more than 7,000 personnel. Over the ten years of the war, more than 50,000 Army, Air Force and Navy personnel served in Vietnam and 500 died.

Long Tan was one of its earliest major engagements. On 18 August 1966 an Australian fighting patrol sent to clear suspected rifle and mortar sites ran into heavy Viet Cong fire. The battle was closely fought in the thick vegetation and trees of the rubber plantation. It took place during a fierce tropical rain storm. The Vietnamese sustained heavy casualties from artillery fire as it attempted to over-run the patrol. The patrol was re-armed by helicopter supply and the Australians were eventually released by a relief force in armoured personnel carriers with machine guns. The VC melted into the distance on the twilight of the second day and the battle was over. 18 Australians died. Some 245 Vietnamese bodies were found on the battlefield, doubtless more were buried by debris and others were carried away.

Gough Whitlam ended Australian involvement in 1972

Saturday, August 19, 2006

South Africa criticised for its AIDS policies

The South African government was criticised for its handling of the HIV crisis by speakers at the 16th international conference on Aids in Canada. The conference was held from 13 to 18 August in Toronto, Canada. Stephen Lewis, the UN special envoy on Aids, told the closing session: "It is the only country in Africa, amongst all the countries I have traversed in the last five years, whose government is still obtuse, dilatory and negligent about rolling out treatment." The country has the single biggest HIV-positive population in the world, estimated at five million or 11% of its population. About 70,000 children in South Africa are born with HIV each year. According to the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), by the start of 2006 there were an estimated 39 million AIDS sufferers worldwide. Most of these people live in developing countries. In the last 12 months alone, 4.1 million people were infected and 2.8 million died of AIDS related illnesses.

The concluding report from the conference with a call for a quickening of the pace of HIV prevention measures and care and treatment programs in resource-strapped environments. The theme echoed the sense of hope tempered with growing impatience at government inaction. Of 7 million sufferers in the lowest GDP countries in need of antiretroviral medication, barely a quarter of these people have access to the drugs. The treatment access gap is even worse for children under 15. Approximately 90% of the 800,000 children in need have access to the treatment. In total, barely 1 in 5 people of high risk of infection have access to effective prevention. The new President of the International AIDS society, Dr Pedro Cahn, called for political action. “All the knowledge, innovative research and new tools will not be effective without the political leadership that is essential to halting the disease,” he said on the final day of the conference.

Thabo Mbeki's government was openly criticised by many speakers at the conference for denying that the human immunodeficiency virus is a cause of Aids and for its resistance to offering HIV drugs to its people. Dr Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, the Soviet-educated South African health minister prefers to promote traditional cures such as garlic, beetroot and lemon while also referring to possible toxicities of AIDS medicines. Stephen Lewis told the conference "It is the only country in Africa whose government continues to propound theories more worthy of a lunatic fringe than of a concerned and compassionate state."

The South African government denies the charges and issued a statement that said "The ANC reaffirms its support for government's comprehensive plan for management, care and treatment of HIV and Aids, and for an approach that aims to combat HIV and Aids in an all-embracing and integrated manner.". Nelson Mandela has weighed in on the argument and criticised the government for not making drugs freely available across the country. Several South African provinces announced that they would ignore the government policy and start distributing a key anti-retroviral drug, nevirapine.

Many believe that Tshabalala-Msimang is merely carrying out the pseudo-scientific wishes of President Thabo Mbeki. In 2002, Mbeki, convened an international panel to consider the causes of and appropriate solutions to AIDS in the African context. The panel included representatives from the so-called AIDS dissident community. The willingness of the President to entertain, if not unequivocally endorse, dissident science created an international stir. Although the conference’s outcome, known as the Durban Declaration, supported the orthodox view of AIDS, Mbeki continued to stall the pilot of antiviral drugs.

