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Hopeless in Iraq

Four months of mass protests in the streets of Hong Kong, and thousands of injuries and arrests – but only two gunshot wounds, both very recent and neither life-threatening.

Five days of mass protests in the streets of Baghdad, and there are already a hundred dead, most by gunfire from the various ‘security’ forces that work for the government. It’s all the more deplorable because Iraq, unlike the vast majority of Arab states, is not actually ruled by military or royal tyrants.

There are free elections in Iraq, and a democratically elected civilian government. The lengthy military occupation after the US invasion in 2003 spawned brutal terrorist movements like Islamic State, but it did give Iraq a full suite of democratic institutions. The trouble is that it also empowered one of the most corrupt political systems in the world.

That’s what the young Iraqi protesters are out in the streets about: not democracy, but corruption. They are very young – most are under 20 – and there are simply no jobs for them. They are condemned to pass their lives in idleness and poverty because they lack the political contacts that might lead to employment.

There have been intermittent anti-corruption demonstrations in Baghdad and Iraq’s big southern cities since mid-2018, and Tahrir Square in the centre of the capital has been occupied by a few thousand protesters for the past three months. But it was only when they decided to march on the Green Zone on 1 October that the killing started.

The heavily fortified Green Zone was American headquarters during the occupation, and it is now home to most government offices. The protesters were unarmed and non-violent, so the safest thing for the authorities to do would have been to shut the gates until they went home for the evening.

Instead, the military and police fools in charge decided to blockade a bridge leading to the Green Zone. When the protesters tried to cross, they were met with tear gas and rubber bullets, and then with live bullets.

Only half a dozen young men were killed that day, but they were back in the streets in far larger numbers the next day and the slaughter began in earnest. This is not a revolution. It’s more like a cry of pain and despair by young Iraqis who see no future for themselves, and unfortunately they are right.

Almost every country that depends on a single natural resource (usually oil) for most of its income experiences massive corruption: politics becomes mainly a struggle for control of the money flowing from that resource. But the situation is much worse in Iraq because corruption has become embedded in the structure of all the main political parties.

Each party controls one or more government ministries, but instead of spending that ministry’s share of the national budget on education or infrastructure or whatever its particular responsibility may be, the party creates as many jobs as possible to reward its members and retain their support.

So almost half the adult males in Iraq who have jobs of any sort have government jobs – jobs that often require no work at all, but are much better paid than private-sector jobs.

Iraqi public services are in a desperate state, because the ministries’ money is being spent on salaries for those party members rather than on maintaining the school system or electricity generation or even the water supply.

And of course there are no jobs whatever left for young people now coming into the work-force.

Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi has no idea what to do about the situation, because corruption in Iraq is not a blight on the system. It IS the system, and he will never persuade the political parties to relinquish their control over the state’s revenues. And he can’t really negotiate with the protesters either, because they have no leaders.

It gets worse. The bitter fact is that there’s not enough oil money to give everybody a decent life even if the Iraqi government were to spend it on public services and jobs for all.

Iraq’s current oil production (4.6 million barrels/day) is not dramatically higher than its previous peak in 1979 (3.5 million b/d), before production collapsed during the era of wars with Iran and the United States.

Back then, there were only around 13 million Iraqis, so it was genuinely an oil-rich country. Before Saddam Hussein gained absolute power in 1979 and plunged the country into a generation of war, the Baath Party had even managed to build a pretty good welfare state in Iraq, with a decent education and free medical care for all.

But there are now three times as many Iraqis – 40 million – and the population will double again in the next 30 years. The country still depends on oil for its income, but it is no longer ‘oil-rich’. There is little prospect for a radical improvement in the lives of those angry young men in the streets of Baghdad (and their equally despairing sisters at home).
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6, 7 and 12. (“The heavily…bullets”; and “Iraqi…supply”)

Hong Kong Protests

After the 17th consecutive weekend of increasingly violent protests in Hong Kong, the first protester was wounded by a live bullet on Tuesday. 18-year-old student Tsang Chi-kin, one of a group of about a dozen students attacking a policeman who had become separated from his comrades, was shot in the chest as he struck the man with a metal pole. He is expected to survive.

