Thursday, January 31, 2008

Winograd blames IDF for failed Lebanon war

The Israeli government-appointed Winograd Commission has issued a strong indictment of the military and the political administration over its conduct in the failed 2006 war in Lebanon. The 621 page final report issued by retired judge Eliyahu Winograd yesterday did not have the mandate to place responsibilities with individuals but blamed the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) and every Israeli government since 2000 for a series of failures, shortcomings and missed opportunities. Crucially, the Commission noted Israel did not succeed in translating the military conflict into any meaningful political achievements.

The probe was dedicated to the memory of the soldiers and civilians who died in the month-long conflict that Israel calls the “Second Lebanon War”. Winograd found that the Israeli army went into battle unprepared, conducted flawed strategic planning and was unable to adjust to political realities. Among the report’s recommendations was for Israel’s government and the IDF to overhaul their strategies for making decisions during emergency situations and wars. It said there was a “genuine contradiction” between the army’s objectives in Lebanon and the limitations placed on troops due to fear of casualties. The report said “the General Staff failed to communicate to the political echelon that this manner of conduct is unsuitable for war."

The conflict began in July 2006 when Lebanese Hezbollah militants kidnapped two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid. Israel began a massive bombing campaign in southern Lebanon, but waited until the final days of the conflict before it launched a major ground offensive that failed to push Hezbollah out of southern Lebanon before a UN-mediated cease-fire went into effect. Before that happened Israel and Lebanon were on the verge of all-out war and several thousand people died on both sides. Much of northern Israel’s population of one million people were instructed to remain in shelters for much of the war's duration. The situation was also dire for the Lebanese as the Israelis kept up an air and naval blockade of the country until September.

After the war ended, public criticism grew as did demands for an independent enquiry into the conduct of the military, especially whether its initial response was proportionate to the kidnapping of two soldiers. The Israeli cabinet approved the establishment of the Winograd Committee in September 2006. The Commission was appointed due to a strong sense of a crisis and deep disappointment with the consequences of the campaign and the way it was conducted. Former judge Winograd chaired the committee and was joined by two professors and two retired army major-generals. The committee was tasked “to look into the preparation and conduct of the political and the security levels concerning all the dimensions of the Northern Campaign which started on July 12th 2006”. The committee began hearing testimony from witnesses from November 2006 onwards.

The committee produced an interim report (pdf) in April 2007. Its main focus was on the decisions leading to the start of the war. It found the key mistakes were the lack of a “detailed, comprehensive and authorised military plan”, a refusal to contemplate a policy of containment and a vague and ambiguous communication of the mission goals. It laid the blame on Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the Defence Minister and the army Chief of Staff and said that had these three acted better “the outcome of the war would have been significantly better”.

But the final report did not explicitly criticise Prime Minister Olmert. He would have been relieved by its conclusion which largely absolved the political masters of the war. The report backed the decision to launch a major ground offensive in the war’s last couple of days when it was clear a cease-fire was imminent. The panel called that move "essential," even though the "last-minute ground offensive in Lebanon did not improve Israel's position.” According to Anthony Loewenstein, the very fact that the Israeli government is likely to survive the scandal “reflects the dysfunctionality of the Jewish state”. However with none of Israel’s four ruling coalition partners wanting an early election, Olmert is unlikely to face more heat on the issue.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

America unimpressed with Bush’s last State of the Union

George W Bush defended his record in his seventh and final state of the union speech on Monday night. Bush claimed his administration had “answered the call” on issues relating to the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the world economy and health and social welfare. Essentially Bush was talking up his record of neo-conservative military adventuring and free trade abroad while madly deficit spending at home. However while Bush was attempting to airbrush history, he introduced little new agenda in his near hour-long speech. It was also totally lacking in any attempt to address the world’s greatest problem: climate change.

Yet as usual the president received tumultuous applause. The joint houses here were applauding the office of presidency not its incumbent. Bush himself is gaining very few plaudits for his actions and is struggling to maintain any sense of relevance as the 2008 race for the White House hots up. With Bush’s popularity rating at a low 31 per cent, and second term rot setting in terminally, this year’s reception for the rehashed ideas in this speech was faint praise at best, and more often derisive and scathing.

CBS News compared how powerful Bush appeared in his 2005 speech, newly re-elected and “the most powerful person on the planet” to the “broken man” of 2008. The New York Times editorialised about “six years of promises unkept or insincerely made and blunders of historic proportions”. Meanwhile, the Washington Post also gave a damning indictment when it said Bush was “running on empty” and had “nothing new to say”. According to its political columnist Dan Froomkin “nothing he said will help bring the country together, or undo the damage he has done to American interests abroad, [or] will help him win back the trust or support of the American people, both which he lost a long time ago.”

Bush is the elephant in the room of 2008 Republican candidates who have all studiously avoided any mention of the president during the campaign. The Republicans have been on the nose since their defeat in the 2006 congressional elections. Bush exhausted all his political capital after his second election win. Most of this he squandered in 2005 with a failed bid to reform social security and a pork barrel spending binge on a highway bill. It was followed by the devastating impact (both physical and political) of Hurricane Katrina. Bush’s inept response to the crisis confirmed the impression that he was a bumbling fool. The continuing morass in Iraq didn’t help either.

This was Bush’s seventh State of the Union (his initial effort in 2001 was more of a budget speech). Messages to the Congress are mandated by Article II, Section 3 of the US Constitution which states the president “shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the union, and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” George Washington clarified in 1790 that “from time to time” actually meant annually.

Until the early 20th century, the State of the Union was a written report sent to Congress. Woodrow Wilson changed this in 1913. He believed the presidency wasn’t just an impersonal institution; it was dynamic, alive, and personal. According to this philosophy, Wilson delivered an oral message to Congress. While Coolidge and Hoover both reverted to the written report, Franklin Roosevelt firmly established the modern tradition of an oral State of the Union.

In his 2008 speech Bush mentioned the word “terror” or “terrorist” 23 times. Gore Vidal asserted that the “war on terror” was as absurd as a “war on dandruff” because it is impossible to go to war against an abstract noun. In 2004 Chalmers Johnson painted a damning picture of Bush’s legacy in his book The Sorrows of Empire. Johnson's fourfold prediction is more apt than ever today. They are: a state of perpetual war, a significant loss of democratic and constitutional rights, a system of glorification of the military, and economic bankruptcy. No wonder America is anxious to move on from the Bush era.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

World Economic Forum meeting ends at Davos

The World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting closed in Davos on Sunday with a call from Tony Blair for new “collaborative and innovative leadership” to address the big challenges of globalisation, conflict, climate change and water conservation. Blair, who co-chaired this year’s five-day meeting, addressed 2,500 global political and business leaders at the exclusive Swiss ski resort. He told the closing plenary session that globalisation is forcing politic leaders to adopt more collaborative approaches. “If we are interconnected and the world is interconnected, the only way for the world to work is to have a set of common values,” he said “We have no option but to work together.”

Blair also said he expects to see an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal and a pact on climate change by the end of 2008. Sharing his optimism, Nobel Peace prize laureate Elie Wiesel demanded action on Darfur and Tibet. He made a call to "to alleviate the suffering in Darfur which has become the capital of human suffering in the world today." He also received a standing ovation when he said "I'd like China to open its doors to the Dalai Lama so I could accompany him to go to Tibet. That would be a great, great victory.” WEF founder Klaus Schwab warned that if the challenges are not addressed then “even the greatest opportunities will not be enough to guarantee our continuation as humankind if you look at climate change, terrorism, poverty."

The WEF was born in 1971 as a yearly “European Management Forum” of European corporate players initially funded by the European Commission. Klaus Schwab, Professor of business policy at the University of Geneva, chaired the gathering which took place in Davos. In 1987 the forum changed its name to the WEF in an effort to claim global reach. It now includes the most prominent transnational corporations, over a thousand of are WEF Foundation Members. Its members are mostly comprised of North American, European and industrialised Asian delegates.

