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2013 Year-Ender

26 December 2013

2013 Year-Ender

By Gwynne Dyer

It’s always dangerous to declare “mission accomplished.”

Former US president George W. Bush did it weeks after he invaded Iraq, and it will be quoted in history books a century hence as proof of his arrogance and his ignorance. British Prime Minister David Cameron did it a couple of weeks ago in Afghanistan, and you didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. But when Edward Snowden said it this week – “In terms of personal satisfaction, the mission’s already accomplished” – nobody laughed.

Unless you just want a list of events, a year-end piece should be a first draft of history that tries to identify where the flow of events is really taking us. By that standard, Snowden comes first. The former National Security Agency contractor, once an unremarkable man, saw where the combination of new technologies and institutional empire-building was taking us, and stepped in front of the juggernaut to stop it.

“You recognise that you’re going in blind…,” Snowden told the Washington Post. “But when you weigh that against the alternative, which is not to act, you realise that some analysis is better than no analysis.” So he fled his country taking a huge cache of secret documents with him, and started a global debate about the acceptability of mass surveillance techniques that the vast majority of people did not even know existed.

The bloated American “security” industry and its political and military allies call him a traitor and claim that “everybody already knew that all governments spy,” but that is a shameless distortion of the truth. Almost nobody outside the industry knew the scale and reach of what was going on, nor did the US government and its faithful sidekick, the British government, want them to know.

As Snowden, now living in exile in Russia, put it in a Christmas broadcast on Britain’s Channel 4: “A child born today will grow up with no conception of privacy at all. They’ll never know what it means to have a private moment to themselves, an unrecorded, unanalysed thought.” Unless, that is, the monster of state-run mass surveillance is brought under control.

US district court judge Richard Leon called the NSA’s mass surveillance programme “almost Orwellian”, and in a 68-page ruling declared that the indiscriminate collection of “metadata” by the government probably violates the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution (relating to unreasonable searches and seizures).

Leon also rejected the spies’ usual defence that their techniques are vital to stop the evil terrorists from killing us all: “The government does not cite a single case in which analysis of the NSA’s bulk metadata collection actually stopped an imminent terrorist attack.” The spooks’ stock response would be that they could have told him, but then they’d have to kill him. The truth is that they snooped on everybody just because they could. It’s called hubris.

This is not just an American issue, though the protagonists in the debate that Snowden has unleashed are inevitably American. These techniques are available to every government, or soon will be. The tyrannies will naturally use them to control their citizens, but other countries have a choice. The future health of liberal democratic societies depends on the restrictions we place on these techniques in this decade.

“The conversation occurring today will determine the amount of trust we can place both in the technology that surrounds us and the government that regulates it,” Snowden said in his Channel 4 broadcast. “Together we can find a better balance, end mass surveillance and remind the government that if it really wants to know how we feel, asking is always cheaper than spying.” He has paid a high price to give us this opportunity, and we should use it.

Now, in no particular order, some other new things this year, most of them unwelcome. Have you noticed that protesters are starting to use non-violent techniques to overthrow democratically elected governments?

We have grown familiar with the scenes of unarmed crowds taking over the streets and forcing dictators to quit: it didn’t always succeed, but from Manila in 1986 to Cairo in 2011 it had a pretty good success rate, and at least two dozen dictators bit the dust. But the crowds were back in Tahrir Square in Cairo last July to overthrow President Mohammed Morsi, who had been elected only one year before in a free election.

Morsi had won with only 51.7 percent of the vote, and a lot of people who did vote for him were holding their noses. The secular liberals who had made the revolution in 2011 divided their votes between several rival presidential candidates, leaving voters in the second round with only a choice between Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, and an adversary who was part of the old regime.

Morsi often talked as if he had a mandate to Islamise Egyptian society (though he didn’t actually do all that much), and it alarmed the former revolutionaries. They could and should have waited for the next election, which Morsi would certainly have lost, mainly because the economy was still a wreck. But they were too impatient, so they made a deal with the army and went back out on the square.

