Thursday, April 30, 2009

Zuma election win confirmed but falls short of two-thirds majority

Final results from South Africa’s election showed that Jacob Zuma’s African National Congress (ANC) has fallen just short of the two-thirds majority it needed to change the country’s constitution. The ANC took 65.9 per cent of the vote which gave it 264 seats in South Africa's 400-seat parliament. While the overall result was a foregone conclusion, the drop of 4 percent from the last election in 2004 was one of the few crumbs of comfort for opposition parties who feared a Zuma landslide would lead to the reduction in local government powers.

Nonetheless it still represents an impressive mandate for the party that has ruled since open elections began in 1994. It blitzed its closest rival the Democratic Alliance (DA) led by Helen Zille which took just 16.7 per cent of the vote. The election also represents a remarkable comeback for the newly installed president. Just four years ago Zuma was sacked as deputy president by his boss Thabo Mbeki for being implicated in a corruption scandal. He was charged with corruption, money laundering and racketeering, but the charges were dropped on a technicality in the lead-up to the election. Zuma’s supporters claim he was the victim of a political conspiracy hatched by Mbeki.

Zuma got his revenge when he assumed leadership of the ANC in December 2007. At the party’s national conference he defeated Thabo Mbeki by a 60:40 margin leaving Mbeki a lame duck president. Zuma counted on the support of people in rural areas and townships where unemployment is nudging 50 percent and poverty is widespread. It was also South Africa's shack-dwellers, farm workers, unemployed and domestic workers who gave Zuma his emphatic election win.

And despite many problems associated with their 15 year tenure of power, most of South Africa’s poor don’t have a logical alternative to vote for. Most people see Zille’s DA as the political front of white business while the newly formed Congress of the People (an ANC breakaway faction loyal to Mbeki) which came third, is seen to stand for black business. Together their combined vote barely topped 24 percent and, according to the BBC, will face pressure to merge if they are to launch a more effective challenge to the ANC in the next election in 2014.

In the meantime, it will be Jacob Zuma's turn to hog the limelight. The 67 year old is the first Zulu president and is known for wearing traditional garb including leopard skins and a spear at ceremonial events. He celebrated victory on Thursday in typical fashion by dancing and singing his signature song, the Zulu anti-apartheid anthem "Bring Me My Machine Gun." Yet many people believe there is a political conservative hiding underneath this flamboyant façade. During the election, Zuma offered prayers to ancestors, denounced same-sex marriage as a "disgrace to God", promised a referendum on the death penalty, condemned political rivals as "witches" and "snakes", and defended polygamy as "African".

Zuma’s most difficult task will be to fulfil his post-election promise to unite the country. Nearly all of the nation’s whites and coloured people voted for the DA and South Africa’s communities still live their lives apart along colour-coded lines despite the emergence of a growing black middle class. As Matthew Tostevin writes at Reuters, Zuma will have to juggle the needs of those who want a greater share of the wealth with those who feel they are politically marginalised.

There is also suspicion over the long-standing charges against Zuma which were suddenly dropped two weeks prior to the election. In 2005 his personal financial adviser, Schabir Shaik, was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment for soliciting and paying bribes and for fraud, mostly to benefit his boss. Zuma was then charged with 16 offences for corruption, money-laundering and racketeering over a controversial $5bn 1999 arms deal with French company Thint. After a complicated court case, the charges were first deemed unlawful, then reinstated on appeal, before finally being dropped due to flaws in the legal process. State prosecutors denied they had yielded to pressure from the incoming government but said that their case had been irretrievably compromised by pressure from the old Mbeki administration.

Zuma also survived a rape charge in 2005 brought by the daughter of a friend. The case was dismissed after the judge ruled the sex was consensual. However Zuma’s testimony revealed startlingly naïve attitudes about sex and AIDS, including an admission that he had unprotected sex with an HIV-positive woman but he showered afterward to reduce the risk of infection. Zuma’s handlers, aware of his unorthodox opinions, shut him down during the election campaign and he refused to answer all policy questions deferring instead to the ANC's executive committee.

While the ANC has faithfully served the anti-apartheid cause for almost a century, many argue it is now time to move on to a new political era in South Africa. The party’s popularity, membership and moral authority are in decline. Five million South Africans have HIV/AIDS (the largest population in the world),violent crime is endemic; and the black underclass continues to grow. In 2006, the South African Institute of Race Relations estimated that 4.2 million South Africans were living on $1 a day or less in 2005, up from 1.9 million in 1996 (pdf). With or without the protection of the ANC executive committee, Zuma will need a lot more than populist appeal and revolutionary anthems to deal effectively with these issues.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Forgetting Papua New Guinea

There is a common presumption often mentioned around Anzac Day that the Japanese did not invade Australia in World War II. This is not entirely true. Japanese troops landed in Buna-Gona on 21 July 1942 with the intention of taking Port Moresby. Buna-Gona, Port Moresby and Kokoda, where they were stopped by Australian soldiers and local stretcher bearers known as fuzzy wuzzy angels, have been part of the independent nation of Papua New Guinea since 1975. But in 1942, they was still part of a colony administrated by civil servants sent there by Canberra. The northern part where the Japanese landed was formerly German New Guinea which Billy Hughes won for Australia in the 1919 Versailles talks. The lower half was British New Guinea which was re-named Papua in 1904. But many still forget that Australia was the de facto ruler of Papua and New Guinea for much of the 20th century.

Forgetfulness is a common response to Australia’s closest neighbour. Few Australians go there and the country rarely gets a run in the Australian media. So it was when the country’s Prime Minister Michael Somare appeared in Canberra yesterday to talk to the local metropolitan power, he was mostly ignored. According to Richard Farmer at Crikey, the ABC did not even mention Somare's name when Rudd was giving a military award to the fuzzy wuzzy angels. And he was treated worse last time when he was asked to remove his shoes for an airport security check.

At least this time he did speak to the Prime Minister. Kevin Rudd does not ignore PNG and Port Moresby was one of his earliest overseas stops as PM in March 2008. Yet even Rudd still felt the need to play big brother and tell Somare yesterday that he was not spending Australian aid money wisely. Australia supplies 20 per cent of the nation’s budget worth over $300 million a year.

While Somare defended current practice saying no one starved in his country, Rudd said too much aid was “consumed by consultants” and not enough given to teachers, builders and health workers in villages across the country. But Rudd too, was forgetting something. As Somare told him, Papua New Guinea is a village society. “When one village is poor, the other village helps,” he said. The majority of Papua New Guinea's population is still dependent on agriculture. While PNG makes a lot of money from mineral deposits like oil, gold, and copper, it remains reliant on World Bank aid and support from Australia to survive.

But the indelible influence of Australia on PNG is more than just monetary, it has also left its cultural mark over the decades. Back when PNG was still a colony, Australia was responsible for the census. In the 1950s, the census takers found the hill tribes were changing under Australian influence. They saw that cloth clothing was replacing bark skirts and sporrans and young male initiation no longer involved braiding bark strips in their hair and smearing their bodies with pig grease. Nose piercing with cassowary bones and ritualised cannibalism was also on the way out.