The WEF aspires to be an agenda setting organisation. It is a private foundation that meets regularly but has no formal policy making power unlike similar groups such as the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Both however have supranational structures that Andrew Calabrese called representative of a “post sovereign era”. When the WEF Asia Pacific meeting met in Melbourne in 2000, it was the target of a major demonstration by S11 protesters concerned with issues relevant to the expansion of global capitalism such as its apparent lack of accountability, its environmental impact and international debt structures that hamper third world development. But while they captured media attention, neither the protesters nor the WEF succeeded in engaging in debate with each other’s views.

Australia was represented at this year’s talks by Trade Minister Simon Crean. He said the forum gave renewed impetus to the long-running Doha round to open up world trade. He told a news conference there were still big gaps among rich and poor countries, but ministers had agreed to finish the round as soon as possible with revised negotiating texts for agriculture and industrial goods. "It was a positive outcome from Davos" he said. “I'm encouraged by the response and the way that message has been conveyed back here and the momentum that that's hopefully generated.”

One of the themes to emerge from the 2008 conference was a quest to determine the values that underpin globalisation. The WEF has left behind its early market fundamentalism and is now charting a new course for global capitalism. This means enhanced “market discipline”, proactive crisis suppression and a recognition of the social cost of a rampant unchecked world economy. It is starting to reach out to parts of the world excluded from its social contract including Africa and Latin America as well as inviting NGOs to participate. According to Daniel Yergin, Chairman of Cambridge Energy Research Associates (CERA), “globalisation is not going to go away.” The question, he said “is what kind of globalisation do we have.”

Monday, January 28, 2008

Congo presses ahead with Grand Inga Dam

When Zambia was hit by its second electricity blackout in 48 hours last week, it turned to its unlikely major power importer to solve the problem: the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The DRC is more commonly known for its interminable problems due to long-running war but is looking towards the mighty Congo River’s power generating capacity to forge a major new export industry for much of Southern Africa. Although Zambia has three hydro power stations of its own, it relies on the DRC to overcome a shortfall.

The key to the DRC’s long-term prospects in this industry is the long promised Grand Inga dam on the lower Congo. When it is delivered, the Grand Inga will be the world’s largest hydropower scheme. It is also envision by the international economic community to link into a power grid across Africa that will spur the continent's industrial economic development. Grand Inga has the potential to produce up to 39,000 MW of electricity, over twice the power generation of Three Gorges Dam in China, up to a third of all Africa’s current needs.

The major problem is the price tag: $US80 billion, well beyond the infrastructure budget of a poor African country. The scheme requires an international approach. Grand Inga is listed as a priority project of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD) and the World Energy Council. Meanwhile other groups are proceeding with their own plans. Three days ago, South African company Eskom and the UN environment agency UNEP presented a $50 billion plan to dam the lower Congo. It is unclear whether this cheaper option included schemes to divert water to dryer regions south and north of the humid Congo Basin. Nor have Eskom revealed the local environmental consequences.

The Congo River has long been recognised for its damming potential. When the country prepared for independence in the late 1950s, its political leaders recognised that modernisation of the country required massive amounts of electricity for factories, cities, hospitals and schools. Its leaders decided to build a dam to span the river at one of the 32 cataracts on Livingstone Falls between the capital Kinshasa and the Atlantic Ocean. The narrow gorges within the Falls create pressures within the river capable of generating waves 12 metres high followed by whirlpools strong enough to suck trees under water.

In 1972 under the dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko, the first hydroelectric dam opened at the city of Inga, about 55km upriver from the seaport of Matadi. Known as Inga I, it was joined by Inga II a few kilometres away in 1982. The dams not only enabled Mobutu to control the flow of power to the rebellious province of Katanga but also remain the only extant hydroelectric dams in the country. They span the river where it narrows, plunging its way through a gorge. While they have been instrumental in supplying electricity to the people of the Congo basin, they represent just six per cent of the river’s potential hydroelectric capacity and there remains 30 other unexploited cataracts.

The idea of the Grand Inga megadam has been around since Inga II was completed. The likely cataract for the dam has a drop of almost one hundred metres promising a huge amount of energy. The dam has been slow getting off the ground while the DRC has been entrenched in war. Now as peace emerges, the plans are being dusted down again. However critics are worried by the environmental consequences. The size of the dam will create a massive reservoir of water that will flood forests and farms and also prevents migration of fish while killing millions of them sucked into the blades of the turbines. The World Wildlife Fund has warned that as conflict in the region subsides, a hydropower development presents the greater threat to the freshwater biodiversity of the Congo Basin, one of the most important wilderness areas left on the planet.

The dangers inherent in the potential size of Grand Inga is also shared by the World Rainforest Movement (WRM). They argue that because the Congo River runs strongly all year (due to rains on both sides of the equator) no large dam is needed. They say that to connect Inga to an Africa-wide electricity grid would cost more than $10 billion but would still not reach the hundreds of millions of Africa's rural poor. The Inga project departs from the goal of small-scale sustainable energy projects which would bring electricity to rural people through local wind and solar power projects. According to WRM, megaprojects are more likely to bring social, economic and environmental disruption of people’s livelihoods, lands and life.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Suharto dies

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has declared a national week of mourning after former long-term president Suharto finally died today following a long illness. The 86 year old Suharto was admitted to hospital on 4 January with failing kidneys, hearts and lungs. Doctors prolonged his life through dialysis and a ventilator, but he stopped breathing on his own overnight before slipping into a coma today. He died of multiple organ failure. Suharto dominated Indonesian politics from his accession to power in 1967 until he was forced to resign in 1998. While Indonesia mourns the passing of a respected leader who improved the country’s standing in world affairs, the reaction in the rest of the world is likely to be more mixed reflecting Suharto’s long, brutal and graft-ridden regime.

Suharto grew up in central Java and was trained in the military by the Japanese during their occupation of the Dutch East Indies in World War II. He then fought the Dutch at the end of the war and served in the new national army after independence in 1950. He rose though the ranks to be one of the most senior military leaders by the mid 1960s. In 1965 Suharto began the process of a brutal seizure of power from Indonesia’s first president Sukarno with the help of the CIA after the Americans believed Sukarno’s so-called “guided democracy” was leading the country down a likely Communist path. In the purges that follow, somewhere between 300,000 and million suspected Communist supporters were murdered on Suharto’s orders. Sukarno was finally stripped of power in 1967 and Suharto was elected president a year later.

Suharto ruled with in totalitarian fashion and posted soldiers in every village. On economic matters, he relied on a group of American-educated economists, nicknamed the "Berkeley Mafia," to set policy. Together they succeeded in delivering at least 7 percent annual economic growth for three decades. He initiated a successful family planning program that, unlike China, did not rely on coercion. The Indonesian economy was opened up to foreign investment, and became a darling of the World Bank and at the International Monetary Fund. Yet Suharto and his children also built up assets estimated at $30 billion in 1989.

Suharto was finally undone by the Asian financial crisis of 1997. In early 1998 he was re-elected president seventh time unopposed. This time Jakarta erupted with pro-democracy riots. 2,000 people were killed and 5,000 buildings were destroyed in Java and Sumatra. Troops secured the airport and government offices and schools were closed while 30,000 students occupied the government buildings. Suharto attempted to face down the protesters. However General Wiranto stepped in and urged him to reconsider. Finally the wave of domestic and international pressure told and Suharto reluctantly stood aside. Suharto retired to a family compound in Central Jakarta, making few public appearances.

The Indonesian military has guaranteed the safety of the Suharto family and its ill-gotten gains of tens of billions of dollars. Armed forces commander and then Minister of Defence Wiranto gave the guarantee to the family when Suharto gave up the presidency in 1998 and it has been honoured by all his successors. Despite his departure, the Suharto family continued to lead the predator class along with its corporate and banking cronies. They operated a system of “plunder by corruption” aided and abetted by senior bureaucrats, state industry executives, police, army generals and a “court mafia” of compliant judges, prosecutors and officials.