The question is why South Africa’s leadership is so obdurate on this question? The answer probably lies in the speed and force of the AIDS epidemic in South Africa. There are neither clear reasons nor simple solutions for the spread of AIDS and its complexity has made it extremely difficult to assimilate. And so, in a denial of reality, leaders proclaim that the presence of AIDS is not true. President Mbeki publicly questioned the importance of HIV in causing AIDS, controversially suggesting that the main cause was "poverty." The appearance of AIDS as an everlasting affliction precisely at the point when the end of apartheid should have brought a better life for all has also rankled with the ANC government. As one South African journalist put it “how is it possible that, at the very moment we assume our victorious place as the leaders of a democracy we struggled for decades to bring about, we are presented with a dying populace, with a plague to which we have no answers?” And so while the South African government argues that the drugs are too expensive, they ignore the high costs of not preventing the further spread of the world’s worst killer virus.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Governments and Culture

Modern governments play a key role in promoting culture and cultural policy. This essay will examine why governments want to influence and regulate the forms of culture practised by its citizens. It will examine the history of how governments became involved in cultural policy and will then go on to discuss the means by which it achieves these ends. The essay will examine the social consequences of intervention and what implications that has in an Australian context. It will also consider the example of the Labor cultural policies of the 1990s to examine the influence of its funding decisions and priorities. The evidence of the essay will show that government cultural policy reflects the vested interests of an elitist status quo regardless of whatever democratic intentions it may aspire to.

To understand the rationales and objectives of governmental views to culture, it is first necessary to look at the etymology and history of the word culture itself.
Culture is one of the most complicated words in the English language and its twisted evolution reflects that complexity. It grew from its initial use as a biological process of husbandry to become the process of human development and the social heritage of a community. This very broad definition encompasses all forms of thought, art, traditions and rituals irrespective of what value society places on them. But along the way, it also picked up a narrower definition based on the prevailing aesthetic of a superior European culture. This selective view had strong connotations of elitism as it cherry-picked the high art forms and traditions of 19th century Europe and ascribed greater value to these selected forms. It was an act of selection that ascribed values to those making the selection. It also meant that the narrower view of culture could serve as a distinguisher between persons. This view of culture not only classifies but also “classifies the classifiers” as Pierre Bourdieu pointed out. Thus the narrower view perpetuates a closed system whereby elitist forms of culture hijacks the broad basis of culture and determines that their culture is the preferred one.

This evaluative distinction of culture started to appear in the late 18th century and evolved further in the 19th century. Around the time as the word was accumulating new meanings, the British Government began its work in managing and regulating populations. As culture began to be seen as an object and instrument of government, authorities undertook a radical re-shaping and re-organising of traditions. Because of the elitist distinctions inherent in the definition of culture, it was only the traditions of the sub-ordinate classes that were seen as a problem. Robert Malcolmson demonstrated how governments launched a full scale assault on popular recreations in urban plebeian communities. Many activities which the working classes found good to think with, such as blood sports, boxing, street football, fairs and wakes, were all targeted for regulation. Most blood sports were suppressed entirely. The tactics used were prosecutions, convictions, sermons, journalistic attacks, and personal interventions. The government campaign was aided by agencies such as magistrates, the clergy and the press. Blood sports were deemed barbaric; though the thoroughly gentrified fox hunting escaped the general opprobrium. Street football had been played for centuries but now disturbed the normal routine of business. Fairs and wakes offended public order and morality and had to be stamped out. The only events that survived the cull were the ones that had independent economic value. In the growing towns, working class public pleasures were deemed out of tune with officially defined taste in a time where respectability increasingly favoured family relaxation. Governments and their agencies argued there was a need to transform the brutalising and demoralising nature of plebeian culture into something more wholesome that befit the genteel times.

