Jehan Perera in Colombo
During the Uva provincial council election last month the President Rajapaksa thanked the visiting Chinese President for having bestowed economic assistance on the country and reduced the price of petrol and electricity. This time there was no Chinese President to share the credit with. But President Mahinda Rajapaksa directed that the price of cooking gas should be reduced. The government is aware that economic considerations loom large in the minds of the majority of the electorate. During his ongoing visit to Jaffna and the Northern Province, the President is making major offerings to the people, of land, jobs and subsidized motor cycles, to mention but a few. Despite the high level of economic growth reported by the government, economic hardship badly affects the life of the masses of the people. If the economic concessions at the Uva elections were a precedent, the package of economic benefits to the electorate at this time points to imminent elections.
It is said that astrologers have warned the President that his star is on the wane and will wane faster after March of next year. This is not a particularly stellar prediction. Most political commentators in media and general life are in agreement that the government’s popularity is on the decline, which is not surprising as the Rajapaksa-led government has been in office for nearly ten years. The results of the Uva Provincial Council election were a confirmation of the fall in popularity. Whether it is written in the stars or not, the sooner a presidential election is held the better it will be for the government. This makes early January, which is the earliest in which an election can be held, the most likely time. However, there is one serious problem that arises, and that is the pre-planned and agreed upon visit by Pope Francis to Sri Lanka for which the Catholic Church has been making preparations.
It would be a major disappointment to the Catholic community if the visit does not go ahead due to the government’s electoral compulsions, and this can be politically disadvantageous to the government. There is reportedly a one month window before and after elections that the Vatican wants, so that a papal visit does not figure in national political discourse. If the government is mindful of this concern then the next earliest it can have the elections are in March. While any delay in holding the elections would tend to be unfavorable to the government on account of its declining popularity, there is an important factor that can come into play to boost the government’s electoral prospects. This is the March session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva at which the report of the UN investigative team into war crimes in Sri Lanka will be taken up.
The holding of a presidential election in the looming shadow of the UNHRC meeting in Geneva can become a plus point of electoral mobilization to the government. The UN investigation has been described by the government as an international conspiracy against itself and the unity of the country. Many if not most of the majority Sinhalese population will subscribe to this notion. Therefore it a presidential election campaign is held just before the outcome of the UNHRC meeting in Geneva is finalized, and with an axe threatening to fall upon the government, it will be able to mobilize the nationalism of the people to its electoral advantage. The question once again, as it has been in all of the post-war elections, is whether nationalism will get priority over those other issues at which the government is at a disadvantage.
The close electoral contest that the government experienced at the Uva elections would alert it to the fact that economic concessions by themselves will not suffice to address the concerns of the electorate. It may therefore be more than a mere coincidence that the President’s announcement of a reduction in the price of cooking gas came parallel with an anti-NGO poster campaign. On the same day that the President’s concession to the economic problems faced by the people was announced, posters appeared on the streets of major towns asking “Why is the NGO Gang afraid of the President?” As the answer was not provided for in the posters, it can reasonably be surmised that these posters will be followed in the succeeding days by others which will provide answers.
The attack on NGOs reflects the concerns of the government leadership. With the passage of more than five years since the end of the war the government is finding it increasingly difficult to justify the government’s approach to governance on the basis of national security. One of the few sectors in society willing to challenge the government has been the NGO sector. Many of the top leaders of the government have had close associations with the NGOs. Some were members of NGOs, either as volunteers or as staff. Others worked alongside NGOs in campaigning against previous governments. President Rajapaksa is well known for his abortive bid as an opposition parliamentarian to carry files of human rights cases to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva which was foiled by alert immigration officials. As in the past, with previous governments, the NGO sector continues to be willing to challenge the government.
The government appears to be following a two track strategy in dealing with the NGOs. Many if not most NGOs do positive work at the community level which has given them credibility with the people and made them into opinion formers who can influence the way the people vote. In fact these community level NGO leaders have more credibility than the government’s own agents at the community level, such as Samurdhi coordinators, who act in politically partisan and non-transparent ways. The government’s first track, and the more constructive one, is to commence engaging in dialogue with the NGOs. The dialogue so far has been with a small group of NGOs and has led to a positive interaction which is still in its incipient stage. They have already raised issues of having to get prior approval from government authorities to do their work and also of government surveillance of their activities, which intimidates civil society participants and stymies the discussion of issues of governance and human rights.