Under the reformasi program of President Wahid, Suharto’s son Hutomo (known as Tommy) went to jail for ten years for arranging the murder of a judge who sentenced him to eighteen months for his role in a land scam in September 2000. Also in 2000, Suharto himself was placed under house arrest while authorities investigated his regime’s corruption. But Suharto was saved when court-appointed doctors announced that he could not stand trial because of his declining health. State prosecutors tried again in 2002 but then doctors cited an unspecified brain disease. The last few years have been a long slow decline interspersed with continual legal wrangling.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Bennelong Time: Australia Day

On a sunny day in Adelaide, Australia’s cricketers held the upper hand against India on the third day of the fourth test despite the surprise retirement announcement of wicket keeping great Adam Gilchrist. It was a double national celebration at the Adelaide Oval, possibly the most aesthetically pleasing sporting ground in the world. Not only was it Australia Day, the 220th anniversary of the first European settlement landing in Sydney Cove, but it was also Republic Day in India. That holiday celebrates the day in 1950 the constitution of India came into force and India became a truly sovereign state some two years after it gained independence. While both Australian and Indian celebrations are artificial constructs, the mood was happy in Adelaide and elsewhere. Any excuse for a celebration is a good one.

However for the original Aboriginal settlers of Australia, today is the Day of Mourning when their traditional way of life was ended. Ironically their day celebrates its own special anniversary, being the 70th anniversary of the first organised protest against the treatment of Aboriginal people around Australia.

In 1992 then PM, Paul Keating made a speech in the Sydney suburb of Redfern that seemed to herald a new era of white-Aboriginal relations when he recognised the issues started with non-Aboriginal Australians. Redfern was not only a suburb where Aboriginals lived it was also “[j]ust a mile or two from the place where the first European settlers landed”. Yet just over three years later Keating's vision was comprehensively rejected. John Howard was elected on the manifesto of making white Australians feel more comfortable about themselves. His attitude is reflected today in the advice of such bloggers as Iain Hall today to “enjoy this day without shame.”

But the story has more to do with positive recognition than negative shame. It was never in doubt what was going to happen when 18th century Europe collided with the Neolithic society it encountered in Port Jackson on 26 January 1888. If the British hadn't started it, it would have been the job of the French fleet of Comte Jean-François de Galaude La Perouse who by astonishing coincidence entered Sydney Harbour that same morning 220 years ago.

But it was the First Fleet of Governor Arthur Phillip who had the honour of starting the colony. Phillip was a doughty 50 year old experienced Royal Navy officer. He was smart enough to know that the original landing point at Botany Bay six days earlier was unsuitable for a settlement. And so they jettisoned the Bay discovered by Cook in 1770 and found a harbour 20km to the north of incredible beauty. His ships brought a cargo of a thousand men and women and they found fresh water in what is now Sydney Cove from a creek that ran through gum trees and trickled over mudflats into the saltwater cove.

But Phillip and his fleet knew they weren’t coming into an empty landscape. On the way into the harbour, they were alerted to the firestick farming practices of the native population. Four days earlier, a landing party on the ocean side encountered an armed and vociferous group of locals. As Phillips later described it to the admiralty, the native’s “confidence, and manly behaviour made me give the name of Manly Cove to this place”.

Sydney Cove also had its manly natives. Sydney was the home of the Eora people. They lived in the region for tens of thousands of years having slowly migrated south from the landbridge with Asia. Eora simply meant “the people” and that is how they described themselves to Phillip. They would have had advanced notice of the European arrival from messengers bringing news about the Manly encounter. However they did not offer any opposition to Phillip and instead were very friendly.

British soldiers who had served in the Americas such as Watkin Tench called them “Indians”. While the natives chanted, the convicts were rowed ashore and ordered to cut down trees, clear the ground and pitch tents. North shore natives helped the crew catch fish. But while Phillip named the cove for the British home secretary Thomas Townesend (otherwise known as First Viscount Sydney), the Eora had their own names for the area. Sydney Cove was Warrane which was protected by Tallawoladah (now The Rocks) to the west and Tubowgule to the east. Tubowgule now has a different Aboriginal name Bennelong Point and is also the site of a half-decent Opera House.

The point is named for Woollarawarre Bennelong, a wangal man, from a clan name meaning ‘west’. Wangal territory ran from Parramatta to Darling Harbour. Although kidnapped by Phillip and not immune to Stockholm Syndrome, Bennelong proved to be a clever and wily politician who played a double game in his relations with whites. Phillip kidnapped him in 1790 in order to gain an insight into the Eora mind and calm the increasing tensions between the old and new settlers. Although he learned English and struck up a personal friendship with Phillip, Bennelong escaped after five months. He took part in a spirited resistance against the whites. It is likely he organised the spearing of Phillip in a ‘payback’ exercise for the kidnap. Phillip refused to blame his black protégé. He was rewarded in December that year when Bennelong and his kinsmen and women came in peacefully to Sydney Town, devastated by the newly introduced disease of smallpox.

When Governor Phillip returned to England in triumph in 1792, he took with him Bennelong. At first the young Aboriginal man enjoyed his stay in London, dressed as a dapper gentleman in a ruffled lace shirt and fancy waistcoat. He met mad King George III, heard debates in parliament and swam in the Thames. Newspapers treated him as a “merry fellow” and a celebrity who was “delighted with everything he sees, and courteous to those who know him”. But after seven months he wanted to go home and returned to Sydney broken by the coldness of British weather.

On board HMS Reliance his lungs gave him trouble but he was well enough to teach words of his native tongue to the future explorers Matthew Flinders and George Bass. But Bennelong was a beaten man. When he got home he abandoned most of his white ways except for one – alcohol. He took seriously to drink and violence and was frequently wounded in payback battles. Bennelong died in January 1813 (almost 25 years to the day of the first settlement) at James Squire’s orchard in Parramatta.

Bennelong’s legacy today lies mostly in his name. As well as the famous building on the point that bears his name, he also survives in the nation’s most volatile federal political seat (in inner West Sydney) that in November saw sitting Prime Minister John Howard famously defeated by Labor’s star media recruit Maxine McKew.

But Bennelong’s people have not done so well as his name. Australia's indigenous population has suffered a genocidal history that caused the Aboriginal population to drop from 300,000 to 70,000 in the 134 years to 1920. Australia Day remains a tainted holiday until white Australia remembers the act of recognition in Keating’s Redfern speech. It also requires an act of imagination: As Keating said, “We cannot imagine that the descendants of people whose genius and resilience maintained a culture here through 50 000 years or more, through cataclysmic changes to the climate and environment, and who then survived two centuries of dispossession and abuse, will be denied their place in the modern Australian nation.” Happy Australia Day.

Friday, January 25, 2008

North Kivu peace deal

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has issued a cautious welcome for the peace deal struck in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) province of North Kivu. UNHCR rep António Guterres told the signing conference in Kivu’s capital Goma it represented a big step in the search for a lasting peace but would not end the immediate problems. Guterres’ caution is understandable given the tenuous nature of previous agreements. The situation in North Kivu remains volatile with 800,000 displaced people still seeking refuge despite the Congolese war ending officially in 2003.

DRC president Joseph Kabila attended the signing in Goma, a city which has suffered heavy fighting in recent months. The UN and western governments exerted heavy diplomatic pressure to get the peace deal to the table and now hope the accord can put an end to fighting in the east, which has raged on despite the official end of Congo’s war five years ago. Last minute disagreements over war crimes cases threatened to derail the talks but the deal was finally sealed on Wednesday.

As well as the DRC government, the deal was signed by Tutsi rebel General Laurent Nkunda, the pro-government Mai Mai militia and about 18 other minor groups. The accord brings long negotiations to an end and includes an immediate ceasefire and the deployment of UN peacekeepers in 13 key locations. It also offers a probable amnesty to Nkunda and his forces however the rebels say the full implementation will require the disarming of a rival ethnic Hutu militia.

