Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Lula wins again

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has won a second term of office. He retained his position in a landslide election win on Sunday. Silva beat his challenger Geraldo Alckmin in a run-off election after no candidate achieved a majority in the first election on 1 October. In a victory speech, Lula said he would govern for all Brazilians and intensify efforts to alleviate poverty during his second four-year term. "We will give attention to the most needy. The poor will have preference in our government," he said.

Popularly known as “Lula” (a nickname he acquired in childhood) he was first elected to the post in October 2002. The latest victory represents a great comeback for the President who was staring defeat in the face after a cash-for-votes scandal last year and allegations in this election that his Workers Party had engaged in dirty tricks.

Luiz Inácio da Silva was born in October 1945 to a poor family in the town of Garanhuns in the north-east Brazilian state of Pernambuco. The name Lula, in Portuguese, means “squid”, but is also a common nickname for people called Luiz. Soon after Lula was born, his father moved south in search of work. He settled in the coastal city of Guarujá, a holiday resort one hour’s drive from Sao Paolo. His wife and eight children joined him six years later. Lula had a tough upbringing and quit school after the fourth grade. By age 12 he was a shoeshine boy and street vendor and two years later he got a job in a copper factory. Lula eventually went back to night school to get his high school diploma. By age 19, he was working in Brazil’s largest metropolis, São Paulo. He became involved with unions in the factories he worked in and risked the wrath of the authorities who clamped down on union activities.

Silva’s first wife died in childbirth in 1969 and he remarried five years later. He rose through the ranks of the unions and was elected president of the Steel Workers Union by the end of the decade. He also travelled to the US during this period to attend trade union courses sponsored by American anti-Communist unions. Lula was jailed briefly in 1979 after organising a massive strike of 170,000 metal workers.

He formed a new political party “the Workers Party” (PT - Partido dos Trabalhadores) and spent much of the 1980s getting involved more involved politically and campaigning for more democracy in Brazil. The campaign culminated with free presidential elections in 1989, the first to be elected by popular vote in 29 years. Lula himself ran for president in that election having already won a seat in Congress in 1986. He was popular but lost narrowly in the second round after vote-rigging and biased media sunk his chances. He ran another two times unsuccessfully during the nineties.

In June 2002, the Workers Party formed a broad-based alliance with a number of other parties under a platform of social inclusion. And at the age of 57 Lula was elected president with almost 53 million votes (61%). The major program of his first administration was “fome zero” (zero hunger) with an objective to relieve hunger and extreme poverty in the country. This initiative allocates a $20 allowance per month to each undernourished Brazilian household and aims to cut the number of people living in extreme poverty in half by 2015. The US based Council on Hemispheric Affairs has criticised the program for not providing the promised funds to make it successful.

Despite Fome Zero, fears that Lula would embark on major and costly social re-engineering projects proved unfounded. Brazil re-signed its agreements with the IMF and achieved budget surplus in the first two years of his administration. His finance minister Antonio Palocci gained the confidence of the markets and he kept the inflation rate low. Brazil paid off all its IMF debts by 2005. However, that year’s Mensalão scandal claimed the political scalp of Palocci as well as jeopardising Lula’s own chances of re-election. Mensalão means “big monthly” and refers to secret monthly payments that Lula’s Workers’ Party gave to a number of Congressional reps in order to vote for government legislation. However the Brazilian economy was not affected by the scandal and Lula weathered the storm.

In foreign relations Lula is seen as a shrewd negotiator and manages to retain friendly relations with both the US and Venezuela. He was a key figure in the collapse of the 2003 World Trade Organisation (WTO) negotiations in Cancun, Mexico. Brazil leads a group of 22 developing countries (G22) that challenged the one-sided nature of globalisation and attacked the agricultural subsidies of the wealthier nations. The US tried unsuccessfully to break up G22 in Cancun by offering bribes and issuing threats to smaller members. It was the first time that the global south had resisted the blandishments of the north and Lula was a major stakeholder.

Lula will face some massive challenges in his second term primarily in the area of environment. The impacts of Amazonian devastation will need to be seriously tackled. Environmentalists say interests of agribusiness seem to be trumping any hope of a sustainable future in the Amazon. Brazil is pushing ahead with the plan to pave the Trans-Amazon Highway BR-163 which local media have dubbed “the soybean highway”. Soybeans are a major export and the new road will allow the crop (much of it GM) to be quickly and cheaply loaded onto barges from the Amazon to the Atlantic. Meanwhile pace of deforestation has increased every year for the last decade. Lula argues that he has created new reserves cover more than 80,000 square kms, but critics say it is not enough. Most rainforest clearance is illegal; farmers and loggers either exceed their allocation or they raid public land. The Amazon problem is not the laws, but the lack of resources to enforce them. Lula now has the mandate, but will he have the political will to effect real change?

Monday, October 30, 2006

Death of a Sea

The Dead Sea may live up to its name within 30 years. It is dying. Evaporating at a rate of one meter every three years, the world’s saltiest body of water is threatened by a lack of fresh water and the lack of political will to enforce environmental change. In another three to five decades, the evaporating Dead Sea is likely to become completely dry.

Surrounded by the fraught political situation of Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian West Bank, the Dead Sea is the lowest land point on Earth. It is called the Dead Sea because nothing can survive in its salty water. Its only source of life is fresh water from the Jordan River. Because it is so low, it has no exit points. The Dead Sea water evaporates, causing salts to accumulate in the lake and in its sediments. It is this unusual buoyancy that makes the Dead Sea a major tourist drawcard as it is impossible to swim or sink in its salt-rich deposits. It is also renowned for the unique mineral content of its mud which attracts health spa tourism.

But the Jordan River is no longer able to supply its lifeblood to the Dead Sea. Gideon Bromberg of Friends of the Earth Israel told AFP the area is headed for ecological disaster unless serious measures are taken. Only 7% of the Jordan River water flow is now making it as far as the Dead Sea. The rest is diverted for irrigation and drinking water, mostly by Israel but also by Jordan and Syria. In the 1950s about 1.3 billion cubic meters of water a year flowed into the Dead Sea. The flow is now down to 300 million. Scientists have monitored the sea’s water level continuously since 1930. The sea has declined 21 metres between 1930 and 1997 which represents a drop of a metre every three years.

The Israeli spa resort of Ein Gedi used to lap the shores of the Dead Sea. The sea is now a kilometre away and the resort needs to bus its tourists to the shoreline. The falling sea level has left dangerous cracks in the surrounding terrain and roads, hotels and chemical plants in the vicinity are in danger of collapse. The water level has declined faster than ever since Israel took control of the water resources that feed the Jordan River after occupying the West Bank after the 1967 Arab/Israel war.

The Dead Sea is set in one of the largest fissures in the Earth’s surface – the 6,000km long Great Rift Valley. The Great Rift Valley is on the edge of a continental plate and is tearing Africa apart. It is moving Arabia and Eastern Africa away from the rest of the continent. It stretches all the way from the Taurus Mountains of Turkey to the Zambezi Valley in Mozambique. The valley is less than 100km wide and is up to several thousand kms deep. As well as the Dead Sea, the Rift is responsible for the Gulf of Aqaba, the Red Sea and the African Great Lakes.

The Dead Sea is mentioned in the Book of Genesis. It was known in Hebrew as Yam Hamelakh, the Salt Sea. The cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were on the southern shores of the Salt Sea. In the story of Sodom, God tells Abraham that he plans to destroy the city because of its immorality. But he agrees to spare the city if Abraham can find ten righteous people living. Abraham finds only one, Lot. God carries through his plans but angels tell Lot and his family to flee but not look back. When Lot's wife does look back, she is turned into a pillar of salt. Ancient traditions persist to this day hold that Lot's wife exists permanently as one of the pillar-like "salt mushrooms" that form on the Eastern shore of the Dead Sea.