A hundred other Hong Kongers, civilians and police, were treated in hospitals on the same day for injuries incurred during what the Beijing regime calls “riots”. The violence has grown over the months, and sometimes that is an accurate description of what is going on in the streets. Even if the protesters are in the right, they are definitely a lot less non-violent than they were at the start.

What is remarkable (though rarely remarked upon) is the restraint shown by the police who, although employed by the Hong Kong city government, ultimately serve the repressive dictatorship in Beijing.

It’s only relative restraint, of course – we are not talking about the Royal Canadian Mounted Police or ‘kindly British bobbies’ here – but during months of escalating violence they have still managed not to kill anybody. Even on Tuesday, when the rest of China was marking the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic, the protests in Hong Kong continued and nobody died.

To understand how remarkable this is, ask yourself this. How many protesters would American police have killed by now if equally violent protests had been taking place in the streets of a major American city every weekend for the past four months?

This is not proof of how nice China’s rulers are. It’s evidence of how worried they are. They dare not make too many concessions to the protesters, but they want to avoid using major force against them – doing another Tiananmen Square massacre, so to speak – because they think the price would be very high. They are right about that.

When Britain returned the colony of Hong Kong to China in 1997, it was China’s main financial window on the world. That’s why it was granted a special status in China (‘one country, two systems’) for the next 50 years. It has free speech, the rule of law, all sorts of privileges that do not exist in the rest of China – but ultimately it must bow to Beijing.

Two decades later, its status as a global financial centre remains a major asset for the regime, but there are red lines that President Xi Jinping will never cross, like letting Hong Kong people choose their own government in a free election. This is now one of the protesters’ demands (although it wasn’t at the start), but it simply is not going to happen.

The Communist Party rules through carefully chosen, mostly non-Communist puppets in Hong Kong, but it does rule. As Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, explained in a private meeting with business leaders last month, her freedom of action is “very, very, very limited.”

She got into trouble in the first place by putting forward a new extradition law that would have allowed Hong Kong residents to be tried in Chinese courts, where accused people have few rights and the conviction rate is 99%. She probably did it against her own better judgement, but the orders came from above.

When the public pushed back, sensing that this could be the beginning of the end for Hong Kong’s relative freedom, Lam probably wanted to drop the matter, but it took her months to persuade Beijing to let her do it. In June she “shelved” the law, in August she said it was “dead”, but only in early September did she actually get Beijing’s permission to withdraw it.

Too little, too late. By then the protests had escalated far beyond the specific law to sweeping demands for democracy in Hong Kong. Most people outside China will sympathise, but it cannot happen. The Communist regime’s first priority is its own survival, so it will not permit such an example to flourish on Chinese soil.

The protesters have won what they originally came out for: the withdrawal of the extradition law. Their other demands will never be granted, because they imperil the ultimate authority of the Communist Party. It’s time to collect their winnings and step away from the table.

If they don’t, Beijing will ultimately crush the protests no matter how much economic and reputational damage that does. In August it doubled the number of troops it keeps in Hong Kong under the guise of ‘rotating’ the garrison: the replacements came in, but the others didn’t actually leave. Sooner or later, if things go on like this, they will be used.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (‘It’s only…months’)

Johnson’s Cunning Plan

The plotting reflex is strong in the populist politicians who currently run both of the big English-speaking countries. President Trump dreams up underhanded tricks even when he has no need of them.

Why would he bother to sabotage the campaign of Joe Biden, the candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination who would give him the least trouble in next year’s election? He’ll probably face impeachment over it, but he couldn’t help behaving that way. You might as well ask why even well-fed cats catch and kill mice.

They are acting on instinct, and so was Donald Trump. ‘Boris’ Johnson is a habitual plotter too, but this time he actually needs a cunning plan.