Their little pantomime of non-violent protest lasted only two days before the army stepped in and removed Morsi from power. It subsequently murdered about a thousand of Morsi’s supporters in the streets of Cairo to consolidate its rule, while the men and women who had been the heroes of the 2011 revolution cheered the soldiers on. And now these “useful idiots” are joining Morsi and his supporters in the regime’s jails: the counter-revolution is complete.

But it gets weirder: in Thailand, for the past two months, non-violent protestors have been explicitly demanding the end of democracy. They are relatively privileged people, mostly from Bangkok and the south, who bitterly resent the fact that a series of elected governments led by Thaksin Shinawatra or his sister Yingluck has been spending their tax money to improve the lives of the impoverished rural majority in the north of Thailand.

Naturally, most of the poor vote for the Shinawatras, who win every time there is an election. In 2006, the rich party (“yellow shirts”) conspired with the army to remove the party of the poor (“red shirts”) in a coup, but as soon as there was an election the Shinawatras’ party returned to power. So now the “non-violent protests” have begun again, supported by the prosperous middle class of Bangkok, and this time they are demanding a non-elected “people’s council” made up (surprise!) of people like them.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra responded on 9 December by calling an election. But of course the “yellow shirts” don’t want an election, because they would lose it. They have declared a boycott of the vote, scheduled for February, and resumed their demonstrations. Democracy is their enemy, and non-violence is their weapon.

There was a point when it looked like the mass demonstrations in Ukraine that began in late November were heading in the same direction. The protests were originally against President Viktor Yanukovich’s refusal to sign an association agreement with the European Union, which was legitimate – and they did deter the president (who was under severe pressure from Moscow) from joining a Russian-led customs union instead.

So far, so good – but the opposition leaders have also been playing with the idea of using the demonstrations in Kiev as a way of forcing the elected president out of power. That has been done once before, in 2005, when the extra-constitutional action was justified by a rigged election, but there is no such justification this time – and it is unwise to make a habit of changing governments this way in a country that is so evenly divided between the pro-Moscow, Russian-speaking east and the pro-EU, Ukrainian-speaking west.

The outcome is unclear in both Thailand and Ukraine, but non-violence can now also work for the Dark Side.

Meanwhile, in Africa, wars have exploded across the continent this year like a string of firecrackers. In January, France sent troops to Mali after Islamist rebels who had already captured the sparsely populated north of the country threatened to overrun the rest of it as well. The north was more or less reconquered by mid-year, but the situation remains highly fraught.

In March Muslim rebels captured Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic. Their leaders quickly lost control, and the rebel troops began to massacre Christians. Christian militias then began carrying out mass reprisals against the Muslim civilian minority, and thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, were dead before French troops arrived in December. A kind of peace has now descended on the capital, but elsewhere, who knows?

And in December a full-scale civil war suddenly broke out in South Sudan between the country’s two biggest ethnic groups, the Dinka and the Nuer. Pogroms have emptied Nuer districts in the capital, and there are tank battles near the oil-fields as the army splits on Dinka-Nuer lines. The African Union is stripping troops from its other peacekeeping missions to strengthen its force in South Sudan, but this war could end up with killing on a Rwandan scale.

The African continent is emphatically NOT at war, but the band of territory between the equator and about 15 degrees North is in very deep trouble. You can’t just blame all these wars on the fact that the dividing line between Muslims to the north and Christians to the south generally runs through this territory. Mali, after all, is almost entirely Muslim, and South Sudan contains very few Muslims. Maybe it’s just that these countries are all among the poorest in Africa, and the traditional social networks are collapsing under the strain.

The good news is that there are no major wars anywhere else in the world – except Syria, of course. But there are already 120,000 dead in Syria, and more than a quarter of the population is living as refugees either inside Syria or in the neighbouring countries. Siege warfare conditions prevail across much of the country, now a patchwork quilt of government- and opposition-controlled areas.