And while Papua New Guinea remains today the most linguistically complex country in the world with 860 languages, many of them are endangered. English is one of only three official languages (the creole languages tok pisin and motu are the others) and the only language of government and the education system. It also has many imported western problems such as car-jacking, firearms offences, robbery, violence, rape and a high prevalence of HIV/AIDS.

HIV/AIDS is central to one of the new initiatives announced in Canberra yesterday. Rugby league is the nation’s biggest sport and one of PNG’s biggest uniting factors. Rudd gave Somare $20 million for a national rugby league competition. Somare wanted league development to boost school attendance and help with HIV/AIDS awareness. The long-term view would also be to integrate the competition into Australia's rugby league.

Somare continued his visit to Australia today mostly away from the media glare. AAP reported he toured Victoria's firefighting nerve centre during a visit to Melbourne. Victorians owe a debt of graitude to Somare who donated $1 million to the Victorian bushfire appeal on behalf of his country. He said PNG did not experience fires on that scale, but wanted to show its support anyway. “We thought it was a gesture to support the Australian people because they normally, in our bad times, they always come for our support,” he said. Even if most of the time Australians forget they do.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Greens say journalists’ shield laws don’t go far enough

The Greens have announced today they will be seeking amendments to the proposed federal shield laws to protect journalists’ sources. The Evidence Amendment (Journalists' Privilege) Bill has completed Senate hearings but the Greens say needs further changes if it is to adequately protect journalists. The party’s Attorneys General spokesman Senator Scott Ludlam (pictured) said the bill did not support the minimum protections of confidentiality nor did it meet the objectives as claimed by the Attorney General. “At a bare minimum we need to make it explicit that courts should assume protection of journalists sources unless there is a compelling reason to the contrary," said Ludlam. "The Greens will propose a range of amendments to make sure the bill meets these important objectives and in coming weeks we will be seeking the support of other parties."

The new legislation is a Labor election promise for a review of whistleblower protection. However the crux of Ludlam’s beef is that it does not go far enough to ensure journalists have the right to protect the identity of their sources unless overridden by strong public interest or national security reasons. And Ludlam is not alone in thinking the new law will be ineffective. Last week the media industry’s Right to Know Coalition (which includes most of the country’s key media players) also said the proposed law was defective. They told the Senate enquiry that the scheme should be based on the New Zealand model which contains a presumption that journalists' sources should remain confidential.

However federal Attorney-General Robert McClelland has rejected the New Zealand model in favour of the scheme drawn up by the House of Representatives standing committee on legal and constitutional affairs. Announcing the government’s position on 19 March, McClelland described the Labor position as a balance between the media’s role in informing the public and the public interest in the administration of justice. He says the bill required courts to consider whether information was passed illegally before determining if evidence should be admitted or a source revealed. This consideration needed to be balanced against the potential harm to the source or the journalist if evidence is given.

Critics say the bill retains criminal sanctions for most public disclosures, even those that are made in the public interest. Whistleblowers Australia say that if the scheme is enacted in its current form, they will advise commonwealth public servants to ignore it when dealing with disclosure issues. The most infamous recent case is that of customs officer Allan Kessing who leaked a confidential report to the Australian which showed the poor state of Australian airport security. The report was ignored by his superiors for two years but led directly to a $200 million improvement program after the leak. Kessing was convicted of disclosing official information and received a nine-month suspended jail term.

The legislation also leaves journalists vulnerable. South Australian independent Nick Xenophon questioned its efficacy when he asked “would it have protected Michael Harvey and Gerard McManus?” Harvey and McManus (pictured) were Herald-Sun reporters convicted of contempt of court and fined $7,000 for refusing to reveal the source of a leak about a federal government proposal to slash war veterans’ benefits. In response the then Howard government put up shield legislation which relied heavily on judicial discretion.

The 2007 Moss Report into the state of free speech in Australia stated those shield laws would not have helped Harvey and McManus. Labor’s proposed legislation does not seem much better than their predecessors. But despite the Greens and Xenophon’s reservations, there is still hope an amended version will be passed with the help of the cross-benches. Scott Ludlam wants the legislation to also apply to new media including citizen journalists and bloggers. "With goodwill and cooperation amongst the parties, we can ensure this bill serves its important purpose,” said Ludlam.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Calvo Ospina falls foul of American security paranoia

If anyone thought that an Obama administration might see the re-emergence of less paranoid American attitudes to security, they should think again. Just last week, an Air France flight from Paris to Mexico City last week was forced to make an emergency landing in Martinique because US authorities refused permission to fly over American airspace. The refusal was because one passenger was deemed a security risk. Air France had sent its passenger manifest to Mexican authorities but that information was somehow obtained by the US. The prohibited passenger was Colombian journalist Hernando Calvo Ospina, who works for the French left-wing monthly Le Monde Diplomatique.

Hernando Calvo Ospina has written many critical articles about American involvement in Latin America. He is currently writing a book about the CIA and in 2007 wrote a stinging and cogent piece about Reagan’s shadowy National Endowment for Democracy which destabilised unfriendly regimes. But none of this makes him a terrorist and there is no good reason he should end up on a terror watch list other than the fact he is deemed unfriendly to the political administration. This is McCarthyism gone mad.

Ospina has since written about his experiences on the Mexico flight. He says that five hours before the flight was due to land in Mexico City, the captain announced the plane had been refused permission to fly over the US. The captain said one of the passengers aboard was a person who was not welcome in the US for reasons of national security. A few minutes later, he announced the flight would have to divert to Martinique because there was not enough fuel to cope with the unintended detour.

Aboard the plane there was hushed talk about who the unwelcome passenger might be. Ospina overheard one conversation where someone said no terrorist could be at the back of the plane because "nobody there looks like a Muslim." After the plane took off again from Martinique, the co-pilot came to him and asked if he was Mr Calvo Ospina. He asked Ospina to accompany him to the rear of the plane where he told him he was the reason for the detour. "Do you think I'm a terrorist?" asked Ospina. “No,” said the co-pilot, “that's the reason I'm telling you this.”

The co-pilot asked him to keep quiet about it and Ospina returned to his seat. When they arrived at Mexico City, he was stopped at Immigration and taken to a room where two men asked him to “verify” a few things. His inquisitor told Ospina that “five information sources" in data bases had shown some information about him and they needed to make a summary. A second man told him he was being held at the request of US authorities and that after September 11, 2001, the Americans and Mexicans had stepped up their "cooperation" work.

Ospina asked "So, am I to blame for the plane's rerouting?" They told him no, it was merely a technical stopover. Ospina said he heard differently but the two men ignored this and resumed questioning. After the basics came “Are you a Catholic?” and "Do you know how to handle firearms?" Ospina said no to both and added “"my only weapon is my writing, especially to denounce the American government, whom I consider terrorist." One of the questioners responded "that weapon sometimes is worse than rifles and bombs."

They then asked him where he was going. Ospina said he was heading to Nicaragua on a story for Le Monde Diplomatique. After a few more basic questions, he was politely released and he went on to Nicaragua the following day without further incident. But he was left with many questions: How much did it all cost (Air France had to pay for hotel rooms and food for at least half the passengers, who missed their connections) and why have Air France and the French authorities kept quiet about it? And perhaps the most difficult to answer: how far will the US authorities' paranoia go?

