Saturday, March 30, 2013

Bangladesh – A Nation Divided? – Part 1

March 26 is a very important day in the history of Bangladesh. It is celebrated as the Independence Day of Bangladesh although the true liberation of the country came some nine months later in 16 December, 1971. I was a high school student studying in a cadet college. Our school was closed sine die on March 8, 1971 - a day after Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had delivered historic speech in the Ramna Race Course of Dhaka (now the capital city of Bangladesh) where he called a nationwide strike and launched a non-violent non-cooperation movement against the Government of Pakistan. His party – the Awami League – had won 160 of the 300 National Assembly seats (all from East Pakistan) contested in the parliamentary election of 1970, and was supposed to form the government. But the military regime of General Yahya Khan with the backing from the People’s Party of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, which had won only 81 seats (all from West Pakistan) in the election, won’t hand over the power to Sheikh Mujib.

The 1970 national election result was a big surprise to the military regime. In its worst nightmares, it probably never imagined Sheikh Mujib’s East Pakistan-centric party (the Awami League) to win with a simple majority (all but two seats from East Pakistan). The military junta had falsely assumed that a coalition government would emerge, which would allow the military to maintain its sway over the political developments inside the country. The election result was, therefore, shocking and unacceptable to the ruling regime. In this, it perceived a divided country separated by a thousand miles of hostile India. It did not want to accept the mere fact that years of domination from West Pakistan had already alienated the people living in the eastern wing of Pakistan. As a matter of fact, since August 14, 1947 when Pakistan gained her independence from British India, the political elite (which also included military) from the western part of the country had been ruling the country for all but two years (1956-58). It is worth noting here that in those years, the Bengalis living in the East Pakistan comprised the majority (54%) of the population of Pakistan.

Years of negligence and discrimination from the central government, which had spent less than 29% of its budget in East Pakistan, had made Bengali nationalism the rallying ground for most Bengali speaking people to support the political agenda of the Awami League, led by its charismatic leader Sheikh Mujib, fondly known then as the Bangabandhu (the Friend of Bengal). The party participated in and won the 1970 election with a Six-point formula, promising regional autonomy to the federating units so that political, economic and social aspirations of its Bengali speaking people would be met under a federal system of government.

Instead of convening the National Assembly session on March 3, 1971 and handing over power to the majority Awami League, the Pakistani President General Yahya Khan indefinitely postponed it, thus, precipitating massive civil disobedience in East Pakistan. Within weeks hundreds of demonstrators and supporters of the Awami League were killed by the police, further worsening the situation.

In his speech at the Race Course on March 7, 1971, Bangabandhu declared a four-point demand to consider the national assembly meeting on March 25, 1971. These were: (a) the immediate withdrawal of the martial law; (b) immediate withdrawal of all military personnel to their barracks; (c) an inquiry into the loss of life; (d) immediate transfer of power to the elected representative of the people before the assembly meeting of March 25. In spite of much pressure from the hawkish elements within the student groups, he resisted the temptation to declare secession of East Pakistan (Bangladesh) from Pakistan.

Sheikh Mujib further strengthened his position by issuing 35 directives for the management of East Pakistan on March 15. On March 16-24, Mujib, Bhutto and Yahya held a series of meetings, which appeared to give the impression of attempting to forge a compromise. As the negotiations proceeded, the country was extremely tense. When an army ship – MV Swat - full of ammunition docked at the port city of Chittagong in East Pakistan on March 18, hundreds of thousands of Bengalis blockaded the port to prevent it from being unloaded. The deployment of West Pakistani soldiers and the shipment of arms and ammunitions meant that the central government was not serious in resolving the constitutional crisis peacefully and was using the so-called negotiations as a ploy to misdirect attention. Student leaders within the pro-Awami League Students’ League raised new flags for Bangladesh and demanded that Sheikh Mujib declare independence. But Mujib, warned by his wise policy advisers, did not want to give the military regime an excuse to try him and his party leaders for committing treason against the state. As such, he stuck to his demand and continued negotiations.

In my neighborhoods along Zakir Hossain Road in East Nasirabad and south Khulshi, Chittagong, I could see college students taking para-military type training without guns and rifles. Fearing military incursion, they put up barricades on the streets. They were ready to lay down their lives when and if Bangabandhu declared independence.

In our upscale neighborhood, many non-Bengali merchants and jute mill managers and owners lived. Fearing undue violence, which might ensue any time, my father and some of his elderly friends formed peace committees and ensured that everyone’s life and properties would not be threatened by any troublemaker.

Then came the fateful night of March 25, 1971 when perhaps thousands of Bengali-speaking East Pakistanis were killed in Dhaka and Chittagong by Pakistan Army. Rumors circulated late at night that General Yahya Khan had ordered the arrest of Bangabandhu and some of his aids before flying back to Islamabad. In Chittagong, thanks to border security forces of East Pakistan Rifles, reporting to Major Rafiq, the city with its seaport was still under control of local Bangladeshis and the military cantonment in Sholashahar, within walking distance from my home, was surrounded by them. It was said that more than a thousand new army recruits from East Pakistan were killed while they were asleep in their barracks by the West Pakistani non-Bengali forces. Included amongst the casualty was an East Pakistani colonel – M.R. Chowdhury. No one seemed to know the whereabouts of another high ranking East Pakistani Brigadier Majumdar.

On March 26, I saw a cyclostyle copy of the declaration of independence made by Bangabandhu, which was apparently received by Captain Moslem (a Bangladeshi) of the Signal Corpse of Pakistan Army – who was our neighbor. This documentation is exactly similar to the one which later came to be known as the Independence Declaration of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

In the late afternoon of March 26, I walked towards Sholashahar and witnessed rifle-carrying para-military forces of Ansar surrounding the home of a Urdu-speaking manager or owner of a jute mill who reportedly had shot at the crowd on the street. To get him out of his house, some people threw fire-bombs at his well-protected concrete home. It was a disturbing scene for me to watch and I returned home.

