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Archive for June, 2017

Venezuela: Hand Grenades From A Helicopter

After almost three months of daily anti-government demonstrations, what Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro needed most was an excuse to impose martial law, or at least to use major violence and mass arrests to close the protests down.

On Tuesday, Maduro got his excuse. A stolen police helicopter flew over the Supreme Court building in Caracas – and dropped a couple of hand grenades near it.

As “terrorist” incidents go, it was so incompetent and downright silly that you begin to suspect that it wasn’t a “false flag” operation sponsored by the government after all. If Maduro’s people were aiming to give themselves an excuse for a crack-down, surely they would have come up with something more impressive than a guy in a helicopter dropping a couple of hand-grenades at random onto the Supreme Court lawn.

The man behind this attack was Oscar Perez, a police officer who announced in a video posted on Instagram that he was launching an armed struggle against tyranny.

“We are a coalition of military employees, policemen and civilians who are looking for balance and are against this criminal government,” Pérez said, and the four armed men standing behind him in the video tried to look fierce. The ski-masks helped a bit, but it was hard not to giggle. They really didn’t look very dangerous.

But you have to work with the material at hand, and President Maduro did his best to inflate the incident into a major terrorist attack. “I have activated the entire armed forces to defend the peace,” he said. “Sooner or later, we are going to capture that helicopter and those who carried out this terror attack.” (And while we’re at it, we’ll round up a lot of other people who support the opposition.)

Maduro can no longer stay in power by democratic means. There is no doubt that he won the presidency by a narrow but genuine majority (1.5 percent) in the 2013 election that followed the death of Hugo Chavez, the hero-founder of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela. But there is also no doubt that the opposition coalition, the Democratic Unity Roundtable, won a landslide victory in the parliamentary election of 2015.

What made the difference between those two elections was the price of oil. In 2013 it was around $100 per barrel. By 2015 it was in the low $40s, and it is still there today.

Venezuela is not a rich country, although most Venezuelans believe it is. It has a lot of oil, but it produces almost nothing else and imports practically everything it consumes. So it is rich when oil is at $100 – but it is very poor when it is below $50. The country is therefore now broke.

For reasons having nothing to do with alleged plots by the US or the wicked local elites, per capita income in Venezuela has fallen by more than half in the past two years. So people are angry, including many of the poor people who benefitted from Chavez’s generosity with the oil revenues back in the Good Old Days. There is a presidential election due next year, and as things stand now Maduro would probably lose by two-to-one.

The National Assembly has had a two-thirds majority of opposition members since the 2015 election, and it has been pressing hard to bring the presidential election forward to this year. Maduro had to stop that, and his first step was to have the Supreme Court, which is packed with Chavez and Maduro appointees, strip the National Assembly of all its powers and take them for itself.

This is what triggered the daily anti-government demonstrations that began in early April. The Supreme Court’s action was clearly unconstitutional, and after three days that also saw protests from members of his own party Maduro ordered the judges to backtrack on their decree. But the protesters, with the bit between their teeth, stayed out in the street. Despite 70 dead in the past three months, they are still there today.

So Maduro, desperate to sideline the National Assembly, then came up with the idea of rewriting the constitution. There was no referendum to test popular support for this idea, and the people in the “constituent assembly” are being chosen according to rules set by the Maduro government.

The new constitution will presumably prevent any further unfortunate accidents like the opposition parliamentary victory in 2015 – and by a happy coincidence (for Maduro), it also provides an excuse for not holding the scheduled presidential election in 2018. After all, new rules are coming. Why do it under the old rules?

Nobody is fooled by all this flim-flam, and it is no surprise that Oscar Perez, whether he is a deluded revolutionary or a secret government stooge flying false colours, chose to drop his little hand-grenades on the Supreme Court. It has become a symbol of the illicit manipulation by which Maduro clings to power, and therefore a natural target for those who oppose the government (or pretend to).