No one knows, but clearly the American secret blacklist now stretches to peaceful critics of US policy. Maurice Lemoine, editor in chief of Le Monde Diplomatique, said: Calvo Ospina was a Colombian political exile in France who has denounced his home government of President Uribe and the role of the US in Latin America, and as a journalist has had occasion to interview top members of the leftist guerrilla group FARC. “That seems enough for him to be considered a terrorist,” said Lemoine. The best thing that can be said about this case is that the move has backfired badly. Ospina's ideas will now get to a much larger audience thanks to American stupidity.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Centre-left victory in Icelandic election

Interim Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir has claimed victory overnight in Iceland’s election ending the long-term rule of a conservative alliance. Sigurdardottir’s centre-left Social Democratic Alliance won 20 seats with 30 percent of the vote and will govern with the aid of coalition partner the Left-Green Movement who won 14 seats. Together that gives them a five seat majority in the 63 member Althing (one of the world’s oldest parliaments).

Conservative Independence Party leader Bjarni Benediktsson conceded defeat in the worst election result in the party's history. His party took only 22.9 per cent of votes, well below the previous all-time low of 27 per cent in 1987. The Independence Party has ruled Iceland with its coalition partners the Progressive Party for nearly all of the last 64 years. But they were forced out of office earlier this year when then Prime Minister Geir Haarde stepped down due to health reasons.

But it wasn’t just Haarde’s health that was suffering. It was the country’s economic collapse that claimed the conservative administration and the left-wing parties formed a caretaker government in February with a view to holding elections in spring. In the process Sigurdardottir became the country’s first female prime minister. Her rise to the top was also notable for the fact that she was the world’s first openly gay premier.

However Sigurdardottir’s sexuality was the last thing on the minds of voters in this weekend’s election. Opinion surveys and interviews with voters showed a clear inclination to punish the pro-business leaders who brought the country to ruin. In the good times banks offered 100 percent lending. Now many Icelanders are now trapped with skyrocketing loan repayments while inflation hovers at 15 percent and unemployment has shot up from barely one percent to ten percent.

The country’s banking sector collapse late last year and left the country swamped with debts. Inflation is spiralling out of control and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has predicted that the economy will shrink by about 10 percent in 2009, which represents the Atlantic island’s biggest slump since it won independence from Denmark in 1944. In October the IMF gave Iceland a stimulus package worth $2.1 billion to stabilise the freefalling currency (the krona lost almost half its value to the euro in the last 12 months) and also prop out the country’s stock market.

Icelandic financiers are now delicately trying to untangle the mess left by the global financial crisis. Its banking system significantly outstripped the authorities' ability to act as a lender of last resort when the toxic debts began to emerge. The new government was forced to implement budget austerity measures of upwards of $400 million and hopes this plan will end capital flow curbs. This would allow foreign investors to take their money out of the country without destroying the currency. Investors (including many English councils) had been locked into crown assets when the previous government imposed capital controls to stop the domestic currency going into freefall after Iceland’s top three banks collapsed.

In the past Iceland deliberately stayed out of the EU to protect its rich fishing grounds from European boats. But now Icelanders are now looking to the European body to bail them out. Their application to join is being expedited and a process that normally takes ten years or more could be over by 2011. The EU is looking favourably on Iceland’s application. Olli Rehn, the European commissioner in charge of enlargement gave it a glowing endorsement despite the financial crisis. “It is one of the oldest democracies in the world and its strategic and economic positions would be an asset to the EU,” he said. Sigurdardottir has pledged to fast track membership application and says she wants Iceland to join the euro zone within four years.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

The metamorphosis of Anzac Day

Watching today's Anzac Day marches on television, I was struck with how familiar it looked to twenty years ago when I first arrived in Australia. In 1989 I saw the last few First World War diggers lead the parade. They were dying out then and now they are all gone. Today it is the turn of fading World War II vets to see comrades dying in numbers similar to when they first met.

Anzac Day is about ritual which is one of the reasons the media love covering it. The day is a stable source of controllable news and a rare chance to get away with clichés about pride, mateship and honour. One of those rituals is the day off work and it was skewed today falling on a Saturday. Numbers were down on last year as people didn’t feel giving the same time sacrifice on the weekend, and most states did not give a holiday on Monday.

The other key traditions of the dawn service, the parade and the two-up, were still well in evidence. A newer tradition is the battleground service in which Australians and Kiwis combine overseas holiday with a pilgrimage. Numbers were down at Gallipoli this year. According to the ABC it was the fault of the recession but today's event at Lone Pine still attracted 7500 people. Another 3000 packed out the French 1918 battle site at Villiers-Bretonneux which rose to prominence on its 90th anniversary last year.

Though overseas Anzac Day celebration dates back to 1916, it was possibly one of the few things the well-drilled founders of the tradition probably hadn’t anticipated. On 25 April 1916, Australian and New Zealand troops celebrated in England, Egypt and the Middle East and in France (where they had just arrived). Back home the excitement generated by what had occurred a year earlier ensured it would not be forgotten.

Much of the credit for the way it captured public imagination belongs to the war reporting of Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett and Charles Bean. Throughout 1915 their lively accounts ignited a fire which the religious institutions were quick to pick up on. By June the bodies were starting to come back from Turkey in significant numbers and they continued to arrive until the operation was called off in December. Over 8000 Australians died in the campaign and a national day of mourning was needed to deal with the massive collective grief.

Yet Anzac Day did not ignite spontaneously. The first Anzac Day Commemoration Committee was set up in January 1916. It was Brisbane auctioneer Thomas Augustine Ryan who decided 25 April was a good day to have the commemoration. He was a member of the local recruiting committee and the father of a soldier who survived the campaign. Ryan suggested the idea to TJ Ryan (no relation, as far as I’m aware) the then-Labor Premier of Queensland. Premier Ryan convened a meeting of local luminaries on 10 January 1916 and they appointed Anglican priest Canon Garland to draw up an agenda.

David John Garland was a remarkable political operator. He was a true missionary and an organiser with a fearsome reputation for getting things done. He was perfect for the Anzac job. Born in Dublin, he emigrated to Queensland in 1886 aged 18 to follow a law career. He fell under the influence of a Toowoomba Anglo-Catholic rector who employed him while he prepared for ordination. Garland was a chaplain in the army prior to the Boer War and spent ten years in Western Australia where he successfully got the rules changed to allow religious education in state schools. He came back to Queensland where he did the same and also won a referendum to allow bibles in state schools.

It was no surprise co-ordination should start in Brisbane. The first troops ashore at Anzac were the Queensland 9th Battalion of the 3rd Australian Infantry Brigade. The Ninth were also the first to return home in coffins in large numbers. As 1915 progressed a culture of commemoration grew in the city. Brisbane was quick to get other Australian and New Zealand cities involved. Garland also astutely arranged for marchers to get free public transport from Queensland Rail.

Although the 10 January meeting was initially organised by the Queensland Recruiting Committee to raise more troops, it didn’t take long for Garland to get his memorial on to the agenda. He got a motion passed to “make arrangements for, and carry out the celebrations of Anzac Day". The Brisbane Courier reported Garland said the war was teaching people “their duty to God in a degree would compensate for their neglect of God in the past”. Defeat at Anzac should not be considered a disgrace, Garland said.