The signature of Laurent Nkunda was a key success factor. His forces have clashed with government troops since 2004 and he has been successful in painting himself as a protector of Congo’s Tutsi minority especially from the remnants of the Hutu Interahamwe militia (known as ex-FAR) who were responsible for the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Nkunda helped Joseph Kabila overthrow the hated Mobutu reign but fell out with the new Kinshasa regime. The DRC and the UN issued an arrest warrant for Nkunda in 2005 but that has been nullified by the new deal.

Nkunda’s forces have been mainly fighting the government aligned Mai Mai who have been equally as brutal. Both sides use child soldiers indiscriminately. The Mai-Mai are a loosely aligned local defence group of pro-government forces made up of warlords, traditional tribal elders, village heads, and politically motivated resistance fighters. In 2006, Human Rights Watch called for the DRC government to charge Mai Mai warlord Kyungu Mutanga on counts of murder, rape and abuse of civilians.

Analysts are sceptical the latest deal can achieve much as the talks excluded two key players: Rwanda and the Hutu Interahamwe (ex-FAR). Those displaced by the conflict want to see the repatriation to Rwanda of members of Hutu extremist militias they regard as the main cause of insecurity in the region. The DRC government has tabled a plan that provides for the repatriation of Rwandan Hutu fighters, first voluntarily and then by force from mid-March if they refuse to leave. But most of the people in North Kivu are hopeful the deal will bring peace to a devastated region. "There are too many killings, too many rapes and abuses that should stop at all costs," said local farmer Alphonse Batiburasabinako. Up to 1,500 Congolese die in the region every day, mostly from preventable diseases and malnutrition.

The news comes just days after the International Rescue Committee released its report into "Mortality in the DRC" (pdf) over the last ten years. The report notes that although a formal peace accord was signed in December 2002, the war has since given way to several smaller conflicts in the five eastern provinces including North Kivu. The IRC’s earlier four studies, conducted between 2000 and 2004, estimated that 3.9 million people had died (mostly from disease and malnutrition) in the DRC since 1998, making it the world’s deadliest conflict since World War II. This fifth survey, covering the period from January 2006 to April 2007, found the DRC’s national crude mortality rate (CMR) of 2.2 deaths per 1,000 per month is 57 percent higher than the average rate for sub-Saharan Africa. This is despite recent improvements. Once again it found most deaths are due to preventable and treatable conditions. The IRC says recovery from conflict is a slow and painful process. They called on steadfast international commitment to secure recent gains and prevent further deterioration in a country that remains in deep need.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Bully leaves the playground: The Death of The Bulletin

Australia’s oldest magazine "The Bulletin" has shut down today after 128 years. Australian Consolidated Press (ACP) magazines chief executive Scott Lorson issued a media release today saying that The Bulletin would cease publication immediately. Its final issue went on sale yesterday. In the latest Audit Bureau of Circulations figures, The Bulletin was down to 57,000 readers down from circulation highs of over 100,000 in the mid 1990s. The news comes barely three days after Lachlan Murdoch and James Packer launched a bid for the PBL media empire which includes 25 per cent of ACP.

However with The Bulletin always being a pet project of James Packer’s late father Kerry, the decision to shut down the magazine is more likely to have been made by the other 75 per cent owning partners, Swiss private equity firm CVC Asia Pacific Ltd. Journalists union Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) blames the former Howard Government’s change to media laws that allowed Packer to sell out PBL to overseas interests. Union federal secretary Chris Warren said CVC Asia Pacific was only interested in short-term profits. "Instead of The Bulletin being owned by an Australian company, it's now controlled by overseas private equity," he said. "It's only interested in money and not really understanding I think the important role that many of the assets within that company play within the broader Australian culture."

There is no doubt the “Bully” has played a major role in Australian culture. According to founding editor Jules Francois Archibald (for whom the Archibald Prize is named), the Bulletin began with a rickety three-legged chair which upended him on his first meeting with fellow founder John Haynes in a Sydney newspaper office in 1879. The two men were determined to start a paper of their own. The Sydney Bulletin (named for the San Francisco Bulletin) first hit the newsstands on 31 January, 1880 with a circulation of 3,000. According to Sylvia Lawson its early years were an “astounding conflagration of cultural and journalistic energy”. She says its racist and xenophobic jokes were merely elements in a weekly cacophony of news, anecdotes, stories, ballads and pictures.

John William Traill became editor in 1883 and he really put the paper on its feet. After a shaky start its circulation grew to 80,000 in ten years. He promoted an anti-British line in the 1886 adventure in the Sudan and supported Parnell and the Irish home rule cause. It celebrated the centenary of white Australia in 1888 as “the day we were lagged”. But xenophobia was never far away and The Bulletin ran a hysterical campaign against Chinese immigration. The Bulletin was a major influence on the White Australia policy implemented by the first federal government in 1901.

The Bulletin played up to its nickname of the Bushman’s Bible. Its correspondents Henry Lawson (pictured right with Archibald) and A.B. Patterson engaged in a famous verse-duel on the bush, with Banjo singing its praises and Lawson reciting its glooms and hardships. But by Federation, the newspaper was past its early best. Archibald left the paper in 1906 and it moved further to the right editorially. The paper suffered a long and unloved decline. By mid century the readership had dwindling to near non-existence. It was saved from death by the purchase in 1960 by Frank Packer’s ACP. Packer’s masterstroke was to appoint Donald Horne as editor. Horne revitalised the Bulletin, excised its xenophobia and mysogyny and removed the controversial masthead which read ‘Australia For the White Man’.

Despite Horne’s energy and intellectual vigour the magazine continued to operate at a loss for many years. It was sustained only by Packer largesse and its tax write-off potential. However, in the 1980s The Bulletin was shifted to a more business-oriented audience and did well in the financial boom. Its circulation topped 120,000 and became a profitable title once more. But it suffered at the hands of the free magazine inserts in the weekend newspapers and again later at the hands of the Internet.

Various attempts to breathe new life into the magazine failed. Laurie Oakes has written a political column in The Bulletin for the past 24 years. He lamented the decision to shut it down, but said it was not a shock. "I know that it hasn't been profitable for a long time and I guess when you think about it, it's not surprising,” he said. “It doesn't make it any less upsetting.”

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Ominous Scions: Murdoch and Packer plot Australian media's future

The two most dominant names in Australia media came together again this week when Lachlan Murdoch and James Packer announced a $3.3 billion bid to take over Consolidated Media Holdings (CMH). Packer's Consolidated Press Holdings (CPH) is the major shareholder in CMH and they are combining with Murdoch’s private company Illyria to buy out the remaining shareholders. The deal is contingent on whether CMH shareholders consider the $4.80 share price adequate.

If the deal is approved, Murdoch will become the newly privatised vehicle's executive chairman. He has declared he wants to take on a “hands on” role. He said the main attraction is the growth potential in the Pay TV assets but he also wants to get involved with Channel Nine as well. "This is going to be my focus over the years to come if we're successful," he said. "I ran 35 TV stations in the US while I was there, obviously I understand print businesses very well, so I'd hope I could I add value if CVC and the management of PBL Media were interested in my opinions.”

It is his reference to the newspaper business that worries many analysts. Murdoch vehemently denies his side of the funding is related to his father Rupert’s massive News Corp organisation which is already the largest media empire in Australia. Murdoch jnr resigned from his executive positions at News Corp in July 2005 but remains on the international board in a non-executive capacity. Murdoch said he had no plans to leave the board, because CMH businesses didn't compete with News Corp operations. Writing in Crikey today, Glenn Dyer asked where the money was coming from to finance the bid and suggested banks were coming to the party because Rupert Murdoch has provided guarantees for his son’s share.

Also writing in Crikey, Margaret Simons has similar concerns. She questioned whether Lachlan Murdoch can, as he claimed, “add value” to the assets. She says there must be more to the deal than is currently in the public domain as asset strength is not a primary consideration for venture capitalists. Simons believes that Murdoch’s most important weapon is his “contact book” which he has extraordinary leverage over through his family.