In those days of late March, with the reports of killing of Bengalis, esp. in Dhaka, by the Pakistan Army circulated, there must have been a lot of violence directed against Urdu-speaking Biharis (Urdu-speaking Muslim refugees from the state of Bihar in India who had fled to East Pakistan after the partition of India), who were perceived to be pro-Pakistan and against Bangladesh. But I did not personally see any such violence in the violent months that followed. Our mixed neighborhood was free from any such violence.

My sleep on the night of March 26 was cut short by sounds of mortars, reportedly fired from the Patenga and Halishahar port areas by the stranded Pakistan Navy and Army. I remember taking shelter in the bathroom with my sister. The next day, I discovered an unexploded mortar shell that had landed the night before in my neighbor’s yard. Rumors also circulated about the existence of a Free Bangladesh Radio Station, operating from Chittagong, and we were later able to listen to the declaration made on behalf of Bangabandhu by Major Zia, a Bengali officer who had joined the (rebel) liberation forces.

The rifles and guns of the Bengali-speaking police, Ansar and EPR were no match against the superior fire powers of the Pakistan military, and within days by end of March, the once barricaded Pakistani forces were able to come out of their barracks and retake the entire city. Fearing harm, we quickly brought down a huge boat – the symbol of Awami League – which was visible from the road and had been hanging for months from the roof our 3-story house ‘Prantik’. From the roof top we could witness the surrender of the lightly armed Ansar, police, and Rifle (liberation) forces to highly armed Pakistan Army and Navy, who came in tanks and armored cars hoisting Pakistani flags. We could also see jet fighters and bombers of Pakistan Air Force flying in the sky. In our home, we fed and clothed many fleeing members of the resistance force so that they could hide from and leave undetected by the Pakistan military. Some fighters, afraid of carrying their rifle any more, buried it in our backyard. In our home, we also treated some bullet-injured members of the Ansar and the EPR.

Rumors about and fears of massacre created such a panic that many city dwellers started fleeing from the city. Later we heard that many of them did not make their way to safe havens, but were killed on the Trunk Road going out of the city. In our neighborhood, a doctor was reportedly killed by the Pakistan Army. For days, I could smell of dead corpse for no one had dared to venture out to bury the corpse.

In early April, soon after the takeover of Chittagong, the military imposed curfew in the city with a short break of only an hour or two for people to buy their food and medicine, or attend to business. It was very dangerous going out of home. [In those days, quite a few of our family friends, which included the Chairman of Port Trust, had disappeared, and no one had heard from them ever since. They were probably summarily executed and their bodies dumped or buried in some unmarked grave.] My father, however, wishing to find out about the whereabouts of his friends, neighbors and relatives would go out ignoring my mother’s protests about the danger that waited outside. [Some of his friends, in their haste to leave the city, had left their home doors and cars unlocked. In those days cars were a luxury and vulnerable item for getting picked up by the military unless put inside the garage. Similarly, homes could be robbed of all the valuables.]

And my mother was right. In one such trip to my cousin’s home in Agrabad, my 9-year old sister and I accompanied him and one of his friends in our car. When we had just crossed the Dewan Hat area, not too far from the commercial center of Agrabad, a military jeep commandeered our car to its camp in Tiger Pass. Soon we were taken to a room and Captain Rizvi, a Urdu-speaking officer who lived in our neighborhood in the same building where Bengali-speaking Captain Moslem had lived, showed up. He started screaming, “You are Awami Leaguers,” “miscreants,” “traitors,” and “you must be killed.” Realizing probably our tender young age, he let me and my younger sister leave. He and his orderly corporal took my father and his friend outside the room near a tree with the intention to execute them.

As we two walked towards the gate, and my sister crying greatly, we noticed a jeep approaching the military camp from outside. A senior ranking air force officer stepped out of the jeep and inquired why we were crying. When I explained what had happened, he said, “Do you know how many Urdu-speaking people were killed by your Bengalis?” I told him that such information was news to me since in our area no such violence had happened, and that my father ought to be credited for the peaceful coexistence; and that if he wanted to verify about my father’s role, he could contact our next-door Urdu-speaking neighbor, or others. I told him that he could contact Wing Commander Sulayman Kayani, my cadet college principal, to learn more. He said that he could take me to parts of the city where many Biharis had lived and show scores of shoes of two- and three-year old girls that were murdered by Bengalis. I was simply shocked and told him that I was very sad to learn the nature of violence perpetrated by people of my own linguistic group against another group. He told us that he would talk to Capt. Rizvi and stop the execution.

Rizvi, probably having seen the high ranking officer talk to me, did not carry out the execution. My father later told me that the officer stopped the execution and inquired about why he was brought into the camp. He then called my father and apologized for Rizvi’s rudeness. Apparently, Rizvi was upset that Capt. Moslem, who shared the same house and lived upstairs, had deserted Pakistan Army and joined the liberation force. The Air Force officer told my father to collect the latest information about Moslem and report back the next day before noon. We were all relieved to dodge death. However, the curfew time imposed in the evening was approaching fast, and we were afraid that if we did not make it to our home by driving fast within the next five minutes, we might be violating the curfew and could be shot at on the street. We arrived home in the very nick of time.

My mother and other two siblings were very worried that we had left my cousin sister Reena’s place in Agrabad nearly an hour ago and had not returned. They were relieved to see us return alive. But when my father told everyone that he had been asked to report back the next day, it was a panicky moment. If he did not report, the military could come to our home, which was well known to them and kill everyone. If he reported, what’s the likelihood that he would return alive again? The Urdu-speaking good neighbor of ours suggested that my father report back, giving us the hope that “InshaAllah, nothing would go wrong.”

