Jehan Perera in Colombo
Public criticism of the government has been growing. The opposition’s criticism is to be expected. With general elections around the corner it is in the opposition’s interests to look for opportunities to find fault with the government. However, it is not only the opposition that is criticizing the government. There is public criticism even by those who supported the government to win the election that brought it to power. One of the major issues at the presidential election was that of corruption and abuse of power. This was the issue on which the unity of the former government split when the presidential elections were called.
Most of the criticism has been on account of the government’s failure to take action against those from the former government who stand accused of corruption and abuse of power during their term in office. Those alleged to be amongst the worst offenders continue to be free, along with all others, even though some of them have been taken in for police questioning. But now a new factor has entered to make the criticism more serious. The issue of insider trading in the sale of government bonds by the Central Bank at huge profit to the beneficiaries and at an equivalent loss to the government has damaged the government’s credibility. Ironically, it has also led to opposition politicians who are accused of corruption and abuse of power leading public protests against those implicated in the deal.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe made a long statement in Parliament defending his choice of Governor of the Central Bank, and pointing out the greater misdeeds of the previous government. However, he has also ensured that the Governor goes on leave of absence while an investigation into the bonds issue takes place. The contrast with the way in which issues of corruption and abuse of power were dealt with under the former government is instructive. During the ten year period of the former government, and especially in its latter phase, the corruption scandals that were hinted and whispered about were legion. But there was no public outcry.
The Central Bank under the former Governor was widely criticized for adjusting figures and for making unusual payments to foreign advertising companies. But nothing happened and the previous Governor continued as if the dogs were barking but the caravan moved on. The lack of public outcry was because critics of the government were fearful of their safety. The officials and ministers of the previous government could continue doing what they did because there was impunity. This situation has changed dramatically since the presidential election.
The public outcry over the government bond issue and its repercussion on the government are indications of how much has changed since the government changed. The thrall of fear that silenced the public outcry against corruption and abuse of power in the former government no longer exists. People are no longer in fear of the government and the white vans that could make opponents of the government go missing. Although the new government may be unable to implement all the promises in its 100 days plan it has succeeded in changing the threat perception in society. It was not so long ago that even in Rotary Club meetings attended by high level business persons, participants made critical comments about what was transpiring in the economy and also said that they were concerned about being quoted.
The lifting of the thrall of fear is most evident in the North and East of the country where the return to normalcy is most pronounced. Participants at a workshop in Batticaloa over the weekend that brought together religious clergy from all faiths along with lay persons who formed inter-religious committees in the Batticaloa and Ampara districts and local level media persons who came to publicise their work, said that they felt no fear of attending as they had in the past. The organizers noted that they had a record participation at the workshop. They had invited 25 persons and all 25 attended. This was unlike in the past when it was difficult to obtain such participation.
When I asked the participants at the workshop what had brought them there, the response was that they wished to know more of what was happening in the country. There is a feeling among civil society in Batticaloa, and quite possibly elsewhere in the country, that they do not get all the news and information about developments in the centres of power that determine their lives. This indicates that the government has to try harder to fill in the lacuna and make it a point to keep the people informed about what it is planning to do and what it has done. It is not enough for the government to pass new laws and to make macro level policy decisions, and to expect civil society or the media to do educational work.
The government has pledged to set up effective systems to deal with the rot of corruption. Key to this would be to set up an independent public service, police and judiciary. They would underpin the workings of other institutions such as the Bribery Commission to take those who are accused of corruption to task. This new system will become a reality along with the passage of the 19th Amendment. Until then it is going to be difficult for the new government to take action against those who are accused of wrongdoings. Government members themselves have to constantly educate and create awareness amongst the people, including the people of the North and East, about what their government is doing. The government must take the people along with it on the journey to development and national reconciliation.
Prior to the change of government, an event such as the one in Batticaloa would have been subjected to multi-pronged security operations on the rationale that national security was more important than everything else. In the past there would have been plainclothes intelligence personnel sitting in uninvited, there would be others who would ask for the participants list and there might even be armed security personnel in full uniform coming in repeatedly to check on what was happening.
At the workshop in Batticaloa, the opinion expressed was that the government was no longer seen as an oppressive force, but rather in its traditional role as a problem solver that needed to do more to solve the people’s problems. It appears to be still the case that most people in Sri Lanka, whether in the North and East or rest of the country, still continue to see the government as the agency to develop the country and to ease the burdens of their lives. As the government cannot possibly do this by itself, there needs to be a greater devolution of power and strengthening of the provincial tier of government.