Certainly the assets in question are extremely valuable. CMH was formed just three months ago when Packer split up his father Kerry’s Publishing and Broadcasting Limited (PBL) empire into a media and a gaming arm based on the Melbourne Crown casino. At the time Packer pumped most of his cash into the gaming side of the business. Despite his divestment, CMH remains a big player in the Australian media scene. It owns 25 per cent of the Nine Network, Pay TV operator Foxtel, and Australia’s biggest magazine publisher ACP (publisher of the titles Women's Weekly, The Bulletin and Woman's Day). It also has an option to buy-out the remaining 75 per cent of these assets if private equity owners CVC decide to sell out. CMH’s grab-bag of enterprises led the Australian Financial Review’s Chanticleer to describe it as “Spare Parts Media”, an organisation unlikely to last long as investors eye off its strategic assets.

Murdoch and Packer will be hoping this will be more successful than their last joint venture. They were both directors of the ill-fated telecommunications company One.Tel which collapsed in 2001. During the dotcom boom One.Tel attempted to create a youth-oriented image to sell their mobile phones and internet services. The company was supposed to make the country's richest sons successful in their own right. In 2000 One.Tel reported a loss of $291 million after spending over $500m million on purchasing additional Australian spectrum licenses. Yet company managers Jodee Rich and Brad Keeling gave themselves a $7 million dollar bonus. Packer defended the pair as visionaries and excellent managers. In May 2001, Packer and Murdoch underwrote a rights issue of $132 million worth of new shares. Just 12 days later, a voluntary administrator was sent in and One.Tel went bust. One can assume the pair have learned their lesson and won’t ignore their statutory duties of care and diligence a second time.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Born Again Borg: Lawrence Springborg rises from the Nationals' Ashes

In a transparently desperate and uninspiring move, the 17 parliamentary members of the Queensland National Party have re-appointed Lawrence Springborg as its leader. Springborg previously led the party from 2003 to 2006 and resigned in 2006 after his second comprehensive election defeat at the hands of Labor. He now replaces the hapless Jeff Seeney who never faced the voters as party leader. Springborg regains the leadership with the Nationals polling at just nine per cent and he is considered the most attractive proposition to lead a proposed new state-based conservative force that might emerge from the Queensland Nationals and Liberals.

The news came just a couple of days after Springborg said a leadership coup was "not on the radar" despite being approached by parliamentary colleagues to challenge Jeff Seeney. But soon-to-be-deposed leader Seeney was not fooled and knew the challenge was just under that radar. He accused Springborg of manoeuvring behind the scenes. "I'm particularly disappointed that Lawrence Springborg has chosen to pursue this issue in the media,” he said. Springborg's machinations worked to perfection and he won yesterday's vote in some comfort.

The scenario is similar to what transpired in 2003. At that time Springborg was touted as a replacement leader for Mike Horan. The Nationals were polling poorly at 8 or 9 per cent and Horan was perceived of being incapable of mounting any serious opposition to then Labor leader Peter Beattie. Springborg (who was deputy leader under Rob Borbidge) urged a party ballot and put his name forward as leader under the label of “progressive conservative”. He won the party ballot easily by nine votes to three. Then just 34 with four young children, he represented a generational shift for the Nationals. He immediate announced then (as he did yesterday) his most urgent goal was to unite with the Queensland Liberals.

Of course, that dream was scuppered at a federal level by Prime Minister John Howard. Now the ambitions are just state based. According to anonymous acerbic Queensland psephologist Possum Comitatus, Springborg’s dubious prize is to occupy one of the state’s two opposition leadership positions. He believes any merger is doomed to failure due to the radically different supporter bases of the two parties. He also correctly points out that it doesn’t matter what the Nationals the next non-Labor leader of Queensland will be a Liberal. The coalition needs to win another unlikely 20 seats from Labor to win power and these seats are in the populous south-east of the state where only the Liberals are capable of winning.

While the Possum was scathing, fellow Queensland political pundit Mark Bahnitsch conceded Springborg is “marginally better placed” than Feeney to take up the fight to Labor leader Anna Bligh (who herself has yet to be tested at the polls as leader). But that was where the praise ended. Bahnitsch called Springborg a “single note politician” due to his infatuation with the merger with the Liberals, a prospect doomed to failure anyway. Bahnitsch also castigated the laziness of the Nationals frontbench which he said was content with the spoils of opposition.

This laziness is an arrow pointed straight at Springborg himself. Tracey Arklay and John Wanna’s analysis of the 2004 Queensland election defeat was a damning indictment of his inactivity. Arklay and Wanna said that Springborg allowed Peter Beattie to run a “non-campaign”. Defending 66 out of 89 seats in parliament, it suited Beattie to avoid campaigning and adversarial politics to reduce the risk of a protest vote. However the strategy would not have worked unless supported by a compliance and supine opposition. Springborg entered the election with low expectations, failed to challenge the Premier and relied on a vain hope of a “natural correction”. The result was a second successive landslide win for Labor. Springborg didn’t do much better in 2006 against an even more tired Beattie Government. It beggars belief that anyone thinks he will make any further ground against Labor rejuvenated with Anna Bligh’s leadership.

Monday, January 21, 2008

The return of Firestick Farming

In an unsigned opinion article about the danger of fire bugs in The Age last week, the writer invoked the ancient Aboriginal practice of firestick farming. Firestick farming refers to the practice of the indigenous use of fire to promote the well-being of particular types of ecosystems. The regular burning not only kept down undergrowth and germinated fresh seedlings but also curbed wildfire by preventing dry fuel from building up. The practice has died out since the European invasion of Australia and the Age writer states this has increased the devastation caused when fire bugs deliberately light bushfires.

The term “firestick farming” was coined by Australian prehistorian Rhys Jones in his 1969 book “Australian Natural History”. His thesis is that over tens of thousands of years the practice produced widespread ecological changes in the vegetation and the animals that lived there. The fires thinned out eucalyptus forests, kept the undergrowth sparse, and promoted native grasses which in turn encouraged grazing animals such as kangaroos. The kangaroos provided a readily accessible supply of meat. Jones states that before Europeans came to Australia, the land had already been "colonised, exploited, and manipulated" by Aborigines, who "systematically and universally" lit bushfires over the entire continent. It was an integral part of their economy.

The practice was so widespread that early white navigators called Australia the “burning country”. On their way from Botany Bay to Sydney Harbour, the First Fleet noted “a great number of fires” which marked the presence of large numbers of indigenous people. They also noted the open "park like" nature of the country around Sydney Cove and Parramatta. According to Rhys Jones, early settlers in Tasmania found superb grasslands for their sheep. They were mystified when, after a few years, the forest grew back over the land. They did not realise that in hunting off the Aborigines, they had stopped the land management by fire. It was the Aborigines who maintained the grasslands. Similar discoveries were made elsewhere. While surveying western New South Wales in 1848, explorer Thomas Mitchell said: "Fire, grass, kangaroos and human inhabitants seem all dependent on each other for existence in Australia. Fire is necessary to burn the grass and form these open forests in which we find the large kangaroos."

Aboriginal burning practices are based on regular “cool fires”. Patch-burning low intensity fires occurred in winter with over a number of years to create a mosaic of habitats. Aboriginals lit fires when there was little fuel load and the weather was not going to cause the fire to get out of control. The practice also helped seed germination in some plants.

To obtain fire, the pointed end of a stick was pushed into a hole in a piece of wood and twirled rapidly in the hand creating friction. Because this was a tedious practice that took the time and effort of many men, they carried the firesticks with them wherever they went. The natives used fire to trap game, cook game, dry fish, smoke animal from trees, night fishing, provide warmth, deter mosquitoes, and cremate the dead. Through firestick farming the Aboriginals formed their landscape and forged their livelihoods.

