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Aung San Suu Kyi and the Rohingya

Nobel Peace Prize winners sometimes go on to undistinguished later careers, and some seem to have got the prize by mistake. Barack Obama, for example. But there has never before been one who went on to become a genocidal criminal.

Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s elected leader, richly deserved the Nobel Peace Prize for her thirty-year non-violent campaign (much of it spent under house arrest) to restore democracy in the country. Two years ago, when she finally became the de facto prime minister, her reputation was as high as that of Nelson Mandela.

Hardly anybody had noticed an interview she gave in 2013 in which she said that Buddhists in Rakhine province live in fear of “global Muslim power”. You know, the same global power that lets Muslims dominate the world’s refugee camps. (Muslims make up three-quarters of the world’s refugees, although only a quarter of the world’s population.)

Back then, this was merely a bizarre remark and Suu Kyi was still a saint. The Muslims of Rakhine state, known as Rohingya, were having a hard time at the hands of the authorities, but it wasn’t her fault, and there was no ethnic cleansing yet. There is now, however, and she is fully complicit in it.

When at least 7,000 Rohingya have been murdered, thousands more have been raped, and 700,000 have fled across the border into Bangladesh, leaving behind another half-million of whom many are in ‘internment centres’ (concentration camps), you can legitimately call it ethnic cleansing. Or genocide, if you want to get legalistic about it.

The Burmese government claims that the Rohingya are really illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. It even refuses to use the familiar word ‘Rohingya’ any more, insisting on referring to them only as ‘Bengalis’ or ‘Bengali terrorists’. That is a despicable lie.

Rakhine state, between the Arakan mountains and the Indian Ocean, was a separate empire until the Burmese army came over the mountains and conquered it in the late 18th century. Most of its people spoke a dialect of Burmese, but a big minority spoke Rohingya, an Indo-Aryan language related to Bengali.

The Rohingya have been in Rakhine at least since the 1660s. The fact that they were Muslims posed no problem for the Buddhist kingdom of Arakan (Rakhine), which was heavily influenced by the Islamic sultanates of eastern India. The Burmese conquerors of Rakhine, and the British empire that followed, didn’t see the Rohingya as a problem either.

The independent Burmese republic founded in 1948 was different from the start. Only two-thirds of Burma’s 53 million people are Bamar (ethnic Burmese), but most of the other ethnic groups share the same Buddhist religion. Nation-building requires a common identity, so Buddhism got the emphasis – and the Rohingya, as Muslims, were automatically excluded.

Bit by bit the military regime that had seized power in 1962 took away the Rohingyas’ land rights, their civil rights, and in 1982 even their citizenship. They were redefined as illegal immigrants, and the local Buddhist population launched occasional pogroms against them.

The anti-Rohingya policy always played well with Bamar nationalists, who are obsessed with the alleged threat posed by Islam. (Only 4 percent of the country’s population is Muslim, and only half the Muslims are Rohingya.) It’s the one regime policy that is genuinely popular with most of the population, so the army resorts to it whenever it hits a rough patch. It’s losing power now, so it reflexively turns to the old remedy again.

Two years ago you could still argue that a wobbly democratic government led by Aung San Suu Kyi had to pick its battles carefully. The Rohingya was one that it couldn’t win, so best avoid it and let the military have its way. But that was before it turned into a full-blown genocide last August.

Tactical calculations of political advantage cannot justify mass murder, and it has become clear that Suu Kyi is willing to ignore mass murder if the victims are Muslims. Former US ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson, who has known her for more than 30 years, is close to despair.

“She’s changed,” he told CNN last week. “She’s become, unfortunately, a politician afraid of the military and afraid to make the tough decisions to resolve one of the worst humanitarian crises in history.” And (although Richardson didn’t say this), she also probably feels the same unjustified hatred and fear towards the Rohingyas, and Muslims in general, as the general population.

Meanwhile, the 700,000 Rohingyas suffering in rudimentary refugee camps in Bangladesh have been told that they can start going home next month, but people who have seen their villages razed and family members raped, shot or burned to death are a bit reluctant to trust the Burmese army. Especially when they have no guarantee that they won’t end up in grim ‘detention centres’ back in Rakhine.