Garland made sure the ADCC council was ecumenical and used his Irishness to woo the suspicious Catholic hierarchy. Garland included a two minute's silence which allowed everyone to quietly pray to their own God. There would also be time for speeches, hymns, the Last Post and God Save the Queen. It would be followed by a march of returned service men. Once Anzac became a commemoration that did not compromise sectarianism, all religions wanted a part of it. Together they would ensure Anzac Day had a religious as well as secular meaning. The ADCC wanted the day to have a similar feel of solemnity to Good Friday (which it was very close to on the calendar – in fact in 1916, it was just four days before Anzac Day). No cinemas, racecourse, hotels or sporting venues were allowed to open.

Royal support proved crucial. King George V attended the 1916 Anzac Day two minute's silence at Westminster Abbey. He issued a rare message direct to Australians: “Today I am joining them in their solemn tribute to the memory of their heroes who died in Gallipoli. They gave their lives for a supreme cause in gallant comradeship”.

Even with royal imprimatur, it would take 14 years for the idea to be institutionalised across Australia. Garland worked tirelessly and in 1921, he lobbied the Prime Minister to declare a uniform celebration across the Commonwealth. New Zealand declared it a day of solemn remembrance in 1920, Queensland followed a year later and WA in 1923. Businesses and hotels were required to close until 12.30pm to allow for services and the march. Seven years later Garland got Queensland to shut everything down for the day. Sensing an election tactic, the federal government took over ownership of Anzac Day from him and laid the Inauguration Stone at the National War Memorial in 1929.

The tactic failed for Prime Minister Stanley Bruce who was to lose the election and his seat a few months later. At the June 1929 Premier’s Conference, he invited all church denominations to hold memorial services the following year and asked the Returned Sailors and Soldiers Imperial League of Australia (RSSILA) to arrange meetings of remembrance. There wasn’t total agreement. The RSSILA could not decide if it wanted the tone of the meetings to be solemn or jubilant. It decided on both: solemnity in the morning and carnivals in the afternoon allowing the opening of sporting venues and bars.

Most states went with the RSSILA (now RSL) model. Queensland went it alone with the “sacred day” approach closing bars all day until the 1964 Anzac Day act was modified to allow the opening of hotels, racecourses and other places of amusement. Australia finally had a nationally sanctified and consistent Anzac Day that appealed to both the spiritual and the worldly side of the nation’s psyche.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Fiji has a long way to go to be as bad as Burma

Last week the journalism watchdog group Reporters San Frontieres slammed Fiji's censorship saying the island nation was heading dangerously towards a Burmese-style system "in which the media are permanently subject to prior censorship and other forms of obstruction". However as bad as things are in Fiji and they are very bad, they would have to get a lot worse to compare with the terrible conditions Burmese media workers have had to put up with for the last 47 years.

To understand the nature of Burma’s media, it is important to understand the nature of Burma’s governance. Buddhism has long been at the heart of Burmese political culture and in pre-colonial times religion informed people’s belief that government was an evil to be endured and that kings were unaccountable to the people. A more secular polity emerged in the 19th century under the influence of European colonisation. Lower Burma was established as a British colony after the Treaty of Yandabo in 1826 and the northern part of the country was assimilated 10 years later.

Japan attempted a return to the old monarchical tradition when it ruled Burma during World War II but this idea was quickly swept away after the war. Burma gained independence from Britain in 1948 with a democratically elected civilian political leadership. In 1962 General Ne Win staged a coup under the pretext of preventing ethnic breakaway states and installed a military regime that remains in power to this day. Under his junta, Burma outlawed all other political parties and adopted a central planned economy he called the “Burmese way to socialism”. The effect was disastrous and by 1988 Burma was one of the poorest countries in the world. In 1988, the government violently suppressed a peaceful revolution. Two years later Aung San Suu Kyi (the daughter of a murdered independence hero) led the National League for Democracy to overwhelming victory in free and fair elections only for the military to declare it invalid. They created a new ruling body, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) which later metamorphosised into the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). The SLORC/SPDC continues to rule with an iron fist and violently put down the Saffron Revolution in 2007.

Burma remains beset by major issues today. The SPDC continues to string out Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest on a year-by-year basis. Major ethnic groups such as the Shan and the Karen continue insurgencies against a central administration implacably opposed to a federal style of government. All sides of the conflict use unregulated commerce including the thriving opium trade to finance their operations. And Burma is also a geo-political pawn. China wants Burma’s access to the Indian Ocean shipping lanes while both China and India covet Burma’s abundant oil, natural gas, uranium and minerals.

But the Burmese media are unable to report on any of these issues. According to Aung Zaw “the plain fact is that most Burmese have no clue what is happening in their country”. It wasn’t always this way as Burma has a long and rich tradition of journalism. Within ten years of British colonisation of Lower Burma the first western-style newspapers appeared in both English and Burmese. By 1919 Burmese language agenda setting nationalist newspapers such as Myanmar Alin (New Light of Burma) were agitating for change. At the time of independence, Burma had a vibrant network of over 30 newspapers which operated with considerable freedom in a country of much natural wealth and widespread literacy. Until 1962 the Burmese people enjoyed political and civil rights protected by the constitution, a free press and national secular education.

After 1962, the military junta clamped down hard. The new regime installed a system of press licensing that required the registration of all publications. The rulers also issued a warning that seditious news was not to be published. Ne Win soon began to act as a “tyrannical king”. In 1963 the junta closed down the prestigious Nation and began to publish its own propaganda in the Working People’s Daily. By 1966, they banned all private newspapers and expelled Reuters and Associated Press correspondents. In 1993 there remained just one permitted newspaper, the Government run Working People’s Daily, printed in Burmese and English.

Similarly, the broadcast media of radio and television remain tightly controlled by the Government. Radio was a wartime legacy and the Burmese followed the British model when they set up the Burma Broadcasting Service (BBS) after independence. Programmers on the BBS operated with similar freedom to the press until it too was abruptly ended by the military takeover in 1962. Myanmar TV began in 1980 and was supplemented by a military channel in 1990. Both channels are owned and operated by the Government and the military. But the Government doesn’t totally control the airwaves. While foreign stations such as STAR TV are officially available only to high ranking officials and five-star hotels in Yangon (Rangoon), enterprising citizens in northern towns have smuggled satellite dishes across the border from China.

In the so-called Saffron Revolution (2007), the government did not restrict the flow of international news but instead concentrated on crushing the watch-dog function of local media by censoring news sources, reporters and editors. The Reporters San Frontières report on Burma for 2006 confirmed the military had not released its grip on the military. The Press Scrutiny and Registration Division check every article, editorial, cartoon, advertisement and illustration ahead of publication. Burma also insists that all fax machines be registered and journalists can earn a seven year prison sentence for having an unauthorised fax, video camera, modem or a copy of a banned publication. The Committee for the Protection of Journalists describe Burma as one of the most repressive places for journalists, trailing only North Korea on their “10 Most Censored Countries” list.

