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Gwynne Dyer

Gwynne Dyer has written 1684 posts for Gwynne Dyer

The Brexit Border Backstop

The other Europeans are not laughing at the English for the most part. They are looking at them with pity and scorn. But also with a great deal of impatience.

On Tuesday the British parliament rejected Prime Minister Theresa May’s ‘deal’ for Britain’s exit (‘Brexit’) from the European Union, painfully negotiated over more than two-and-a-half years, by an overwhelming 149-vote majority.

It was the second time parliament, including a large chunk of her own Conservative Party, rejected the deal she made with the EU last November. And the main reason both times was the so-called ‘backstop’: a commitment by May’s government to avoid a hard border in Ireland at all costs.

Today (I am writing on Wednesday), the British parliament will also reject a proposal that Britain just leave the EU without a deal. ‘Crashing out’ would mean instant customs barriers at the United Kingdom’s port, airports and land borders, with immense disruption of trade including food imports and industrial supply chains. It would be an economic disaster.

On Thursday, once that option is foreclosed, the British parliament will vote on asking the EU for a postponement of the departure date (currently scheduled for the 29th of this month). That vote will almost certainly pass, but neither the government nor parliament can even agree on how long a postponement to ask for.

If your local daycare was this feckless, you’d move your children at once.

The EU will probably grant the United Kingdom a delay to avoid a ‘no-deal Brexit’, but there will be no more negotiations: the delay would only be to give May time to sort out the politics of getting her deal through. It will be a long delay, not just a few weeks, because nobody believes she can do that quickly (if at all). And it will require the consent of all the EU’s 27 other national leaders.

It’s all about the ‘backstop’. That’s why parliament won’t pass May’s deal, and it’s why the EU refuses to re-negotiate it.

May’s November deal with the EU promised that the United Kingdom would stay in the existing customs union with the EU, and also remain closely aligned with the ‘single market’ that guarantees the free movement of goods, capital, services, and labour across the whole EU – until and unless the two parties negotiate an alternative arrangement that keeps the inter-Irish border unpoliced and almost unmarked.

If you drive the 500-km. border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK, the road crosses it dozens of times (there are 270 vehicle crossings). The only way you know you have crossed the border again is that speed limits are posted in kilometres in the republic, but in miles in the North.

But for 30 years during the ‘Troubles’ (1969-1999), which saw 3,000 people killed in a province of less than two million people, the border was a war zone. British soldiers, of whom hundreds died there, called it ‘bandit country’.

The killing ended with the ‘Good Friday agreement’ of 1999, which managed to achieve a compromise between the Protestants of Northern Ireland (who feel British) and the Catholics (who mostly identify as Irish). There would be power-sharing at government level, and the border with the Republic would become invisible. The Irish nationalists in the North could even have Irish passports instead of British ones.

Brexit is almost entirely an English nationalist project – Scotland and Northern Ireland both voted to remain in the EU – and the Brexiteers just ignored the fact that leaving the EU would sabotage the Good Friday deal by creating a hard border in Ireland. There would have to be customs officers and passport checks, or else there would be huge amounts of smuggling and an uncontrolled flow of illegal migrants.

But a hard border would bring the war back, even though most people don’t want it. The population on the UK side of the border is overwhelmingly Catholic, and any attempt to control the border without putting officials on it will fail: the local people will just destroy the cameras and other sensors.

But put in customs officials, and you will need police to protect them – and soon enough you will need soldiers to protect the police. Welcome to the Troubles, volume two.

So the Irish government demanded that the border stay open and invisible. It is and will remain a member of the EU, so that became EU policy. Which means Northern Ireland (and therefore all the rest of the UK) must stay in the customs union until someone comes up with a magical method for controlling the border invisibly.

That’s why the ‘backstop’ was necessary, and Theresa May accepted that when she signed the deal last November. But she cannot sell it to her own party’s hard-line Brexiteers, let alone to the other parties in parliament. Magical thinking still rules, and the arrogance is as breathtaking as the ignorance.

What happens next? Nobody has any idea.