Britain’s prime minister has only been in office for ten weeks, and he is already in potentially terminal trouble. Boris Johnson was never an ardent Brexiter: he even voted for the relatively sane version of Brexit that his predecessor Theresa May failed three times to get through Parliament. But he is consumed by ambition, and he saw in her fall an opportunity to seize the top job at last.

He won it in July, in an internal poll of Conservative Party members, by promising to ‘deliver’ Brexit quickly no matter what the cost. (The 60,000 Party members who chose him are far more extreme than most Conservative members of Parliament and certainly than the average Conservative voter.)

Unfortunately, Johnson can only deliver by crashing out of the European Union without a deal. The deal Theresa May negotiated would have caused Britain only moderate economic damage, but that deal was repeatedly killed by the votes of the ultra-nationalist ‘head-bangers’ on the far right of his own Conservative Party.

They’d kill it again, and Johnson’s long-sought prime ministership with it, if he made the kind of concessions needed for a negotiated deal. In practice, therefore, he has to deliver a kamikaze Brexit to stay in power at all – and then he has to hold an election immediately afterwards, to confirm his hold on power before the Brexit damage piles up and even dyed-in-the-wool Leavers turn against it.

So Johnson’s Cunning Plan A went like this. Meet Parliament for a couple of days in early September when it comes back from recess, promise that you are negotiating hard with the EU and confident of getting a deal – only a “one in a million” chance of failure – and then close Parliament down for five weeks (‘prorogue’ it) .

By the time Parliament comes back in mid-October and it is clear that there is no deal, it will be too late. The law says that the United Kingdom will leave the EU automatically on 31 October unless there is a deal. Parliament will then vote Johnson’ government out, but he’ll just call an election – for AFTER the 31st.

The election will roll around some time in November, and by then Johnson will be the Leavers’ hero for having delivered Brexit after 40 months of delay. He’ll win, and be safely back in office for five years even if the economy then goes into slow-motion collapse. The plan would have worked perfectly if the opposition parties were hopelessly stupid.

Unhappily for him, they weren’t. In early September, before Johnson could prorogue Parliament, the opposition parties passed a law obliging him to ask the EU for a three-month extension if there was still no deal on 19 October. It passed only because 21 Conservative members of Parliament who saw ‘no deal’ as a disaster for Britain voted with the opposition.

Johnson promptly expelled them from the Party – and thereby lost his majority. But the opposition parties did not vote him out, which would have let him call his election as Plan A required. They just left him hanging there, twisting in the wind.

Then all eleven judges of the Supreme Court chimed in to say that Johnson’s decision to shut Parliament down for five weeks in the midst of a political crisis had been unlawful. Time for a different plan, and quickly.

So here’s Cunning Plan B. There is an obscure law called the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 that allows the government to override Parliament in the event of a national emergency. If Johnson could engineer such an emergency, he could ignore the “surrender bill” (as he calls it) that forces him to seek an extension rather than crash out on 31 October.

What kind of an emergency? Well, it would probably require blood in the streets, which Johnson can only obtain by provoking Leave supporters to acts of violence. That is why he now uses extreme language to stoke resentment and mobilise anger, talking incessantly about betrayal and treachery.

As the Labour Party’s Shadow Brexit Secretary, Keir Starmer, told ‘The Observer’ on Sunday, “Whipping up the idea of riots or even deaths if we do not leave the EU on 31 October is the height of irresponsibility. But it is also pretty obviously being orchestrated.” And the death threats on social media to MPs who are trying to thwart Johnson have multiplied fourfold in the past week.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 1, 2 and 3. (“The plotting…plan”)

Jokowi and Justin

The news out of Indonesia this week is disturbing. In West Papua, the Indonesian-ruled half of the world’s second-biggest island, New Guinea, the native people are definitely restive. 1.8 million of them, 70% of West Papua’s native population, signed a petition demanding the right to self-determination last year, and now much of the island is in revolt.