Censorship is not the only major impediment facing Burmese journalists. Even minimal attempts to report the facts are ruthlessly crushed. Reporting on detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is banned as is debate about Government policy. In 2006 two journalists were imprisoned for attempting to film outside the country’s controversial new capital at Naypidaw and at least seven journalists were behind bars, making Burma the world’s fifth leading jailer of journalists. Burmese journalists cannot report on diverse activities such as natural disasters, plane crashes, student brawls, regional turmoil and activities of opposition political parties lest they lead to criticism of authorities. Last year a blogger was sentenced to 45 years in jail for daring to report on Cyclone Nargiss. In short, journalism in Burma is not so much about agenda-setting as agenda-avoiding.

Burma’s media regime is a good example of an authoritarian communication model in that the authority of power exists and limits, suppresses and attempts to define its people’s thought and expression. The Internet remained tightly proscribed as of 2002 with just 14,000 email accounts for a population of 50 million people. Yet news is stilling getting through despite intense repression. Because government news sources are unreliable, Burmese people tune in to foreign shortwave radio services from the BBC, Voice of America and Radio Free Asia. Burmese are also turning to older technologies such as videos, tapes, facsimiles, photographs, and printed materials to get messages across. Uncontrolled ideas do get out as the 2007 Revolution showed, even if it was eventually brutally suppressed. While the prognosis for Burma is not good in the short to medium term, the military can never fully defeat the power of communicable ideas.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Queensland presses on with anti-bikie laws despite Victorian veto

Queensland Attorney-General Cameron Dick (pictured) denied today that state and territory jurisdictions had backed down on a national approach to anti-bikie laws. At a meeting of federal, state and territory Attorneys-General in Canberra last Thursday, Victoria and the ACT refused to support the uniform adoption of laws aimed specifically at bikie gangs.

However Dick told Woolly Days today he was satisfied he had achieved “a solid national response” on the issue of criminal activities of outlaw motorcycle gangs. “The clear message from last week's meeting is that there will be no safe havens for bikie gangs in any state or territory in Australia,” he said.

The amended approach will not focus specifically on motorbike gangs but will target all forms of organised crime. The state Attorney-General said the agreement provides a framework for Queensland to ensure its proposed legislation will be “effective and supported nationwide”. “I am very pleased that the work we are undertaking here will be supported in all other jurisdictions,” he said.

The proposed national laws allow for the confiscation of crime proceeds, coercive questioning powers, and will give police the ability to engage in controlled operations. However, Victoria Attorney-General Rob Hulls baulked at national provisions that would have allowed criminal bike gangs to be outlawed. Hulls refusal gave the Opposition spokesman Robert Clark the opportunity to use a colourful phrase: “the risk of Victoria becoming Australia's soft underbelly of bikie crime has become even greater."

In any case Queensland is independently developing legislative options for anti-association and anti-consorting laws for cabinet's consideration. Dick said today he would be speaking to the Police Minister Neil Roberts to discuss “any additional areas which need to be considered in order to meet the requirements of this framework.”

South Australia was the first state to introduce anti-bike laws when it passed The Serious and Organised Crime (Control) Act (pdf) in 2008. The laws give the state Attorney General wide discretionary powers to deem organisations 'criminal' (but do not adequately define organised crime) and there is no appeals process for organisations branded under the legislation. There is also a ‘guilt by association’ provision and convictions carry a maximum period of imprisonment of five years.

NSW followed suit last month when it rushed in laws in the wake of a violent brawl at Sydney Airport in which a 29-year-old man was bludgeoned to death with a metal pole. Its laws were even tougher than SA’s as there was no system of warning that charges would be laid if targeted bikies continue to associate with each other. Queensland, WA and the Northern Territory have also said they would introduce similar laws.

However critics say the laws are absurd and unfair. Last weekend the newly formed United Motorcycle Council of Queensland (UMCQ) said the proposed laws were discriminatory. The council which represents 17 clubs says the laws will target innocent bikie members. Meanwhile Greg Barns in Crikey said last month the laws were “largely unenforceable, cement in law the concept of guilt by association and would do nothing to lessen the problem of bikie gangs’ violence because they completely miss the point - which is that bikie gangs thrive on our refusal to decriminalise drugs.”

Here at Woolly Days, I also argued recently that the laws were a moral panic and they only dealt with a perception while “the real bikie problem will only be driven underground.” Even with Victoria’s refusal to play ball, nothing I have heard since the Attorneys-General meeting causes me to believe any different. I sincerely hope I am wrong.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Sean Dorney speaks out on Fiji censorship

Journalist Sean Dorney spoke publicly today about Fiji's intimidating media censorship and how he and two New Zealand journalists were expelled from the country last week. Speaking to a Brisbane audience, he praised the courage and friendship of the local journalists he left behind to face the country's new draconian press laws. Dorney, who is the ABC’s long-time Pacific correspondent, was kicked out of Fiji because the newly reinstalled (and supposedly) “interim” government did not like what he was writing about. (Note: picture above shows Dorney reading from his expulsion order to today's audience. Credit: Lee Duffield).

As documented in detail here at Woolly Days, Fiji descended into mayhem over Easter when the country’s High Court declared the Interim Government illegal only for the president to swiftly sack the court, abrogate the constitution, and re-install the Bainimarama government all within a matter of days. Having re-established power, the government then clamped down on the media and expelled foreign journalists Sean Dorney and a crew from New Zealand’s TV3.

Professor Alan Knight introduced Dorney today to a room of educators and student journalists at QUT’s Kelvin Grove campus. Knight said that 40 Australian & New Zealand journalists and journalism educators signed a statement of support last week (full text of statement here) which called on governments to “seek to protect all Fiji journalists striving to perform their duties in these difficult circumstances.” The statement also supported Dorney and other foreign journalists who were expelled from Fiji because “they sought the truth in the public interest.”

Dorney then began his talk by showing the audience the deportation notice the Fijian Permanent Secretary of Information issued him just one hour before he was bundled onto a plane back to Sydney. Dorney commended the bravery of the local journalists he left behind many of whom have been arrested and intimidated by authorities. The military government is now taking a direct involvement in their work. “There are censors in the newsrooms headed by a military major,” he said.

Dorney spoke about the three new decrees Fiji has introduced to clamp down on press freedoms. The first decree controls publications and broadcasts and gives the censor the right to control all media output. The second decree says that publishers and broadcasters must submit all materials to be vetted prior to publication or broadcast. The third decree states that any publisher or broadcaster who does not fully comply must “cease operations and all activities”. Essentially all Fijian media are now under the control of Major Neumi Leweni, the newly appointed (and Orwellian sounding) Permanent Secretary of Information.

Leweni has now posted officials in all five of Fiji’s main newsrooms (the three papers; The Sun, The Post, The Times, as well as the Fiji Broadcasting Corporation and Communications Fiji) to monitor operations and ensure the media are complying to the new decrees. However Leweni reserves the right to intervene directly if he feels the media are not compliant enough.

Dorney explained how the media initially hit back with creative protests only to encounter threats from the government. The Fiji Times printed blank pages instead of news and a title “this story could not be published”. Leweni told them if they did that again he would shut them down forever. The Post meanwhile, ran sarcastic stories such as “Man gets on bus” which had lines such as “It was easy...I just lifted one leg up and then the other and I was on”. Again Leweni intervened and, according to Dorney, told them “any more funny business and you are shut down”.