Later I learnt from my father that it was a very wearying night for him. He had not slept the entire night. He decided to report back the next morning. My younger brother accompanied him to the military camp. My mother prayed for their safe return. Fortunately, as my father’s car approached the gate of the camp, the good-natured Air Force officer was in a hurry and about to leave for the airport to receive a very high ranking general. When my father told him that he had no information on Capt. Moslem, the officer told him that if Moslem was inside the country they would find him. He then told my father to go home, and again apologized before stepping in his jeep. If my father had missed that Air Force officer, he would have found the trigger-happy Capt. Rizvi awaiting him. And God knows, what could have happened!

After returning home, within days my father decided that it was no longer safe for him to live inside the city, and he moved away to rural areas to finance and help the liberation movement.

When the time for the SSC and the HSC examinations came, all the cadets were summoned to appear at Mymensingh Cadet College in Mirzapur. I decided not to go. Instead, on the suggestion of a freedom fighter in our locality I decided to collect information on the war from various media sources, including the BBC. The information was used for boosting the morale of the freedom fighters, who by then were showing some success against the military and their local agents.

In our home, we gave shelter to two other families who were afraid to live in their own homes. One was the family of my childhood home instructor – Hari Sadhan Das, a college professor. He and his wife lived with us for the entire nine months of the liberation war. From August onward, after the first batch of India-trained freedom fighters had returned to Bangladesh and started ambushing Pakistani forces, our home provided shelter to three freedom fighters. The first of these, Rafiq bhai, a student at the Commerce College, died in a gun exchange with the Pakistan Army on November 1 in front of City College. One of his friends brought the sad news to us, and we cried. Although he was not a relative, he became more like a cousin brother to me and my siblings.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Prof. David Wasserstein's article on Jewry and Islam

In these days of anti-Muslim paranoia and hatemongering, it is difficult to find too many sane voices which contest that common hysteria. But that is what Prof. David Wasserstein has done in his article:

So, what did the Muslims do for the Jews?

David J Wasserstein is the Eugene Greener Jr Professor of Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN.

He wrote, "Islam saved Jewry. This is an unpopular, discomforting claim in the modern world. But it is a historical truth." He continued, "Had Islam not come along, Jewry in the west would have declined to disappearance and Jewry in the east would have become just another oriental cult."

He wrote, "Within a century of the death of Mohammad, in 632, Muslim armies had conquered almost the whole of the world where Jews lived, from Spain eastward across North Africa and the Middle East as far as the eastern frontier of Iran and beyond. Almost all the Jews in the world were now ruled by Islam. This new situation transformed Jewish existence. Their fortunes changed in legal, demographic, social, religious, political, geographical, economic, linguistic and cultural terms - all for the better.

First, things improved politically. Almost everywhere in Christendom where Jews had lived now formed part of the same political space as Babylon - Cordoba and Basra lay in the same political world. The old frontier between the vital centre in Babylonia and the Jews of the Mediterranean basin was swept away, forever."
This article, originally written last year, nearly 10 months ago, came to my attention when it was cross-posted in the NFB, a website that I sometimes browse.

To read more, please, click here.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Another Muslim Village in Myanmar burned down by Buddhists

Within hours of posting my previous article on anti-Muslim riots in Burma, I came across fresh news about another attack on a Muslim village in Yamethin. You can read the information by clicking here.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Never-ending Pogroms in Myanmar

It was not too long ago that we witnessed the grisly massacre of minority Rohingya Muslims in the Arakan (Rakhine) state of Myanmar (Burma). Many of the western observers who grew up seeing the smiling face of Dalai Lama were simply shocked to see armed Buddhist monks participating in that ethnic cleansing of the unarmed Rohingya Muslims. Not only had the monks participated in those violent criminal acts with their fellow Buddhist Rakhine zealots terrorizing the minority Muslims of the western frontier state but they were also guilty of providing the very rationale – a criminal one - for such inhuman crimes against the members of a non-Buddhist faith who were different ethnically, culturally and religiously.

In that pogrom, while we may never know the exact casualty figure because of government complicity in the tragedy – Rohingyas probably died in thousands, and hundreds remain unaccounted for even after nine months. With international pressure, and worldwide condemnation, while that pogrom of last year (May-October, 2012) against the minority Rohingyas has stopped, albeit temporarily, there were many ominous signs for any keen observer to predict of a troubling future awaiting the non-Buddhists living inside Myanmar.

The Buddhist monks in Myanmar with very few exceptions have essentially become not only the collaborators of the quasi-military regime that runs the country but also the vanguards of a new Myanmarism in which people who are different are increasingly marginalized and/or dehumanized. Buddhist monks, dependent on begging and handouts, have had always thrived on donations and gifts made by others, esp. the rich patrons and Buddhist kings. That benevolent role is now filled in by the government. (As the Muslim and Hindu lands are confiscated, their homes and shops, religious centers, shrines and mosques burnt down or razed to the ground often times Buddhist pagodas are built on such confiscated or evicted and destroyed places.) The level of collaboration runs so deep that when last year the so-called reform minded President Thein Sein called for expelling the Rohingyas to a third country and that the UN should take charge of them, it was the Buddhist monks who were at the forefront of the processions demanding such expulsion. They have hitherto called upon the government to creating apartheid zones for the Muslim minorities, away from the Buddhist majority people, let alone demanding the exclusion of Muslims from jobs, and even enacting laws that prohibit selling to and buying from Muslims. It is an all-out apartheid system that they have been promoting against the much-discriminated and despised non-Buddhist minorities in the Buddhist-majority Myanmar.