There are no angels willing to save the Dead Sea but the countries of Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority have agreed on an ambitious new rescue plan for the waterway. The World Bank have issued a grant of $15m to investigate the feasibility of a canal from the Gulf of Aqaba, Jordan is leading the exercise as much of the infrastructure to support it, including salination plants and a hydro-electric facility, would be in that country. Ex-Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres said the three-country project had the potential to help the peace process. But not everyone is happy about the canal scheme. Friends of the Earth have warned mixing water from the Red Sea with the unique chemical soup of the Dead Sea could create a natural catastrophe. The Dead Sea’s mix of bromide, potash, magnesium and salt is unique and by bringing in marine water, this composition will change. There is concern about algae growth and how the two different chemical bodies will interact.

But it is the only possible way the sea and its unique ecosystem will be saved. Jordan Valley Authority Secretary General Zafer Alem is optimistic the project will succeed despite the politics and environmental issues involved. He told the Jordan Times “the Dead Sea is a unique feature on this planet. It does not belong to Jordan, nor to the Palestinians, nor to Israel: It is part of world heritage”.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Melbourne Days

Woolly Days is just back from a long weekend in Melbourne. The queen city is in the grip of racing fever with the Spring Carnival in full flow. With the Aussie Rules football season finished and the cricket season yet to take off, the carnival dominates the sports pages of Melbourne’s media. Yesterday it was Moonee Valley’s turn to take centre stage with the running of the W.S. Cox Plate. Fields of Omagh won the race by a nose in its final start. It was the horse’s second victory in the race having won in 2003. It is a mighty achievement as racing experts consider the Cox Plate to be Australia’s foremost weight for age race.

The Moonee Valley Racing Club is in the northern suburb of Moonee Ponds (home also to Dame Edna Everage, reputedly). In 1882 it was farmland north of Melbourne. William Samuel Cox took out a seven year lease on a property with the intention of creating a racetrack. The first meeting in 1883 had nine horses lining up for the Maiden Plate. The race resulted in a dead heat between Eveline and Pyrette. Cox held the position of Secretary of the Moonee Valley Racing Club until his death in 1895. In 1922 the racing club decided to run a weight-for-age race in honour of the course’s founder. The first Cox Plate had a prize of one thousand pounds. The imported English horse Violoncello won the race. Yesterday, the owners of Fields of Omagh took out $2 million of the total prize money of $3 million.

While the WS Cox Plate is the important race for the aficionados, it cannot compare with the Melbourne Cup in the affections of the masses. The race that stops a nation is on the first Tuesday of every November and merits a public holiday in Melbourne. It forms an important part of Melbourne’s sporting triangle between Grand Final Day and the Boxing Day cricket test. The first and last of those three events take place at Melbourne’s premier sporting arena, the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Site of the 1956 Olympics, the 152 year old MCG is holy soil. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, its all time record crowd of 130,000 were in attendance for a Billy Graham revivalist meeting in 1959. Redeveloped most recently for the 2006 Commonwealth Games in March, it now holds around 100,000 people. The ground’s owner the Melbourne Cricket Club has almost 60,000 full members and another 37,000 restricted members. There is a waiting list of 160,000 people and with 10,000 new members taken on each year it takes 16 years to become a member.

Not far from the MCG is the National Gallery of Victoria on St Kilda Road. It was founded in 1861 which makes it the oldest public art gallery in Australia. It is also the largest gallery in the country. The name of the gallery is confusing to many as Victoria is not a nation. However the gallery was named 40 years before Australian federation when Victoria was a self governing British colony. In the 1990s the NGV became so big it needed a second building to house its collection. The Ian Potter Centre was opened on nearby Federation Square to house the Australian collection while the original building holds its international offerings. The international collection is world-class and contains works by Blake, Canaletto, Constable, Cranach, David, Delacroix, Delauney, El Greco, Gainsborough, Magritte, Manet, Modigliani, Monet, Picasso, Pissarro, Poussin, Rembrandt, Reynolds, Steen, Tintoretto, Turner, Van Dyck and Watteau.

Another 15 minute walk further down St Kilda Road is the Shrine of Remembrance. It is a massive war memorial built in memory of Victorians who died in World War I. It is the site of Melbourne’s annual observance of Anzac Day and Remembrance Day. In August 1921 the city set up a committee led by war hero John Monash to examine the idea of a memorial. They proposed a large monument off St Kilda Road directly visible from the centre of the nearby city. The shape of the shrine was inspired by one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Tomb of Mausolus at Halicarnassus. Monash was one of the great leaders of the war, a rare officer not hidebound by military traditions. He brought his great energy to the shrine project and pushed it forward despite great criticism from the press due to its ornate design and cost. The criticism caused the government to abandon the project in 1926.

Monash hit back and turned the 1927 Anzac Day march into a 30,000 strong de-facto protest in favour of the original idea. The government quickly retracted its position and started to build the monument in December that year. Monash was trained as a civil engineer and he took charge of construction. He died in 1931 before the monument was completed. A remarkable man, he also led the State Electricity Commission to great success in his later years. Under his leadership the SEC developed Victoria's brown coal reserves as an electricity source and, by 1930, extended the power grid across the whole of the State. Despite his death and the depression years work continued on the monument. The shrine was dedicated on Remembrance Day 1934 in front of a crowd of 300,000 people. Inside the shrine is the Stone of Remembrance. The stone is aligned with an aperture in the roof so that a ray of light falls on the word LOVE at exactly 11am on 11 November, marking the hour and day of the Armistice which ended World War I. Thanks to the combined skills of an astronomer, a mathematician and the surveyor the Ray of Light will continue to do so for 5,000 years at least. However their preciseness was undone by legislation. The introduction of Daylight Saving meant the ray landed at 10am instead. To fix this, the Board of Trustees installed a mirror in the roof to ensure that the word is highlighted an hour later. Love reigns at the right time in Melbourne.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

colour-blind Christ

US independent filmmaker Jean-Claude La Marre is whipping up a storm at the moment with the release of his new movie “Color of the Cross”. The film tells the story of the last 48 hours of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. The reason for the interest is that La Marre is black and he himself plays the lead role. It is the first representation in the history of American cinema of Jesus as a black man. One third of the world’s population claim to be Christian and the Western world’s calendar is based on his birth. So there is much vested interest in the manner of Jesus’ appearance on screens.

Stephen Prothero, chairman of the religion department at Boston University, says that different cultures have imagined Jesus in different ways. In Japan, Jesus looks Japanese. In Africa, he is black. But in the western world, he is almost always white. La Marre himself said, "black people in this country are the only race of people who worship a god outside their own image." He added that showing Christ as a black man in Color of the Cross is "the most poignant way to deal with the issue of race in this country because it goes to the heart of how we look at the world."

In 1962, the great Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini was invited to a seminar in a Franciscan monastery in Assisi. Although he was a homosexual, an atheist and a communist, he accepted the invite after Pope John XXIII called for dialogue with non-Catholic artists. In his hotel room Pasolini read a copy of the Gospels. The result of his reading was a film "The Gospel According to St. Matthew" (1964), which was shot mostly in the poor, desolate Italian district of Basilicata, and its capital city, Matera. It tells the life of Christ in almost in 7 Up style, a low budget documentary following him from birth. All the actors were amateurs. Pasolini's Jesus was Enrique Irazoqui. Irazoqui was a white Spanish economics student who came to interview Pasolini. Pasolini said, "even before we had started talking, I said 'Excuse me, but would you act in one of my films'?" Schwartz describes Irazoqui as the "...son of a Basque father and a Jewish mother ... thin, stoop-shouldered, heavy-browed, anything but the muscular Christ of Michelangelo."

In 2004, Mel Gibson followed in Pasolini’s footsteps and went to Matera to film “the Passion of the Christ”. Gibson went for authenticity by having the local population speak Aramaic (the language of Jesus) and the Romans spoke street-Latin. Gibson told a very violent story about a white Jesus. The American actor James Caviezel thought he was signing up for a surfing movie until Mel Gibson showed up at the interview asking him to suffer not surf.

American audiences were often particular about how they viewed Jesus on the big screen. When test audiences saw Jeffrey Hunter play a crucified Jesus in the 1961 film King of Kings, they reacted badly to the sight of Jesus’ hairy chest on the cross. The scene was reshot with offending hair removed.