On the other hand, the media has reported that the government is planning to amend the Voluntary Social Service Organisations (Registration and Supervision) Act under which most NGOs are registered. A final copy has now been passed by the Legal Draftsman and will shortly be submitted to Cabinet. It is reported that under the amendments, NGOs will have to register annually with the Secretariat or lose the right to receive foreign funds and conduct local monetary transactions. They will also have to submit reports and sign Memorandums of Understanding with the Government. According to the government’s NGO Secretariat, the government will allow two weeks for public observations once other routine procedures were completed. The draft has been discussed with relevant officials including those from the Ministries of Justice and Social Services, State Intelligence and the Central Bank. But it has not been discussed with the NGO sector. The NGO Secretariat is quoted as saying that “There is no need to ask the NGOs because this is a law that is being enacted in the interests of the country.”
Today there is uncertainty regarding the mandate civil society has in Sri Lanka. The government recently issued a circular which is ambiguously worded and is potentially highly restrictive. This circular appeared to be targeted at the advocacy and human rights NGOs, which work with high profile groups such as the media and the international community. There are currently two opinions within the NGO community. Some believe that NGOs need to engage with the government in order to create space for themselves to do their work. They also hold to the position that civil society organisations should not affiliate themselves to political parties, or the government of the day, and that they must remain independent. However, others believe that civil society needs to work together with the opposition and stand up against the government to achieve political change. It is this latter position that is serving to strengthen the government’s second track, which appears to be one of discrediting NGOs and driving them out of the public sphere during the election campaign period to begin with.
Malala Yousafzai, 17, became the youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize on 10th October last. In 2012, the Pakistani teenager girl was shot in the head by the Taliban for her work advocating for the rights of girls to get an education. She has jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize for her “heroic struggle” for girls’ rights to education with India’s Kailash Stayarthi.
Meanwhile, Malala will formally receive honorary Canadian citizenship this month. Prime Minister Stephen Harper pledged to make Malala Yousafzai, 17, an honorary citizen during his last year's speech. In a statement, Harper said Yousafzai will visit Ottawa on Oct. 22. She will become the sixth person to receive honorary Canadian citizenship.
Thorbjorn Jagland, chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, said, “Children must go to school, not be financially exploited.”
Yousafzai came to global attention after she was shot in the head two years ago for her efforts to promote education for girls in Pakistan. Since then, after recovering from surgery, she has taken her campaign to the world stage, notably with a speech last year at the United Nations.
Kailash Satyarthi (born on 11 January 1954) is an Indian children’s rights activist. A graduate in electrical engineering, he founded the Bachpan Bachao Andolan. In 1980, he gave up his career as a teacher and became secretary general for the Bonded Labor Liberation Front.
Leading spokeswoman for girls’ rights to education
Through her heroic struggle, Yousafzai has become a leading spokeswoman for girls’ rights to education, said Jagland.
According to the Nobel committee, at 17 she’s the youngest ever peace prize winner.
Yousafzai said that the award is a “great honour for me,” and that she’s honoured to share it with Satyarthi.
“I’m proud that I’m the first Pakistani and the first young woman or the first young person getting this award,” she said in Birmingham, England.
Yousafzai learned she won the award while she was in chemistry class in England on last Friday morning, she said. Yousafzai said she continued to attend classes, and it was a “normal day,” besides teachers and fellow students congratulating her.
“I’m not alone”
She said she considers it an encouragement to continue her campaign and “to know that I’m not alone,” Yousafzai told reporters.
Her award will not mark the end of her campaign to advocate for girls’ education, she said.
“I think this is really the beginning,” she said, adding that children around the world “should stand up for their rights” and “not wait for someone else.”
She said she wants the Prime Ministers of India and Pakistan to attend the December ceremony where she and Satyarthi will receive their awards. Peace between the two nations, Yousafzai said, is important for their progress.
The Malala Fund, set up to promote girls’ education, said via Twitter that Yousafzai called the prize “an encouragement for me to go forward. It means we are standing together to ensure all children get quality education.”
This was a welcome signal on both sides to reduce tensions along the Line of Control (LoC) and across India –Pakistan border.
Pakistan, also, opted for peace. A meeting of the cabinet Committee on National Security, held Friday, took the view that war with India in the face of continuing border skirmishes, would not be a suitable option arising of India’s unprovoked shelling, that has now continued unabated since October 1.