The freedom to live without fear, to meet without restrictions, and to speak without being subject to retaliation are the most basic of human rights and the foundations of good governance. If these foundational rights exist in society, good governance is bound to come sooner rather than later. The criticism of the government that came to power on a platform of good governance, but now is itself being found fault with for permitting corruption and abuse of power so early in its term is a sign that civil society is empowered. Corruption and abuse of power is deep rooted in society and in governmental structures. It will take time to root out. But the freedom for citizens to agitate without fear against those social and political ills now exists and the credit goes to the new government.
Leon Anderson in Philadelphia
|Palestinians demonstrating outside the UN office in Gaza calling for freedom for political prisoners. |
Credit: Eva Bartlett/IPS
There is a currently popular idea in Washington, D.C. that the United States ought to be doing more to quash the recently born Islamic States of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), because if we don’t, they will send terrorists to plague our lives.
Incredibly, most of the decision makers and policy influencers in Washington also agree that America has no standing in the Middle East; that is, the U.S. has no natural influence based on territorial proximity, ethnicity, religion, culture, politics or shared history. In short, the only apparent reason for our presence in the Middle East is to support Israel.
No moral ground under our feet
To say that the United States is universally resented by everyone in the region is a massive understatement. That we are hated, despised, and the sworn enemies of many, is not difficult to understand. There is no moral ground under our feet in any religion. Stealing is universally condemned. Abetting in the pillaging of Palestinians and their land is hard to justify. Yet we keep sending Israel military and financial aid, we support them in the United Nations, and we ignore the pleas of Israel’s neighbours to stop the spread of settlers on more stolen land.
There was once an old canard that we had to intervene in the Middle East to protect the flow of oil to Western Europe and America. But since the defeat of Nazi Germany in North Africa, that threat has never again existed. The fact is that the source of most of the wealth in the Middle East is oil, which is a commodity; there’s a lot of it all over the world.
If it’s not sold, the producer countries’ economies collapse, because that’s all they have on which to survive. They are, few of them in the Middle East, industrial economies, or mercantile economies. They are almost completely dependent on oil exports to Europe and Asia for their economic survival.
The oil crunch in 1973 that saw prices rise in the West and shortage was a temporary phenomenon produced by the Persian Gulf countries that was impossible to sustain. It was like a protest movement, a strike. It ended by costing OPEC a lot of money and by spurring a world-wide surge in exploration and drilling for more oil supplies.
Oil is not a weapon as some would have us believe. As the Middle East, and now Russia, knows all too well, it is a crutch.
Therefore, we get down to the real reasons why the United States is involved militarily in the Middle East. One, we clearly don’t need their oil. A possible reason for being there is conquest: we covet Iraq or Syria or Afghanistan for ourselves. I think we can dismiss that notion as absurd and move on.
Then the question screams: Why are we there? Why are we continuing to give ISIS and other extremist, nationalistic groups a reason to hate us and want to destroy us?
Hegemonic power in the region
The only answer is Israel. We have made Israel the artificial hegemonic power in the region against the will of everyone who is native to the area. We have lost all credibility among Arabs, all moral standing and nearly all hope of ever restoring either.
The United States has become a pariah in the Middle East, and the result is that we will be faced with endless war and terrorist attacks for ages to come unless we make a dramatic change of course in our foreign policy—namely, stop supporting an Israeli regime that will not make peace with its neighbours.
An organisation called the Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) has endorsed a call from Palestinians for a boycott of Israel, divestment of economic ties, and sanctions (on the order of those imposed on Iran and Russia) to encourage Israel to end its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands occupied since 1967.
The JVP urges Israel to dismantle the grotesque wall they have built to keep the Palestinians out of territory that was once theirs; to recognise Palestinians as citizens of Israel with equal rights; and to recognise the right of refugees to return to their homes and properties in Israel as stipulated in U.N . Resolution 194.
The argument that we are fighting ISIS because they threaten our democracy is absurdly infantile. That’s another of those political throwaways we hear because our leaders think we’re all simpletons who can’t figure things out for ourselves.
How on earth could 40,000 or 100,000 disaffected Arabs destroy American democracy? They are fighting us because we are there fighting them. Let us go home, and they would have no reason to fight us.