As a result, in recent months tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims have become the ‘boat people’ of the Southeast Asia braving the scorching sun and tumultuous seas hoping to find a place under the sun in this vast planet of ours to live without being slaughtered like lambs in the slaughterhouse of Myanmar. Hundreds have died and many have ended up in prisons. The Christian-majority Kachin state to the north is also bleeding because of marauding attacks from the Myanmar government forces there. Nearly a quarter million internally displaced persons of the Christian and Muslim faiths now live in sub-human conditions in Kachin and Rakhine states, respectively. Buddhist monks and politicians have also barred necessary relief items from reaching the intended victims.

Tomas Ojea Quintana, U.N. Special Rapporteur for human rights in Burma, recently told the U.N. Human Rights Council that rights violations linked to the Kachin conflict—along with ethnic tensions between Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists in western Burma—remain unresolved in Myanmar. “While the process of reform is continuing in the right direction, there are significant human rights shortcomings that remain unaddressed, such as discrimination against the Rohingya in Rakhine state and the ongoing human rights violations in relation to the conflict in Kachin state,” said Quintana, who visited Burma last month.

Obviously, Buddhism has failed and is failing miserably or so it seems when it comes to enlightening the savage and non-enlightened souls amongst its own people inside Myanmar. The word ‘non-violence’ has lost its meaning in Myanmar. One only has to be different, the ‘other’ people – racially or religiously – to see the ugly side of such pogroms, which have sadly become the norms and not exceptions.

So, it was not a question of why but when we would be revisited by a new violence. As the recent events in Meikhtila, a town roughly 80 miles north of the capital Naypyidaw, showed Myanmar is increasingly becoming difficult and almost impossible for non-Buddhists to live in this once multi-racial and multi-religious country.

Last Wednesday, a heated argument between a Muslim gold shop owner in Meikhtila and his Buddhist customers erupted, which spiraled into a street brawl. Soon thereafter Buddhist mobs roamed the streets with sticks and swords and set Muslim buildings ablaze. Rioting and arson attacks spread on Friday to villages outside Meiktila, as mobs of Buddhists, some led by monks, continued a three-day rampage through Muslim areas. Several mosques were burned down. Hundreds of Muslim homes were ransacked first and then set on fire.

According to the New York Times (NYT), witnesses reached by phone said security forces did little to stop the violence. “Mobs were destroying buildings and killing people in cold blood,” said U Nyan Lynn, a former political prisoner who witnessed what he described as massacres. “Nobody stopped them — I saw hundreds of riot police there.”

“Images from Meiktila showed entire neighborhoods burned to the ground, some with only blackened trees left standing. Lifeless legs poked from beneath rubble. And charred corpses spoke to the use of fire as a main tool of the rioting mobs,” writes Thomas Fuller of the NYT.

“I can’t handle what I saw there,” said Daw Nilar Thein, a human rights activist. She described the violence as anarchic and unspeakable.

One video posted to Facebook by Radio Free Asia on Friday showed Muslim women and men cowering and shielding their heads from flying objects as they fled their attackers. Onlookers are overheard shouting, “Oooh! Look how many of them. Kill them! Kill them!”

On Friday, a group of Buddhist monks threatened news photographers, including one who works for The Associated Press, with a sword and homemade weapons. With a monk holding a blade to his neck, U Khin Maung Win, the A.P. photographer, handed over his camera’s memory card. “We are trying to leave the town,” Mr. Khin Maung Win said by telephone. “They are now after journalists, too.”

Just as in Arakan the past year, those Buddhists behind the violence in Meiktila are trying to stop images of the destruction from getting out.

The exact numbers of those killed and injured since Wednesday in Meikhtila are still unknown, but the numbers may reach more than 100.

Whatever the figure, the culture of impunity surrounding ethnic violence must end in Myanmar. Who would have thought that a failed sales negotiation in a jewelry shop would trigger a religious riot? The whole episode smells of the Hitler-era Nazism in which Jewish homes and businesses were targeted by his dreaded SS. In Myanmar’s context, the Buddhist monks and their inspired zealots within the Buddhist population are increasingly behaving like those criminal SS thugs of the Nazi era. It is, thus, not difficult to understand why in such pre-planned sinister riots the security forces behave more as spectators -- if they, of course, choose not to join the Buddhist mob -- than as law enforcing government agents.

As I have maintained before, these kinds of targeted violence against Muslims and other religious minorities do enjoy wider popular support within this Buddhist-majority apartheid state and are endorsed from the top echelon in politics. Shamelessly, therefore, the lawmakers like opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi have remained silent on how to the end ethnic violence racking the country in recent months.

Like many human rights advocates and activists, Mark Farmaner of Burma Campaign UK has condemned such sinister silence. Recently he said, "Staying silent is clearly not working, because in that vacuum, those who are inciting more violence are free to operate when they need to be challenged and tackled head on." "There needs to be a change of approach not just from Suu Kyi,” he says, “but from all the political and religious leaders in the country to acknowledge that there is this growing anti-Muslim feeling in the country."

The Euro-Burma Office, a respected Brussels-based advocacy group, warned on Friday of a "Rwandan-like genocide" of Myanmar's Muslims.

As we have noticed previously with the Rakhine state, President Thein Sein has issued a state of emergency on Friday. The state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper has urged the public to expose those who led and attempted to instigate.

Muslims have been put in Meiktila’s sports stadium, where food and water are scarce. Photographs showed frightened-looking people rushing to the stadium, clutching belongings and carrying their children and the elderly, amid jeering Buddhist crowds.

The state of emergency is a half-hearted reactive measure that will not prevent Muslims and other vulnerable minorities from becoming objects of ethnic cleansing and religious riots in the future.

"Governments are meant to guarantee rights, ensure that people are treated equally before the law, that nondiscrimination is the rule of the land, and that minorities have their rights protected," said Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch. "After seeing this [violence in Meikhtila], would anyone be confident in saying that the government is doing a good job?"