Martin Scorsese’s take on Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel The Last Temptation of Christ was even more controversial. The book and film tell the story of a Jesus (played by another white American Willem Defoe) beset by temptations. While on the cross, he imagines a different version of himself. He has sex with Mary Magdalene and marries her and has children before finally rejecting these visions. Despite the return to the traditional message at the end of the film, it was greatly criticised by many religious authorities. In France, a Catholic fundamentalist group launched Molotov cocktails in a cinema showing the film. Thirteen people were injured, four of whom received serious burns.

The six hour 1977 British TV version of “Jesus of Nazareth” remains one of the most acclaimed versions of Jesus’ life on celluloid. Written by Anthony Burgess and directed by Franco Zeffirelli, the min-series remains in high circulation and is especially popular with American audiences at Easter time. The English actor Robert Powell (then 33, the accepted age of Jesus’ death) played the role as a very pale, blue-eyed bearded prophet. Powell put in an unearthly transcendental portrayal which was achieved primarily by never blinking during his eye contact on film. Jesus was the pinnacle of Powell’s acting career. To this day, many Westerners’ vision of Jesus is remarkably like Robert Powell.

Quebecker Denys Arcand told of a French speaking Canadian Christ in his seminal Jesus of Montreal. Set in modern Montreal, the story parallels the gospel story of Jesus as a team of actors are employed to present a passion play in the grounds of the city’s Catholic basilica. Lothaire Bluteau plays the title role, an actor whose life takes on many of the aspects of his character’s life. He brings an emaciated look and burning intensity to the part.

Bluteau's sex appeal bordered on blasphemous, as did Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Of course that film is not about Jesus, it’s about Brian. And he’s not the Messiah; he’s a very naughty boy. Brian’s mistake was to be born a few stables down from Jesus around the same time. Other than the birth scene, the “real” Jesus appears only to deliver the Beatitudes. His words are immortally misheard by the distant hordes in the crowd as “blessed are the cheesemakers”. Minor British actor Ken Colley plays the part befitting the minor role of Jesus in the film. However, the film’s satire was too close to the bone for many religions. Catholic Ireland banned it for eight years while Lutheran Norway banned it for one year. Swedish cinemas advertised the film as “the movie that is so funny, it was banned in Norway".

Until recently, there were no black Jesuses on screen. In January this year, the South African film “Son of Man” was premiered at the Sundance film festival and was billed as the world’s first black Jesus movie. A South African Xhosa speaker portrays Christ as a modern African revolutionary. “Color of the Cross” is following quickly in its footsteps. For what its worth, the current dominant opinion among secular historians and scientists is that he was most likely a bronze-skinned man, roughly resembling modern-day persons of Middle Eastern descent. In short, he looks like a Palestinian.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Panama votes to widen canal

Voters in Panama have approved a massive expansion to the Panama Canal. The $5.25 billion dollar project will open up the canal to post-panamax shipping. The government run Panama Canal Authority expects the modernisation to complete by 2014 - the 100th anniversary of its initial opening. It will be a massive engineering project which will create 40,000 jobs in the area. The project will be financed by increasing tolls to raise more than $6bn by 2025. The canal is Panama’s primary economic earner. About 80 per cent of Panama's gross domestic product, $16 billion in 2005, is linked to canal activity.

The dream of a short cut from the Atlantic to the Pacific has inspired sailors ever since Magellan first had round the dangerous Cape Horn at the tip of South America on the maiden circumnavigation of the globe. In 1534 Charles V King of Spain suggested a canal would ease transport to from Spanish possessions in Peru. Scotland launched the farsighted but madcap Darien scheme in 1698 to colonise Panama in the hope of establishing trade with Asia. They sent a thousand settlers to settle a fort and build a canal. But the colony was short-lived due to poor agriculture and the threat of tropical disease. It wasn’t helped by an English decision to refuse help from their colony in Virginia. Darien was abandoned a year later after 700 colonists had succumbed to the inhospitable conditions. The Scottish debt incurred as a result of the scheme was a major factor in the 1707 Act of Union with England.

It took the California Gold Rush of 1849 to inspire the next Panamanian infrastructure project. A consortium of US businessmen led by William Aspinall sponsored a railway line through mountains and swamps across the isthmus. It was a massive engineering project and hugely expensive but the Panamanian Railway Company quickly made vast profits. Panama enjoyed a period of affluence and importance. Its creation also re-awoke the long held desire to build a canal from ocean to ocean. The canal-to-be would closely follow the railway line in its short but perilous journey across the continental divide. The railway was important but the canal was still the preferred long-term option so that two ships weren’t needed to complete the voyage.

The Frenchman Ferdinand de Lesseps (a diplomat not an engineer) imitated the pyramid builders when used forced Egyptian labour for a decade to open up the Suez Canal in 1869. Enthused by the success of Suez, he turned his attention to Panama. Because Suez is a lockless sea level canal, de Lesseps thought he could build it the same way in Panama. The plan required an 8km tunnel through the Continental Divide. But unlike Egypt, there was no ready supply of cheap labour. Disease, bankruptcy and the sheer engineering folly of building a sea-level waterway in a mountainous country caused the French operation to go bust after 13 fruitless years.

US President Theodore Roosevelt bought out the French operation and the Canal Zone in 1904 in return for helping Panama gain independence from Colombia. They first launched a program to eradicate mosquitos from the area. They painstakingly fumigated houses, drained the swamps and removed stagnant water pools to stop mosquitos from breeding. As a result, both malaria and yellow fever were eliminated. The work of doctors in Panama proved the mosquito theory as the cause of both diseases and also introduced a vaccine for yellow fever.

Finally the canal opened in August 1914 just prior to the start of World War I in Europe. The Americans built Madden Dam to assure water supply. Completed in 1935, the dam created Alajuela Lake. The US started to widen the canal to aid its World War II efforts but the project was abandoned in 1946. The issue of sovereignty became contentious in the post-war years as Panama asserted its nationalism. Panamanian student protests caused the Americans to fence in the canal zone and increase its military presence. Finally in 1977, the US and Panama signed the Torrijos-Carter Treaty (named for the countries’ presidents) to formalise the handover of the canal back to Panama. Panama finally regained control of the canal in 1999.

The canal is so successful it is now greatly overloaded. Designed to carry 80 million tons a year it carried four times that much in 2005. The canal consists of two artificial lakes, several improved and artificial channels, and three sets of locks. Only Panamax sized ships can negotiate the locks. These have a maximum length of 294m, a width of 32m and a height of 58m. Post-Panamax ships are often far larger than these restrictions. These ships must travel the costly and treacherous 36 day route around Cape Horn. As a result, the canal is missing out on the lucrative revenues from oil tankers, LNG (liquefied natural gas) carriers and bulk carriers. Driven by China’s resource boom, these ships are becoming more common on the high seas. By 2010 almost 40% of the world's fleet will be post-panamx. But Panama is not alone in its desperation to grab a bigger slice of that action.

Nicaragua has even bigger plans to cater for the super sized structures of the future. It plans to build its own $20 billion grand canal that will dwarf Panama’s project in size and scope. Like Panama, they will put the proposal to a vote and if successful it will be ready by 2019. There are massive obstacles to overcome to make this happen. Not least are serious environmental concerns on Nicaragua's tropical forests, coral reefs and indigenous villages living near the Caribbean coast. Panama too has environmental concerns over their expansion. But with 5% of the world’s trade going through the narrow isthmus, pressure to conform was always going to be too great for the nation of 2.1 million whose livelihood depends on the canal.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Blood on the streets of Budapest

Yesterday Budapest marked the fiftieth anniversary of the start of the Hungarian Revolution. History is repeating itself as police used tear gas and rubber bullets to quell protesters against the current government who disrupted anniversary celebrations. Demonstrators have been on the streets for the last month protesting against Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany after he admitted lying to win re-election. Veterans of the 1956 uprising refused to shake hands with him at Monday's commemoration and the main opposition party said it was boycotting events where he was due to speak. By the end of the day it was difficult to tell whether marchers were celebrating the anniversary of the revolution or protesting against the government.

The events of the fortnight following 23 October 1953 were astonishing. It was the first major challenge to Soviet military power since the violence that ended World War II. What began as a student demonstration turned into a full scale revolution. It was eventually destroyed by the might of the Soviet Red Army. The revolution was a wildfire that quickly engulfed the country. It caused the fall of the central government in Budapest for two weeks before the Russians intervened to crush the rebellion.