Taking the Nobel Peace Prize back from Aung San Suu Kyi wouldn’t help matters in Rakhine at all, but it would do the standing of the prize a lot of good.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 11. (“Rakhine…Bengali”; and “The anti…again”).

Israel: Nuclear Hypocrisy

12 February 2014

Israel: Nuclear Hypocrisy

When Mordechai Vanunu, a humble Israeli technician who worked for years at Israel’s secret nuclear site at Dimona, spilled the beans about Israel’s nuclear weapons in 1986, very bad things happened to him. He was lured from safety in England for an Italian holiday by a woman who was an Israeli secret agent, drugged and kidnapped from Italy by other Israeli agents, and imprisoned for eighteen years (eleven of them in solitary confinement).

When Avraham Burg, the former speaker of the Israeli parliament, said last month that that Israel has both nuclear and chemical weapons (you know, like the nuclear weapons that Iran must not have and the chemical weapons that Syria must give up), nothing bad happened to him at all. He is protected by the Important Persons Act, the unwritten law that gets powerful and well-connected people off the hook in every country.

They didn’t even go after Burg when he said that Israel’s long-standing policy of “non-disclosure (never confirm or deny that it has nukes) was “outdated and childish.” But even ten years after Vanunu finished serving his long jail sentence, he is not allowed to leave Israel, go near any foreign embassy, airport or border crossing, or speak to any journalist or foreigner.

Vanunu defies the Israeli authorities and speaks to whomever he pleases, of course. But he really can’t get out of the country, though he desperately wants to leave, and his decision to live like a free man gives his watchers the pretext to yank his chain by arresting him whenever they feel like it.

The Israeli government’s excuse for all this is that he may still know secrets he might reveal, but that is nonsense. Vanunu hasn’t seen Dimona or talked to anybody in the Israeli nuclear weapons business for 30 years. What drives his tormentors is sheer vindictiveness, and he may well go on being punished for his defiance until he dies – while Avraham Burg lives out his life undisturbed and offers occasional pearls of wisdom to the public.

So here are the “secrets” that Vanunu and Burg revealed, in rather more detail than Burg chose to give and in a more up-to-date form than Vanunu could give from personal knowledge.

Israel has a minimum of eighty and a maximum of four hundred nuclear weapons, those limits being based on calculations of the amount of fissile material that it has enriched to weapons grade. The best guess is that the total is around two hundred warheads, most of them two-stage thermonuclear devices (hydrogen bombs).

At least some dozens are “tactical” weapons designed to be fired by 175 mm and 203 mm artillery pieces at ranges of 40-70 km. The remainder are meant to be delivered by missiles or aircraft, and Israel maintains a full “triad” of delivery systems: land-based missiles, sea-launched missiles, and aircraft.

The missiles are mostly Jericho II medium-range ballistic missiles, which can reach all of Europe and most of western Asia. Since 2008 Jericho III intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) have also been entering service, with a range that would allow Israel to strike any inhabited point on the planet except some Pacific islands. Both can carry a one-megaton warhead.

Why such remarkably long ranges, when Israel’s avowed enemies are all relatively close to hand? One speculation is that this is meant to encourage caution in other nuclear states (Pakistan? North Korea?) that might at some future time be tempted to supply nuclear weapons to Israel’s near enemies.

The maritime leg of the triad is highly accurate cruise missiles that are launched from underwater by Israel’s German-built Dolphin-class submarines. These missiles constitute Israel’s “secure second-strike” capability, since it is extremely unlikely that even the most successful enemy surprise attack could locate and destroy the submarines. And finally, there are American-made F-15 and F-16 strike aircraft that can also carry nuclear bombs.

Israel probably tested its bomb in the southern Indian Ocean in 1979 in cooperation with apartheid South Africa, which was also developing nuclear weapons (subsequently dismantled) at that time. The test was carried out under cover of a storm to escape satellite surveillance, but a rift in the cloud cover revealed the characteristic double flash of a nuclear explosion to an American satellite, Vela 6911.

This was a violation of the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty, which forbids open-air nuclear tests, but the United States did not pursue the matter, presumably in order not to embarrass Israel.

The United States did not help Israel to develop nuclear weapons in the first place (France did that), and even now Washington does not really approve of Israel’s nukes, although it tolerates them in the interest of the broader alliance. But why, after all these years, does Israel still refuse to acknowledge that it has them?