Surely not! But with western appetite for Myanmar’s natural resources on the rise, human rights have taken a back seat. And thus, none of the veto-wielding countries is stopping this extermination campaign against the Muslims of Myanmar, and punishing the regime for its monumental failure, or worse yet collusion, to safeguarding their lives and properties. In their failure, the notion of Buddhists, especially monks, rampaging through Muslim neighborhoods with weapons is becoming a recurring phenomenon. And this must stop not only for the health of Buddhism but also for greater good of humanity.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The 10th Anniversary of Iraq Invasion

During the first Gulf War I was surprised by the wild and obscene enthusiasm for the war displayed by a colleague of mine whom I considered to be one of the most liberal Americans. He was a brilliant engineer who after completing his Ph.D. had briefly worked at the MIT. In the late 1980s when I moved from the beautiful and sunny Los Angeles to the colder northeastern part of the USA, he and his wife were the first ones to invite me for a dinner at his newly bought modest home. He appeared genuine and wiser than others.  We developed a very cordial relationship and he would seek out my advice on any problem that he could not personally solve. I was his go-to guy for complex problems. Even though we don’t work together any more for almost two decades he would pick up his phone once in a while to call me from Boston to ask for my opinion on problems.

Seeing the gory pictures of the war in which the fleeing unarmed Iraqis were bombed in what was described as the Highway of Death or more properly the Highway of Slaughter, Greg was so happy and joyful that I was simply shocked. I could not picture him as a cheerleader for a war in which the civilians were killed like the mosquitoes or pulverized!

Well, war brings out the worst in us, and unmasks the other side of our humankind, which under ordinary peaceful circumstances may not reveal its ugliness. In its global crusade against terror, the USA has ignored the early generation of American statesmen who warned of the corrupting influence of standing armies and war.

Mach 19 marks the tenth anniversary of the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq.  In his short television address that evening (which was dawn of March 20, 2003 in Iraq) President George W. Bush outlined the goals: “to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger.” He promised the result: “We will bring freedom to others and we will prevail.”

It did not take too long for everyone to find out that Bush Jr. and his administration had lied about the WMDs. There was none in Iraq. Nevertheless, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have died as a result of this war. The country – economically and politically – is in ruins. After a brief pause, the sectarian violence is back. An estimated 16,000 Iraqis have gone missing in the 10 years since the U.S. invaded the country. Iraq is now a failed state much like what Afghanistan has been since the Soviet days.

While the Taliban regime, which provided shelter to OBL, has been replaced with a friendly collaborating regime, the experts are saying that America has essentially lost the war in Afghanistan.

As recently noted by Harvard Professor Stephen Walt in the Foreign Policy, the U.S. objectives in Afghanistan could not be achieved without a much larger commitment of resources. According to him, “Troop levels in Afghanistan never approached the ratio of troops/population observed in more successful instances of nation-building, and that deficiency was compounded by Afghanistan's ethnic divisions, mountainous terrain, geographic isolation, poor infrastructure, and porous borders.”  [Among other reasons, Professor Walt mentions Pakistan’s continued support of the Taliban where they could always slip across and live to fight another day. Successful counterinsurgencies require effective and legitimate local partners; however, Karzai was not that partner.]

I have difficulty believing that even another hundred thousand troops would have made much difference. All other earlier invaders have learned that billion-dollar bitter lesson that battles could be won in Afghanistan but not the war. However, the American arrogance seemed to blindside its own leaders about their technical and tactical superiority. Nation-building of the war-ravaged Afghanistan was never a priority for the U.S. government. Contrary to Prof. Walt’s observation, Islamabad has been very accommodating to U.S. war efforts inside Afghanistan; more Pakistani soldiers have died fighting in the autonomous FATA region than Americans.

Truth is often the first casualty in war. What is not discussed inside the USA is that its government policies have contributed not only to the tragedy of 9/11 but continue to foster extremist reactions (or ‘terrorism’) to this very day, and probably will do so for a foreseeable future. In spite of world-wide condemnation, the Obama administration refuses to stop its highly controversial drone attacks in places like Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Middle East and North Africa, which are counter-productive and are known to radicalize a whole new generation, thereby perpetuating the problem of ‘terrorism’ in the region. Inside Pakistan alone, at least 400 civilian deaths were caused by U.S. drone attacks.

Recently a United Nations team investigating civilian casualties from drone strikes concluded that the US drone war in Pakistan is illegal because it violates Pakistani sovereignty. Ben Emmerson, the UN special rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism, who visited Pakistan with a team of investigators, found that Pakistani authorities did not (and do not) consent to drone strikes on their territory, contrary to the claims made by the US officials. According to Emmerson, “As a matter of international law the US drone campaign in Pakistan is therefore being conducted without the consent of the elected representatives of the people, or the legitimate government of the state. It involves the use of force on the territory of another state without its consent and is therefore a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty.”

It should be noted here that Emmerson, along with several other colleagues at the UN, formally announced an investigation into civilian casualties in US drone strikes last year, warning that some US drone strikes in Pakistan may amount to war crimes. It is highly doubtful that the U.S. would be deterred by the recent findings of the UN team.

Professor Walt concluded, “In short, the U.S. was destined to lose because it didn't go all-out to win, and it shouldn't have. Indeed, an all-out effort would have been a huge mistake, because the stakes were in fact rather modest. Once the Taliban had been ousted and al Qaeda had been scattered, America's main interest was continuing to degrade al Qaeda (as we have done). That mission was distinct from the attempt to nation-build in Afghanistan, and in the end Afghanistan's importance did not justify a substantially larger effort. … Thus, the real failure in Afghanistan was much broader ... The entire national security establishment failed to recognize or acknowledge the fundamental mismatch between 1) U.S. interests (which were limited), 2) our stated goals (which were quite ambitious), and 3) the vast resources and patience it would have required to achieve those goals. … Given this mismatch between interests, goals, and resources, it was stupid to keep trying to win at a level of effort that was never going to succeed. Yet no one on the inside seems to have pointed this out, or if they did, their advice was not heeded. And that is the real reason why the war limped on for so long and to such an unsatisfying end.”