Dorney says he was warned in advance he was likely to be thrown out. On Friday he got a text message saying “brace yourself to depart” and he was expelled a day later. After sending a story about the censorship back to Australia, the Information department phoned him and asked him to come into the office. There he was told that Major Leweni didn’t like his reporting but was not detained. When he emerged he told ABC what had happened before being called in a second time a few hours later. This time the authorities asked would he leave voluntarily. Dorney refused and a short while later he was taken into custody. “I didn’t feel as though I was going to be beaten up,” he said, “but if handed to the military, that could have happened”.

Dorney said the only time he was worried was when a New Zealand cameramen (who was also held) tried to surreptitiously film proceedings. He was quickly spotted and officers demanded he delete all material from the camera and threatened to search his accompanying female reporter. After five hours of questioning, the journalists were all handed over to the Immigration authorities in a car park. Dorney could hear an Australian consular official who yelled out “are you OK?” The official then rang Dorney’s wife with an update while Dorney and the New Zealanders were allowed to spend the night in a hotel under the guard of Immigration officers.

The following morning they were escorted to the airport in Nadi. There they were taken to a special counter to be processed. The airline official told him she could see a booking to Sydney for Dorney but no ticket. “I do have tickets for Brisbane a month later,” he told her. Dorney was the last to board the flight and neither the tourists on board, nor the cabin crew were aware he was being deported.

Dorney praised the courage of Fijian journalists and thanked them for their support for him in the days before he was deported. He also attacked the conditions they now work under. “[The journalists] have been told - don’t be disloyal” he said. “They are trying to be loyal to Fiji, but Bainimarama (pictured) wants them to be loyal to him”. Dorney also said the military regime doesn’t care about international pressure and a military attack would be counter-productive. “The Fijian military is a formidable force,” he said. Dorney said pressure on the regime would have to emerge internally and might happen if economic conditions deteriorate further.

Elsewhere. Another view on Dorney’s talk from Lee Duffield at EU Australia Online, a good potted history of Fiji’s troubled history from Legal Eagle at Scepticlawyer and Andrew Bartlett on the response from Fiji’s bloggers.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Israel flexes its muscles: The West’s shameful boycott of the Durban Review Conference

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has said she is “shocked and disappointed” by the US decision not to attend the anti-racism Durban Review Conference which starts today in Geneva, Switzerland. The US joins Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Israel, Netherlands, Germany and Italy in boycotting the conference. Speaking yesterday High Commissioner Navi Pillay said these countries have allowed a couple of issues to dominate, outweighing the needs of numerous groups who suffer worldwide on a daily basis. “These are truly global issues,” she said “And it is essential that they are discussed at a global level, however sensitive and difficult they may be."

Navi Pillay is right. It is shameful that these Western nations have allowed their Israeli interests to trump discussion of a wide range of important human rights issues. According to the Financial Times, the boycotters say they want to avoid a rerun of the original 2001 Durban meeting at which Israel was attacked over its racist policies towards Palestinians. Although this year’s draft communiqué was reworded to address concerns, the US was still unhappy at the final product.

The Obama administration announced its decision on Saturday. State Department spokesman Robert Wood said that although the US was “profoundly committed to ending racism and racial discrimination”, it could not sign up because the language in Friday’s communiqué text reaffirmed the 2001 Durban Declaration and Programme of Action (DDPA). “The DDPA singles out one particular conflict and prejudges key issues that can only be resolved in negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians,” said Wood. “ The [US] also has serious concerns with relatively new additions to the text regarding ‘incitement,’ that run counter to the US commitment to unfettered free speech.”

Australia used similar arguments in announcing their boycott. Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said he’d taken the decision with regret “as Australians are a people committed to eliminating racism and racial discrimination.” He claimed Australia was committed to advancing human rights and had put in place policies to close the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous people (one of the main items for discussion at the conference). However, he said he could not support a document which reaffirmed the DDPA in its entirety. “We cannot be confident that the Review Conference will not again be used as a platform to air offensive views, including anti-Semitic views,” said Smith. “Of additional concern are the suggestions of some delegations in the Durban process to limit the universal right to free speech.

US and Australian concerns seems over dramatised when looking at the actual text of the original 2001 DDPA (pdf). Just one out of 122 issues related to the treatment of the Palestinians. This is issue 63 which reads: “We are concerned about the plight of the Palestinian people under foreign occupation. We recognize the inalienable right of the Palestinian people to self-determination and to the establishment of an independent State and we recognize the right to security for all States in the region, including Israel, and call upon all States to support the peace process and bring it to an early conclusion.”

Hardly over controversial, and sentiments shared by many across the world. The decision looks even more suspicious having looked at the agenda of the 2001 conference. It dealt with five major human rights themes: trafficking in women and children, migration and discrimination, gender and racial discrimination, racism against indigenous peoples, and protection of minority rights. In none of the press releases related to these five areas, is Israel mentioned by name.

The call for laws against incitement is more problematic, but some boycotting nations already have similar laws (eg Volksverhetzung in Germany) on their books. The relevant passage in the DDPA (Action 145) urges “States to implement legal sanctions, in accordance with relevant international human rights law, in respect of incitement to racial hatred [through the Internet]”. In any case, the action is stated as an “urge” and does not imply outright agreement. And even if the states disagree with the provision, this is surely not reason enough to boycott the entire conference? This means the only logical reason countries are pulling out is because they do not want any public discussion of Israeli policy in the Palestinian territory.

Admittedly early draft versions of the Durban 2 declaration were rabidly anti-Israel. The 3 March version found by Ha’aretz found that Israel's policy in the Palestinian territories constituted a “violation of international human rights, a crime against humanity and a contemporary form of apartheid”. However the final version I read this evening (Rev 2) contained no explicit mention of Israel at all. The commitment to avoid a just settlement in Palestine has trumped “the commitment to prevent, combat and eradicate racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.” The US and Australian position on human rights commitments has been shown up as a pious platitude and the boycott is shameful politicking.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Thoughts on the digital revolution

As everyone knows but fewer really understand, the future of all mass communication is digital. Although various tech evangelists from the 1990s onwards such as Postel, Negroponte, Gibson, O'Reilly, and John Perry Barlow have long imagined various paths forward towards digitaldom, the more insular Australian media industry is struggling to cope with the emergence of new realities.

The boss of Australia’s leading media player News Ltd, Rupert Murdoch, does understand those realities. In 2005 he told the American society of Newspaper Editors that "as an industry, many of us have been remarkably, unaccountably complacent". He knew that the future course of news was being altered by "technology-savvy young people no longer wedded to traditional news outlets or even accessing news in traditional ways". Yet even Murdoch's foresight and deep pockets are struggling to deal with the constant quarterly business need to turn a profit. Nevertheless his company is best placed to deal with the digital transition and their stable still contains much of the best journalism in the country (as well as much of the worst).

Also doing relatively well at minding the future is the ABC. The public “broadcaster” (in truth now a multi-media concern) is also in a strong position to ride out the approaching digital storm with its lively online entity, its successful podcasting and its proposed uptake of digital TV channels. Managing Director Mark Scott was right last month when he said “No other media organisation is doing more with user‐generated content or using the web more to encourage robust local content.”