Hungary fought on the side of Germany during the War. Its Second Army was annihilated at Stalingrad and Hungary looked to make peace with the Soviets. As a result Hitler ordered Nazi troops to occupy Hungary and forced its government to increase its contribution to the war effort. When the Soviets invaded Hungary in 1944, they quickly signed an armistice which was repudiated by Germany. The country became a battlefield and the last Nazi troops did not leave Hungary until April 1945. Even before the war had ended, Churchill had agreed with Stalin the Soviet Union would enjoy 80 percent influence in Hungary, with Britain retaining the rest. Communists were part of a provisional government that took power after the war.

In November 1945, the non-communist Independent Smallholders' Party won power in an election. The communists used what one of their own leaders called “salami tactics” to gradually increase power by discrediting and arresting opponents. The Communist leader Rakosi took control of the police and set up a secret unit called the AVH. The Smallholders party was slowly marginalised and eventually made illegal. In 1947 relations between the Soviets and the West deteriorated markedly. Stalin pushed for the creation of a Soviet state in Hungary and the Communists quickly took control. In 1949 the regime held a single-list election, and later that year the government ratified a Soviet-style constitution. The Hungarian economy was reorganised according to the Soviet model. But it was performing dismally. Stalin’s death led to a new breed of leaders including Imre Nagy. Nagy freed political prisoners and ended the forced collectivisation of Hungarian agriculture. Hardline Communists regained control in 1955 and Nagy was forced to step down. But Nagy still had much support in the community. Hungarians were resentful that much of the food and industrial goods they produced were sent to Russia while the local population starved.

On 23 October 1956, students in Budapest held a rally in support of Polish efforts to win autonomy from the Soviet Union. It sparked mass demonstrations of 200,000 people. The police attacked, and the demonstrators fought back tearing down Soviet symbols. Alarmed, the Communist leaders called out the Hungarian army, but many soldiers handed their weapons to the demonstrators and joined the uprising instead. The following day, Soviet troops entered Budapest. This further enraged the Hungarians and the day saw many pitched battles with troops and state security police. The extremely popular Nagy was named Prime Minister on 25 October. He brought non-Communists into the government. He dissolved the hated AVH secret police and promised free elections. For most of the next 12 days, Hungarians fought the Soviets in ferocious street battles. The Soviet ambassador Yuri Andropov (who led the USSR briefly before his death in 1984) publicly agreed to remove their forces from Hungary but they secretly sent new armoured divisions instead.

When Nagy found out the double-cross, he was enraged. He immediately withdrew Hungary from the Warsaw Pact and called on the West to support it as a neutral nation. But the west was otherwise engaged in the Suez Crisis. The Israelis had invaded Sinai, and a day later, the British and French had bombed Egypt, hoping to force the country to reopen the recently nationalised Suez Canal. President Eisenhower kept the US out of the Suez issue and was also sympathetic to the freedom movements in Eastern Europe. But he was not prepared to go to war to save Hungary. The US secretly told the Soviets that Hungary was in their sphere of influence and would not protest if the Soviets ended the revolution.

The Soviet response was devastating. On 3 November Red Army troops bolstered by regiments from Eastern Asia surrounded Budapest and closed the country's borders. The Asian troops could speak no European languages and were told they were going to Berlin to fight German fascists. Overnight they entered the capital and occupied the parliament building. They easily overpowered the poorly armed local forces. Nagy fled to the Yugoslav embassy as the Hungarian Communists announced on state radio that they had regained control. The head of the Hungarian Catholic Church, the remarkable Cardinal Mindszenty (recently released after being had been imprisoned for 8 years after the war) sought refuge in the US embassy. He was to live there for the next 15 years until the Hungarian government let him leave the country. Meanwhile 200,000 Hungarians fled across to Austria before being re-settled in the West.

Over the next five years, Hungary executed 2,000 rebels and imprisoned another 25,000. Nagy was arrested and apparently deported. However two years later, Hungary admitted he was secretly tried and executed. A bitter Hungarian joke of the time expresses local sentiment:
Two men meet on the street after the revolution.
First man: you know, come to think of it, we Hungarians are very lucky people
Second man: What? You don’t mean you’ve become one of them?
First man: Oh no, but just think. The Russians came here as friends. Imagine what they’d have done if they came as enemies.

Monday, October 23, 2006

The slow death of the Democrats

The Australian Democrats moved another step closer to politician oblivion with the announcement today of the resignation of high profile former leader Natasha Stott Despoja. Although the 37 year old senator’s resignation does not take effect until 2008, her decision not to recontest her seat is a massive blow to the party. She is the longest serving of the party’s four remaining senators. All four including party leader Lyn Allison are up for re-election in 2008. With the party losing support badly to the Greens, Stott Despoja was expected to the only one with a chance of retaining her seat. It is the second major blow for the party this year coming on the heels of the death of party founder who died in August.

Don Chipp founded the Australian Democrats in 1977. Chipp had already enjoyed a distinguished career. He served in the Royal Australian Air Force in World War II. After the war he worked as an accountant and had success in sport playing Australian Rules at the highest level as well as being a finalist in Australia’s richest short distance foot race, the Stawell Gift. He managed the organising committee of the Melbourne Olympics before entering council in 1958. He entered federal politics in 1960 as the Liberal member for Higginbotham before moving to the seat of Hotham. Harold Holt made him a government minister in 1967. He became famous as Minister for Customs and Excise two years later when he abolished censorship of books and other written material.

Though this action was popular, it alienated him within the highly conservative Liberal Party. Malcolm Fraser became opposition Liberal leader in 1975 and he and Chipp did not get along well together. Despite being a shadow minister, Chipp was left out of Fraser’s ministry after the Liberals won power in December. He stewed as a backbencher for a year before finally quitting the party in 1977. He founded the Australian Democrats with the memorable mantra to “keep the bastards honest”. He was elected to the Senate along with two fellow members. He led the party until 1986. Under Chipp’s leadership the party grew to become the balance of power in the senate.

Natasha Stott Despoja arrived in parliament 10 years after Chipp left. She was born in Adelaide in 1969. She cut her teeth in student politics at the University of Adelaide where she was president of the students union and was also prominent in women’s rights issues. She graduated with a BA. On leaving college she worked as a political adviser for the then South Australian Democrat Senators John Coulter and Cheryl Kernot. Coulter resigned in 1995 and Stott Despoja was nominated to fill the casual vacancy. At the age of 26, she was the youngest federal senator ever. She arrived in parliament in trademark Doc Martens. Youth was her marketing edge. It was a carefully cultivated appeal to Generation X. She faced the electorate a year later and held onto her seat. Barely 12 months later, she was elected deputy leader under Meg Lees after its ex-leader Cheryl Kernot defected to Labor.

Under Lees, the Democrats started their downward spiral in its support base of the wealthy inner suburban areas of the state capitals. John Howard won the 1998 election despite his promise to introduce an unpopular Goods and Services Tax (GST). However he lacked outright support in the senate for the tax. Lees campaigned in the election that the Democrats would not support the tax unless food was exempt. The government initially refused this exemption but eventually reached a compromise with Lees. The bill was passed with Democrat support in 1999. Lees claimed the dilution of the bill as a success but the cost was high with two of her senators voting against the bill. These two were Andrew Bartlett and Natasha Stott Despoja. As a result of the infighting, the Democrats support fell rapidly. They lost three senators and eventually lost the Senate balance of power in 2004.

Amid the fallout, Stott Despoja launched a challenge to Lees’ leadership and became party leader on 6 April 2001. Lees immediately left the party. Stott Despoja’s left-wing politics were popular with the party faithful however her leadership style caused problems in parliament. After 16 months in the job, she decided she couldn't heal the rifts which divided her seven-member party room. She resigned in August 2002 after an ultimatum by four members.