The United States went to the brink of bombing the regime’s key centres after poison gas was used in Damascus in August, but it managed to avoid war after the Russians persuaded Bashar al-Assad to surrender all his chemical weapons. And by now there is nobody left for the United States to back in the Syrian war even if it wanted to, because the larger rebel groups are rapidly falling under the influence of extreme Islamist organisations including al-Qaeda.

As evidence of how little Washington wants to be drawn back into the Syrian mess, there is now an attempt underway to defuse the 34-year-old US-Iranian confrontation by negotiating a deal on Iran’s nuclear programme. Meanwhile, if Iran wants to go on supporting the Syrian regime with arms and money, Washington will not object very loudly.

So the war can go on indefinitely, and it has become a proxy Sunni-Shia war. The arms pour in from Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia to the rebel groups, and from Iran and Iraq to the Syrian regime, because the former are all Sunni Muslims and the latter are all Shia Muslims. (Assad’s regime is drawn mainly from the 10-percent Alawite minority in Syria, which observes a deviant form of Shia Islam.)

And the risk grows that all this Sunni-Shia hostility could morph into something like Europe’s 16th-century wars of religion, with Sunni or Shia minorities rebelling in Arab countries like Iraq, Lebanon, or Saudi Arabia.

What else? Oh, yes, a list. Right, then. Iran sent a monkey into space in January, North Korea carried out its third underground nuclear test in February, and the Catholic Church got a new head when Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina became Pope Francis I in March.

The United States also fell off the “fiscal cliff” in March, but nobody was hurt. Xi Jinping took over as President of the People’s Republic of China for the next ten years (no election required), and “Curiosity”, the Mars rover, found evidence for running water in ancient times on the red planet. It was a busy month.

In April, Nicolas Maduro was narrowly elected president of Venezuela a month after Hugo Chavez’s death. In May, Silvio Berlusconi, three times prime minister of Italy, was sentenced to four years in prison for fraud. In June, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin announced his divorce.

In July, Croatia joined the European Union. In August, Robert Mugabe won his seventh term as president of Zimbabwe at the age of 89. And in September Japan, emotionally shaken by the Fukushima incident, switched off the last of its fifty nuclear reactors. (This means the Japanese will be burning far more coal to keep the lights on, and so they have cut their target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 from 25 percent to only 3.8 percent. But they probably feel better about it, so that’s all right.)

In October, New Zealand announced the official Maori-language alternative names for North Island (Te Ika-a-Maui) and South Island (Te Waipounamu). In November, Typhoon Haiyan, possibly the largest tropical storm to make landfall in recorded history, devastated the central Philippines. And in December, the Chinese spacecraft Chang’e landed the Jade Rabbit rover on the Moon. It was the first soft landing on the Moon since 1976. So you see, there IS progress.

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To shorten to 1650 words, omit paragraphs 5 (“The bloated…reasons”); 7 and 8 (“US district…hubris”); 19-21 (“There was…Side”); 25 (“The African…strain”); 27 (“As evidence…loudly”); and 31 (“The United…month”).

A further cut to 1100 words can be achieved by omitting paragraphs 11-18 (“Now…weapon”)

 

Thailand: The War on Democracy

4 December 2013

Thailand: The War on Democracy

By Gwynne Dyer

It has gone quiet in Bangkok, as the people who have been trying to overthrow the government tidy up the debris that litters the city after the last two weeks of demonstrations. It’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s 86th birthday this week, and nobody wants to disrupt it with unseemly scenes of conflict.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is taking an equally low-key approach. The Thai army has removed the barbed wire that surrounded government offices, and protesters are wandering through the prime minister’s offices and picnicking on the lawns while she runs the affairs of state from some other location in the capital. But by next week the Civil Movement for Democracy will be back in action, and the final outcome is not clear.

The main thing that distinguishes the Civil Movement for Democracy is its profound dislike for democracy. In the mass demonstrations that have shaken Thailand since 24 November, its supporters have been trying to remove a prime minister who was elected only two years ago – and their goal is not another election.