A press release issued after the meeting expressed disappointment that India had had not responded to Pakistan’s sincere desire for normalizing relationship with that country, and that Indian action had also disappointed the people of Pakistan and India as well as the international community.
The NSC meeting was held under the chairmanship of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. It was attended by Chairman, Joint chief of staff, chiefs of army, navy and air force, as well as ministers of Defence, Information and Interior, as well as advisor on foreign affairs and national security.
Mr. Sartaj Aziz has been asked to dispatch a letter to UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon over Loc violations by India, as well as send special emissaries to five countries to apprise them of India’s violations across the Loc.
Indian violations began this time on first of October. Since then, India has continued to fire unprovoked mortar shells, targeting a few villages, across Line of Control in the Sialkot border, killing 13 Pakistanis. Those killed included women and cattle. This conflict happened at a time when people in Azad Kashmir and Pakistan were celebrating Eid festival.
This started at a time of huge rains and floods in the two disputed sides of Kashmir, and in the midst of the festival of Bakr Eid.
The incident at the LoC has raised enough concern for Pakistan to protest and has forced Pakistan Prime Minister to summon a meeting of the National Security Council today (Friday), in pursuance of call from political parties, who complain of silence from Pakistani leadership.
The United Nations Military Observer Group (UNMOGIP) stationed on this side was requested to inspect places in Azad Kashmir. At the same time, one hears of New Delhi’s reluctance to allow the UNMOGIP on its side to investigate the incident.
India has also accused Pakistan of unprovoked firing at the disputed border, and India also claims that two Indian women were killed and 15 injured from Pakistan retaliating action to silence Indian guns.
Pakistan is in search of a suitable response from India to reduce the tension. Why should India move to divert Pakistan from its desire to have peace with India to pursue its own agenda of development at a time when India’s Prime Minister has just returned from a successful meeting both at the UN as well as with American leadership?
During his visit to UN headquarter and USA, Prime Minister Mr. Narendra Modi won huge successes in propagating India’s big role among the elite countries of the world. The question is whether the Loc incident would not dent his cherished desire?
Jim Lobe in Washington
Hopes that the strategy announced by President Barack Obama a month ago against the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant (ISIL) might yield a relatively quick victory have disappeared amidst growing fears that the U.S.-led air campaign has at most only slowed the radical group’s advance.
While air strikes, combined with ground attacks by Iranian-backed Kurdish peshmerga and Iraqi Special Forces, succeeded initially in pushing back militants of the self-described Islamic State, from positions close to Erbil and from their control of the Mosul Dam and more recently in taking back the Rabia and Daquq districts in the north, U.S. air power has failed to prevent ISIL from taking most of the Kurdish town of Kobani on the Syrian Turkish border.
Even more worrisome here have been ISIL advances in the so-called Sunni Triangle on the eastern edge of Al-Anbar province in Iraq.
In a significant escalation of Washington’s direct involvement in the fighting, the U.S. Central Command (CentCom) announced that it had sent attack helicopters into battle against ISIL positions just west of Baghdad.
“It’s definitely boots in the air,” Jeffrey White, a veteran military analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), told McClatchy Newspapers.
“Using helicopter gunships in combat operations means those forces are in combat,” he noted, adding that the resort to slower-moving and low-flying aircraft posed a much greater threat of U.S. casualties and an implicit recognition that air strikes so far had failed to stop ISIL forces from launching offensive operations.
ISIL forces also appear to have taken control of Abu Ghraib, the Baghdad suburb made infamous by abuses committed at a prison there by U.S. troops against Iraqi detainees during Washington’s occupation.
More than one commentator has noted that Baghdad’s International Airport, which hosts a U.S. command centre and aircraft, including helicopter gunships, is now within range of artillery and rockets – considerable quantities of which ISIL captured from military bases abandoned by Iraqi forces earlier this summer — fired from the town.
In recent days, ISIL forces also successfully took control of two key towns – Kubaisa and Hit — west of Anbar’s capital, Ramadi, in an apparent bid to consolidate their hold on the province and gain control over key oil pipeline. Their advances have also isolated several Iraqi military bases that may now prove more difficult to supply.
Pressure from hawks on Obama
Obama, who has repeatedly promised not to send ground troops to fight in either Syria or Iraq since he announced the first deployments of what now numbers approximately 1,600 U.S. trainers and advisers to Iraq in the wake of ISIL’s summer offensive, been under persistent pressure from hawks, especially Congressional Republicans, and even some of his former senior Pentagon officials, including Robert Gates, to reconsider.