So why did governments want to make the population more genteel? Gramsci argued that the elites needed to raise subordinate classes to a cultural level which “corresponds to the need of the productive forces for development, and hence to the interest of the ruling classes”. Great Britain was at the height of its economic powers in the 1800s. The rising mercantile class were convinced by the power of their civilising culture and wanted to raise the level of taste in the general population. The parliamentary State became involved in the provision of Art and the creation of libraries and museums. This prescription was known as rational recreation and Peter Bailey described how the concept acted as “an important instrument for educating the working classes in the social values of middle class orthodoxy”. Although he attributed it to humanitarian sympathy, rational recreation in practice was a desire to regulate amusement, policed by public opinion. The public in this sense were the middle classes. They would act as the fulcrum in the see-saw between the elites and the masses where “opinions travel upward, manners downward”. The upper classes would provide the necessary social regulation by giving universal access to the improving influence of their culture. But it hit insurmountable barriers of class. Whether the concept was humanistic, paternalistic or driven by economic necessity, rational recreation was mostly thwarted by fears that the common people might contaminate the culture they were supposed to partake of. Social distance was a key issue and recreation events became “uneasy parades along the class frontier”. Unless the working classes brought cleanliness and their own manners, they could not enter the venues of these supposed cultural transformations. This paradox between the desired improvement of the lower classes and the distaste of their manners blights much cultural policy to this day. Because culture classifies the classifiers, elitists continue to be driven by notions that they have to keep their culture pure in order to accentuate the differences between them and the hoi-polloi.

The culture of distinction has a critical role in defining the attributes of a national identity. National identity is an accumulation of customs, traditions and rituals. This key role of culture shows up in matters of taste, values and preferences. Bourdieu argued that cultural tastes and values are not innate but rather a product of upbringing and education and therefore reflect hierarchical standing in society. Specific knowledges are required to make sense of high culture and as a result many museums become the territory of what Bourdieu called the “dominated fractions of the dominant class”. Without the key to unlock and access high culture, those who don’t belong to these dominated fractions have switched off and see culture as something for other people. Regardless of whether museums have free entry or not, cultural consumption remains the preserve of the educated elite.

Although Australia has a reputation for egalitarianism and a “fair go” (reflected in the title of the 1996 Liberal cultural manifesto), like every other democratic country it has issues of hierarchy, elitism and unequal access to cultural consumption. Here as elsewhere, cultural policy has tended to reinforce existing norms and reinforce the nexus between culture and power. The ABC was instrumental in formally establishing cultural subsidy in Australia. It took its charter, its mission of enlightenment and its ideas about what constituted culture from the BBC. The ABC was legally obliged to play music but favoured the music of European High Art by becoming an entrepreneur of classic music concerts. The Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust was an early arts funding body which took the view that local society was mostly made up of resourceful philistines and almost everyone outside Sydney and Melbourne was starved of culture. Just as in 19th century Britain, Australian elites thought they could ennoble the starved masses by infusing them with their view of culture.

The funding bodies responsible for disbursing arts and cultural public monies were staffed by cultural elites who promoted the concept of excellence as a single ladder of merit. This singular definition was strongly biased towards high arts, because excellence had to be judged and it was the elites themselves who were ranking the ladder of merit according to their own tastes. It was not until the late 1970s when it was seen as an unfair component of cultural policy and its philosophy was first challenged in Australian funding decisions. Rowse described an alternative model: decentralised patronage based on the concept of community. In this model, funding is not merely disbursed by a funding body staffed by like-minded, if well-intentioned, elitists who based decisions on their notions of excellence, but it is also distributed by other stakeholders such as community organisations who themselves can allocate funds as they see fit. This model was encouraged by the McLeay Report of 1986. The report quoted Donald Horne’s three cultural rights. These were; the right of access to the cultural heritage, the right to new art and the right to community art participation. This definition moved the judgement of culture away from excellence towards multi-layered criteria based on a wide range of cultural activities which do not conform to a single scale or hierarchy. Those who participate in it, define it. It is an example of cultural democracy.