The fact is the case involving U.S. accusations of OBL’s involvement with the tragedy on 9/11 should have been fought and settled in an international court, and not in Afghanistan, whose people had nothing to do with it. When war becomes means for ulterior motives, however, such sensible things are either forgotten or ignored.

In his well-researched book “The Terror Factory: Inside the FBI’s Manufactured War on Terrorism (Ig Publishing), journalist Trevor Aaronson, brilliantly shows the reality in the post-9/11 United States. His book exposes the dubious tactics the FBI has used in targeting Muslim Americans with sting operations since 2001. Many Americans have heard about several alleged conspiracies to attack skyscrapers, synagogues, or subway stations, involving either individuals whom the FBI calls “lone wolves” or small cells. But what they may not know is that these terrifying plots were almost entirely concocted and engineered by the FBI itself, using corrupt agent provocateurs who often posed a far more serious criminal threat than these dimwitted amateurs.

Aaronson noted that the agency has adopted an “any means necessary” approach to its terrorism prevention efforts, regardless of whether real terrorists are being caught. To the FBI, this imperative justifies recruiting informants with extensive criminal records, including convictions for fraud, violent crimes, and even child molestation. In addition to offering lenience, if not forgiveness, for heinous crimes, the FBI pays these informants tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars, creating a vicious incentive for them to trap dupes into terrorist plots. Aaronson quoted an FBI official defending this practice: “To catch the devil you have to go to hell.”

What is more disturbing is the revelation that the targets in most of these sting operations posed little real threat. They may have had a history of angry anti-government rhetoric, but they took no steps toward terrorist acts until they received encouragement and resources from government agents.

As noted by Michael German, an ex-FBI agent who now works for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), “Prior to September 11, 2001, if an agent had suggested opening a terrorism case against someone who was not a member of a terrorist group, who had not attempted to acquire weapons, and who didn’t have the means to obtain them, he would have been gently encouraged to look for a more serious threat. An agent who suggested giving such a person a stinger missile or a car full of military-grade plastic explosives would have been sent to counseling. Yet in Aaronson’s telling, such techniques are now becoming commonplace.”

This expose of the FBI is very disturbing and shows how ordinary Americans are duped. Sadly, however, the FBI-manufactured terrorists must now serve at least 25 years in prison. German notes, “Even more unsettling is the flawed reasoning that drives the use of these methods. FBI agents have been inundated with bigoted training materials that falsely portray Arabs and Muslims as inherently violent. The FBI also has embraced an unfounded theory of “radicalization” that alleges a direct progression from adopting certain beliefs, or expressing opposition to U.S. policies, to becoming a terrorist. With such a skewed and biased view of the American Muslim community, the FBI’s strategy of “preemption, prevention, and disruption” results in abusive surveillance, targeting, and exploitation of innocent people based simply on their exercise of their First Amendment rights.”

The Capitol Hill is controlled by the lobbies that are affiliated with the War Party – the military-industrial complex. With the forces of militarism ever important and vocal, it is doubtful that the FBI’s tactics would change any time soon. Funny that the Republicans complain about statism, but fail to see their pro-war stance as a tacit endorsement of statism! Until they rectify the incompatibilities at the heart of their ideology, the drums of war will march them into obscurity.

As the early 20th century writer Randolph Bourne famously warned, "War is the health of the state." War corrupts a nation's moral fabric and especially its intellectuals. It blurs the lines that separate the State from Government and from society. Filled with emotion, the patriot, according to Bourne, loses "all sense of the distinction between State, nation and government.” He/she joins "the herd.” He/she becomes an active amateur agent of the Government in reporting spies and disloyalists, and in raising Government funds, or in propagating such measures as are considered necessary by officialdom. The individual became a "child on the back of a mad elephant" that he/she could neither control nor abandon, but was compelled to ride until the elephant decided to halt.

In times of war, the State attempts to draw upon the powerful force of individual choice by appealing to the patriotism of people and asking them to make the "choice" to enlist and otherwise support the war effort. In times of peace, people are mostly defined by their society and they interact with Government, giving little thought to the State. In times of war, the hierarchy and the power of these concepts is reversed. The Government practically becomes the State, and society is subordinated to both. Consequently, the erosion of civil liberties and the suppression of dissent and free speech become the norm.

Bourn’s essay was written nearly a century ago in opposition to World War I. It was written before the time of the all-powerful ‘Amen Corner’ in the Capitol Hill and the military-industrial complex, and their corrosive effects in fostering yellow journalism, propagated by embedded journalists and the media moguls. But the crux of his message remains as relevant as ever. Our intellectuals have forgotten that the real enemy is WAR and not the manufactured-terrorists, or the people of Iraq or Afghanistan of today, and Iran of tomorrow.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Legacy of Hugo Chavez

The charismatic leader of Venezuela - Hugo Chavez died last Tuesday after a long battle with cancer. He was only 58 years old. The former army paratrooper first came to prominence as a leader of a failed coup in February 1992 to overthrow the government of President Carlos Andres Perez amid growing anger at economic austerity measures. He and a group of fellow military officers involved in the coup belonged to a secret movement - the Revolutionary Bolivarian Movement, which was named after the South American independence leader Simon Bolivar (1783-1830), who was born and buried in Venezuela.

Mr. Chavez spent two years in prison before being granted a pardon. In 1997, he re-launched his party as the Movement of the Fifth Republic and made the transition from soldier to politician. In 1998, riding a wave of popular resentment at the traditional political elite, he caused a seismic tremor in Venezuelan politics to win the presidency. Since then, he won a series of elections and referendums, including one in 2009 that abolished term limits for all elected officials, including the president.