In 2004 she took maternity leave from the senate when she gave birth to her son Conrad. She subsequently returned and has again taken a prominent stance on education, women and family issues. She has been strongly associated with a stem cell research bill and wants to stay in parliament until it is carried through. However health is now an issue for Stott Despoja. She was rushed to hospital earlier this month for emergency surgery due to an ectopic pregnancy. She says she now wants to spend more quality time with her son. Yesterday, she ruled out a bid to enter South Australian politics but wouldn't discount a return to Canberra. "I might be so outraged that I might have to throw my hat back in the ring," she said.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Macbeth Murdering Sleep

"When shall we three meet again"?

It’s the first line in the Scottish Play. The line is uttered by Hecate, the weirdest of the three witches. She’s in a desert place with her weird sisters Graymalkin and Paddock. They are on the heath to meet a man called Macbeth. A name that scares the superstitious hell out of actors in theatres. Geoffrey Wright has made a cool and classy film version of Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy. In this version of Macbeth the characters are moved to modern Melbourne gangland. Macbeth (Sam Worthington) wins a criminal battle and ingratiates himself with the unseeing boss Duncan. The three witches are schoolgirls. They are charged with sexuality whether defacing a cemetery or dancing with Macbeth. They tell him their prophecies that shape the drama.

On a foul and fair day they anoint him Thane of Cawdor, then King but the seed will lie with Banquo’s babies. Macbeth achieves a gangland massacre and kills Duncan who visits his home. Wright sets his play in Melbourne and Victoria but his is not the first version to turn the Scottish kings into gangland murderers. In 1955 Ken Hughes filmed “Joe Macbeth” and set the play in the centre of American crime - Chicago. He and his wife Lily rub out Duca which makes Joe il Duce. Two years later Akira Kuresawa turned Macbeth into a samurai in Throne of Blood (released unimaginatively under the label Macbeth in the US).

But it is a Scottish play. It was written in the early 1600s to celebrate the ancestors of the new King James of England and Scotland. He had two names, James VI of Scotland and James I of England and he was the first to use a third name: King of Great Britain. Banquo, if he existed, was a forebear. Mac Bethad mac Findláich certainly existed. Known in English as Macbeth he ruled Scotland from 1040 AD until his death 17 years later. Shakespeare played fast and loose with aspects of Macbeth’s life. He became High King of Alba on the death of Donnchad whom he killed in battle. The English didn’t run Scotland then but were becoming interested. Siward, the Northumbrian, invaded Alba with a massive army and took control of Macbeth’s kingdom. Macbeth survived but was eventually defeat and killed in battle by Donnchad’s son, Máel Coluim mac Donnchada three years later.

Lady Macbeth didn’t feature strongly in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles story of Macbeth from which Shakespeare used for his story. She is based on a different figure, the semi-legendary Queen Gruoch of Scotland. Her first husband Gille Coemgáin was killed in 1032, burned in a hall with fifty of his men. Macbeth was her second husband. There is no record of her death. Shakespeare turns her into a very malevolent behind-the-scenes manipulator. Whereas Macbeth wants to do a Hamlet and prevaricate when Duncan sleeps, it is her Ladyship who spurs him on. She mocks and cajoles Macbeth every step of the way until he convinces himself that he is capable of murdering. But she gains no satisfaction for her husband’s eventual success. She realises hell is murky and drives herself insane unable to remove the damned spots on her conscience. She becomes Ophelia’s sister in suicide.

The scholar G. R. Eliot described the theme of Macbeth as follows, "wicked intention must in the end produce wicked action unless it is not merely revoked by the protagonist's better feelings, but entirely eradicated by his inmost will, aided by Divine grace." There is not much of the “better feelings” in Macbeth. It is one of Shakespeare’s bloodiest plays. The body count is high even by his tragedies’ standards. He is beset by witches who point out his future. They con him into thinking he is invincible until a man not of woman born has taken Birnham Wood to Dunsinane.

Macbeth is one of the greatest works in Shakespeare’s astonishing canon. His portfolio is so good that many believe it cannot be the work of one man. Many have speculated who Shakespeare really was. Some favour the Oxfordian theory and say Shakespeare was Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. They say that Shaksper the actor from Stratford was not the same as Shakespeare, the pen-name of the playwright. The Earl of Oxford was a poet and playwright whose life shared similarities with many of the events of the plays. Christopher Marlowe too has his supporters. The Marlovian Theory holds that Marlowe faked his own death in 1593 and continued to write plays using Shakespeare as the frontman. Sir Francis Bacon is another candidate. Bacon was a true English renaissance man. He was a scientist, philosopher, courtier, diplomat, essayist, historian and successful politician. He served as Solicitor General, Attorney General, and Lord Chancellor. Whoever Shakespeare was, he was a genius.

In Macbeth everything is fair and foul. Fair is foul and foul is fair. Appearances can be deceiving. Even when Geoffrey Wright gives a 400 year old text a modern Melbourne treatment the story is the same: greed, ambition, power, murder, family, betrayal and empire building are all still part of the human condition.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

The War on Democracy

In “Meet the Press” three days after 9/11, a grim-faced US Vice President Dick Cheney issued an ominous warning: “We've got to spend time in the shadows. We have to work toward the dark side, if you will. A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies.” The vice president became the chief architect of the new war on terror. He designed new laws enhancing executive power, institution strong action in the US and abroad, and above all instituted a regime of secrecy.

The CIA knew immediately that Osama Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda organisation was responsible for the 9/11 attacks. George Tenet was the CIA director at the time. He was a holdover from the Clinton administration and distrusted by Cheney and his close confidante Donald Rumsfeld, the Defence Secretary. Rumsfeld had wanted to finger Hussein for 9/11 but the facts did not support his assertion. Cheney and Rumsfeld had worked together since the Ford administration and also in the elder Bush presidency. They distrusted the CIA since it failed to pick Iraqi nuclear activity prior to the first Gulf War. But Tenet was allowed to run with the immediate response to 9/11 and he prepared the invasion of Afghanistan and the overthrow of the Taliban. The CIA bought off the Northern Alliance and the military were brought in a month later. By now Rumsfeld and the Pentagon had assumed control of the operation. By mid-November Kabul had fallen. The CIA wanted to take on Al Qaeda across the world.

Cheney and Rumsfeld started to set up their own intelligence networks in the Pentagon. They discovered a story that Mohammed Atta, the leader of the 9/11 attacks had allegedly met Iraqi agents in Prague. Cheney announced this to the world as a fact in December 2001. However Atta was in Florida at the time of supposed meeting. Cheney continued to spread the rumour of the Prague – Atta link for the next two years. His case is strengthened by information from the captured Sheikh al Libi (no relation to Scooter Libby). Libi admits under torture that Saddam Hussein provided training in chemical weapons to al Qaeda. By August 2002, Cheney was selling the idea that Iraq had Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs). Congress would have to vote for the war based on Cheney’s information. Tenet was brought in to do a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq for Congress. A process that ordinarily takes months or years would be reduced to just over two weeks. Cheney was determined to control the content of the NIE. He and his chief of staff, Scooter Libby, had made about 10 trips to CIA headquarters, where they personally questioned analysts.

In September the New York Times published outdated information from 1990 "Iraq has sought to buy thousands of specially designed aluminium tubes, which American officials believe were intended as components of centrifuges to enrich uranium." The NIE was kept in a locked room where Congress could read it, but few did. In mid-October, they voted overwhelmingly in favour of the Iraqi war resolution. A declassified version of the NIE, known as the "white paper" was prepared by the CIA and released three days later. It was a glossy advocacy piece designed to strengthen support for the war. Bush quoted the NIE in the 2003 State of the Union speech “Saddam Hussein has gone to elaborate lengths, spent enormous sums, taken great risks to build and keep weapons of mass destruction”. A controversial assertion that Saddam was buying nuclear material would become known as "the 16 words”. They were: “the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa”.

One of the chief arguments the Bush administration used to justify the invasion was that Iraq was "reconstituting its nuclear weapons programs." They claimed that Iraq attempted to obtain processed uranium from Africa, and that it attempted to acquire specialized aluminium tubes to enrich that uranium. Bush included both of these allegations in his State of the Union speech advocating war. However the African connection was already known to be untrue. In 2002, the CIA sent diplomat and African expert Joseph Wilson to Niger. His brief was to find out if Iraq bought or attempted to buy “yellowcake” from Niger. Yellowcake is uranium concentrates obtained from leach solutions. It is mainly used in the preparation of fuel for nuclear reactors, where it is processed into purified Uranium dioxide for use in fuel rods. However it can also be enriched for use in nuclear weapons. Wilson spent eight days talking to Niger’s uranium officials. He found no evidence that Niger and Iraq had done business on yellowcake.