“We don’t want new elections because we will lose anyway,” one protester told Reuters. “We want (the prime minister’s family) to leave the country.” If they succeeded in driving Yingluck from power, they would skip the whole business of elections and hand the country over to an appointed “People’s Council” made up of “good men”.

These good men would naturally agree with protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban that the majority of the Thai people are too ignorant and flighty to be trusted with the vote. “From a Western point of view, “democracy” is an elected government serving as the people’s representative,” he told The Guardian. “Unfortunately, elections in Thailand do not represent people’s (real) choices because their votes are bought.”

They are “bought” not by bribes but by government spending on free health care and anti-poverty programmes. In most democracies this is seen as part of the normal political process, but Suthep and his supporters, who include a high proportion of the country’s professional and middle classes, especially in the capital, regard it as illegitimate.

The current government has destroyed “the virtues and ethics of the people,” Suthep says, but with time and hard work the unelected People’s Council could make them moral again and “put the country on the path to perfect democracy.” We can even imagine that the poor might eventually become enlightened enough to be trusted with the vote again.

There is a conflict between the interests of the rich and the poor in most countries. In democracies it normally plays out in the electoral competition of right- and left-wing parties, and some compromise (always temporary and contentious) is arrived at via the ballot box. But in Thailand, the rich take to the streets.

They do so because they always lose the elections. In five elections since 2001, the winner every time has been Thaksin Shinawatra or somebody chosen by him. Thaksin is a man of humble origins who built the country’s largest mobile phone provider and then went into politics. He proved to be unbeatable.

His record in power has not been above reproach. He was careless of human rights, particularly in his war on drug dealers (he used death squads ), and his family fortune benefited to some degree from his influence on government policy. But he wasn’t really in it for the money – he was already mega-rich before he went into politics – and he knew exactly what the poor needed. To the horror of relatively wealthy Bangkok and the south, he gave it to them.

He set up programmes like village-managed micro-credit development funds and low-interest agricultural loans. He created a universal healthcare system and provided low-cost access to anti-HIV medications. Yet between 2001 and the coup that overthrew him in 2006, the GDP grew by 30 percent, public sector debt fell from 57 per cent of GDP to 41 per cent, and foreign exchange reserves doubled . He even managed to balance the budget.

Income in the north-east, the poorest part of the country, rose by 41 percent. Poverty nationwide dropped from 21 percent to 11 percent, and the prevalence of HIV/AIDS declined. Thaksin even allowed the 2.3 million migrant workers in the country to register and qualify for health cover.

From the point of view of the opposition Democratic Party, all this was just “buying the people’s votes.” When Thaksin won the 2005 election with an increased majority, it conspired with the military to overthrow him. He was then tried on corruption charges, but fled the country before the inevitable verdict and has since lived in exile, mostly in Dubai. But his party, reformed and renamed, goes on winning every time there is an election.

That’s why his sister is now the prime minister. She probably does do what he says most of the time, but there’s no crime in that: the voters who put her there were really voting for Thaksin. And if the current insurrection in Bangkok overthrows her, they will vote for whoever else represents Thaksin next time there is an election. The right in Thailand should really grow up and get over it.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 10. (“The current…again”; and “His record…them”)

Muslim for a Month

4 July 2011

Muslim for a Month

By Gwynne Dyer

Gandhi, born a Hindu, once said: “I am also a Christian, a Muslim, a Buddhist and a Jew.” Most people will never achieve such enlightenment (or spout such pious tripe, if you are of a less reverent turn of mind). But such thinking certainly creates an opening for innovative programmes like “Muslim for a Month.”

No, really. There is an organisation that invites people of other religions or none to come to Istanbul and live as Muslims for a month. Well, not a month, exactly: the 9-day “Explorations” programme costs $900 and the 21-day “Ruminations” programme costs $1890.