In either case, Maduro has his pretext, and will now clamp down harder and try to terrify the opposition into submission. It is probably going to get much nastier yet in Venezuela.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 14. (“As…lawn”; and “The new…rules”)

Philippines Insurgency

A month ago, hardly anybody outside the Philippines had ever heard of Marawi. Now it’s the latest front in the war against Islamic State. More evidence, if you needed it, that the terrorism associated with Islamic State will go on long after Mosul and Raqqa have been liberated and “Caliph Ibrahim” (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi) has been killed or captured.

“We have actually preempted the establishment of a wilayat (a province of Islamic State),” said Ernesto Abella, the spokesperson of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, which is definitely overstating the case. The response of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) was slow and clumsy, and government policy has been lax and inattentive.

It’s not even clear that the attempt by the Maute group of Islamist fighters to take over Marawi, an unimportant city of 200,000 people in the centre of Mindanao island in the southern Philippines, was actually a bid to create a “wilayat” of Islamic State. It is necessary to control some territory to declare a wilayat, so they had a motive, but this fight started almost accidentally.

The fighting broke out in the city after a failed attempt to arrest Isnilon Hapilon, a leading figure in another, bigger Islamist group called Abu Sayyaf that has also pledged allegiance to Islamic State. Fighters from that outfit and others joined the Maute group that predominates in the Marawi area in a general uprising on 23 May – and the AFP’s reaction was so hesitant that between 400 and 500 fighters were able to take over the city.

The insurgents weren’t numerous enough to hold the whole city once the army got its act together, but for the past month they have controlled between ten and twenty percent of it. The government claims to have killed 280 militants for the loss of 69 AFP soldiers and 29 civilians and promises that it will be over soon, but it has been a profoundly unimpressive performance.

Equally unimpressive has been the performance of the government led by “Rody” Duterte. Like every government before it, it has paid little attention to monitoring the seas around the Philippines, so it is easy for foreign militants to slip into the country.

It has been far worse than any previous government in its disregard for the law: Duterte’s “dirty war” against drugs has involved thousands of extra-judicial killings. It has been a major distraction (and a huge crime, of course), and it has effectively de-professionalised the police. Death squads do not do effective police work.

Above all, Duterte has failed to push for ratification of the 2014 peace agreement with the largest Muslim separatist group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The MILF is Islamic but not extreme Islamist, and the agreement granted it considerable autonomy in the area of central Mindanao under its control. However, the legislation to implement the deal stalled in Congress in 2015, and has never been put back on the agenda.

With nothing to show for its attempt to reach a peaceful compromise with the government, the MILF leadership has been unable to stop its more hard-line members from defecting to other, more radical groups that reject the agreement. Most of those groups are associated with Islamic State or at least share its ideology, so the situation in Mindanao is worse than it was when the peace deal was signed.

The siege of Marawi will be over in another week or so: the AFP claims there are only 100 fighters left in the city (although it isn’t very efficient at sealing off the city and stopping other from arriving). The larger problem of radicalisation among discontented and disadvantage Muslims in Mindanao will continue, and may well grow. The only thing that would stop it is good governance, and that is not on offer under Duterte.

It’s an accident of history that this problem even exists. Islam was being spread east across the islands of Indonesia and the Philippines by Malay traders, and there were already several Muslim rulers in the Philippines when the Spanish arrived in 1570. But few of the common people had converted to Islam yet except in Mindanao, and under Spanish rule the rest of the Philippines was converted to Catholicism instead.

No cause for complaint there: history is full of accidents like that. But it is true that successive Filipino governments encouraged the emigration of Christians to Mindanao, and that Muslims have now fallen to 20 percent of the population even in Mindanao. (Nationwide, only 5 percent of the population is Muslim.)

The demand for a “Muslim homeland” in the Muslim-majority parts of Mindanao has been strong for decades, and a sensible Filipino government would have made the necessary compromises long ago. That’s not going to happen under Duterte, but the worst that can happen is an ugly local problem that need not concern the rest of the world.

That is more than can be said for next-door Indonesia, which is 90 percent Muslim and has two-and-a-half times the population of the Philippines. As General Gatot Nurmantyo, Indonesia’s military chief, said last week, there are Islamic State-affiliated sleeper cells “in almost every (Indonesian) province.”
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12. (“It’s an…Muslim”)

Silly Buggers

I don’t remember which navy I was in when I first heard the term “silly buggers”, but the meaning was clear. It included some sensible exercises like “man overboard” drills, but the heart and soul of the game was high-speed manoeuvres by ships traveling in close company. These sometimes got quite exciting, because ships don’t have brakes.