As a result, The State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) sent a memorandum in March 2002 to Secretary of State Colin Powell stating that claims regarding Iraqi attempts to obtain uranium from Niger were not credible. Nonetheless the allegation was included in the NIE and the State of the Union. After the address, the administration stepped up the allegations until IAEA Director General Mohamed El-Baradei emphatically told the UN Security Council that the documents allegedly detailing uranium transactions between Iraq and Niger are "not authentic" and "these specific allegations are unfounded." One week before the invasion, Powell acknowledged that the documents concerning the alleged Iraq-Niger uranium deal might be false.

I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby was a presidential adviser and former Chief of Staff and assistant for National Security Affairs to vice-president Cheney. It was Libby who pushed Cheney to publicly argue that Saddam Hussein had ties to al Qaeda and 9/11. He wrote the speech for Colin Powell’s February 2003 address to the UN. There was strong doubt over information in Powell’s speech from the NIE: "Baghdad has mobile facilities for producing bacterial and toxin BW agents. These facilities can evade detection and are highly survivable." The source for this information was an Iraqi code-named "Curveball." His story had been given to the American intelligence network by the Germans, but they could not verify the accuracy of his claims. Powell was not told that there had been warnings from the Germans that Curveball was an undependable alcoholic. Powell used information from Sheik al Libi, who was rendered and tortured in Egypt, about Iraq providing training to Al Qaeda. Libi had made it up. The US invaded in March and found no WMDs.

On July 6, 2003 Joseph Wilson went public and wrote an article “What I didn’t find in Africa” for the New York Times. His second sentence was damning: “Based on my experience with the administration in the months leading up to the war, I have little choice but to conclude that some of the intelligence related to Iraq's nuclear weapons program was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat”. Cheney was furious. He wrote “Did his wife send him on a junket?” The administration hit back. It leaked a rumour to the Washington press that Wilson's wife Valerie had arranged his trip to Niger. Washington Post journalist Robert Novak disclosed that Valerie Wilson was working as an undercover CIA agent under her maiden name, Plame. Whoever disclosed her name to Novak was guilty of a crime under US law. US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald investigated the matter. Joseph Wilson, buoyed by public outrage and Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, announced that he would not rest until the Bush spin doctor Karl Rove was arrested. Wilson suspected him of the leak because Rove was a friend of Novak. It has since been revealed that former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage was the one who first mentioned Valerie Wilson's name to Novak. Scooter Libby had told the New York Times’s Judith Miller.

Prosecutor Fitzgerald indicted Libby in October 2005 on five counts of criminal charges. He immediately resigned his government position and pleaded not guilty at his arraignment. Judge Walton set a trial date for January 2007. It was Libby - along with Paul Wolfowitz and a handful of other top aides at the Pentagon and White House - who convinced the president that the U.S. should go to war in Iraq. Despite Libby’s indictment, Cheney got everything he wanted for out of the CIA. Tenet resigned in June 2004, and kept his mouth shut. The CIA’s power is now with Cheney’s team in the Pentagon.

Friday, October 20, 2006

The mud also rises

This week Indonesia began dumping mud surging from a gas exploration site in central Java into the sea in a desparate effort to minimise destruction from the disaster that has submerged entire villages and displaced thousands. The "mud volcano" pours out some 120,000 cubic metres of mud every day. Experts say the mud volcano is one of the largest ever recorded on land. Geologists fear the technology may not exist to stop the eruption, saying mud could flow for years or even centuries. In short, no one knows when it might stop.

The sludge has been spewing out of the ground since 28 May. It was probably caused by human error. The gas company Lapindo Brantas were drilling a 3km deep exploratory well looking for natural gas. The well cracked and unleashed a torrent of mud. Lapindo have been criticised for risking the safety of local people. There are also allegations of corruption. Jakarta launched a criminal investigation focussing on senior executives from Lapindo and one of their sub-contractors. The company's lawyer said they had done nothing wrong. The company is 60% owned by the Bakrie Group belonging to government Coordinating Minister for the People's Welfare Aburizal Bakrie and his brothers. According to Forbes, Bakrie and his family are the sixth richest in Indonesia with a net worth of $1.2 billion.

The Indonesian news agency Antara reported that Greenpeace staged a rally in which demonstrators dumped Lapindo mud near the entrance to the minister’s office. The protesters conducted a silent protest while raising a banner saying "Stop your mud, Bakrie, or your mud will stop you." Last month Bakrie sold Lapindo to a Jersey off-shore entity called Lyte Limited in September. Although Lyte is owned by Bakrie, the object was to avoid responsibility if Lapindo goes bankrupt as a result of the disaster.

The mud is coming from a reservoir 6km below the surface. It has been been pressurised by shifts in the crust or possibly by the accumulation of hydrocarbon gases. Every day, up to 150,000 cubic metres of mud continues to spurt from a large crater. The mud has forced more than 13,000 people to flee from their homes near Indonesia’s second largest city of Surabaya. The thick sludge has now spread over 400 hectares, swallowing eight entire villages, acres of rice paddy fields, numerous factories, and forced the closure of a major toll road for weeks.

The Jakarta government recently gave permission to dump the mud into the sea via a river. But experts question whether that will get rid of the sludge faster than it gushes from the hole. Environmentalists are also opposing the plan as a threat to the marine ecosystem. Australian company Century Resources has been engaged to drill one of two relief wells at the site, and they are hopeful the operation will stop the mudflow "around" the end of the calendar year. The displaced population has been given temporary shelter. Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has authorized further flow of mud to be be pumped into the Porong River that will take it to the local sea. Pumping of sludge into the sea started on 16 October. The ultimate cost of raping the Earth in one of its most active seismological zones remains unknown.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Eritrea attacks Ethiopia

The UN has requested the African Red Sea state of Eritrea to take its armed forces out of a neutral buffer zone on its border with Ethiopia. Eritrea has moved troops and tanks into a buffer zone that the UN has policed since the border war of 1998-2000. Kjell Magne Bondevik, the special humanitarian envoy for the Horn of Africa, expressed the UN’s concerns in meetings with Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki and his government.

The two countries signed the Algiers Agreement in June 2000 to officially end the border war. Several thousands had died on both sides. The agreement called for the establishment of an independent commission to decide the border question. A month later, the UN deployed a peacekeeping force called UN Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE) to monitor the ceasefire. UNMEE consisted of 4,000 military personnel from 40 countries. UNMEE separated the armed forces of the two countries with a demilitarised security zone and briefly contributed to stability in the area and the return of the refugees displaced by the conflict.

The land known as Eritrea (from the Greek word for Red Sea) was created by the Italians. They colonised lands bequeathed to the Egyptians by the old Ottoman Empire. Italy had a strategic goal: to establish a presence on the world’s busiest shipping lane after the creation of the Suez Canal. They declared Eritrea an Italian colony in 1890. It remained in their hands until the British took it in World War II. After the war, the UN decided Eritrea would be federated with Ethiopia. Haile Selassie was restored to his throne of Ethiopia that he lost after the Italians invaded the country from their base in Eritrea and Italian Somaliland. He wanted Eritrea to give Ethiopia access to the Red Sea. Selassie proclaimed a new constitution in 1955 which proclaimed Ethiopian ownership of Eritrea. His government slowly but surely broke the terms of the UN Resolution, reducing Eritrea to status of an occupied country.

In July 1960 a group of Eritrean students and intellectuals held a met in Cairo and formed the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF). A year later, the Eritrean World War II hero Hamis Idris Awate (pictured) fired the first shots for the Eritrean independence movement attacking the Ethiopian army and police. It was to be the start of a brutal 30 year battle. In the 1960s, the ELF was primarily a lowlands Muslim movement. Selassie was ousted in a coup by the Derg junta in 1974 and they launched bloody reprisals against Eritrean attacks. The Christian highlanders had now joined the independence movement as they became increasingly disillusioned with Ethiopian massacres of civilian populations. The Derg strongman Mengistu Haile Mariam succeeded in stopping independence only because Ethiopia was now armed by the Soviet Union. After the end of the Cold War, the Soviets ceased supplying Mengistu and the war turned in Eritrea’s favour. When Mengistu was overthrown in 1991 the parties met in Washington and quickly moved to end the war.