“The reality is, they’re not gonna be able to be successful against ISIS strictly from the air, or strictly depending on the Iraqi forces, or the Peshmerga, or the Sunni tribes acting on their own,” Gates warned in mid-September.
“So there will be boots on the ground if there’s to be any hope of success in the strategy. And I think that by continuing to repeat that [the U.S. won’t put boots on the ground], the president, in effect, traps himself.”
Even Obama’s own top military commander, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, has suggested that Washington may need Special Forces on the ground in Iraq, at least to act as spotters for U.S. and allied aircraft to hit ISIS targets more precisely, if not in a more aggressive role in hunting down key ISIS leaders, as they have done against enemy forces previously Iraq and Afghanistan.
Some neo-conservatives have called for deploying as many as 25,000 U.S. Special Forces in Iraq and Syria, although recent polls have found that the public, even including many self-identified Republicans, tend to side with Obama in opposing any combat role for U.S. ground troops even as they support stronger action against ISIS.
Relying on degrading ISIS’s military forces
Obama’s strategy appears to rely on steadily degrading ISIS’s military forces – especially the heavy weapons and transport vehicles it has captured from the Syrian and Iraqi armies — through a U.S.-led air war with the substantial participation of Sunni Muslim states, notably Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) members, and as many NATO allies as are willing, although none has yet agreed to take part in operations against ISIS targets in Syria.
U.S. warplanes have also struck oil refineries used by ISIS in Syria to deny the group a key source of income, part of a financial war that also includes exerting unprecedented pressure on GCC governments to crack down against their citizens and charities that have been supporting ISIS or Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN), al-Qaeda’s closest affiliate in Syria.
Washington is pushing the Shi’a-led government of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to follow through on plans to share more power with the Sunni community, in major part by training some 10,000 “national guard” troops recruited from key tribes to take on ISIS in Anbar and elsewhere in a replay of the so-called “Anbar Awakening” that isolated ISIS’ predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), in 2007-8.
That part of the strategy remains a work in progress, as Abadi has so far failed to gain a consensus for the key defence and interior portfolios, and, despite a few reports of Sunni tribal forces allying with Iranian-backed Shi’a militias and the Iraqi army against ISIS, most Sunni leaders continue to express scepticism about Abadi’s intentions.
It will take a year for Iraqi forces
Even if all goes according to plan, including rebuilding the Iraqi army, a major portion of which collapsed in the face of ISIS’s onslaught this summer, the U.S. commander chosen to co-ordinate the international coalition, Gen. John Allen, warned over the weekend that it will take at least a year for Iraqi forces to be ready to challenge ISIS’s control over Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, which it conquered in June.
One year will also be needed to train some 5,000 “moderate” Syrian recruits in Saudi Arabia and Georgia for war against ISIS, JAN, and the government of President Bashar al-Assad, according to administration officials who admit that such a force by itself is unlikely to substantially tilt the battlefield in one direction or another without the aggressive use of air power to defend it.
Already, however, Washington’s air war in Syria has drawn heavy criticism from various Syrian factions from which the U.S. is expected to recruit the new force. They have opposed attacks against JAN, which has co-operated with them in their war against Assad. Strikes against ISIS in and around its stronghold at Raqqa have also reportedly killed civilians, alienating the population from the coalition.
Concern about Turkey
Observers here are also concerned about Turkey, whose co-participation in the coalition in both Syria and Iraq is seen as critical to the strategy’s success.
While President Recept Tayyip Erdogan last week persuaded parliament to authorise military operations in both countries, he has still not permitted Washington the use of strategically located air bases in southern Turkey to launch operations.
Moreover, while the Turkish last week re-inforced its presence along the border with Kobani last week, it failed to intervene against ISIS’s offensive there and actively prevented Turkish Kurds from crossing the border to bolster the town’s defences.
“For Turkey, the most dangerous fallout of the Syrian civil war has been the resurgence of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)” with which the Kurdish fighters – mostly members of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Kobani — are allied, according to an analysis by Gonul Tol of the Middle East Institute published by CNN.
“Turkey believes that fighting the Assad regime is more important than the narrow counter-terrorism mission that President Obama has in mind. A military attack against ISIS is likely to strengthen not only Assad’s but also the PYD’s hand,” she wrote.