But cultural democracy does not reform the existing framework of culture. The narrower definition of culture as a civilising force is persistent. Rather than accepting the idea of cultural difference, the policy makers continued to stress cultural disadvantage. This meant the existing priorities were automatically deemed legitimate and those who were constituted as cultural disadvantaged simply needed access to the civilising culture. By stressing disadvantage, it meant that the existing order of cultural priorities was not questioned. This concept, subtly different from that of cultural democracy, can best be described as the democratisation of culture. It is an approach which fails on two counts. Firstly, it does nothing to address the disadvantages. Policy-makers wrung their hands if people could not access this culture; as Gay Hawkins highlighted, exclusion was their problem. Secondly, and more importantly, it misses out on popular and progressive forms of mass-culture of more interest to a great majority of people. The democratisation of culture attempted to create a level playing field but not everyone understood the rules of the game and more still were playing on an entirely different field.

The 1995 Labour cultural policy manifesto Creative Nation is burdened by this contradiction. Its twin goals are democracy and excellence. But the criteria of excellence, and its acknowledgement of the improving qualities of high art, blunts the strategy for achieving cultural democracy. Bruce Johnson argued that rather than achieve democracy, the document served to close debate, confirm assumptions about the arts and reflect the conservative beliefs of the agencies of cultural policy. Johnson stated that the policy stressed the idea of centrality of culture and the notion that starved masses needed to be fed a homogenised criterion of excellence. Creative Nation does not challenge historical assumptions about the value of high art itself. The distinction can be clearly seen in the policy’s differentiation between high arts and plebeian pleasures. Whereas the classical Musica Viva program gets an additional funding of $2 million, contemporary music does not receive any subsidy despite being “the most popular and accessible form of cultural activity”. Similarly, although the policy acknowledges the Australian Opera as “thought by many to be elitist and inaccessible” it gets grants of over one million dollars to cover touring and wage increases. The policy also subsidises the State Orchestras with $700,000 of additional funding for their development of “imagination and creativity". Festivals and popular arts do not have the same kudos and receive no additional subsidies. They are only tolerated in the policy because, much like fairs in 19th century Britain, their economic benefit outweighs any prejudice the cultural arbiters might have on account of taste.

Another way in which the policy does not reflect cultural democracy is in its shabby treatment of the National Museum of Australia (NMA). The NMA was a recommendation of the 1974 Pigott Report to establish a national history museum that would be “accessible to all Australians”. The NMA does not have its own section in the policy and is discussed only in two small paragraphs under the banner of “australian institute of aboriginal and torres strait islander studie". The policy presents the museum as a virtual resource because it did not have a permanent home. The lack of funding to build a real NMA showed that Labor did not see great value in the museum’s aspiration to tell the story of everyday Australia. But although the Liberals supported it, they too were unhappy with its version of that story. When the building finally opened in 2001, it ran into a storm of political protest despite its humble aspirations. The Australian media found the displays were full of “sinister coded messages” that seemed to push a political agenda of “sneering ridicule of White Australia". Prime Minister Howard announced a review of the NMA and stacked the committee with fellow ideologues. Although the review exonerated the museum, the curator lost her job and many of the review items were changed to reflect the Government’s comforting idea of an-ever improving Australian culture. The changes meant the museum could avoid the notion that Australia’s everyday story was contested terrain. The museum became just another front in a much broader battle to eradicate dissent and impose compliance.

Therefore governments, by their cultural priorities, funding decisions and direct intervention, play a major role in determining the cultural agenda for the nation. Cultural policy is important and is a legitimate area of government interest. But the primary goals of cultural policy have not changed much in two hundred years. The high arts are supported so that they can bring about a transformation in the manners of the disadvantaged classes. Although policies have made some moves towards democracy, where all cultures are promoted relative to their ongoing activities within their particular life-conditions, the high arts continue to have funding disproportionate to their popularity. The vested interests of its participants, the economic and social muscle of the elites that support them, and the concepts of excellence than underpin them, all ensure that the status quo will remain. In the McLeay Report, Donald Horne not only defined the three basic cultural rights but he also stated that governments’ role in the arts is to secure these rights for its citizens. It is arguable that governments are failing on all three counts.