I suggest this avenue knowing full well that some may say that we must instil the spirit of democracy among these people or there will never be peace in the world. Excuse me, but there will never be peace in the world. We all thought that when Gorbachev gave up the Soviet Empire a new era of Russian democracy would ensue.
Instead, Russia got drunken and loutish leadership until a strongman, in the Russian historical context, Vladimir Putin, took over. Democracy cannot be exported. It has to be wanted and won in the light of local historical, religious, social and economic needs.
In spite of all this more or less common knowledge, the prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, warns us that if we don’t crush Iran, if we don’t continue to support Israel and back their hegemony, the world will collapse in anarchy, and democracy will be lost to all of us. I ask you: how much of this nonsense are you willing to take? Someone has to begin a discussion on what the hell we’re doing in the Middle East—and do it soon.
[The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the IPS.]
Leon Anderson is an American author who worked extensively in international markets.
The government Pakistan has tried to introduce several feel good factors in days preceding 75th anniversary of commemoration of historic Pakistan Resolution of March 23, 1940. Friday night it announced the Pakistan Tehreek Insaf (Imran Khan's party) and the government have reached agreement on the wording of terms of reference for judicial commission that would probe whether election held in 2013 were fair and free. It was followed with the announcement that the State bank had reduced interest rate to eight percent as well as an advertisement that prices of eatables and groceries had decreased by at least 10 per cent within two years of Nawaz Sharif government.
These may have contributed to uplift in public mood during the Joint Forces Parade held Monday morning at the newly built parade ground, near scenic Shakraparian. The day began with a 31-gun salute fired before sun rise to mark the commemoration of Pakistan Day. Then morning newspapers carried a story that the notorious terrorist Mulla Fazlullah had been killed in an encounter near Afghan border . Though this news is still to be confirmed a tweet from ISPR Director General suggests it might well be true. His tweet lists ''significant effects achieved by air strikes last night targeting terrorists'' and Masatul Pass, which links Khyber Agency to the Afghan border and was being used by terrorists for movement to Afghanistan, has also been seized by the military in area Close to Afghan border. We may see this reflected in the President Mamnoon Hussain's speech at the parade ground where he said, among other things that the terrorists were fast yielding ground.
President Hussain, who was chief guest on the occasion, also paid tribute to those who had lost their lives in the Taliban attack on Army Public School ( December 16, 2014) and spoke of country's desire to have continued good relations with India on the basis of equality as well as the need for resolution of Kashmir issue, according to wishes of the Kashmiri people.
He also announced the good news that the United Nations had given approval to Pakistan's seabed territory had been increased from 200 to 350 nautical miles.
As for Armed Forces Parade, it was held this year at the federal capital, after an interlude of seven years. It was last held in 2008. In subsequent years it was postponed for 'security' reasons.
This year, at the parade, the audience witnessed Pak Army tanks, including Al-Khalid and Al Zarrar that performed gun salute in front of the chief guest, as well as a display of 23 sky-diving paratroopers who, jumped from 10,000 feet in the air, and landed at the exact previously marked spot and later presented the national flag to the chief guest. According to eye-witnesses, these colourful parachutes are like rainbow pallets in the air but during war these are camouflaged in the night and are a threat to the enemies something new in the parade this year was display of Pakistani fabricated Bur?q drones.
We may also talk of the extraordinary event held at Islamabad. It is about Speaker National Assembly Sardar Ayaz Sadiq's inauguration of the first conference of Parliamentarians in legislative houses around the world, certainly quite a novel idea. In his welcome address Pakistan Speaker said: Parliamentarians of Pakistan origin elected to the Legislatures around the world could serve as a bridge between the East and the West portraying the true image of peaceful, democratic and progressive Pakistan.
He remarked, Pakistani expatriates were a national asset for Pakistan and they were equal partners in the progress and development of this country. The guest Parliamentarians who attended the conference were : Member, Canadian Senate Senator Salma Ataullah Jan; Member Norwegian Parliament Chaudhury Khalid Mehmood; Member Welsh National Assembly (UK) Mr. Mohammad Asghar; Member Provincial Parliament of Etobicoke (Canada) Mr. Shafiq Qadri; Member Parliament of Brussels Capital Region (Belgium) Dr. Manzoor Zahoor Ellahi; Member Parliament of Kenya Mr. Shakeel Shabbir Ahmad; and Dr. Ashraf Choudhary, former Member of House of Representatives of New Zealand.
Bangladesh High Commission here will celebrate its National Day at an elite hotel.