Eritrea was formally pronounced an independent country after an almost unanimous referendum. On May 28, 1993, the United Nations formally admitted Eritrea to its membership. Initially relations with Ethiopia’s new rulers were good. But the peace agreement had not properly established the border and in 1998 the two countries’ armies clashed in the disputed town of Badme. The fighting spread and led to massive internal displacement in both countries as civilians fled the war zone. The war lasted two years and ended in unsatisfactory stalemate. UNMEE came in to monitor an uneasy peace.

Eritrea’s president Isaias Afewerki addressed the stalemate when he wrote the “Eleven Letters” to the Secretary-General and Security Council of the UN between 2003 and 2005. They claimed Ethiopia had rejected the boundary commission’s recommendations on the border between the countries and the UN failed to do its duty to “enforce its own resolutions and to uphold the rule of law”.

Afewerki has been president of Eritrea since full independence. He joined the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) in 1966 and received military training in China. He went on to become deputy divisional commander. In 1970 he co-founded the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) and in 1987 he was elected secretary-general of the organisation. He promised to call elections on several occasions but always found reasons to defer.

Eritrea is now a one-party state, with the ruling People's Front for Democracy and Justice the only party allowed to operate. There is no independent media or in the country and Reporters Without Borders have described the country as a “black hole” for news. Only North Korea has a worse record for freedom of expression. In Eritrea journalists exist only to provide government propaganda. Harassment, psychological pressure, intimidation and round-the-clock surveillance are common for anyone foolhardy enough to ignore the rules. While his well-equipped army wages war on Ethiopia, Afewerki's people are ravaged by poverty and drought. The UN has expressed its grave fears about the humanitarian consequences of Eritrea's violation of the security zone.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Siev X: Five years on

Tomorrow is the fifth anniversary of the sinking of Siev X. Siev X was an Indonesian fishing boat loaded with asylum seekers from Iraq and Afghanistan bound for the Australian Indian Ocean territory of Christmas Island. The boat sunk in international waters on 19 October 2001 causing the death of 353 people, the majority of which were women and children. Just 45 people survived, rescued by Indonesian fishing boats after spending over 19 hours in the water.

The real name of the boat is unknown but Tony Kevin, an author and former Australian diplomat coined the name “Siev X” to stand for "Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel X” (X for Unknown). The day before the sinking, the boat left port in Bandar Lampung on the southern tip of the Indonesian island of Sumatra. It was a small boat barely measuring 80 square metres in size. It was a leaking hulk, unsafe and ill-equipped. Its cargo was humanity. The Egyptian people smuggler Mootaz Muhammad Hasan (aka Abu Quassey) had “chartered” the craft. On board were over 400 refugees prepared to put up with this hellish, cramped journey in order to gain access to a better life in Australia. They each paid Hasan $1,000 for the doubtful privilege. Ten people refused to board when they saw the condition of the craft but the remainder were forced on board at gunpoint by Indonesian officials.

The vessel stopped near the Karakatau islands where 24 passengers disembarked due to concerns about the boat’s seaworthiness. 397 passengers and crew remained onboard. 24 hours after leaving Bandar the two engines failed and the boat began to take on water. The boat listed violently to the side, capsized and sank within an hour. It was somewhere in the international waters of the Java Sea. The exact location is disputed but it is likely to be within Indonesia's zone of search and rescue responsibility but also inside the zone of Australia’s heavily patrolled border protection surveillance zone. The policing of this zone is known as Operation Relex. Operation Relex’s strategic aim was an extension of the Government’s new border protection policy: to prevent, in the first instance, the incursion of unauthorised vessels into Australian waters such that, ultimately, people smugglers and asylum seekers would be deterred from attempting to use Australia as a destination.

One of the few survivors, Hassan Jassem, from Basra in Southern Iraq, saw his wife and three children die. He and his family were in a room inside the boat when it started to sink. Many were sea sick. One of the boats two old engines wasn’t working and Hassan was trying to fix it. He watched in horror as the boat began to capsize. He saw his wife fall from the boat carrying their 20 day old baby. In the open water, Hassan searched desperately for his wife and family. “Every time I saw a child I could not differentiate between it and my children. My wife and children stayed under the boat - they never came out”, he said. He wasn’t wearing a lifejacket and was dragged under three times. “Anywhere I placed my arm, a drowned child or woman would emerge and lift my arm and the surviving women would cry more.”

Hassan was one of 44 survivors who survived the night and threat of sharks. They were rescued the following morning by an Indonesian fishing boat, the Indah Jaya Makmur. A 45th survivor was rescued about twelve hours later by another boat, the Surya Terang. He joined the other 44 in a holding centre 32km south of the Indonesian capital Jakarta. Eventually they were dispersed to many countries such as Finland, Sweden, Norway and Canada who afforded them permanent status. Just nine came to Australia where they were granted temporary protection visas.

The incident occurred during the highly-charged 2001 Australian federal election campaign. The terrorist attacks on New York were fresh in the memory. The election was dominated by the Tampa affair. MV Tampa was a Norwegian cargo boat which rescued stranded boatpeople in the Indian Ocean in August 2001. Australian authorities refused to allow to take them to the nearest landfall at Christmas Island. The Tampa captain asked Australia to send food and medical supplies urgently. Instead Australia sent five SAS commando troops onboard. The captain refused their request to move his ship back to international waters. The Norwegian government supported his decision. The Australian Navy eventually shipped the refugees to the Pacific island nation of Nauru. Prime Minister Howard’s strong stance won him great domestic support despite the international condemnation of Australia’s hard-hearted attitude.

In 2002 the Australian senate investigated the incident as part of its inquiry into the Children Overboard Affair. The Children Overboard incident happened around the same time. John Howard had claimed incorrectly that refugees had deliberately thrown their children overboard so that they would be rescued by the Australian Navy. The inquiry looked at Australian culpability in the Siev X incident and whether it could have done more to help the victims. The committee noted that Australian information on Siev X “mirrored the general pattern of the intelligence in this area in that it was indefinite and in a state of flux.” They were aware in advance that the boat was small and overcrowded. They knew about Abu Quassey’s operation but had no idea where the boat was or even if it had left port. The Committee found no negligence or dereliction of duty but recommended “operational orders and mission tasking statements for all ADF operations, including those involving whole of government approaches, explicitly incorporate relevant international and domestic obligations”.

The man responsible for the sailing of Siev X is now in an Egyptian prison. Abu Quassey was found guilty by Cairo court of "causing death by mistake" and of "aiding and abetting the entry of aliens without effective travel documents." He got seven years for the crime but was reduced to five years on appeal. Defence lawyers argued that he was nothing more than an interpreter for the real mastermind of the people smuggling - Khaled Sherif, an Iraqi, who was arrested in Sweden and since extradited to Australia.

Plans to create a memorial for the Siev X victims have been thwarted by Australian government bureaucrats. On Sunday, hundres of people turned up to the shores of Canberra’s Lake Burley-Griffin to launch a permanent memorial of 353 white timber poles. However a month out from the launch date, organisers were told that it wouldn't be allowed. The National Capital Authority rejected the idea says following its mandatory guidelines saying 10 years must pass after an event, before a permanent memorial can be established. Event organiser Steve Biddulph told the ABC the decision was mean-spirited: “The Prime Minister is about to make a memorial to Steve Irwin. He made a memorial to the Bali bombing, 12 months after that happened and so there are many exceptions to the rule.” Instead the poles will be carried in a procession from the water's edge across a hillside, to show the planned design of a permanent memorial.