While firestick farming was banned by the white Northern Territories authorities for many years, the practice is now making a comeback. In western Arnhem Land the local community is creating firebreaks using traditional methods. The ancient practice of burning the lands soon after the rains to regenerate useful plants and animals was ended in the last fifty years as people moved into townships. As a result, around half of the landscape was incinerated by uncontrolled wildfires late in the dry season. Now the locals have struck an innovative deal with an LNG refinery company (Conoco-Phillips) that requires carbon credits. Their research revealed that a hectare burnt in May releases half the greenhouse emissions of a hectare burnt in a hot November wildfire. For the next 17 years, Conoco-Phillips will pay a million dollars per annum to support Arnhem fire management. The carbon trade will buy the company millions of tonnes of greenhouse savings. In this way, firestick farming will prove to be economically viable as well as environmentally sustainable.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

British power in the Sudan: the story of the River War

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir celebrated the opening of a new Chinese-funded bridge across the Nile this week at the city of Merowe, 350km north of the capital Khartoum. The bridge is the only road crossing of the Nile between the Egyptian border and the capital. Al-Bashir told the inauguration ceremony the new 440m span was an important achievement. “With China’s help,” he said Thursday, “Sudan will certainly score glorious achievements one after another along our path of construction and development.”

The Nile played a central role in the 1898 River War which established British power in the Sudan. The story is vividly told in eye-witness fashion by Winston Churchill in his 1899 book “The River War: An account of the re-conquest of the Soudan” when he was a young serving officer in the British army. Churchill himself saw action in the decisive Battle of Omdurman where the native forces were comprehensively defeated leading to the establishment of the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium which would rule Sudan until independence in 1955.

In his 1997 foreword of “The River War” Churchill’s grandson, also named Winston S. Churchill, said the significance of the book lies not in Britain’s attempts to subjugate the Sudan, but rather it is the first major work of the man who 40 forty years later did more than any other single individual to save the world from Hitler. However I disagree. The story of the colonial winning of the Sudan inadvertently shows up European attitudes towards Africa that remain today. The seeds of the modern wars and genocide in Sudan were laid in these times. There is no doubt Churchill is a great story teller and his accounts are lively and detailed. They also reveal his casual racism and his supreme belief in the civilising power of the British Empire.

When Britain decided on a mission to invade Sudan, Churchill used his American mother’s influence to get onto the staff of the 25th Lancers overriding the opposition of the Field Marshall Herbert Horatio Kitchener. Thanks to the technical superiority of the British, the outcome of the war was never really in doubt. The British built railways, took heavily armed gunboats down the Nile. Its most potent weapon was best described by the poet Hilaire Belloc who wrote “Whatever happens we have got / the maxim gun, and they have not”. Nonetheless there was no doubt Churchill’s courage. Involved in the British army’s last ever cavalry charge at Omdurman (across the Nile from Khartoum), Churchill would only have been armed with a lance and a pistol.

The most interesting part of Churchill’s story is the meticulous history of why the campaign was launched in the first place. Britain had been involved with Ottoman Egypt since the bombardment of Alexandria in 1881 as Britain defended its newest prize possession: the Suez Canal. In that typical British way, they were “invited” to give governance to Egypt and Sir Evelyn Baring (later Lord Cromer) became agent and consul-general. Sudan, which at the time was an Egyptian conquest, took advantage of the chaos in Cairo to launch a successful rebellion against their hated northern masters.

It was called the Mahdi Rebellion. The leader was Mohammed Ahmed from the northern riverine town of Dongola. Ahmed was a wandering religious preacher who cloaked himself in the guise of the “Mahdi” (prophet) who would rid Sudan of its invaders. He launched an Islamic revolution with the help of a young man named Abdullah. While the British fleet were bombing Alexandria, the Mahdi took control of Sudan. Only well-defended Khartoum held out. The British Prime Minister William Gladstone was unwilling to save Sudan but promised to relieve the defenders of Khartoum. They sent in General Charles Gordon, an old Sudan expert, to “wind up affairs” and end British interest in Sudan.

General Gordon proved to be an embarrassment to his bosses. Having fought his way down the Nile to Khartoum, he then refused to leave his post. He realised he could not extricate the garrisons. He asked for military support from Egypt which was refused. The Tory opposition lambasted Gladstone in parliament for his refusal to support Gordon. As the newspapers fed popular support for Gordon, a “flying column” was quickly assembled to rescue the city now besieged by the Mahdi’s forces. They arrived in Khartoum two day too late.

The Mahdi had stormed the city overnight and killed Gordon and his Sudanese defenders. The British mission was deemed a failure and they withdrew the field leaving the Sudan in the hands of the Mahdi. Barely five months after his campaign, the Mahdi fell sick of typhus and died. Abdullah took charge and became known as the Khalifa (successor). He would rule for the next 12 years until overthrown by Kitchener’s forces. The Mahdi’s Tomb would dominate the new capital of Omdurman, across the Nile from the destroyed city of Khartoum.

The Mahdist regime imposed the world’s strictest Islamic laws. It was a jihad state, run like a military camp. Sharia courts enforced Islamic law and the Mahdi's precepts, which had the force of law. In 1892 Kitchener became “sirdar” (commander) of the Egyptian army and started preparations for the reconquest of Sudan. With Belgian and French colonial claims converging at the Nile, it was deemed too dangerous to leave Sudan unmolested. In 1895 Kitchener launched his campaign. Britain provided men and materiel while Egypt financed the expedition. The Anglo-Egyptian Nile Expeditionary Force included 25,800 men, 8,600 of whom were British. The remainder were troops belonging to Egyptian units that included six battalions recruited in southern Sudan.

The British constructed a rail line from Wadi Halfa on the border to Abu Hamad and an extension parallel to the Nile to transport troops and supplies to Barbar. Gunboats sailed down the navigable portions of the Nile (more was passable when the river was in flood). Railhead needed to be built to cross the 7 cataracts between Wadi Haifa and Khartoum. Merowe was a significant town at the head of the third cataract where at the end of 320km of clear waterway. The army met little resistance as it snaked down the Nile by riverboat and railway.

Battle was finally joined outside the Khalifa's capital. On 2 September 2 1898, his 52,000-man army launched a frontal assault against the Anglo-Egyptian force on the plain outside Omdurman. Thanks to superior British firepower, it was a massacre. During the five-hour battle, about 11,000 Mahdists died whereas Anglo-Egyptian losses amounted to 48 dead and fewer than 400 wounded. The Khalifa escaped but died in fighting the following year. The Islamist reign in Sudan had ended. It would not resume until Omar al-Bashir took power almost one hundred years later in 1988.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

post ceasefire Sri Lanka unravels

Tamil Tiger rebels killed eight civilians and two policemen yesterday in southern Sri Lanka as the violence escalates following the end of the six-year ceasefire. The war has taken a new and dangerous turn with Tamil forces determined to take the battle to the relatively peaceful and mostly Sinhalese south of the country. The ten were killed in an ambush in the village of Thanamalwila, 250km southeast of the capital, Colombo. According to military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara, rebels opened fire on civilians in the village killing three and wounding three others. After they fled the area, investigating police and army troops found seven more bodies.

Their deaths bring the toll to over 300 in the last two weeks. Violence has spiralled out of control in the Indian Ocean island nation after the Colombo government unilaterally announced the end of the ceasefire with LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam) two weeks ago. The latest incident happened just two days after rebels massacred civilians on an attack on a bus in a town in the same area. Attackers detonated a 20 kg roadside bomb alongside a passenger bus as it travelled through the remote town of Buttala. According to witnesses, gunmen then shot panicked passengers as they tried to flee. "Everyone that got out through the doors, they shot and killed," said 25-year-old passenger Sampath. "I jumped from the window and just escaped." 27 people died and another 62 were injured in the attack.

Meanwhile government troops have been wreaking their own havoc against the rebels as the country teeters on the brink of all-out war. Colombo claims to have launched a major offensive and killed 250 rebel soldiers in the last two weeks. There are conflicting claims about whether government fighter jets have destroyed a rebel base near the northern town of Kilinochchi where Tamil Tiger leaders were meeting. According to the pilots the base was successfully destroyed but the pro-rebel TamilNet website said the planes "bombed a civilian area with a mechanic workshop".