The foundation stone of Mr. Chavez's presidency was the Bolivarian Revolution: his ambitious plan to turn Venezuela into a socialist state. His sincere dedication to improve the miserable condition of the poor people, traditionally ignored and marginalized by Latin American politicians, made him a hero among a large sector of the population. As a result of his policies, the percentage of Venezuelans living under the poverty line declined from a peak of 62% in 2003 to 29% in 2009, according to World Bank statistics. Between 2001 and 2007, illiteracy fell from 7% to 5%.

The poor in Venezuela became Mr. Chavez's main political weapon, and the movement behind him came to be known as "Chavismo." It prioritized the redistribution of oil wealth to the marginalized and valued sovereignty as something to be protected from "imperialist" powers. His concern for the poor knew no boundaries. He supplied heating oil to the poor in the north-eastern states of the U.S at a much discounted price through Venezuela's national oil company Citgo. He did the same favor for the poor in Europe.

Mr. Chavez placed a great emphasis on providing financial and medical aid to the rest of Latin America, bolstered by the profits produced by the Venezuela oil industry. In the first eight months of 2007 alone, Venezuela spent $8.8 billion in doing so, something which was simply unprecedented for a Latin American country in terms of scale. In 2007 when Daniel Ortega was re-elected President in Nicaragua, Mr. Chavez announced plans to aid the impoverished Central American country by forgiving the $30 million it owed Venezuela, and agreed to supply them with a further gift of $10 million in aid, as well as providing them with a $20-million loan with little or no interest and designed to benefit the country's poor.

In September 2009, Mr. Chavez along with allies in Argentina, Brazil and Bolivia set up a regional bank and development lender called Bank of the South, based in the Venezuelan capital city of Caracas with the aim of distancing the Latin American countries from the grips of the financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund. He maintained that unlike other global financial organizations, the Bank of the South will be managed and funded by the countries of the region with the intention of funding social and economic development without any political conditions on that funding.

As much as President Hugo Chavez was a hero to millions of the downtrodden people in his country and abroad, and the anti-imperialist forces around the globe, he was equally despised by many powerful leaders of our time, let alone the members of the upper class in his own country. According to his biographers Marcano and Tyszka, Mr. Chavez has “already earned his place in history as the president most loved and most despised by the Venezuelan people, the president who inspired the greatest zeal and the deepest revulsion at the same time."

Relations with Washington reached a new low when he accused the George W. Bush administration of "fighting terror with terror" during the war in Afghanistan after 9/11. He accused the Bush administration of being behind a short-lived coup that saw him removed from office for a couple of days in 2002. He survived the episode and emerged strengthened two years later in a referendum on his leadership. He then went on to victory in the 2006 presidential election.

In May of 2006, while visiting London, U.K., President Chavez accused the George W. Bush administration of committing genocide and said that the U.S. president should be imprisoned by an international criminal court. He also came in defense of Iran’s controversial nuclear program. He said, “No country has the right to prohibit a country from having nuclear energy." He said he was sure that the Iranians were not working on a nuclear weapon, as U.S. officials had claimed. "The Iranians, like us, want peace," he said.

And who can forget Mr. Chavez’s memorable speech at the UN General Assembly in September of 2006? There he likened President Bush to the devil. "The devil came here yesterday," Mr. Chavez said, referring to Bush, who had addressed the world body during its annual meeting a day earlier. "And it smells of sulfur still today." Chavez accused Bush of having spoken "as if he owned the world" and said a psychiatrist could be called to analyze the statement. "As the spokesman of imperialism, he came to share his nostrums to try to preserve the current pattern of domination, exploitation and pillage of the peoples of the world. An Alfred Hitchcock movie could use it as a scenario. I would even propose a title: 'The Devil's Recipe.' "

Chavez also blasted the United Nations and told the General Assembly, and rightly so, that its system was "worthless," and that it was "merely a deliberative organ" that meets once a year. "We have no power, no power to make any impact on the terrible situation in the world," he said. Mr. Chavez called the veto power shared by the five permanent members of the Security Council "anti-democratic," and cited the U.S. veto of a resolution that would have demanded the Israelis halt their bombing of Lebanon that summer. That move "allowed the Israelis with impunity to destroy Lebanon in front of us all as we stood there watching," Mr. Chavez said. He recommended that the world body's headquarters be moved to another country and offered Venezuela as a possible new home.

With Mr. Chavez’s untimely death, the world has surely lost one of its best warriors who refused to be bullied by and bow down to the evil powers of arrogance and the new world-disorder of drones and targeted killings.

In a Twitter message, Oliver Stone, the Academy award-winning director, producer and screenwriter, who followed Mr. Chavez for the 2009 political documentary "South of the Border," wrote: “I mourn a great hero to the majority of his people and those who struggle throughout the world for a place. Hated by the entrenched classes, Hugo Chavez will live forever in history.” He also Twitted, “Hated by the entrenched classes, Hugo Chavez will live forever in history. My friend, rest finally in a peace long earned.”

Leaders from all over the world came to Caracas, Venezuela, last Friday to pay their respect during the funeral service of this great man, Hugo Chavez, joining a nation that continued to mourn. He was lauded as a modern-day reincarnation of Latin American liberator Simon Bolivar. The Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was a good friend of Mr. Chavez, had kind words for Mr. Chavez as he came off a plane in the capital, Caracas. "He was a dear friend of all nations worldwide," Dr. Ahmadinejad said to the crowd and the Venezuelan state broadcaster VTV there. "He was the emotional pillar for all the revolutionary and freedom-seeking people of the region and the world."