Off the coast of Lebanon, in 140 metres of water, is the wreck of the British battleship HMS Victoria, which sank in 1893. It is the world’s only vertical wreck, because its bow is plunged deep in the mud but its stern is only 70 metres below the service – “like a tombstone,” said one of the divers who found it in 2004. And it was “silly buggers” that did for it.

The British Mediterranean fleet was travelling in two parallel lines when Admiral Tryon decided to reverse course – and to make it interesting he ordered the lead ships of each line to make the turn inwards, towards the other line. In theory the two lines of ships should have ended up travelling in the opposite direction, but much closer together.

Unfortunately, they were already too close, and they couldn’t turn tightly enough to avoid hitting each other. The lead battleship of the other line rammed HMS Victoria and all 10,400 tonnes of her sank within a few minutes, carrying the admiral and 357 other officers and men down with her. That’s the sort of thing that happens when you play “silly buggers” and get it wrong.

It’s silly enough when everybody is on the same side. When two different countries start playing “silly buggers” it gets even more dangerous, and that’s where we are right now. On Monday, over the Baltic Sea, a Russian fighter plane flew within one and a half metres of an American reconaissance aircraft’s wingtip. US officials protested, saying it was “unsafe” and criticising the Russian pilot’s “high rate of closure speed and poor control of the aircraft.”

The Russians immediately blamed the American aircaft for making a “provocative” move, but that’s nonsense. The reconnaissance plane was a KC-135, a four-engine aircraft the size of a passenger jet that lumbers along like a freight train. The Russian plane was an SU-27, a nimble state-of-the-art fighter that could fly rings around the American aircraft.

Had the Russian pilot been ordered to get that close? Probably not. Did he intend to scare the Americans? Almost certainly, yes. He probably did misjudge the distance – it’s not worth dying to make your point – but he would have known that he was off the leash.

American reconnaissance flights targeting Russia are perfectly legal so long as they stay over international waters, but they have become much more frequent over both the Baltic and the Black Seas. That is clearly yanking the Russians’ chain, and they duly get worked up about it. More importantly, the Russian pilot would have known what is going on over Syria.

The game over eastern Syria has gone beyond mere “silly buggers”. It’s more like “chicken” now, with the Russians and the Americans pushing each other to see how far they can go. But it’s the Americans who are actually shooting, though they haven’t killed any Russians yet.

Early this month, the US shot down a Russian-made Syrian government drone near the al-Tanf border crossing, between Syria and Iraq. Then on Sunday an American F/A-18 shot down a Syrian air force fighter-bomber near the Islamic State’s besieged capital of Raqqa. The Russians responded by saying that they would track any Western aircraft operating west of the Euphrates River as potential targets.

When US aircraft mistakenly dropped bombs on Syrian government troops last September, killing 62 of them, nobody shot them down. But that was then, and the rules have clearly changed – as was underlined on Monday, when US forces shot down another Syrian government drone near al-Tanf, this time an Iranian-built Shahed 129.

At one level, what’s driving all this is the fact that Islamic State is going under, and the various players are racing to gain control of the parts of eastern Syria that were or still are controlled by the group. US forces are part of that race, and are getting increasingly reckless about how they compete.

At a higher level, this is the result of President Donald Trump’s decision to commit the United States and its forces to the Sunni side in the Sunni-Shia confrontation that links all the local wars together. That defines not only the Syrian government but also its Iranian and Russian supporters as America’s enemies, and the American forces in the region are just responding to that shift.

There is still no clear American vision for the future of the Middle East, let alone a serious strategy for accomplishing it. But meanwhile the games-playing continues and intensifies, and it’s only a matter of time before some Russian or American gets killed by the other side.