“We like to think that “Muslim for a Month” facilitates more understanding of a religion which gets a lot of bad press,” explained Ben Bowler, who lives in Thailand and runs similar “religious immersion tours” in Buddhism for the same organisation. “There’s a huge difference in the public perception of Buddhism, for example, and Islam – Islam is thorny, while Buddhism is warm and fuzzy.”

People who think Buddhism is warm and fuzzy would probably benefit from Bowler’s “Monk for a Month” programme in Thailand. People who think that Islam is a religion of hatred and terrorism would likewise benefit from the “Muslim for a Month” programme. Indeed, if all that’s going on here is a simple download of information and perspective, you could argue that every religion should be doing it.

Much of the human race lives in places where two or more major religions co-exist – Buddhists and Muslims in Thailand; Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs in India; Christians, Hindus, Muslims and Jews in South Africa. Not to mention countries where up to half the population are non-believers (like Britain and Korea). A crash course in your neighbours’ religious beliefs ought to be part of the school curriculum. In some places, it already is.

But there is still something disturbing about the very idea of religious tourism. Immersing yourself in the prayers and rituals of a religion EVEN THOUGH YOU THINK ITS GOD IS FALSE smacks of condescension at best, blasphemy at worst. And although a sense of politeness prevents most people from saying it loudly in public, religious people generally believe that the gods of all religions but their own are indeed false.

Non-believers go even further. As Richard Dawkins, the world’s leading advocate of atheism, once put it: “We are all atheists about most of the gods that people have ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.” Fine. That’s a perfectly respectable position to hold. But if that’s what you think, then pretending to pray to Allah as a “cultural experience” is downright disrespectful.

The people who are organising “Muslim for a Month” have the best of intentions. The Blood Foundation is a Thailand-based enterprise whose goal is “to promote the ideal of the sister/brotherhood of all humanity. We operate cultural exchange programs that build bridges of understanding between diverse peoples through the means of shared, authentic experience.”

According to the Blood Foundation, the “Muslim for a Month” programme aims “to foster a spirit of good will and increased mutual understanding between Muslims and the west. It is not the purpose of the program to bring converts to the Islamic faith but rather to strive towards a greater sense of unity among people.”

I believe that that is truly their goal. I also very much like the Sufi tradition of Islam, one of the most attractive forms of religious expression that I have ever encountered, and it is the Sufis who are providing the facilities and the teachers for the “Muslim for a Month” programme in Turkey. But it still doesn’t feel right.

Here’s the thing. Almost all of the “modern” religions that have arisen in the past 2,500 years (and Judaism, which is much older) have sacred texts that are held by the believers to be divinely revealed truth. They are not negotiable or mutually compatible, like the old pagan beliefs were. To believe in any of the modern gods requires the faithful to reject all the others as false.

If Muslim beliefs are right, then Christian beliefs are wrong, and vice versa. If the Sikhs are right, then the Baha’i are wrong, and vice versa. If the Buddhists are right, then the Jews are wrong, and so on ad nauseam.

Why stop there? If the Mormons are right, then all the other Christians are horribly, catastrophically wrong. If any of the other Christian sects (or any of the non-Christian faiths) is right, then Mormon beliefs are downright ridiculous. If the Shia are right, then the Sunnis are wrong, and vice versa. So in a world where something like 90 percent of the population is still religious (though much less in the developed countries), what is one to do?

We minimise conflict by simply not talking about the huge, irreconcilable differences in our religious convictions. (The non-religious play the same game: they rarely challenge the beliefs of the believers either.) It’s not an attractive behaviour, and it doesn’t always avert conflict, but most of the time it works. On most of the planet, we are no longer at each other’s throats about religion.

The world does not need “Muslim (or Sikh, or Christian) for a Month.” Let sleeping dogs lie.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 14. (“According…people”; and “Why…do?”)

Mortality and Politics

27 June 2011

Mortality and Politics

By Gwynne Dyer

“The graveyards are full of indispensable men,” growled Charles de Gaulle, but French history would have been very different if he had died in 1940 (no Free French government, probably a Communist take-over attempt when France was liberated in 1944) or even in 1960 (no quick exit from Algeria, no Fifth Republic). There are a few people whose absence would really make a difference.