The same can not be said of Fairfax Media which is a very poor state of health. The company is struggling with half-year losses of $365 million and is haemorrhaging money as it loses its “rivers of gold” classified advertising to competing Internet sites. Its management does not seem to understand the new environment. Last week Tim Burrowes pointed out the stupidity of Fairfax's miserliness with outgoing links. Meanwhile the Fairfax Digital operation thrashes the quality of the brand with its aggressive chasing of more downmarket content driven purely by number of hits to the website.

Australian commercial television is no healthier. The shares of Channels Seven and Nine are virtually worthless. With analogue television to be phased out by 2013 and the proposed National Broadband Network (NBN) on the way, the future does not look bright for Australia’s two main commercial networks. Media commentator Mark Day has called the NBN a “television killer”. The only hope of digital survival for these networks is their portal alliances with Microsoft (Nine) and Yahoo (Seven).

Yet Channel Ten will survive the digital transition despite current financial difficulties and the lack of a digital alliance partner. Its controlling shareholder CanWest could face bankruptcy as it suffers under the crippling weight of $4.5 billion debts it mostly incurred when buying Conrad Black’s empire in 2000. Nevertheless I believe that Ten has the brightest future of the commercials and remains an attractive takeover target thanks to its investment in digital technology (Channel One) and its dominance of the increasingly influential 16-39 audience demographic.

Meanwhile Telstra’s infrastructure casts a huge shadow over the Australian digital media landscape. The telecommunications giant may yet beat the NBN to the punch if it went ahead and started building its own high-speed network. As well as its massive phone business, it is also Australia’s largest ISP and owns half of Pay TV operator Foxtel which provides de facto digital television coverage for two million Australians.

While these big players fight it out for the news provision in the Internet central square, there is a growing ‘long tail’ of other participants in the side streets. The Internet is changing the way people gather and consume news. The change to the information architecture is reflected in the growing range of tools available to get messages into the public sphere. The world can be “googled” and Google itself has become a multi-national communications giant. Yet there is also a growing personalisation of news embodied in the tools of Web2.0 which is all about sharing, collaborating and pooling resources. These tools include blogs, wikis, videos, RSS, file sharing, social bookmarking, and social networking which all enhance creativity and interactivity. The microblogging facility Twitter takes viral networking to the next level allowing users to follow leaders in their field as well as network with peers in real-time speed.

Yet my favourite technology from the last ten years remains the humble blog, which is rapidly becoming a mature technology. Technorati rightly says they are pervasive and part of our lives. By June 2008 they had indexed 133 million blogs in six years in 81 languages. The word ‘blog’ is an amalgam of web and log and has been described as similar to a ship’s log or a record of a journey. While the vast majority of blogs are used as personal online diaries and social interaction with friends, it is the news-related blogs that have become prominent in recent years through what J.D. Lasica called “random acts of journalism”.

Usually written by media outsiders, one of the great virtues of blogs is their ability to aggregate distributed knowledge and to challenge accepted media narratives. Ward and Cahill called them a “fifth estate” with their fact checking and analysis of mainstream news media output. Newspapers still do the heavy grunt work. But as Clay Shirky said, society doesn’t need newspapers. What it needs is journalism. What this means is that the need is independent of technology.

Margaret Simons says there are four types of journalism: investigation, storytelling, basic reporting, and conversation. Of these four, blogs do conversation the best. A discussion on one blog can quickly spread across the web with bloggers referring, linking and commenting one another. Mark Bahnisch says the real value of Australian political blogs is the public and political conversation that they create, which migrates beyond the blogging platform itself.

But there is no reason bloggers cannot do some, or all, of those other functions of journalism. There is still the same need to demonstrate to readers what is new, interesting, important and informative in any story – and preferably in the first 29 words. Any content provider with journalist aspirations must answer the questions raised by Kipling’s “six honest serving men” in The Elephant’s Child - What and Why and When And How and Where and Who. News stories can also be recognised when they show elements of at least one of the primary news values: impact, timeliness, prominence, proximity, bizarreness, conflict, and currency.

Thinking like a journalist involves making sense of large amounts of information, making products out of it and then marketing these products. Blogging makes the first two parts of that production chain easier with its hyperlinking functionality and the ease of publishing. However, the ability to find a marketplace for the products depends on the reputation of the blogger. And getting a name is the hardest part. Industrial journalists do have reputations but they are also dealing with the consequence of blogging. Just about the only thing that differentiates them from amateur (or at least independent) bloggers is how they use a contacts book. Michael Schudson says news in America is a form of a culture; a “strategic ballet” produced by exchanges between journalists and sources. This is true also for Australia. Schudson defines interviews between reporters and those sources as “the fundamental act of contemporary journalism”. But the fundamentals are changing.

Kevin Kawamoto says the reason the rules of journalism are in a state of flux is because of the difficulty of how to define the “real media” in a digital age. There is a good example of this in Far North Queensland where Michael Moore runs the muckraking Cairnsblog.Net site. The site provides valuable fourth estate coverage of local politics in a town where there is not much competition. Moore is in every sense a journalist and has gotten himself onto the circulation list of Cairns Regional Council media releases. But now he says he has been barred from attending their media events. When he asked the council why he was excluded, he was told that media conference alerts are only issued to “accredited news agencies and their representatives”. But as Moore commented, accredited news agencies are a “modern invention, up there with crop circles”. Kawamoto's view on press credentials is that there is now no universal codes for establishing who qualifies as a journalist.

Anyone can call themselves a journalist but few will be trusted to act. One way of getting that trust is via Hal Jurgensmeyer’s influence model for newspapers (quoted in Meyer’s The Vanishing Newspaper) which I believe can hold for blogs. Hal Jurgensmeyer (1931-1995) was a business-side vice president of the publishing company Knight-Ridder. His maxim was newspapers were not in the news or information business but in the influence business. Jurgensmeyer's influence diagram posited a direct relationship leading from content to credibility which in turn provided influence and circulation. It is the combination of influence and circulation that makes profits. And profits make quality content.

None of this depends on the medium, but on regular, accurate, and newsworthy content from someone an audience deems credible enough to provide it.

An Uncertain Maritime Incident: boat explosion survivors arrive in Australia

31 casualties from yesterday's boat explosion of asylum seekers are now being treated in Australian hospitals. The boat carrying roughly 50 people exploded near Ashmore Reef after being intercepted by the Australian Navy the previous afternoon. Three people were killed and two more are missing. Another five of the injured are fighting for their lives having suffered burns to up to 70 per cent of their bodies. The incident was quickly politicised by WA Liberal Premier Colin Barnett and Federal Immigration spokeswoman Sharman Stone opening up a Pandora’s Box of anti-immigrant hysteria reminiscent of the unsavoury mood that enveloped Australia in 2001 in the wake of the Tampa crisis.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd steered clear of the politics as he gave further information about the refugees at a doorstop in Sydney today. He said 31 passengers from the vessel were transferred from HMAS Childers and HMAS Albany by helicopter to Truscott in Western Australia. Eight refugees with serious injuries were sent to Darwin and another was sent to Broome while the rest were escorted to Perth. Another 13 passengers remain on HMAS Albury which is sailing to Darwin. However Rudd refused to speculate on the cause of the explosion. “[I]t’s still too early to confirm the cause of the explosion on the vessel in question,” he said. “In line with that advice I will not be speculating on the cause of the explosion today until that investigation is concluded.”