To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 1 and 7. (“The other…impatience”; and “The EU…leaders”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Xinjiang – The Silence of the Muslims

Muslim governments were not silent when Burma murdered thousands of Rohingya, its Muslim minority, and expelled 700,000 of them across the border into Bangladesh. They were unanimous in their anger when the Trump administration moved the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. But they are almost silent on China’s attempt to suppress Islam in its far western province, Xinjiang.

It is the most brazen frontal assault on Muslims in modern history. Up to a million Chinese citizens have been sent to concentration camps in Xinjiang for the non-crime of being Muslim. They are also guilty of the non-crime of being a ten-million-strong ethnic minority, mostly Uighurs but including a million and a half Kazakhs, who do not feel sufficiently ‘Chinese’, but Islam is the focus of the state’s anger.

And in the face of this repression, the 49 Muslim-majority countries of the world have said almost nothing. Malaysia refused to send a dozen Uighur refugees back to China last year, four members of Kuwait’s parliament made a public protest in January, and Turkey loudly condemned China’s behaviour last month, but the other 46 governments have assiduously avoided the issue. It is very strange.

When Turkey finally did cut loose, foreign ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy said: “It is no longer a secret that more than a million Uighur Turks exposed to arbitrary arrests are subjected to torture and political brainwashing” in Chinese prisons….“The reintroduction of concentration camps in the 21st century and the systematic assimilation policy of Chinese authorities against the Uighur Turks is a great embarrassment for humanity.”

But even then, other Muslim countries remained silent. With the honourable exception of Al-Jazeera, the issue is rarely even mentioned in the Arab media, and popular awareness of what is happening is minimal in big Muslim countries like Iran, Pakistan and Indonesia. Why?

It’s true that the mass repression of the Uighurs and other Muslims in China only became known abroad in the past year, although it was already state policy at least two years ago.

It’s true, too, that a lot of the evidence is circumstantial. While there are plenty of first-person reports of the brutal treatment of the Uighurs, for example, the estimates of how many are actually imprisoned – “up to a million”, which would be one-tenth of all the Muslims in Xinjiang – are really estimates of how many the camps could hold, based on satellite observations of their size.

China denies both the scale and the purpose of the repression. These camps, it says, are ‘vocational training centres’ that tackle ‘extremism’ through ‘thought transformation’ (what used to be called ‘brainwashing’, an old political tradition in Communist China).

The detainees are held indefinitely – there are no formal charges or sentences, but hardly anybody has been released in the past couple of years – and are allegedly volunteers. They are ‘trainees’, said the top Chinese official in Xinjiang, Shohrat Zakir, last October, who are grateful for the opportunity to “reflect on their mistakes.”

Shohrat Zakir is obviously a Muslim name: as always, there are collaborators and careerists among the oppressed. But it is a classic late colonial situation, with a Communist twist.

The population of Xinjiang was over 90% Muslim and Turkic-speaking when the new Communist regime in China reconquered the region in 1949. Beijing’s original solution, as in Tibet to the south, was to drown the native population in Han Chinese immigrants: Muslims are now only 45% of the population.

When the inevitable push-back came – anti-Chinese race riots and some terrorist attacks – the Chinese regime responded with intense surveillance and repression of the native population. Part of the package was an attempt to curb Islamic observance and the use of the local Turkic language. And when that wasn’t producing the desired result, Beijing began expanding the ‘re-education centres’ that now hold up to a tenth of the Muslim population.

There is nothing surprising in all this. Assimilation to the Han Chinese norm was the policy of all Chinese governments even before the Communist takeover. What is surprising is the response – or rather, the lack of response – of Muslim governments elsewhere.

Why are they silent? Mainly because China is lavishing loans and grants on them: $20 billion in loans to Arab countries, a rumoured $6 billion to Pakistan, even more to the nearby Muslim countries of Central Asia ($27 billion in joint industrial projects in Kazakhstan alone). They need the money, so they shut up. So do their tame media.

When the de facto dictator of Saudi Arabia, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, visited
China recently, he endorsed China’s right to take “anti-terrorism” and “de-extremism” measures in Xinjiang. Of course, he needs China’s support in fighting off the accusations that he ordered the murder of Jamal Khashoggi even more than he needs the money.