The ABC interviewed Siev X activist Tony Kevin on the first anniversary of the sinking. The interviewer asked him whether Australians care about the issue given the strong support for border protection policy. He responded eloquently: “Our government agencies and unfortunately many of our media keep using these bland Orwellian phrases that conceal the reality which is people dying and drowning in the water….these are human tragedies in our society and we have to stop talking in abstractions about policy and start remembering the people.” His words remain unheeded in Canberra.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Ban Ki-Moon is new UN boss

Ban Ki-Moon from Korea has been elected UN General Secretary. He will take up the role when Kofi Annan’s second five year term expires on 1 January, 2007. The 62 year old Ban is currently South Korea’s foreign minister and speaks fluent English and French. He was appointed by acclamation on Friday by the 192-member General Assembly. He is the first Asian appointee to the role since U Thant of Burma whose term expired in 1971. In his acceptance speech to the assembly, Ban said “My tenure will be marked by ceaseless efforts to build bridges and close divides. Leadership of harmony not division, by example not instruction has served me well so far. I intend to stay the course as Secretary-General”.

Ban Ki-Moon was born in Eumseong, in the central province of North Chungcheong in 1944. He was educated in Seoul and graduated from the National University in 1970 with a degree in International Relations. He wanted a diplomatic career and passed the foreign service examination. He gained a Masters in Public Administration from the John F Kennedy School of Government at Harvard which is regarded as one of the best public policy schools in the US. During a nearly 40 year diplomatic career, he was posted in India, Austria, Washington and at the United Nations. His affiliation with the UN dates back to 1975 when he was appointed a staff member of the UN division of the South Korean Home Office.

While he was South Korean ambassador to Austria in 1999, he was appointed chairman of the preparatory commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organisation. He came to international prominence after 9/11 when Korea had presidency of the UN General Assembly. The first sitting day was 12 September and it was Ban’s role as chef-de-cabinet to the president to see through the prompt adoption of the assembly's condemnation of the attacks. Ban returned home in 1996 to became national security adviser to the president in 1996 and took the office of vice minister in 2000. He was appointed Korean Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade in January 2004.

Ban declared his candidacy of UN secretary general in February and ran a skilful campaign claiming he would turn the UN into an effective, accountable and transparent global organisation. He promised to reform the "culture of the organization, increase accountability and toughen ethics." He called on member states to allow the Secretariat "greater flexibility matched by greater accountability." He described the US troubled relationship with the thus: "Global challenges call for global responses. The United States cannot do it alone. The United States needs the United Nations, and vice versa." U.S. Ambassador John Bolton endorsed Ban saying, "we believe he is the right person to lead the United Nations at this decisive movement in its history, particularly as the UN struggles to fulfil the terms of the reform agenda that world leaders agreed to last fall."

The office of Secretary General is defined prosaically in the UN Charter as the organization's "chief administrative officer" (Article 97) but holds much “soft power”. Traditionally the post rotates around the world’s regions and this was Asia’s turn. Ban will be the eighth Secretary General in the UN’s 60 year history. He was one of seven candidates vying for the role and topped all four informal polls in the UN Security Council. He will head an organization that has 92,000 peacekeepers around the world and a $5 billion annual budget. The reputation of the UN has been tarnished by recent corruption scandals. The incumbent Secretary-General Annan believes Ban has the credentials for the job saying he was "a future secretary-general who is exceptionally attuned to the sensitivities of countries and constituencies in every continent" and he would be "a man with a truly global mind at the helm of the world's only universal organisation."

Ban has three months to effect a transition. Korean Prime Minister Cheong Wa Dae has not yet nominated a replacement foreign minister so Ban will need to play both roles for at least another month. Korean media have pointed out there may be a conflict of interest between the roles. They have pointed out that his criticism of North Korea failing to comply with a UN Security Council resolution is at odds with his Korean role in an administration that is clinging to its engagement policy with the North.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Bases Covered

In his book “Al Qaeda and what it means to be modern”, the English philosopher John Gray argues that the human condition is not a cakewalk towards modernism and enlightenment. Gray examines Al Qaeda to show that it is not a throwback to medieval times but rather a fluid modern hybrid of Islam reinterpreted in the light of contemporary Western thought.

Al Qaeda is Arabic for “the base” but it can also mean that very modern conceit: “the database”. They use satellite phones, laptop computers and encrypted websites. They use satellite TV to mobilise support in the Arab world. Its organisation is the cellular structure of drug cartels and resembles a virtual business corporation. Al Qaeda is a modern global multinational company.

Their origins lie in the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. The CIA with the help of Pakistani’s equally shadowy ISI (Inter Services Intelligence) bankrolled the mujahideen resistance. With Abdullah Azzam, Osama Bin Laden was a founder member of Maktab al-Khadamāt (MAK) which raised funds in the US and elsewhere to support the war effort against the Soviets throughout the 1980s. As the decade went on, it was increasingly clear that this was a war the Red Army could not win. They bowed to the inevitable and announced their withdrawal in 1987. When the war ended Azzam and Bin Laden fought over what should be the new strategic goals of MAK. Azzam wanted to concentrate on installing an Islamic government in post-Soviet Kabul whereas Bin Laden wanted to launch global jihad. In 1989 Azzam was killed by a massive car bomb in Peshawar, Pakistan allowing Bin Laden to assume full control of the organisation. MAK split up but Bin Laden launched a new body called Al Qaeda.

Bin Laden returned to his native Saudi Arabia. He was there when Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990. Suddenly the ruling House of Saud was looking very shaky with a massive and belligerent army on their northern border. Bin Laden offered Al Qaeda’s services to protect Saudi Arabia from Iraq. King Fahd turned down his offer and allowed US troops to deploy instead. Bin Laden was enraged and spoke out publicly about the profane presence of foreign troops in the "land of the two mosques".
The now ostracised Bin Laden accepted an offer to come to Sudan in 1991. The Islamists had taken power there and wanted Al Qaeda operations to help their new government. They helped the government with major infrastructure projects and ran military camps.

From there, Bin Laden launched the next crusade and raised the Bosnian Mujahideen to help newly independent Bosnia in its war with Serbia. Bin Laden was forced to flee Sudan to Afghanistan in 1996 after the US implicated him in an attempted assassination of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. Kabul had just fallen to the Taliban at this time. The fundamentalist Taliban and Al Qaeda were a perfect match. Al Qaeda camps proceeded to train militant Muslims from around the world in the art of warfare. Around this time, Bin Laden started to focus on Saudi Arabia’s biggest ally, the US. In 1998, he and co-leader Egyptian Ahman Al-Zawahiri issued a fatwa against America and its allies.

Almost immediately they bombed the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Though the US retaliated by bombing an Al Qaeda base, Bin Laden struck again in 2000. While the missile destroyer USS Cole was at anchor in Aden, a small boat of suicide bombers attacked the ship and killed 17 sailors. Planning then commenced for the biggest attack yet. Mohammed Atta led a team of 17 hijackers to capture four aeroplanes in US airspace and killed 3,000 people in New York and elsewhere on 9/11. Though Al Qaeda never claimed responsibility, the US used the fatwa to pin the blame on them. The US plan to strike Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban and remove Al Qaeda. The invasion destroyed much of their infrastructure, but they survived and moved to the rugged Pakistani border territory. On 13 December 2001, the US government released a video tape of Osama speaking with associates talking about how they carried out 9/11. Its authenticity and English translation has been challenged but remains the single-most damning piece of evidence linking Al Qaeda with the attack.

The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 gave new impetus to Al Qaeda. Initially it posed a dilemma. Iraq is a largely Shiite nation, and Al Qaeda is composed of Sunnis who believe that the Shia are heretics. However the renegade Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi affiliated his organisation with Al Qaeda in 2004 and declared loyalty to Osama. Although it may simply have been designed to boost his own legitimacy it gave Al Qaeda a boost. Abu Ayyub al-Masri took over as head of al-Qaeda in Iraq since al-Zarqawi’s death. Al-Qaeda are now active in Kashmir and have links to Pakistan’s Lashkar-e-Toiba. Although rumours abound of Osama’s death due to typhoid fever, the movement he started is still healthy. Its ultimate goal remains the downfall of the Arabian House of Saud. While many in the West would support the removal of this autocratic and secretive empire, it is highly unlikely the US would ever consent to allowing the world’s richest oil reserves fall into the hands of militant extremists.