The only plausible answer is: to avoid embarrassing the United States in ways that would make it restrict its arms exports to Israel. But realistically, how likely is that to happen? The US Congress will ensure that Israel goes on getting all the money and arms it wants no matter what it says about its nukes, and it is high time to end this ridiculous dance around the truth.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 12 and 13. (“Vanunu…it”; and “Israel…Israel”)

No Progress at Cancun

5 December 2010

No Progress at Cancun

By Gwynne Dyer

The UN climate summit in Cancun, Mexico is nearing its end, and while the ending will not be as rancorous as last year’s train-wreck in Copenhagen, there will be no global deal on cutting greenhouse gas emissions this year either. However, there is some hope for the longer run.

Mohamed Nasheed is the president of the Maldives, a group of low-lying islands in the Indian Ocean that will be among the first to vanish as the sea-level rises in a warming world. That’s why he is so outspoken in challenging the current negotiating position of the developing countries.

“When I started hearing about this climate change issue, I started hearing developing countries say ‘we have a right to emit carbon because we have to develop’,” he told the BBC recently. “It is true, we need to develop; but equating development to carbon emissions I thought was quite silly.”

That is heresy, for the standard position of the group of developing countries (G77) is that since the rich countries caused the problem, they must make the emissions cuts that would stop it. And they really did cause the problem: it was 200 years of burning fossil fuels that made them rich, and they are responsible for 80 percent of the greenhouse gases of
human origin that are now in the atmosphere.

But if only the rich countries cut their emissions, while the rapidly developing countries (which have three times as many people) let their emissions grow at the current rate, the planet will probably topple into runaway warming by mid-century.

The numbers are brutally simple. Since the industrial revolution began around 1800, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen from 280 parts per million to 390 ppm. The point of no return is 450 ppm. After some delay, that will raise the average global temperature by 2 degrees Celsius (3.5 degrees Fahrenheit).

We only have 60 ppm to go, and the newly industrialising countries are growing so fast that we are collectively adding between 2 and 3 ppm per year. At that rate, we’ll reach the point of no return in twenty to thirty years.

What happens then is that the warming we have already caused triggers natural processes, like the melting of the permafrost and the warming of the oceans, that dump even more carbon dioxide into the air, causing even faster warming. Even if we later cut our own emissions to zero, the permafrost will go on melting, the oceans will continue to warm – and we may be into runaway warming.

Almost every government on Earth has formally committed to holding the warming below two degrees C. They have not, however, committed to any process that will actually achieve that goal – which is why they keep coming back to the conference table despite all the past failures.

Why don’t all the governments act? Because the developing countries refuse to accept limits on their emissions for fear that they wouldn’t be able to go on growing their economies. They also resent the fact that the past emissions of the rich countries have brought us all so close to 450 ppm. Whereas the rich countries ignore the history and demand similar cuts from all countries, rich and poor.

Mohamed Naseed is abandoning the old common front of all developing countries because it may serve the short-term interest of the rapidly industrialising countries in the G77, but it isn’t in the interest of poorer, slower-growing countries like the Maldives at all.

At least thirty countries in the G77 privately share Naseed’s view: the impending split was already visible even at last year’s Copenhagen conference. Moreover, he argues, the current negotiating position of the G77 is silly even for the bigger, richer members of the group.

“There is new technology,” Naseed argues. “Fossil fuel is obsolete, it’s yesterday’s technology; so we [aim to] come up with a development strategy that’s low carbon.” If China, India, Brazil and the other big, fast-developing countries believed that they could go on growing their economies without growing their emissions, he says, then they’d also be willing to sign up to binding limits on emissions.

“They have to rapidly increase their investments in renewable energy,” he says, “and I think they are doing that. Once they’ve done it, they’re going to say ‘right, we need a legally-binding agreement’.” It’s fast becoming true: China is already the world’s largest exporter of solar panels, and India is the leading exporter of wind turbines. But there is one remaining problem.

Wind turbines, solar panels and the like tend to be more expensive than cheap and dirty coal-fired power stations. If the developing countries choose the more expensive option, who pays the difference? The old rich countries who landed them in this dilemma, of course.