Silly buggers.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 11. (“The Russians…aircraft”; and “Who…129″)

Varadkar and Bernabic

19 June 2017

Varadkar and Bernabic
By Gwynne Dyer

For most Irish people the most striking thing about their new prime minister, Leo Varadkar, is that he is very young. (At 38, he is the country’s youngest leader ever.) It’s mainly the foreign press that goes on about the fact that he is a) half-Indian, and b) gay.

Varadkar himself, the son of a doctor from India and a nurse from Ireland who met while working in a hospital in southern England, is definitely not keen on being seen as a symbol of changing public attitudes: “I’m not a half-Indian politician, or a doctor politician or a gay politician, for that matter. It’s just part of who I am. It doesn’t define me.”

No, it doesn’t, but it is still worth focussing on for a moment to think about what it tells us not just about Ireland but about the West as a whole, and even about the world.

Homosexuality was legalised in England in 1967, and it was decriminalised in Canada the following year (when Pierre Trudeau, then the justice minister, told the CBC that “there’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation”). It only became legal in Ireland a quarter-century later, in 1993. But two years ago same-sex marriage was made legal in Ireland by a referendum in which 62 percent of the voters said yes.

Well, we already knew that Ireland had changed. It has lots of immigrants now – one in every eight people is foreign-born – and the political power of the Catholic Church has collapsed. So it’s no longer a surprise that an Indo-Irish gay man can become prime minister. But what about Serbia?

The only “immigrants” in Serbia are ethnic Serbs who were stranded in other parts of former Yugoslavia after the break-up. The Serbian Orthodox Church is still strong, and it has no truck with degenerate Western ideas about human rights. As one Orthodox monk wrote: “Homosexuality is not a problem in Serbia. There are hardly any gay people, and society wouldn’t permit them to organize or (publicly advocate) their abominations.”

Two-thirds of Serbians think that homosexuality is an illness, and almost four-fifths believe that gay people should stay in the closet. But Ana Brnabic is an out and proud lesbian, and she has just been appointed prime minister of Serbia. She is also of Croatian descent. How has this happened?

Brnabic was appointed by Alexandar Vucic, who was prime minister himself until he ascended to the presidency in last month’s election. The prime minister is constitutionally the most powerful person in the government, but Brnabic is a technocrat, not really a politician. It is widely expected that she will concentrate on making the trains run on time, so to speak, and leave the sensitive political decisions to Vucic.

The general assumption in Serbian political circles is that Brnabic’s appointment is window-dressing. Serbia wants to join the European Union, and the government would quite like to divert the EU’s attention from a few little image problems: its close ties with Russia, its hostility to refugees, and rampant corruption.

So what could be better than a woman prime minister (a Serbian first) who is openly gay (another Serbian first) and even has foreign antecedents (her father was born in Croatia)? Why, the Serbs are even more enlightened than the Irish! We should make them full members of the EU as soon as possible!

That may well be the plan – and if it is, so what? The European Union knows that there was a considerable amount of calculation behind Brnabic’s appointment, but it will not condemn President Alexandar Vucic for trying to make Serbia look like a suitable candidate for EU membership.

Lots of ordinary Serbs will be shocked by this assault on “Serbian values”, but many of them will understand that it serves the national interest. And little by little, just because Brnabic is the prime minister, they will grow less uncomfortable with the notion of gays – and indeed just women in general – having a legitimate role in public life.

This is how change really happens: not sudden enlightenment, but a gradual acceptance of new rules and values. And the most encouraging take-away from this little story is that even a man like Vucic, once an ally of the murderous demagogue Slobodan Milosevic, understands the new political and social rules of the West.

They are not yet the new rules everywhere. Eastern Europe is way behind Western Europe, North America and Latin America, largely because it spent between forty and seventy years isolated from the rest of the world under Communist rule. The struggle is still intense in parts of Asia, and it has scarcely begun in most of Africa and the Muslim world.

Gay rights, feminism, human rights in general are not really “Western” values: a hundred years ago the West was just as intolerant of difference as everybody else. The change has come to the West earlier mainly because it is richer, but we are all traveling on the same train, and the other end will pull into the station just a little bit later.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit 6 and 8. (“The only…abominations”; and “Brnabic…Vucic”)