Two such people seem to be hovering on the brink of death at the moment, though we have no trustworthy medical information about either one. In each case, their death could open the way to civil war. One is Thailand’s King Bhumibol; the other is Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez.

Bhumibol, now 83 years old, has been the king of Thailand since he was 21, and although he is a constitutional monarch his influence is all-pervasive. It has, on the whole, been exercised in ways that promoted Thai independence, calmed domestic political quarrels, and supported the emergence of democracy. He has been the still centre at the heart of the storm for many decades, and he is revered by most Thais.

King Bhumibol has spent most of the past two years in hospital, and few Thais expect him to live much longer (although this is never discussed in public). When he goes, the crown will probably pass to somebody who takes sides in the ongoing battle between “red-shirts” and “yellow-shirts” that has divided Thailand, and has already caused many deaths, over the past few years.

There is an election due in Thailand on 3 July. Opinion polls suggest that, as before, a majority of Thais will vote for the party of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by a military coup in 2006. Some ninety red-shirts, the mostly poor and rural supporters of Thaksin, were massacred by the army in a confrontation in central Bangkok last year, and the army may try yet again to reject a pro-Thaksin election outcome.

Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn was once close to Thaksin and probably still secretly supports him, but he is a playboy who is neither loved nor respected by the public. His mother, Queen Sikirit, sympathises with the yellow-shirts, and is rumoured to be angling for the army’s support to make her regent when her (estranged) husband Bhumibol dies, rather than letting the crown prince have the throne.

If the two royals were to align themselves publicly with the opposing sides in a struggle for the throne after Bhumibol dies, they would substantially raise the probability that Thailand could stumble into a full-scale civil war.

Whereas if Bhumibol can hang on for another year the dispute may be settled at the ballot boxes, with the army grudgingly accepting a restoration of the normal democratic order. He may not be utterly indispensable, but he is pretty important for Thailand right now.

And then there is Hugo Chavez. He is not exactly the “dictator” of Venezuela, as US propaganda often calls him (he has been elected a number of times in free elections), but certainly he is a “strongman” in the classic Latin American style. He comes from the army, he once led an attempted coup, and he is a full-time demagogue. The only difference is that he is a strongman of the left. And he may be dying.

The official story is that Chavez was in Cuba on 9 June, in a private meeting with Fidel Castro, when he suddenly fell ill. Cuban doctors were called in, and immediately operated on him for a “pelvic abcess.” But he is still in hospital in Havana two weeks later, virtually incommunicado.

Chavez is an inveterate user of Twitter, but he has only tweeted once in all that time, to announce that his mother, his favourite daughter and his ex-wife had flown to Cuba to see him. He also reportedly telephoned a meeting of his ruling party’s senior leaders on Monday, but that may not be true. Venezuelans are speculating that his illness may be fatal, and the people close to Chavez are struggling to re-assure his supporters.

If Chavez does recover, he might lose the 2012 presidential election anyway. He will have been in power for fourteen years by then, and the mere passage of time has seriously eroded his power base. He has improved the lives of the poor, but a government with an oil income of bazillions of dollars that cannot even produce enough electricity to keep the lights on is bound to lose popularity.

Should Chavez die now, however, there might not even be a 2012 election. His elder brother Adán, the governor of the state of Barinas, reminded everybody that although the socialist government won power through the ballot box, “we cannot forget, as authentic revolutionaries, other methods of fighting.” And the army, whose senior ranks have been stuffed with Chavez loyalists, might well back a “revolutionary” seizure of power.

On the whole, then, it would be better if Chavez survived and came back to Venezuela, only to lose the election honestly next year. Like King Bhumibol, he is the indispensable man for the next little while. After that, if all goes well, he can die whenever he wants.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 11. (“Bhumibol…Thais”; and “Chavez…supporters”)

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.