The government has defended its 2 January policy decision to withdraw from the truce citing “thousands of violations” to the Norwegian-brokered ceasefire agreement made by the rebels and therefore the truce itself had failed. Confusingly they also claimed the termination of the truce would not hamper the peace negotiation process. Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama tried to explain to reporters why this was the case: "[the end of the truce] gives us broader space to pursue this goal in a manner that involves all sections of the Sri Lankan polity, which remained sidelined due to the CFA, an agreement solely between the government and the LTTE.”

Nevertheless the real reason is more likely to be that the government believes the Tamil Tigers can be fatally weakened by a concerted attack. President Mahinda Rajapakse appears convinced that victory is near and is determined to push his troops into the northern jungles to kill LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran. Rajapakse is a rabble-rousing ultra nationalist determined to find a military solution to the problem. He has promised to hand over Prabhakaran to India where he is wanted in connection with the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. Gandhi had unsuccessfully sent in Indian troops to keep the peace in Sri Lanka.

With both sides willing to fight to the death, there is no end in sight to the killing. The armed conflict in Sri Lanka has already claimed over 65,000 lives since 1983. Tamil Tigers have been fighting for an independent state for Sri Lanka's 3 million ethnic Hindu Tamil minority in the north and east after decades of being marginalized by Buddhist Sinhalese-dominated governments. In 2002 Norway brokered a ceasefire agreement which gave the north defacto independence and would have brought a federal-type arrangement in Sri Lanka. That prospect raised fear in the Sinhalese community that the country would be eventually split in two. Now Rajapakse is running the risk of the country been torn apart to avoid been split up.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Bats: A secret success story

Californian authorities say that eight people have died in five years in accidents in the state’s 47,000 abandoned mines. Now state authorities are determined to make them some of them safer while providing a novel ecological niche for bats. Sited due east of San Francisco, the small town of Tracy is the home of several long-abandoned coal mining caves. Vandals recently made one of them unsafe by burning the beams supporting the entrance. Now authorities have barred off with a gate. It is the first step in a program to keep prying humans out and provide an ideal habitat for bats. The slates are wide enough for Townsend's big-eared bats and pallid bats to fly through. Both species hibernate and roost in the dank humidity of the Californian caves.

Cave colonies can become very large with many bats loving the stable microclimate. It is not unknown for colonies of hundreds of thousands of different species to share a cave site. Young bats congregate to in thick clusters to form crèches of 3,000 square meters. In Winter time hibernating bats reduce their body temperature to within a couple of degrees of the site temperature and live on their accumulated body fat. They cannot stand on their legs and so hang upside down, held in place with no effort by the clinging shape of the tendons of the foot.

The reason they cannot stand on their legs is that they have evolved into wings. The scientific name for bats is Chiroptera. The word is Latin for “hand wing” and describes the bats’ fingers which are connected by a stretchy membrane which make up the wings. The fragile nature of bats has not left much data in the fossil record so science does not give a good accounting of how the only flying mammals evolved. The likeliest explanation is that they were originally insect-eating tree creatures who scurried around on all fours until they became airborne. However the theory does not explain how partially successful fliers could survive well enough to produce another generation yet incredible this unlikely event happened twice.

The fact remains that the two types of bats evolved separately. The majority are the mostly insectivorous microbats and the rest are mostly fruit-eating megabats (or fruit bats). Megabats range in size from the Indian giant flying fox with a human-sized wingspan of 1.8 metres to the petite Malaysian flower bat with its 21cm wingspan. The splendidly named false vampire of American tropics (so called because they prefer to bite the prey's head and crush its skull rather than suck its blood) is the largest of the microbats with a 1 metre span which dwarfs the rare and tiny 1.5 gram Thai bumblebee bat, possibly the world’s smallest mammal. The microbats evolved from shrews possibly in a period of global warming 50 million years ago and the megabats evolved later either from microbats, or, more controversially, from early primates.

One of the shrew’s lesser known characteristics is echolocation which they passed on to the microbats. When Britain successfully developed radar in World War II, some scientists were scathing when it was suggested that nature had already beaten them to it. But by 1944, Donald Griffin at Harvard proved bat echolocation existed. Bats send bursts of high-pitched sounds as they fly. These sounds emerge from the larynx and are mostly emitted by mouth. The Egyptian rousette bat clicks its tongue whereas others such as horseshoe bats emit the noise through a complex noseleaf around the nostril that focuses the beam of sound.

Whatever way they are emitted, the sounds travel as air waves until they strike an object. Some of the energy in the sound wave is returned as an echo and the amount returned depends on such factors as distance, durability of the object and whether the object is moving or not. Bats quickly analyse the returned data and identify the object. In order to catch prey they need to locate the target precisely in three dimensions and they do this by measuring the time delay between signal emission and echo reception As it closes in, the bat increases the pulse rate of sound to track it down using the Doppler shift. At the point of contact, the calls are so fast they are known as a “feeding buzz”. Some bats can make an incredible 200 calls per second at the feeding buzz.

Megabats don’t use echolocation but contrary to the ‘blind as a bat’ myth, they have large well developed eyes for night vision and can see as well as owls or cats. In Australia, flying fox colonies are enormous and the animals are highly sociable. Bats can also claim to be the most successful mammals, representing a fifth of all mammalian species. As Sue Churchill says about them in “Australian Bats” they live in a dimension so different from human experience that “we cannot escape a sense of wonder of the precision of even the simplest aspect of their biology”.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Southern Sudan looks towards its own independent future

Southern Sudanese leader Salva Kiir has used the third anniversary of the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement to call on his people to support the national census next April. In a meeting with traditional chiefs in the Great Bahr el-Ghazal area of the south, Kiir said the census was linked to development and provision of services to all citizens. Kiir, who is both the President of the Government of Southern Sudan and first Vice-President of Sudan, said “enemies of peace” want to destabilise the CPA and stressed the need for disarmament in the south. Kiir also said the border between the two parts of Sudan would be demarcated by February and Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir asked him to withdraw SPLA forces south of the border.

In a major speech, Kiir renewed his call to all sectors of the Sudanese people to demonstrate tolerance, renounce violence and uphold the principle of justice. He urged his people to allow Arab nomads move south to pursue water and pasture and invited the Arab League, the AU and the international community to monitor implementation of the peace agreement and address its challenges. He reiterated the option for unity or separation is reserved for the people of the South by referendum. If separation takes place, he said, they will remain “two harmonious states”.

His speech came as the final peace talks were brokered in Kenya on 9 January to follow up on implementation aspects of the CPA. Southern Sudan is now planning a celebration to honour the anniversary as soon as Sudanese government forces and its own forces withdraw behind the agreed lines. According to local journalist Joseph Machok Makak in Khartoum, the only way to ensure peace in Sudan is by “fully implementing the CPA that forms the legal base for the resolution of Sudan's civil war, which claimed about two million innocent lives".

The Sudan CPA signed on 9 January 2005 contained a number of key resolutions. Firstly it insisted on separate armed forces for north and south with both sides withdrawing from each other's territory. Secondly the South would be autonomous for six years with a referendum in 2011 on total secession. Oil wealth would be split fifty-fifty. Two separate currencies are to be used within a dual banking system. Central government positions were to be split 70:30 in favour of Sudan and 55:45 in their favour in the contentious areas. Sharia law continues in the north but not in the south. Finally each area was to use its own emblems with the South to design a new flag.

The conflict between the sides is older than Sudan itself. Prior to independence in 1956, British rulers treated the north and south differently. They modernised northern Sudan by expanding rail and telegraph services but made little attempt to help the south. Believing the area was not ready for modernisation, they sealed off the area from outsiders and issued laws to discourage northerners from working or travelling there. They also kept the black Dinka tribesmen of the south from adopting Islam or speaking Arabic or dressing like northern Sudanese. Instead they encouraged Christianity and missionaries to establish churches and schools.