Xinjiang’s Muslims have been abandoned by the ‘umma’, the world community of Muslims. They are on their own, and they are suffering.

To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9, 10 and 15. (“The detainees…twist”; and “When…money”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Another Arab Spring?

The slogans of the ‘Arab Spring’ are being heard again in the Arab world. “The people want the fall of the regime,” chant the protesters in Sudan, where almost three months of popular demonstrations challenge the power of long-ruling dictator Omar al-Bashir. He acknowledges the parallels himself, condemning the demos as “an attempt to copy the so-called Arab spring for Sudan.”

At the other end of the Arab world, in Algeria, the demos began only last month, when President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, in power for the last twenty years, announced that he will run for a fifth term in the forthcoming elections. He is 82 years old and so badly affected by a stroke six years ago that he can hardly walk or talk.

Bouteflika’s last public speech was in 2014, and the most common poster in the street protests just shows a wheelchair with a big red X over it. As Algerian writer Kamel Daoud put it, by offering a candidate “who is almost dead”, the regime is showing its contempt for the young people in Algeria (where more than 30% of people aged under 30 are unemployed).

The real reason for putting up Bouteflika once again is that the various elements of ‘le pouvoir’ (the power), as everybody call the regime, could not agree on any other candidate. But it is an insult to the public, and the regime is frightened by the reaction.

Algerian Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia praised the demonstrators for using strictly non-violent tactics (as in the time of the Arab Spring), citing an incident where they gave roses to the security forces policing the protests. But, he pointed out, the non-violent pro-democracy demonstrations in Syria in 2011, which triggered a ghastly civil war, also “started with exchanges of roses.”

So is the Arab Spring coming back so soon? Probably not.

You couldn’t find two Arab countries with much less in common. Algeria is a reasonably well-educated, middle-income country; Sudan is a very poor country where the literacy rate is actually falling. Sudanese are black; Algerians are white. The varieties of popular Arabic spoken in Algeria and Sudan are mutually incomprehensible. But they do have two things in common.

They are both dictatorships of very long standing. The National Liberation Front has ruled Algeria since 1962, with Bouteflika as its front man for the past twenty years. Bashir came to power in a military coup thirty years ago. And both countries largely missed out on the original Arab Spring: there were scattered demonstrations, quickly appeased or crushed, but nothing more.

As in the Arab Spring, the protests this time are really fuelled by falling living standards. A dictatorship that was tolerated while living standards were rising becomes intolerable when there are not enough jobs and it’s getting hard to put food on the table.

In Sudan this time, it was a cut in the subsidy on bread that set off the protests, but that was the last of many cuts over the past decade. Sudan lost three-quarters of its oil income when South Sudan became a separate country in 2011, and the regime can no longer afford to buy the population off with subsidies of various sorts. Algeria still has its oil, but has been hurt badly by the sustained fall in oil prices since 2014.

This doesn’t mean that Sudanese and Algerians would love their rulers if there was more money in their pockets. They have never more than tolerated them, but the cost of trying to do something about the situation seemed too high. Now it doesn’t seem that high any more, at least not compared to the alternative.

The protests in Sudan may actually succeed in unseating Bashir, although not necessarily the military-dominated regime he leads. The regime in Algeria has already made a key concession, with Bouteflika promising to hold a referendum on a new constitution and then call fresh elections (in which he will not run) before the end of his next five-year term.

The regime is hoping that will be enough to let it stay in power, and it may be right. Algerians are deeply scarred by the terrible civil war of the 1990s, when Islamists waged a ten-year campaign of terror after their impending victory in a free election was cancelled by the military. People remain frightened of anything that could bring back that time, maybe even including too-free elections.

And nobody else in the Arab world is ready to pick up the torch just yet. The Syrian and Yemeni civil wars, both triggered by the popular, initially non-violent revolutions of the Arab Spring, may finally be stumbling towards an end, but the whole tragic sequence of events is still too fresh in people’s minds for them to want to try again.