The government position on the cause of the blast is in stark contrast to that of WA Premier Colin Barnett. Within hours of the incident, he claimed the cause was sabotage. Barnett said refugees deliberately doused the deck with petrol before igniting it. However today he was in damage control mode saying his information was from the State's Emergency Operations Unit, which was relaying information from Northern Command. “I was asked a question on this, I had only 20 minutes earlier had a briefing on the situation and I simply conveyed in good faith the information that had been provided to me,” he said.

Opposition front bencher Sharman Stone went further than her state colleague and directly blamed the Government for the explosion saying “You can't announce a soft policy and expect people not to lose their lives through people smuggling efforts”. She told last night’s Lateline she stood by her remarks and said the Government had created a dangerous situation with its policy on asylum seekers. She said asylum seekers were coming in larger numbers by sea since the August 2008 changes which ended the so-called Pacific Solution and got rid of Temporary Protection Visas. Since then, she said, “a green light flashed in a lot of people smuggling business headquarters, and we saw these boats begin to come on down.”

Her comments set off a firestorm of radio talkback reaction mostly hostile to asylum seekers redolent of the 2001 days of the Dark Victory. But Stone’s complaint was contradictory as well as being plain wrong in many respects. Stone admitted she did not want to see a return to the Pacific Solution where detainees were held on Nauru and PNG’s Manos Island. Nor could she explain what a Liberal Government would do differently in the current situation other than telling Indonesia Australia was serious about people smuggling. Stone’s tirade was assisted by a series of articles in The Australian which sought to beat up the asylum issue.

Foreign editor Greg Sheridan agreed with Stone that it was a “softening Australian border controls” which had to “act as a magnet for illegal immigrants.” But in the next breath he also admitted there is a general rise in asylum seekers around the world. The UN High Commission for Refugees says there were 383,000 asylum applications worldwide in 2008 up 12 percent since 2007. Barely 4,700 of these came to Australia the vast majority of which arrived by air.

Perhaps surprisingly, the largest amount of these people are from China with 24 percent of the 2008 total (Sri Lanka and India are second and third respectively). However because they arrive by plane, the Chinese immigrant are not demonised by the media as Andrew Bartlett notes. A secondary reason, says Bartlett, is there are “diplomatic sensitivities in our politicians drawing too much attention to the fact, which would mainly serve to remind people of how appalling the human rights record of the Chinese government continues to be.”

But there appears to be no such sensitivities about those who take the perilous sea journey. In 2000, then PM John Howard successfully made them unpopular by calling them “queue jumpers” appealing to the Australian sense of order while waiting. The implication is that those who arrive without documentation take unfair advantage over those who have completed applications for refugee status overseas in order to enter Australia with a valid visa. However “queue jumpers” is an empty phrase. Many refugees (such as the Afghan Hazaras) come from places where there is no orderly process to asylum and risk imprisonment or death in leaving their own countries.

It is important to realise the small scale of the problem. Even with the increase in numbers, just 18 boats (including 6 this year) have been intercepted since 2005 carrying barely 300 passengers. To deal with this problem there is a new $400 million immigration detention centre at Christmas Island’s North West Cape while the government proposes to spend another $120 million on detention operations this calendar year. Refugee Council President John Gibson said it was important to learn from past mistakes before re-entering a debate on asylum seeker issues. Gibson also reminded commentators and the public that the act of seeking protection from persecution was sanctioned under Australian law. “As a mature democratic nation…we need to treat asylum seekers and handle their claims in a manner which is consistent with the ‘fair go’ ethos of which we are rightly proud”, he said.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Thailand slowly returns to normal

Bangkok and surrounding districts are slowly returning to normal despite enduring a fifth successive day of emergency rule. The government has extended the Thai New Year's holiday for the rest of the week for "public safety" in case the opposition movement regroup. Today Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva pledged to call elections once stability is restored. Yesterday was the first day since the weekend, the so-called Red Shirt have not been out on the streets demanding the resignation of Abhisit’s four-month-old administration The current Prime Minister was appointed in December after a constitutional court banned that the former government loyal to Thaksin Shinawatra.

The red shirts are followers of the former populist Prime Minister now in exile and are officially called the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD). They wear red to distinguish themselves from pro-monarchical urban elite followers of the Peoples' Alliance for Democracy (PAD) who wear yellow. PAD protests were instrumental in the overthrow of Thaksin’s rule by military coup in September 2006. Thaksin still retains widespread support among Thailand’s rural poor. His UDD followers claim Abhisit is a puppet of the military and have called on him to resign.

Last month 2,000 protesters began holding sit-in protests outside government offices, and prevented the cabinet from meeting. On the weekend, Red Shirt protesters caused major international embarrassment when they stormed a venue in Pattaya forcing the cancellation of a 16 nation regional summit of Asia Pacific leaders. Abhisit responded by declaring a state of emergency. On 12 April, the Thai government also revoked Thaksin’s passport in absentia.

Matters worsened on Sunday when protesters took over the major Din Daeng intersection in the capital. The choice was strategic as it blocked the crossing that led to Bangkok's main military base. At 4am Monday morning, the army made its first charge which drove away the red shirts. By sunrise, the army had control of the intersection while the protesters had retreated to the roads to Victory monument and the city centre.

For several hours there was an uneasy truce. But at mid-morning, the troops were on the march again. Using a drum beat from their batons and riot shields, they advanced on the protesters. The red shirts greeted them with petrol bombs and rocks and set fire to buses and tyres. Soldiers responded by firing at the demonstrators causing dozens of injuries. The protesters scattered among burning vehicles while the army gave chase. The UDD claim two people were killed and 113 injured in the clashes, though the government denies this.

Protesters were then surrounded by heavily armed soldiers for almost 24 hours, prompting the leaders to give in to avoid further bloodshed. On Tuesday protesters finally ended a three-week siege of Abhisit's offices. In a televised address to the nation later that day, Prime Minister Abhisit said people were dispersing and the situation was returning to normal. One UDD supporter admitted the military had made it too dangerous for him to wear the red shirt. Pairoj Chotsripanporn, a 52-year old trader, said he had now swapped the colour for something more neutral. "We will be attacked by this military-backed government,” said Pairoj. “But we will not stop."

Meanwhile the man behind the demonstrations continues to elude Thai authorities. Thaksin has been on the run since 2006 and Thailand has an arrest warrant out on him. Yesterday Associated Press reported he had been issued a diplomatic passport by Nicaragua. AP said he was appointed an "ambassador on a special mission”. However, the Thai online site Matichon has disputed this claim. They quoted a letter from the Nicaraguan embassy in Mexico to Thai embassy issued yesterday saying that the report was unfounded.

Thaksin spoke to French broadcaster France 24 overnight but did not comment on the passport rumours. Instead he urged King Bhumibol Adulyadej to intervene. “I have urged his majesty to intervene. He is the only person that can intervene in this incident, otherwise the violence will become wider and also the confrontation would be more and more,” he said. He also pledged to continue to give "moral support" to the protesters.