In the year before independence, a southern military unit mutinied at Torit and began to wage a guerrilla war campaign. It continued sporadically for 17 years. In 1971 new Sudanese leader Jaafar al-Nimeri met southern chief Joseph Lagu in a conference in Addis Ababa mediated by Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie. The accords signed in 1972 gave the south some autonomy and ten years of peace followed. Nimeri ended the agreement by unilaterally imposing Sharia law on the south in 1983 in a vain attempt to head off fundamentalist opposition. Civil war broke out again coordinated by the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement under the charismatic leadership of American educated John Garang.

Nimeri was deposed in a coup in 1989 which brought current leader Omar Hassan al-Bashir to power. Bashir declared martial law and all-out war against the south. But he was eventually forced to compromise and abolished Sharia for the south in 1991 (the SPLM wanted Sharia removed for all Sudan). In 1998 both sides agreed in principle for a referendum for the south but were unable to finalise the details until Intergovernmental Authority on Drought and Development leaders forced the CPA in 2005. Garang was killed in a plane crash barely weeks after finalising the peace agreement. His death brought Salva Kiir to the leadership of the SPLM and defacto leader of Southern Sudan.

Southern Sudan now has its own constitution and seems well on the way to negotiating its own future. Yet seasoned Sudan watchers wait pessimistically for President Bashir to weasel his way out of this latest agreement as he has done with so many in the past, both in Southern Sudan and Darfur. Kiir knows he has to tread delicately, hence the cautious speeches this week. Khartoum remains highly reluctant to give up its power in the margins of its British inheritance, particularly one with so much oil. The conflict has claimed the lives of two million people who have died directly of war, or of disease and famine. Another half a million have fled the country. The stakes are high for those who hope.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

media creates underage party monster

On the weekend, a 16 year old year held a party at his parent’s outer Melbourne home while they were away on holidays. The party got somewhat out of control as over 500 people attended causing minor damage to nearby property and nuisance value to local police. There this minor story would have ended up but for the prurience of the local media and a vilification campaign that served only on to cement his “stardom”. The story has proved again the difference between stories in the public interest and stories the public are interested in. Despite having no importance whatsoever except perhaps to show the disaffection of modern teens, the boy is now an international media star, but who now officially can no longer be named in Australua due to a summons to a children’s court next month. However his name is in the public domain in the Sydney Morning Herald as well as in countless other places despite his arrest.

The media have created this monster. Today Crikey posted a detailed timeline of events. Local news first got wind of the story Sunday morning as rumours of a wild party filtered though. Cameras at the scene picked up drunken youths running partially naked near the scene. Channel Nine mentioned the boy’s name in the Sunday evening news. Then the Monday talkback lines predictably rang hot with angry finger-pointing parents. But as usual it was the evening Channels Nine and Seven laughably entitled “current affairs” show that were the worst offenders of manufactured outrage. Channel Seven found and badgered the parents on holidays on the Gold Coast who worried about their son's ego. Nine interviewed the youth himself who exasperated the host with his dress code, his lack of apology and the temerity to refuse to take off sunglasses when ordered to do so on camera. He then flabbergasted the host by suggesting it was the “best party ever” and suggested anyone who wanted to host a party should use his organising skills!

The media's obsession with his sunglasses theme continued yesterday when the youth fled the studio after a radio interview host Matt Tilley physically attempted to remove them. However, the youth is clearly getting media coaching from somewhere as he later returned to finish the interview in unruffled and presumably unmolested fashion. Tabloid newspapers and talk-show hosts continued to put the boot in about the “party monster” and “puffed up teen party pest”. The story went international as British newspapers reported on it and US news programs picked up the video footage. CNN said the story was the most downloaded from their website where it is trashily listed as “Aussie Party Teen in Child Porn Arrest”.

Meanwhile the attitude towards the youth is markedly different on the internet, where the demographic is presumably closer to the boy’s own age group. Here it has been described it as a battle between old media and new media and one which old media “lost”. TV and radio hosts “had no power over” the youth. Radar called him “Australia’s hottest party boy” and commenters wrote in to suggest someone should “get those famous sunglasses their own tv show!”

Aileron also noted that not only did he use text messages and Myspace and Facebook to send out invites to the party but the social network sites were crucial in providing the momentum for the post-party story. In the part of the story barely reported, the boy told media his invited guests had no part in the melee, and that it was the gatecrashers who had caused all the trouble. But that doesn’t set news directors' pulses raising. A photogenic rebellious youth does. And so on a busy US news day of presidential primaries, Bush’s glory dash in the Middle East, and Wall Street plummeting, a story of an unremarkable party in Melbourne that went awry has topped them all. Whatever of the boy's behaviour, the media priorities are badly skewed.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Uganda bears the brunt of Kenyan crisis

Uganda is losing over a million dollars a day in revenues and exports as a result of the post-election violence in Kenya. The Uganda government and its farmers and traders are suffering as the landlocked country is unable to get its products out. Uganda is heavily reliant on the Kenyan port of Mombasa for the import of fuel and heavy goods, such as machinery, cars and generators, and also for the export of coffee, tea and tobacco.

In the fortnight since the violence began Ugandan government revenues have dropped by 78 per cent in the three border points with Kenya. Exporters too are feeling the pinch. "We have not been able to deliver our goods to the port since December 27 because of the violence", says David Barry of Kyagulanyi Coffee. "It is definitely a big loss for us, also in terms of fines and penalties for late delivery." Ugandan hopes of an early end to the Kenyan impasse following the collapse of efforts by Ghanaian president and AU mediator John Kufuor to secure a deal between President Mwai Kibaki and his opposition rival Raila Odinga.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni may now be regretting his early endorsement of a Kibaki victory. There have been allegations that the Ugandan government may have had a hand in securing the contested win. One week after the election on 2 January Museveni, in his capacity as current chairman of the East African Community, offered congratulations to Kibaki on his re-election. Other than Uganda, only Somalia, Kuwait and Swaziland have so far recognised the election result. Museveni was criticised internally for this move on the basis that his message could provoke attacks on Ugandans and Ugandan interests in Kenya. Others say he was “forced” to recognise the result to facilitate the movement of Ugandan goods in and out of the country.

If that was Museveni's plan, it has not proved successful. The only traffic coming into Uganda at the moment is a human one. According to the UN over 6,000 Kenyans have fled to eastern Uganda to flee the violence. They are finding shelter in school buildings, hospitals and in open places and UN agencies, government and the Uganda Red Cross are providing them food and other relief items. Over 500 have been registered at Bukwo and Kapchorwa districts. The Ugandan Red Cross has assessed another 3,500 refugees camped at the border towns of at Malaba, Busia and Lwakahkah. Red Cross official Alice Uwase Anukur said sanitation was the major challenge at the camps. "The only pit latrine at St. Jude Malaba Primary School is filled up," she said. She also said there was an urgent need for sanitary towels.

The general population is also suffering. Uganda continues to face shortages, and fuel prices have more than doubled since last week. In the longer term Uganda is hoping to reduce its dependency on road and rail for importing fuel products from Kenya by building an oil pipeline. The project will initially involve a $110 million 340-kilometer pipeline from Eldoret in western Kenya to the Uganda capital Kampala. The pipeline would subsequently be extended to Kigali and Bujumbura, the capitals of Rwanda and Burundi, respectively. Fuel supplies to all three countries have been erratic since the violence started.

But matters are unlikely to improve in the short term with Kenyan opposition forces planning further rounds of protest next week. The impact on the surrounding region is potentially devastating with the agricultural economies of Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi all “throttled” by the violence. A quarter of the gross domestic product of Uganda and Rwanda and a third of Burundi's pass through Kenya. None of them have found a suitable alternative to the bottleneck port of Mombasa. According to Robert Shaw, a businessman and economic analyst, "If Kenya has got a cold, these countries get pneumonia.”