Other foreign dignitaries included Cuba's Raul Castro, Spanish Crown Prince Felipe de Borbon, Academy award-winning actor and philanthropist Sean Penn, and Rev. Jesse Jackson of the USA. Sean Penn said, “Today the United States lost a friend it never knew it had. And poor people around the world lost a champion. I lost a friend I was blessed to have. My thoughts are with the family of President Chavez and the people of Venezuela."

Commenting on Mr. Chavez’s death, former U.S. President Carter said, "President Chavez will be remembered for his bold assertion of autonomy and independence for Latin American governments and for his formidable communication skills and personal connection with supporters in his country and abroad to whom he gave hope and empowerment. During his 14-year tenure, Chavez joined other leaders in Latin America and the Caribbean to create new forms of integration. Venezuelan poverty rates were cut in half, and millions received identification documents for the first time, allowing them to participate more effectively in their country's economic and political life.”

Hours after the funeral service, Mr. Nicolas Maduro, the former vice president, was sworn in as the interim President. He pledges to continue the late leader’s radical economic and political transformation of one of the world’s great oil powers.

Will Hugo Chavez’s revolutionary legacy survive? After all, our world is full of fallen heroes and villains. As much as yesterday’s hero has become today’s villain, so has yesterday’s villain become today’s hero.

Mr. Chavez was able to usher in a new area of populist leaders that includes Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Evo Morales in Bolivia and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua. They have all borrowed Hugo Chavez's playbook by catering to the poor and being critical of the role of the United States, a country they call "the evil empire." This trend may continue for quite some time unless the U.S. policy proactively works towards fundamentally erasing its ugly perception down south.

Chavez’s empowerment of the poor will probably remain at the top of his legacy. Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner eulogized the fallen leftist leader on her Twitter account by saying that "The great legacy of Chavez is the social inclusion of millions of Venezuelans that used to be invisible and today are protagonists."

Who can deny the fact that, as noted by the CNN journalist Rafael Romo, a 22-year-old single mother of two in Petare, Chapeu Mangueira, Chimalhuacan or Ciudad Bolivar, cares more about a leader who will make it possible to feed her children tomorrow than macroeconomic policies or free market economies? “And to millions of Venezuelans, that was Hugo Chavez.”

Will the world leaders – present and future - take a cue from Hugo Chavez’s legacy of empowering the poor, if not his anti-imperial combative spirit?

Saturday, March 2, 2013

The Sequester is back

When the Democrats and Republicans could not agree on budget cuts by mid-night on last Friday, the US President Barack Obama signed into effect a wave of steep spending cuts - known as the sequester – which will take $85bn from the US federal budget this year. The “sequester” was drawn up in mid-2011 as Congress and the White House feuded over raising the debt ceiling and how to slash the huge US deficit. Republicans wanted deep cuts in spending while Democrats insisted on raising taxes to pay for much needed services.

So with the “sequester” in, Americans can expect budget cuts of $43bn in defense, $26bn in non-defense discretionary, $11bn in Medicare and $5bn in other sectors. Defense officials say 800,000 civilian employees will have their working week reduced. They say they will also have to scale back flight hours for warplanes and postpone some equipment maintenance. The deployment of a second aircraft carrier to the Gulf has also been cancelled.

The US has been spending a huge sum of money – nearly the total amount spent by all other countries combined - in the defense sector for quite some time. A good portion of this defense money, however, has been spent on projects which has more to do with intervention and triggering wars than the real defense of the country from outside threats. The military industrial complex has been steadily growing with their false and often paranoid claims that other nations are a threat to the security of the USA.

In recent years, e.g., we are told repeatedly by the so-called experts - all on the pay-roll of those agencies -- that even a country like Iran is now America’s ‘greatest threat.’ Forgotten in such absurd claims is the mere question: how could America, with thousands of strategic and tactical nuclear weapons, scores of warships in the Persian Gulf, Arabian Sea, Mediterranean Sea and Indian Ocean, and thousands of bombers and hundreds of nuclear submarines, and thousands of land-based missiles be threatened by Iran – a country which has no bomb-grade Uranium, let alone a single nuclear bomb?

With some cuts in the defense sector, who knows, there may be less urge to start a war and thus, more benefit coming from the “sequester” than it was possible under normal condition!

It is definitely not the first time that the USA faced such a crisis. During President Reagan’s second term in office, the USA faced a ‘sequester’. As many Americans would recall, it was not all that bad; and as a matter of fact, it did bring more benefits than harm.

Nonetheless, it is a nervous time for many, especially the lobbies that cater to the interest of those sectors which may be affected by the budget cuts. Mindful of the fact that such cuts may, in fact, trim the annual aid to Israel, AIPAC has been loudly lobbying against any cuts to Israel. With the Israel-firsters controlling the Capitol Hill, it is, however, highly unlikely that Israel would be affected by such cuts. To many of these elected reps, the fate of an elderly American losing Medicare is less consequential compared to the threat posed by the all-powerful AIPAC – the Israel lobby. That is the way things are today, and will remain as such for a foreseeable future – whether ordinary Americans like it or not!

I hope that the current sequester would help to trim America’s urge to go to war when such is either unnecessary or could be avoided, and bring some sanity back.  No nation can afford a Pyrrhic War with no end in sight. In their utter arrogance, American leaders have forgotten this old message and they need to rethink their strategy so that America does not commit that blunder. 

I would like to end this article with an optimistic note. And what could be better than a short story from Molla Nasreddin Hodja? (The interested readers may like to read my compilation work – Anecdotes of Molla Nasreddin Hodja for Children of All Ages, published by the Kitab Bhavan, India.)

One day a man found the Hodja pouring the remains of his yogurt into Aksehir Lake. "Hodja, what are you doing?" the man asked. "I am turning the lake into yogurt," he replied. When the man laughed at him, he said, "But you never know perhaps it might."

This endorsement of hope against all odds has remained valid in every era, even in our time.