To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 4. (“Bouteflika’s…reaction”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Venezuela: Taking It Slow

Juan Guaidó returned to Venezuela on Monday after almost two weeks doing the rounds of Latin American capitals that recognise his claim to be the ‘interim president’ of the country. He defied a government ban in order to leave the country, so he should be arrested any minute now. Or maybe not.

Despite all the ferocious rhetoric from both Guaidó’s camp and Nicolás Maduro’s ‘elected’ regime, there is a curious lack of urgency in their actions.

Maduro has still not arrested Guaidó, although in the past he imprisoned other opposition leaders for much lesser offences than claiming to be president. And Guaidó has not yet appointed an ‘interim vice-president’ to take over if he goes to jail– which suggests that he doesn’t really expect to be arrested either.

Given the fragmented nature of the Venezuelan opposition – four major parties that have a fragile power-sharing agreement called the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) – Guaidó’s reluctance to pick a vice-president from one of them is understandable. He only became president of the National Assembly last year because it was the ‘turn’ of his party, Popular Will.

He can’t choose his potential replacement from Popular Will too, but there is no agreement in place for which other opposition party should provide that leader instead. So to avoid a struggle within the MUD coalition in the midst of his confrontation with the Maduro regime, Guaidó simply hasn’t chosen an interim vice-president.

On the other hand, if Guaidó were arrested now without having appointed a deputy, there would be an equally great risk of a squabble breaking out between the four parties in MUD over who should succeed him. Conclusion: he calculates that he probably won’t be arrested. Of course, he could be wrong, but so far this is a very slow-moving crisis.

The lack of urgency even extends to the US armed forces, which are making no visible preparations to invade Venezuela. Connoisseurs of America’s foreign wars know that they almost always clank around for several weeks or months moving forces into place before they actually cross a defended border. They are not doing that.

Why is everybody moving so slowly? Because they are all still hoping that there can be a peaceful outcome, if nobody pushes too hard right now.

Guaidó’s big disappointment came on Saturday, when he had promised that hundreds of thousands of people would go the borders to bring in the US-supplied ‘humanitarian aid’ that the Maduro regime has been blocking. It didn’t go very well. The masses didn’t show up, and the Venezuelan soldiers who are keeping the aid out didn’t defect in significant numbers.

But Maduro can’t be very confident either. He knows that the desperate shortages of food and medicine (which have caused three million Venezuelans to leave the country in the past few years) have severely eroded the regime’s popular support.

Maduro got only one-third of the seats in the 2015 elections to the National Assembly, and responded by trying to replace it with a rival ‘Constituent Assembly’. (The National Assembly is still in business, however, and Guaidó is its president). He had to rig the voting and imprison opposition leaders to ‘win’ last year’s presidential election. The best estimate is that he retains about 15% popular support.

And the US army really doesn’t want to invade Venezuela. It’s looking forward to being released from seventeen years of unwinnable guerilla wars in the Middle East, and the last thing it needs now is a new counter-insurgency campaign in Venezuela.

That’s probably what it would face if it invaded. Maduro’s regime has certainly lost majority support, but even if only fifteen percent of the population remain loyal to the ‘revolution’, there would still be a guerilla and terrorist resistance that might last for years.

The Maduro regime is slowly unravelling, mainly because of its spectacular incompetence. Every major oil-exporting economy has been hurt by the drop in oil prices, but only in Venezuela are large numbers of people facing severe malnutrition, and only in Venezuela has oil production fallen – by an astonishing two-thirds.

It’s not because of US sanctions, which only began in a serious way in 2017, and it’s not because of ‘socialism’. (Cuba came through a cash-flow crisis just as profound after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and nobody starved.) It’s because words like ‘re-investment’ and ‘maintenance’ are not part of the Chavista vocabulary.

If the regime is probably heading for collapse anyway, it’s in nobody’s interest to unleash major and long-lasting violence by pushing too hard now. Amnesties and other deals could ease a peaceful transition, and there’s still time to see if that would work.

That doesn’t mean that this confrontation can’t have a violent conclusion, but it does explain why all the major players are taking it slow.

To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs . (“On…crisis”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.