People in the rich countries don’t even understand that history, so they are still a long way from accepting that deal. It won’t happen at Cancun, and it may be years before it does. Maybe too many years.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7, 9 and 12. (“We only…years”; “Almost…failures”; and “At least…group”)

The conference ends on 10 December.

Pirates and Private Navies

30 September 2010

Pirates and Private Navies

By Gwynne Dyer

The good news is that something is finally going to be done about the pirates who infest the Somali coast and raid far out into the Indian Ocean. A group of London-based insurance companies led by the Jardine Lloyd Thompson Group (JLT) is planning to create a private navy to protect commercial shipping passing through the Red Sea and the north-western Indian Ocean.

It’s about time. Even now, after the monsoon season has kept the pirates relatively quiet for months, sixteen ships and 354 sailors are being held captive in the pirate ports along the Somali coast. The average ransom paid to free those ships and their crews has risen to around $4 million, and it’s also taking longer: an average of almost four months between the hijacking of a ship and its release.

It’s the maritime insurance companies that pay the ransoms, and they are deeply unimpressed with the performance of the warships from various NATO and other nations that are patrolling the region. Even when the warships do catch some of the pirates, they often let them go again because they are operating under severe legal constraints.

So a fleet of twenty fast patrol boats crewed by well-armed mercenaries could be just what the doctor ordered. Unhampered by the legal considerations that paralyse the navies, they could just kill the pirates wherever they found them and dump their bodies into the sea.

True, this would deny them the privilege of a fair trial, but that’s not really necessary. The crime is being a pirate, not some specific act of piracy, so you don’t have to catch them in the act. When you find men hundreds of kilometres (miles) from shore in an open boat, equipped not with fishing gear but with automatic weapons and ladders to scale the sides of passing ships, there is really no room for argument. They are pirates.

The bad news is that this is not what the insurance companies are planning to do at all. Instead, this private navy would operate under the direct control of the international naval force that is already in the area, with “clear rules of engagement valid under international law.” What a pity. That’s exactly what is crippling the navies.

“We would have armed personnel with fast boats escorting ships, and make it very clear to any Somali vessels in the vicinity that they are entering a protected area,” JLT senior partner Sean Woollerson told The Independent newspaper in London. In other words, if you have insured your ship with JLT or its associates and paid the anti-piracy insurance premium (up to $450,000 per voyage for a supertanker), then you will be escorted by this private navy.

The pirates, not being complete fools, will just go and attack other ships instead. (JLT and its associates insure about 14 percent of the world’s commercial shipping fleet). There is still no actual plan to get rid of the pirates.

How can it have come to pass that we have a major pirate problem in the twenty-first century. They sorted that out in the early eighteenth century. Why has it got unsorted again?

Blame international law. When they were codifying the law of the sea back in the 1970s, the world had no pirate problem worth talking about. So they dropped the rule of “universal jurisdiction” that had been the key to suppressing piracy in the bad old days.

“Universal jurisdiction” meant that every navy could arrest suspected pirates of any nationality and try them under its own national laws, since pirates had been defined as “the enemies of all mankind.” A British warship could arrest Portuguese pirates off some Caribbean island belonging to the Netherlands, and they would be tried under British law. If they were captured in battle, they could be summarily executed.

That’s how piracy was wiped out in the first place. But when they were writing the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in the 1970s, there were no pirates any more, so they dropped the rule of “universal jurisdiction” in favour of a legal regime more attuned to modern notions of human rights and national sovereignty.

What has replaced those old rules, in practice, is a legal quagmire where you can never be sure who has legal jurisdiction. So the navies (which could easily suppress the piracy if they were free to act) refrain from using force, and are reluctant even to arrest people at sea who are quite obviously pirates.

To extinguish piracy again, we need a modernised version of the old rules. That requires prompt action to create a comprehensive international agreement that gets around the Law of the Sea — tricky, but that’s what diplomats get paid for. And if we got such an agreement, we wouldn’t even need private navies; the regular navies would be happy to do the job.

There is one other issue, of course. If we use serious force against the pirates, they will threaten to use force against their captives. Some of them might be killed. But since there will never be a time when there are no captives in the hands of the Somali pirates until and unless we crack down hard, that is a risk that we just have to take.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 5. (“It’s…constraints”; and “True…pirates”)