It’s not only about independence. It is a protest against the racist contempt of many Indonesians for the ethically and culturally different native Papuans. The demos began last month after videos circulated of Indonesian security forces calling protesting Papuan university students ‘monkeys’, ‘pigs’ and ‘dogs’.

On Monday, at least 27 people were killed in protests in two West Papuan provincial capitals, and the Indonesian government closed down the internet throughout the territory in an attempt to stop the flames of unrest from spreading. Meanwhile, 3,000 km. to the west in Jakarta, Indonesia’s megacity capital, people are protesting against a very different outrage.

This one is legal. Official respect for civil and human rights in Indonesia has greatly improved since the overthrow of Suharto’s three-decade dictatorship in 1998. The current president, Joko Widodo (‘Jokowi’ to one and all), is seen as a sort of Asian Justin Trudeau by his many admirers, and he has just won a second five-year term in a free and fair election. And suddenly, this.

Last week the Indonesian parliament was about to pass a revised version of the country’s criminal code after years of debate – and the public finally noticed that it is a nightmare of prejudice and intolerance. Many people were aghast, and the public protests began at once.

The 628-article draft penal code demands a year in jail for extra-marital or pre-marital sex, even for foreign tourists. If they didn’t actually catch you at it, just living together as a couple would still earn the guilty parties up to half a year in prison.

The new code criminalises all same-sex activity, and bans abortion except in cases of rape or medical emergency (four years in jail for women who unlawfully terminate their pregnancies). And forget freedom of the press: four years in jail for ‘insulting’ the president, the vice-president, parliament, religion, the national flag or the national anthem.

The student-led protests spread all across Indonesia, and last Friday Jokowi intervened. The outgoing parliament will not vote on the new code this week. Instead, the newly elected parliament will take it up again after it opens next month, and he will ask it to ‘review’ fourteen controversial articles before it votes.

But no apology from Jokowi for letting things get this far, and certainly no acknowledgement from him that in West Papua Indonesia is effectively a brutal colonial power. What happened to the good guy we thought we knew?

It’s like pictures of a younger Justin Trudeau in blackface. The disillusionment is extreme: Mr Nice Guy has feet of clay right up to his armpits. But no politician with aspirations to longevity can always be a good guy.

West Papua, like Indonesia, was part of the Dutch East Indies, but the two had little in common: very few native West Papuans are even Muslim, although Muslim immigrants from Indonesia now account for almost half the population. The people of West Papua wanted independence, but the United States thought it would be safer from Communism if it were ruled by an Indonesian dictator.

So in 1969 West Papua became part of Indonesia by a UN-sanctioned ‘Act of Free Choice’. That is to say, the Indonesian army murdered around 30,000 West Papuans between 1962 and 1969, and then rounded up 1,026 West Papuan men and held their families hostage. An Indonesian general told them that if they voted for independence, their tongues would be ripped out – so they ‘voted’ to be part of Indonesia.

Indonesia has no just claim to West Papua, and the vast majority of West Papuans want independence. But they are almost outnumbered by Indonesian immigrants now, and no Indonesian politician who refuses to condemn West Papuan separatism could survive. So Jokowi just keeps quiet when the subject comes up – and similarly with the criminal code.

Indonesia used to practice an amiable, tolerant form of Islam, but decades of Saudi subsidies for the extreme and intolerant Wahhabi version of the faith have created a powerful activist minority who seek to impose their values on everybody else by law.

No politicians, including Jokowi, wanted to make themselves vulnerable to accusations of being anti-Islam by opposing the new criminal code’s oppressive measures publicly while they were running for re-election. However many politicians, probably including Jokowi, were hoping for public protests after the election, and the protests have duly occurred.

Now it’s politically safe to intervene, and the worst provisions of the new code will probably be dropped in due course. But that’s the reality of how politics works. Within the bounds of the possible, Jokowi is still a good guy.

So is Trudeau, for that matter, although his wounds were self-inflicted. Basically still a good guy, although not nearly as smart as he thought he was.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12. (“West…Indonesia”)